Arab Jews should not be forgotten

Arab Jews should not be forgotten
Zionism, Western imperialist divide and conquer strategies, and expulsions by Arab governments played a significant role in the erasure of Jewish history in the Arab world. Hadar Cohen explains why it is important for us to remember and resist this.
6 min read
30 Aug, 2022
Souk el Harras market, a formerly Jewish neighbourhood, in the old city of Constantine Algeria. [GETTY]

When I share that I identify as an Arab Jew, many people are perplexed. How can you be both Arab and Jewish? Isn’t there a war between Jews and Arabs?

No, actually there isn’t, I respond. There is an ongoing colonial Western infiltration of Palestine that uprooted and destroyed Arab Jewish reality. Zionism at its core had to erase and deny Arab Jewish identity to succeed. It is no surprise that even me simply claiming that I identify as an Arab Jew is a threat to the Zionist project. But the truth is, Zionism succeeded because Arab regimes collaborated with them to displace their Jewish communities. 

The geo-political upheavals of the 20th century that gave rise to Zionism are quite complex. In North Africa, we see how anti-colonial movements against the Allies and particularly French and British colonisation, implicitly allied communities with Germany and enabled Nazi propaganda to seep in. Perhaps in this way, little has changed as Europe still uses the SWANA region as a place to dump its psycho-political drama onto. 

''It is impossible to teach about Arab art history, intellectualism and culture while leaving out the ways Jews were fundamental to its creation. From Habiba Messika to Yaqub Sanu and Salim Halali, Jews were integrated into Arab life. Even the legendary Fairuz adopted her name after she was inspired by Jewish Syrian singer Rachel Samocha, known as Fayrouz Al Halabiya.''

We see this most explicitly with the ongoing weaponisation of Antisemitism to further Islamophobia all across Europe. This played out in Algeria where France granted citizenship to the Jewish community and not to the indigenous Muslim communities to separate them out and pit them against each other. 

The political chaos of WWII was politically sensitive for many communities and a large number of people were in incredibly vulnerable situations. Many Jewish communities resisted the infiltration of Zionist propaganda into the Arab world. They wanted to stay in our homelands of Baghdad, Cairo, and Aleppo. The circumstances forced them to defend their Arabness, and many actually did - sending money and resources to Palestinians on the ground, resisting Zionist colonial efforts. 

In 1936, Ezra Haddad wrote an article titled “Nahnu 'arab qabla an nakun yahudan”- "We were Arabs, before we became Jews" in Al-Akhbar, Baghdad’s major daily news source, asserting their belonging to the Arab communal landscape. 

The Jewish Anti-Zionist League formed in both Iraq and Egypt to separate out Jewishness and Zionism. These communities understood that British and US imperialism was at the root of the growing violence. Yet this was a short-lived initiative, as both the governments of Iraq and Egypt banned these groups in the name of “security threat”. 

As the colonisation of Palestine increased, Arab governments began to blame the local Jewish population for allying with Zionism even if they had no connection. For example, many synagogues were named Temple Israel - signifying a religious Jewish connection. Yet, the Arab governments blamed the Jewish community for collaborating with Zionism. The Jewish community was shocked - we have been living beside you for thousands of years using this same language, how can you turn on us like this?

Arab governments decided to collaborate with Zionists to expel the Jewish communities. The World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries estimated that close to $300 billion was lost in property. Yet of course because Jewish-Muslim solidarity runs deep, many Arab Muslims resisted this targeted violence towards the Jewish community. With the violence of the Farhud, we also find that Muslims put their life at risk and sometimes died defending the Jewish community there.

In my optimistic days, I like to think that only the colonial empires erase Arab Jewish identity, history, and experience. But the reality is that most of us have internalised this colonial paradigm. Perhaps the most painful part is when Jewish-Palestinian solidarity efforts contribute to this erasure. When Arab communities want to unite with the Jewish world and all they know about Jewishness is through a European frame. Sometimes I wonder, has the Arab world forgotten about its vibrant Jewish communities? 

I watch how most Arab organisations have close to zero representation from the Arab Jewish community. On the one hand, I understand because the wounds of Zionism are still very much real. But on the other hand, I am confused. Aren’t we trying to unite against Zionism? Isn’t a process of truth and reconciliation with the Arab Jewish community part of that? 

It is impossible to teach about Arab art history, intellectualism and culture while leaving out the ways Jews were fundamental to its creation. From Habiba Messika to Yaqub Sanu and Salim Halali, Jews were integrated into Arab life. Even the legendary Fairuz adopted her name after she was inspired by Jewish Syrian singer Rachel Samocha, known as Fayrouz Al Halabiya.

It is important to note that much of the Antisemitism in the Arab world is imported from Europe. Still, even as I know this - it does not make any of this less heart-breaking and tragic. The pain of having our communities ruptured and disconnected is immense. 

Sometimes in this discourse, we fall into a game of who betrayed who. Did the Arab Jews betray the Arab world by emigrating to Palestine? Or did the non-Jewish Arabs betray Arab Jews by enabling Zionist and nationalist ideology and turning on the local Jewish community? 

We can continue playing these games of who hurt who. Or we can choose mutual healing and solidarity. The fight against Western colonialism and imperialism is still pervasive in the Arab region, as the movement to free Palestine is critical. Will we allow it to divide us by internalising the narrative of Jews vs. Muslims or will we be able to build the unity we need to combat colonialism together? 

I place myself in an anti-colonial struggle that refuses to fall into the colonial mindset of erasing Jewish history in the Arab region, and I hope you do too.

Hadar Cohen is an Arab Jewish multimedia artist, healer and educator based in Los Angeles. She is the founder of Malchut, a mystical school teaching direct experience of God through heart centered spiritual traditions. Hadar is a Jewish mystic who works to build decolonial frameworks for worshipping God. She is an artist weaving the spiritual with the political and her artistic mediums include performance, movement, writing, weaving, sound and ritual. 

Follow her on Instagram/Twitter:  @hadarcohen32

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