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Since Time Immemorial
by Loolwa Khazzoom

When much of the world thinks about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, it sees Jews of European origin confronting indigenous people of color who have been banished from their homeland. This enables Arab leaders to portray Israel as a white colonizing nation.

The reality is that Jews are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic people. For about 50 years, the majority of the Jewish population of Israel has been Mizrahim -- Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, this community of Jews has lived in the Middle East and North Africa since time immemorial. Until the mid-twentieth century, in the 4,000-year history of the Jewish people, Mizrahim never left the region.

Ironically, Jewish leaders are the ones who created the perception of Jews as white. Arab leaders have merely turned this perception to their own advantage. Given the way Jewish heritage has been taught and presented for decades, when we use the word “Jews,” the vision that pops into our mind is not the black faces of Ethiopian Jews or the dark brown skin of Yemenite Jews. When we look for Jewish names, we don’t look for names like Comerchero, Sarshar, or Mo’alem. When we think “Jewish,” we think Poland, Germany, and Russia. We think bagels and cream cheese, Yiddish, and the Holocaust.

Mizrahim lived on the land of present-day Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and Yemen before they were called by these names, before there was such a thing as an Arab state. Mizrahim lived there for 2,500 years -- that’s 1,200 years before the Islamic invasion of the region. Their presence dates from 586 BCE, when the Babylonian Empire destroyed ancient Israel and took the Israelites as captives to the land of present-day Iraq.

When Arab Muslims conquered the Middle East and North Africa, Jews were one of the few indigenous peoples that resisted conversion to Islam, the result being that the Jews were given the status of dhimmi. According to this status, Jews were a tolerated yet inferior people, who should be forever punished for rejecting the vision of Muhammed. What this meant was that suddenly Jews lost the autonomy they had enjoyed with their non-Muslim neighbors.

Jews were commonly forced into ghettos, prohibited from owning land, prevented from entering numerous professions, and forbidden from doing anything to physically or symbolically demonstrate equality with Arab Muslims. This basic attitude of contempt, oppression, and humiliation permeated the daily life of Jews. In addition, massacres were not uncommon, at times wiping out entire Jewish communities.

When dhimmi laws were lax, and Jews were allowed to participate to a greater degree in their society, the Jewish community would flourish. Often, the response to that success would be a wave of harassment or massacre of Jews, instigated by the government or the masses. Once disempowered and weak, the Jewish community would have a period of relative quiet.

For the most part, Jews lived in a basic state of subservience. They could participate in the society around them, they could enjoy a certain degree of wealth and status, and they could befriend their Arab Muslim neighbors, but they always had to know their place. The Arab-Israel relationship and the current crisis occur in the context of a history in which Arab Muslims oppressed Jews for 1,300 years.

In the 20th Centruy, Palestinian leadership had a strong hand in terrorizing and expelling Jews throughout the Arab world, leading to 900,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the region. In 1941, for example, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem went to Berlin as a guest of the Nazi regime. He drafted a political declaration asking Germany and Italy to “recognize the rights of Palestine and other Arab countries (to) resolve the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and the other Arab countries in the same way as the problem was resolved in the Axis countries" -- i.e., through genocide.

In a speech at a rally in Berlin Nov. 2, 1943, al-Husayni voiced his hope for a “final solution” to the Jewish presence in the Middle East. Not long after, anti-Jewish riots erupted throughout the Arab world. Jewish citizens were assaulted, tortured, and murdered. In a few Arab countries, Jews were outright expelled. Throughout the region, Jewish property was confiscated and nationalized, forcing Jews to flee from their homes of thousands of years.

We do not hear about the Jewish refugee problem today, because Israel absorbed about 600,000 of these 900,000 refugees. In contrast, Arab states did not absorb the Arab refugees from the Arab war against Israel in 1948. Instead, they built squalid refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza -- at the time controlled by Jordan and Egypt -- and dumped innocent Arabs in them -- Palestinians doomed to become political pawns. Countries such as Lebanon and Syria continued funding assaults against Israel instead of funding basic medical and educational care for the Palestinian refugee families.

In 1967, Israel inherited the Palestinian refugee problem, through a defensive war. When Israel tried to build housing for the refugees in Gaza, Arab states led votes against it in UN resolutions, because absorption would change the status of the refugees. Israel went on to give more money to the Palestinian refugees than all but three of the Arab states combined, prior to transferring responsibility of the territories to the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s. Israel built hospitals and educational institutions for Palestinians in the territories. Israel trained the Palestinian police force. And yet the 22 Arab states dominate both the land and the wealth of the region. So who is to blame for today’s refugee problem?

Without an accurate and complete view of the history in the Middle East, government leaders and peace activists will continue to push the region into an unstable future that lacks integrity. It is high time that we all hold Arab leadership accountable for their actions against all the refugees of the region -- Jewish and Arab. Until that happens, peace will remain an illusive dream.




Loolwa Khazzoom, an Iraqi-American Jewish woman now living in Israel, is the Director of the Jewish MultiCultural Project, editor of Behind the Veil of Silence: North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Women Speak Out (Seal Press, 2003), and author of Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape (Pearl In A Million Press, 2001). Her website is at http://www.loolwa.com


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