By Jack Walton, René Cassin intern
“Telling the history of the Jewish populations from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is therefore crucial…so we can truly appreciate the breadth and depth of Jewish life across the world”.
A familiar episode of Jewish history, that I internalised from a young age, centered on a single monolithic Ashkenazi narrative. This particular European- Jewish experience of fleeing pogroms and the Holocaust, often substitutes for a universal explanation of our past. This narrative is the one that not only non-Jewish people are far more likely to have heard of but also other Jewish people, including myself until recently. I remember at my Jewish Sixth Form for example, a girl in my year complaining about the fact that no one was being taught that Persian Jews even existed. As a test, how many people reading this would have known that over a quarter of the population of Baghdad was Jewish during the first half of the twentieth century?
Telling the history of the Jewish populations from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is therefore crucial, not only as a response to the Board of Deputies report on racial inclusivity in the community, but also so we can truly appreciate the breadth and depth of Jewish life across the world. It is also regretful that this history is prioritised only when it competes with Palestinians in a contest of historical suffering, with the persecution of Mizrahi Jews somehow justifying the dispossession of another group.
Furthermore, while it is impossible to speak of a unified Jewish experience in any region of the world, its certain that there was no equivalent to the Holocaust or a final solution implemented in the MENA (with the exception of French and Italian controlled territories). Instead, the communities of these countries were caught between several competing forces, such as pan-Arab nationalism, Zionism, and the spill-over effects of colonialism, which resulted in Jewish life becoming impossible to continue. These Jewish communities were some of the oldest and most important worldwide, and made major contributions both to Jewish history and to the societies they lived in. As an example, Iraqi Jews were instrumental in creating the modern state of Iraq and formed some of the country’s most renowned Arabic poets and musicians. During the Ottoman Empire, these communities were relatively secure and prosperous when compared with the stereotypical image of the European Jewish luftmenschen (although they were disadvantaged when compared to Muslim subjects of the Empire, as Jews fell under Dhimmi (protected) status). From around the fall of the empire up to the early 1970’s, these communities were almost entirely uprooted.
The discrimination Jews from the MENA faced that resulted in their migration, was primarily based on geopolitics rather than a social Darwinist worldview (as it was with the Nazis). This is because their expulsion from their respective countries was linked to anti-European and anti-Zionist sentiment. In Egypt, following the Suez crisis and the ascendancy of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the community was forced to leave along with British and French citizens. Most Jews who were forced out of their respective countries in the Middle East, during the first half of the 20th century, ended up in Israel.
In Iraq during the 1950’s, as a result of demographic concerns in Israel, it was the only location they were permitted to go to due to deals made with the Israeli government. Upon arrival, Jews from Arab countries were subject to discrimination and placed into “development towns” in the periphery of the country. These communities held fond memories of life back in their home countries, as exemplified by the Iraqi-Jewish writer Ella Shoat’s inversion of the traditional biblical phrase, “by the waters of Zion that we laid down and wept when we remembered Babylon.”
Where the Holocaust did arrive in the Middle East, it occurred in territories controlled by Vichy France and Fascist Italy. In Tunisia, the Vichy Government introduced a series of Nazi inspired anti-Semitic laws in 1940, which the governor and monarch delayed implementing in order to minimise their financial impact. When deportation to forced labour camps did occur in 1942 with German occupation, further deaths were prevented due to the allied capture of Tunisia the following year.
For those who arrived in the UK as migrants or refugees, adjusting to their new lives was a shock as many came from the middle class. Egyptian Jews who were expelled in the 1950s were placed in army barracks for several months, before being settling in houses with the help of the local Jewish community. This is of course reminiscent of how refugees are treated in the modern day. During the Covid pandemic, shocking news stories emerged from the Napier barracks in Kent for example, where asylum seekers have been subject to terrible conditions in addition to racist abuse from the far right.
The members of the Jewish community from Iraq that settled in the UK, who arrived after the Baath Party entered power in the 1960s, completed the journey with the help of Kurdish smugglers. Many did manage to successfully adjust to life in the UK, thanks to the support given to them by the UK Jewish community. The fact that Jewish refugees from the MENA were accommodated in the past, shows that housing refugees is possible through political will and the concern of ordinary people, a lesson we should heed for today.
While modern human rights culture can be credited to the developments after the Holocaust, the discrimination faced by the Mizrahi Jewish communities was different in nature so requires more understanding. A lazy explanation of the rupture of these communities ascribes their expulsion to an eternal Arab/Muslim and Jewish divide, which ignores the fact that the most murderous form of antisemitism came from the heart of “civilized” Europe. A greater awareness of the history of Jews from the MENA should therefore not solely focus on the tragic events surrounding their departure, but also on the richness of their culture and contributions to the world.
With special thanks to Sephardi Voices UK’s Daisy Abboudi