Memory War in Israel on Arab and Iranian Jews

In 2019, an exhibition in Tel Aviv entitled “Leaving, Never to return?” linked the departure of Jews from the East to their fate in their home countries. In the United States, Europe and the Middle East, scholars are challenging this narrative. Historians Lior B. Sternfeld and Menashe Anzi explain their research.

A Yemeni Jewish family on its way to the Gueoulah transit camp in Aden during the clandestine “Flying Carpet” operation, which took almost all of Yemen’s Jews to Israel between 1949 and 1950
Zoltan Kluger/National Photo Collection of Israel, Goverment Press Office (GPO)

In her inaugural speech (April 2021), the newly elected Member of the Knesset from the Likud Party, Galit Distel Atbaryan, said that she wanted to begin by sharing her childhood memories of her parents’ experiences growing up and living in Iran. She recalled stories about her parents being unable to touch vegetables at the bazaar in Isfahan, because of the impurity restrictions that are part of the Shi’ite tradition. Her parents explained to her that they were not allowed to touch these vegetables because they were Jews, and if they got caught, they would have to run away “Olympic” style.

Without commenting on her parents’ individual experiences, which was shared by others, for sure, the only legitimate memories she felt she could share about their lives in Iran were those echoing the ordeals of Jews living in a Muslim society. The viewer or listener could not have guessed that many thousands of the Jews in Iran had a profoundly different experience for the better part of the twentieth century. In fact, we know that the overwhelming majority of Iranian Jews chose not to immigrate to Israel, after 1948, and even after the revolution in 1979. This is yet another example for the trajectory commemoration projects of Jewish pasts in the Middle East have taken in Israel.

Strengthening the Zionist narrative

In the last decade, we see new trends in public discourse in Israel to rediscover the histories of the Jews in the Muslim world. This trend is seen as a welcomed development of the past decade, connected to revisiting of the melting-pot approach and opening up to diverse narratives in Israeli society. Journalists, politicians, academics, and musicians bring to the forefront the Eastern cultural tradition. However, this trend appears to be increasingly interested in solidifying the Zionist narrative while expanding and refining it, rather than presenting an alternative to the existing narrative. This recent attention seeks to emphasize the hardships that Jews experienced in those societies. It also justifies Israel’s policies both within Israel and outside of Israel in the Arab countries and vis-à-vis the Palestinians in Israel proper, the West Bank, and Gaza. A comparison with the scholarly field that has developed over the past decade outside of Israel allows us to challenge some of the assumptions inherent in the narrative promoted by the State of Israel. In addition, we would like to offer, a more inclusive research alternative that looks beyond the paradigm of the lachrymose narrative.

Israel’s new commemorative project has gained momentum in recent years in the public sphere, while reinforcing the conventional perception. Priority has been given to supporting projects of selective memory, which are detached from a broad regional context. For example, the exodus of Jews from Muslim countries was not presented in the context of local circumstances and conditions such as imperialism and colonialism, Zionism, and particular nationalism, and certainly did not present the overt or covert involvement of Zionist institutions in Muslim countries to expediting the exodus, such as the Mossad’s actions in Baghdad, or Operation Susannah in Egypt. The prominent approach was to tie the departure of Jews to primordial, religious Zionism, and to the hatred of locals for Jews since time immemorial.

These narratives received the stamp of approval in a law that the Knesset passed to commemorate the exodus and expulsion from the Arab countries and Iran, in memorial projects by government ministries (e.g.: The Ministry for social equality), academic and semi-academic conferences and symposia, and in the ongoing discussion of Jewish property.

The narrative creates an image of a region emptied of its Jews in 1948 or shortly after. This narrative is simplistic and grossly inaccurate. Once again, it obscures the fact that there were communities that continued to exist after 1948 and even today, albeit it these communities were small and only a shadow of what they had been, but, still there, nonetheless. In communities such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey, it veils the stories of communities that not only flourished but even grew after 1948 following the regional immigration of Jews from Syria and Iraq, such as Lebanon and Iran (both shrunk much later, in the 1970s, because of civil war and the revolution respectively). The narrative conceals the stories of communities that insisted on remaining, such as the community in Yemen of 3000 Jews who refused to leave the country even after the departure of the rest of their community to Israel in 1948.1

An exhibit at the Eretz Yisrael Museum in Tel Aviv bore the title “Leaving, Never to Return” and helped to construct visual, linear, simplistic narrative, which was easy to digest and hence became very popular. About a year and a half ago, in October 2019, we published an essay in the weekend supplement of Haaretz that discussed these processes and we asked if “Leaving, Never to Return” is the half-truth that is worse than a lie. We examined the narratives that bind together unrelated facts and ideologies just for the sake of delivering the politically driven wrong conclusions for the layperson. “Leaving, Never to Return,” or Rihla bi-la Raj’aa رحله بلا رجعه) ) is an expression of true trauma, especially in the case of Iraqi Jews, but the context is critical to understanding the trauma, and to understanding the ways to learn, analyze and cope with this memory. Moreover, the cases of other Jewish communities in the region differ from the Iraqi story.

Importance of the colonial context

The case of Egyptian Jews is similar but not identical. Egyptian Jews generally did not have Egyptian citizenship, and their expulsion from Egypt was part of a wider policy to expel all non-citizens, including a myriad of Greek and Italian residents. The case of Algerian Jews is somewhat comparable, but the difference is greater than the similarity due to the national and colonial context. This is true in the cases of Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen as well. Iran has a very loose connection to the other cases but got in the mix for very recent political developments. The colonial context is important and of tremendous significance because it helps explain differences in the legal status of Jews and Muslims, different traditions of education and language, attitude and relations to the metropolis, etc., but each situation is unique. For example, there were Jews in Algeria who received French citizenship in the 1840s and 1850s, like some of their Muslim neighbors, as part of the 1870 Cremieux Decree, but there were quite a few who rejected French citizenship, as recent studies show.2

Finally, there are some Jews who became French citizens only after WWII. In addition, Algerian Jews are differentiated not only in their legal and French citizenship status, but also in their ethnic and cultural affiliation. The French government, for example, has also dealt with questions of the memory of the colonial past over the recent decade. Recent report that was commissioned by the French president to form a roadmap for historical reconciliation between France and Algeria. Prof. Benjamin Stora was asked to lead the effort, and the 160-page report provided an analysis of the colonial past. However, thanks to an important study that Prof. Ariella Aisha Azoulay published in the Boston Review, we learned shortly after the submission of the report that it completely reduces the existence of diverse communities of more than 140,000 Jews into the experience of one group, which is also mentioned in two paragraphs, and all cultural, ethnic, national, and political differences have been completely erased. It was only a little surprising that there was no reaction in Israel to this report. Israel, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were born and raised in North Africa during the colonial period, would supposedly be interested in something so important.

Return of a minority of migrants

If so, the latest slogan at the exhibition held at the Eretz Yisrael Museum in Tel Aviv and also at subsequent conferences was similar: “Leaving, Never to Return” to the title of the conference marking the day of remembrance for the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran held at Bar-Ilan University in November 2019, and again virtually in 2020, and it offers the same position, which has grown stronger over the past few years.

But it seems that since the publication of our article in Haaretz, all those engaged in the work of making memory accessible have doubled and tripled their efforts to reinforce this problematic slogan and problematic rationale of leaving without a return. This narrative intensified in the Israeli society, centering on the claim that the Jews were forced out against their will, became refugees, and could not return to their country of origin. But is there really no return to the Muslim world? Immigration scholars know that there is no migration from place to place, which also does not have return migration. A minority of migrants returned to their country of origin.3

Scholarship has shown that despite the horrors of the holocaust, German-Jewish survivors returned to their German homeland, and survivors from Poland returned or tried to return to their villages (and in some cases this attempt ended in massacres and violent attacks). We are still waiting for additional studies on similar trends in the Middle East, but from what we know now from scholarship and testimonies, return migration existed indeed in the Iranian and Iraqi cases, and even in the small Yemenite community in recent decades. This was also true for Jews who travelled to Europe, the United States, or Israel, and eventually returned to their homeland in Yemen.4 Moreover, even if most Jews did not physically return to their countries of origin, many of them returned (or never left) and renewed their cultural and linguistic affiliation with the Middle East by reading Arabic, Persian, and Judeo-Arabic, preserving the music and the spoken language, and communicating with their old friends in their home countries.

It is evident that there is intellectual hunger in Israel, partly, as an outcome of the existence of social, cultural and political circumstances, which encourage the quest for the forgotten history. For example, in recent years, The Ministry for Social Equality initiated the project ”Seeing the Voices,” which is another government-sponsored project of oral documentation. “Seeing the Voices” recorded thousands of hours of interviews with Middle Eastern Jews in Israel narrating life in the region and enables us to hear a relatively broad range of Jewish experiences during the period of since the mid-20th century and reveals more about the experience of immigration to Israel. Nonetheless, among the powerbrokers and sponsoring bodies, the simplicity of the narrative of “leaving never to return” remains far more appealing.

A new generation of scholars

At the same time, academic research outside of Israel, which is not subject to the same cultural influences, succeeds in presenting history for its complexity, or at the very least, in a much more contextualized manner. Therefore, in order to fully understand the new trend in Israeli society, we seek in this short essay to compare it to the processes taking place in the American academic world, where there are different and interesting developments, and to illuminate the points of failure and success of the various projects.

It is surprising to discover that the center of gravity of historical writing about Jews in the modern Muslim space is no longer in Israel, and that most of this research is being carried out at universities in the United States and Europe. A large number of tenure-track positions, endowed chairs, many conferences, workshops, year-long seminars sponsored by NEH and other funding agencies, have attracted many younger students to join this delicate history craft of studying the Jewish past of the Middle East. A new generation of scholars has become quite influential in the sphere of the American humanities, and they, in turn, generate greater interest in the field of Jews in the Muslim world, their historiography, and the study of recent generations.

It seems that the distinction that existed about 100 years ago among the founding fathers of the field of Jewish history in Eretz Yisrael (Mandatory Palestine): the members of the Jerusalem school, and the American historians, continues to exist today in our field, and perhaps even more evident than ever. It was Salo Baron, of Columbia University, who criticized his colleagues at the Hebrew University for shaping the memory of Jewish pasts under the shadow of the lachrymose conception. On the other hand, there has also been some criticism of the work of American historians of the Jewish world for emphasizing the dimension of Jewish integration into the emancipatory era, and the construction of a romantic past that charts the path to harmonious life in the diasporic context. This approach served and reflected the reality and desires of American Jews within liberal American society. In his 1928 seminal article “Ghetto and Emancipation,” Baron asks to place Jewish history in the right and genuine context. Jews never existed in total isolation, interactions with the general society were never completely good or bad, but they always existed. In societies with many minorities, the matrix of relations is even more complex and includes the relations of the Jews with the majority and with the other minority groups, and there is a hierarchy of importance and power between the minority groups as well.

One of the reasons for the disparity between American and Israeli historiographies seems to be the disciplinary training and placement of the researchers. While American scholars are based in departments of History or Middle East Studies, the Israeli scholars are usually based in departments of Jewish History and are trained in them, hence their perspective will tend to be Judeo-centric. Scholars whose training is in the field of Middle East history are more likely to view Jews as one more group that makes up the human mosaic of Middle Eastern societies (alongside Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Yazidis, and ethnic minorities such as the Kurds, and others). There are gaps in knowledge when it comes to rabbinical writing, functionality of religious institutions (such as Bet Din), and the kinds of religious leadership, or comparative perspective to non-Middle Eastern Jewish history. However, usually, through working with the research community and through collaborations with researchers focusing on Jewish texts, religious studies or rabbinical literature, these gaps can be bridged. It seems much harder to fill in the gaps in the opposite direction: both in terms of research languages, and especially in terms of research methodologies.

A radical change of method

In recent years, there has been a drastic shift in the composition of many Jewish studies programs in the United States. The field, which for decades has been characterized by a research emphasis on European-American Jewry, has now opened to new research fields, adopting the field of Jewish history in the Middle East as an opportunity to expand the field’s methodological toolbox. The AJS Annual Conference sees an exponential growth in panels and session that touch on these issues.

We, the authors of this paper, are also part of a broad collaborative project, and together with Orit Baskin of the University of Chicago, Michelle Campos of Penn State University, and Orit Ouaknine-Yekutiali of Ben-Gurion University are leading a multi-participant project of co-writing a volume about modern Jewish histories of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia from historical, anthropological, cultural, economic aspects and more. This collaboration allows us to stand for another change that has taken place in the research field in recent years. More and more non-Jewish scholars, some of whom are of Middle Eastern origins themselves, entered this field. Their research provides us with invaluable perspectives on the Middle East. We know more about Middle Eastern societies because of the study of the Jewish communities, and vice versa. Receiving many proposals in response to our call for proposals was a humbling experience, too. It showed us the level of work that is being done in Europe and is usually not accessible to an English-centric audience. An ideal body of knowledge must include as part of the discourse research being conducted in Israel, Europe, and the United States.

In conclusion, this is based on many new studies published in the United States and Europe on the Jewish past in the Middle East and North Africa. Until a decade ago, most of the titles would go straight into the Jewish studies lists, whereas they are now published in series devoted to Middle Eastern studies. This is not a semantic difference., There is tremendous importance for the visibility and functionality to place research on Middle Eastern minorities, and Jews among them, on the prominent bookshelves of Middle East Studies. Publishers such as Brill, Stanford University Press, University of California, Oxford University Press, and Edinburgh University Press, have published some of the most exciting titles in the study of Jewish histories of the Middle East.

We propose, therefore, to adopt a different position than is customary in Israel today and call for the promoting of a historiographic understanding that combines the multi-perspectives of regional space in the discussion of Jews in the East. In our opinion, history is not intended to justify the reader’s particular position about the righteousness of their way, but to raise questions and enable readers to constantly rethink their views.

Research in the Muslim community as well

Finally, it is important to look to the third arena in which the process of remembrance and commemoration of Jewish heritage in the Muslim space is carried out, i.e., in the Muslim countries themselves. Over the past decade, rich and thought-intensive projects have been conducted with the support of governments in the various Muslim countries, to preserve and commemorate the shared past of Jews and Muslims, and the glorious Jewish heritage of these countries. The various programs not only come from the government, from above, but are supported by organizations and nonprofits, and are also represented in the cultural space: in television series, literature and in the film industry. We can mention here the conservation and documentation of synagogues in Egypt and Lebanon, the film industry in Lebanon and the UAE, music festivals and collaboration associations in Morocco and much more.

Considering the linguistic and cultural separation between various spaces of discourse and research on Eastern Jews (in the English-speaking space, in Islamic countries, in Israel, and in Europe), we call for the tightening of lines and for cross-continental research and worldviews. This collaboration will make it possible to create more accurate research and free from political biases. As researchers of Jewish histories in the Muslim space, we call for the adoption of a broad and inclusive view that will enable a correct and in-depth understanding of our past and will enable a full and complex view of the present and future of the shared space within which we live.

1See for example: Menashe Anzi, “Agunot and Converts to Islam: Jews and Muslims in Yemen from 1950 to 1962”, PaRDeS: Zeitschrift der Vereinigung für Jüdische Studien e.V. 22, 2016, p.135-149.

2See For example: Joshua Schreier, The Merchants of Oran: A Jewish Port at the Dawn of Empire, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2017; Arabs of the Jewish Faith: The Civilizing Mission in Colonial Algeria, New Brunswick N. J., Rutgers University Press, 2010; Joshua Cole, Lethal provocation: The Constantine Murders and the Politics of French Algeria,Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 2019.

3Everett S. Lee, “A Theory of Migration”. Demography, 3 (1966): pp. 47–57; George Gmelch, “Return Migration”,Annual Review of Anthropology,Vol. 9, 1980 ; p. 135–159.

4Lior Sternfeld, Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth Century Iran, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2018; Bryan Roby, “Aliyah to Iraq: Transgressive Migrations between Israel and the Arab World,” AJS Perspectives, Fall 2017.