Many of us have heard of the famous advertising empire known as Saatchi and Saatchi, laughed at the jokes of Jerry Seinfeld, tapped our feet to the beats of Paula Abdul and shopped at Max Azria’s BCBG stores. So what do all these successful people from various industries have in common? They are all of Arab origins.
The Jewish presence in what is now the Arab world dates back thousands of years; in fact, the very religion was founded in this region. Arab Muslims, Christians and Jews have been living in peace and harmony for centuries, so what happened? In short, after the violent wave of European anti-Semitism in the mid-20th century there was an exodus of European Jewry into historic Palestine, much of it forced, armed and violent, lead by groups such as the Hagana and the Irgun (who were responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel).
Unfortunately, many Muslim Arabs from across the region reacted violently to these developments and decided to reciprocate; as a result, Jews who were living amongst them were shunned and assaulted. In Iraq, for example, about 120,000 Jews were compelled to emigrate to Israel, the US and Europe in just less than three years.
The streets of Cairo, the historic neighbourhoods of Syria, the mountainous terrains of Lebanon and the bustling markets of Baghdad were, for the first time in thousands of years, emptied of one of the most successful ethnic minorities living within their communities. Doctors, architects, businessmen, scientists, poets and writers started to pack up and leave, some with good reason and some to avoid the repercussions of the founding of the state of Israel.
It wasn’t all bad blood between the Arabs and the Jews; in fact, there were stories of heroism that have gone unreported and unnoticed in the Arab media. In the midst of the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s, the imam of the Paris Mosque saved the lives of scores of Jews by issuing certificates stating their faith to be Muslim. In Tunis, entire Jewish families were saved by a local hero, Khaled Abdelwahhab, who hid them in his farm at great risk to himself and his family; he was honoured posthumously for his bravery. As a result of such actions fewer than one per cent of the Jews of Arabia – who numbered in their hundreds of thousands – perished compared to more than 50 per cent of the Jews of Europe.
Since then, there has been predominantly negative coverage of Judeo-Arab relations. Europe, after the Second World War, was able to turn the page almost immediately, yet many Arabs still paint all Jews with the same brush used for Israelis.
In 1975, after the death of the Egyptian revolutionary leader Jamal Abdul Nasser, many countries in which he financed and encouraged revolutions were free from his pan-Arab nationalism and scaremongering and decided to take action in order to restore the social unity of their countries. The pre-Saddam Iraqi Revolution Command Council issued advertisements in The New York Times and elsewhere inviting Jews to return to their home countries and guaranteeing their rights. Sadat’s Egypt and Hafez Al Assad’s Syria also issued such statements.
In recent history it has only been two forward-thinking Middle Eastern kingdoms of Morocco and Bahrain that have broken the mould of suspicion towards their Jewish citizens and integrated them into the social and political spheres. The first with the case of André Azoulay, an adviser to the previous and current kings; and the latter with the recent appointment of Huda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo as the new Bahraini ambassador to America.
Today in New York City alone there are more than 75,000 Jews of Syrian origin, many of them educated in the best schools, speaking or understanding Arabic and still having an affinity for Syria. Is it not possible to imagine that such persons have the right, if they so choose, to be full citizens of Syria?
Is it not time to reassure the Jews of Arab origin that their ancestral homes are mature enough to welcome them back if they decide to invest, visit or even take up citizenship? If football players who spend a few months in the Middle East are given citizenship, shouldn’t people who have a natural birth-right, tremendous wealth and valuable education and skills be given the same?
Of course such statements will be met with criticisms and reminders of what the Israelis are doing to our Palestinian brothers and sisters. To that one can say that in the Middle East, no one has been more cruel and violent to Arabs, more exploitive of the Palestinians and more manipulative of their cause than Arabs themselves. Do we forget it was Iraq that invaded Kuwait, Egypt that encouraged bloody revolutions throughout the region and mostly militants from the Arabian Peninsula responsible for atrocious crimes of terrorism in Iraq? We ourselves have been the victims of unfair generalisations by the Western media, but should we learn from past lessons, or should we continue to reciprocate?
This article originally appeared in The National on April 27, 2008.