Exile in the Middle East

18/05/2012 16:38


A few days ago, the Palestinian Arabs marked the 'nakba' or 'catastrophe', which commemorates the displacement of thousands of Arabs during the upheaval of 1948. It is thought that around 600,000 refugees were created as a consequence of the Arab rejection of the Jewish state and the ensuing assault on the newly-born Israel. The Palestinian leaders deliberately spread false rumours that women were being raped in order to provoke Arab armies to fight on their behalf. The Arab armies encouraged the Palestinian to evacuate while they fought their war against the Israelis. The refugee crisis was not engineered by Israel, nor did Israel deliberately expel the Palestinians. According to the Institute for Palestine Studies, 68% of refugees "left without seeing an Israeli soldier".

Israel's neighbours refused to incorporate the displaced Palestinian Arabs, preferring to keep them in camps in the hope that the Zionist entity would soon be destroyed. In fact, Mahmoud Abbas has accused the Arab armies of forcing the Palestinians to emigrate and then putting them into ghettos. The United Nations aggravated the problem by creating a unique category for the Palestinian Arab refugees. The UN recognized that many of the refugees who fled their villages had not lived there very long. (Figures show that many of the refugees migrated to the Holy Land in order to take advantage of the employment prospects created by the early Zionists). The UN's decision was to establish a unique criterion for the Arab refugees. Any Arab who had lived in Israel for only two years before fleeing was classed as a refugee. Moreover, their descendants are also classed as refugees. There was a sevenfold increase in the Palestinian population between 1967 and 2002. Arafat said that the wombs of Palestinian women were the “secret weapon” of his cause. The UN has perpetuated the crisis by maintaining Palestinian refugee camps and handing out aid money.

The other major refugee problem which arose in the Middle East at the same time as the ‘nakba’ was that of the 850,000 Jews kicked out of Arab lands in the wake of Israel's independence. In Iraq, Zionism was punishable by death. Israel, which was already coping with Jewish migrants fleeing war-torn Europe, managed to assimilate the Jewish refugees. The violence against the Jews across the Arab world was both deliberate and staggering in its intensity. The head of the Jewish community in Tripoli described the Arab torture and murder of Jews as “bestial”. In Aleppo, Syria, 300 houses and 11 synagogues were destroyed. Following Jordan’s annexation of Judea and Samaria (the ‘West Bank’), all but one of the thirty-five synagogues in East Jerusalem were destroyed. The ancient Jewish cemetery on Mount of Olives was desecrated. Tombstones were used for construction, paving roads and lining latrines. Jordan, pursuing a Judenrein policy, ethnically cleansed the West Bank. This was the only time in over 1,000 years that Jews were forbidden to live on this particular piece of land. This is not to mention the decades of Arab violence against Jews across the Holy Land, the most notorious incident being the Hebron massacre of 1929.

Below is an article by Matti Friedman, printed in the Times of Israel on May 15th 2012.

A different history of displacement and loss

There is more than one way to look at the commemoration of 1948′s Palestinian defeat and dispersion

On May 15, many in the Arab world and elsewhere mark the Nakba, or the “Catastrophe,” mourning the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs during the 1948 war with Israel. This year, as always, the commemoration will obscure the collapse at the same time of a different Arab society that few remember.

I have spent a great deal of time in the past four years interviewing people born and raised in Aleppo, Syria. Some of these people, most of whom are now in their eighties, are descended from families with roots in Aleppo going back more than two millennia, to Roman times. None of them lives there now.

On November 30, 1947, a day after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews, Aleppo erupted. Mobs stalked Jewish neighborhoods, looting houses and burning synagogues; one man I interviewed remembered fleeing his home, a barefoot nine-year-old, moments before it was set on fire. Abetted by the government, the rioters burned 50 Jewish shops, five schools, 18 synagogues and an unknown number of homes. The next day the Jewish community’s wealthiest families fled, and in the following months the rest began sneaking out in small groups, most of them headed to the new state of Israel. They forfeited their property, and faced imprisonment or torture if they were caught. Some disappeared en route. But the risk seemed worthwhile: in Damascus, the capital, rioters killed 13 Jews, including eight children, in August 1948, and there were similar events in other Arab cities.

At the time of the UN vote, there were about 10,000 Jews in Aleppo. By the mid-1950s there were 2,000, living in fear of the security forces and the mob. By the early 1990s no more than a handful remained, and today there are none. Similar scripts played out across the Islamic world. Some 850,000 Jews were forced from their homes.

If we are to fully understand the Israel-Arab conflict, the memory of these people and their exodus must be acknowledged — not as a political weapon, a negotiating tactic or as part of a competition about who suffered more, but simply as history without which it is impossible to understand Israel and the way the Arab world sees it.

Everyone knows the Palestinian refugees are part of the equation of Mideast peace, and anyone who is interested can visit a Palestinian refugee camp and hear true and wrenching stories of expulsion and loss. Among the Jews expelled by Arabs, on the other hand, one can find few who think of themselves as refugees or define themselves by their dispossession. Most are citizens of Israel.

Of the 20 families in my fairly average Jerusalem apartment building, half are in Israel because of the Arab expulsion of Jews, and that is representative of Israel as a whole. According to the Israeli demographer Sergio della Pergola of Hebrew University, though intermarriage over two or three generations has muddled the statistics, roughly half of the 6 million Jews in Israel today came from the Muslim world or are descended from people who did. Many Arabs, and many Israelis, consider Israel a Western enclave in the Middle East. But these numbers do not support that view.

These Jews have shaped Israel and are a key force in the country’s political life. They also make Israel very different from the American Jewish community, which is overwhelmingly rooted in Europe. They are a pillar of Israel’s right wing, particularly of the Likud party. They maintain a wary view of Israel’s neighbors — a view that has been strengthened by the actions of the Palestinians but that is rooted in their own historical experience and in what might be considered an instinctive understanding of the region’s unkind realities.

The legacy of their exodus in the countries they left behind is harder to detect, but it, too, is significant.

In many Arab towns and cities there is an area where Jews used to live. In some cities, like Cairo, this area is still called harat al-yahud, the Jewish Quarter. Reporting there several years ago I found people who could show me the location of a certain abandoned synagogue, which they knew by name. A man who once showed me around Fez, Morocco, knew exactly where the old Jewish neighborhood, the mellah, had been, though there was not a single Jew there and had not been for many years. There are remnants like this in Aleppo, Tripoli, Baghdad and elsewhere. The people who live in or around the Jews’ old homes still know who used to own them and how they left; this extinct Jewish world might have been forgotten elsewhere, but millions in the Arab world see evidence of it every day.

As I have reported this nearly invisible story, it has occured to me that we often hate most the things or people that remind us of something we dislike about ourselves, and that here lies one of the hidden dynamics of the Israel-Arab conflict. It is one papered over by the simple narrative of Nakba Day, which posits that a foreign implant displaced a native community in 1948 and that the Palestinian Arabs are paying the price for the European Holocaust. This narrative, chiefly designed to appeal to Western guilt, also conveniently erases the uncomfortable truth that half of Israel’s Jews are there not because of the Nazis but because of the Arabs themselves.

Israel is not as foreign to the Middle East as many of its neighbors like to pretend, and more than one native community was displaced in 1948. If many in the Arab world insist, as they do each Nakba Day, that Israel is a Western invader that must be repelled, it is a claim that belongs to the realm not only of politics but of psychology — one that helps repress their own knowledge that the country they try to portray as alien is also the vengeful ghost of the neighbors they wronged.