Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Placing the Colonial Boot on the Arab Foot. By Lyn Julius.

Placing the Colonial Boot on the Arab Foot. By Lyn Julius. Jerusalem Post, September 11, 2013.

Dilemmas of Dhimmitude. By Lyn Julius. Jewish Quarterly, No. 197 (Spring 2005). Also at Point of No Return.

Georges Bensoussan explodes idyll myth. By Bataween. Point of No Return: Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries, July 24, 2012.

Who is an Arab Jew? By Albert Memmi. Originally published February 1975.


It’s been 46 years since the late French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson published his influential essay, and later book: Israel: A Colonial- Settler State?
Reinforced by Israel’s 1967 “occupation of Palestinian territories,” and its auxiliary Apartheid myth, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? cemented the trope that Zionism was a European movement to displace the native Arab inhabitants of Palestine.

Now another French historian, Georges Bensoussan, threatens to stand the notion of “Jewish colonialism” on its head: it is the Jews who lived under Muslim rule who were the true victims of colonialism.

His book, Juifs en pays arabes: Le grand d√©racinement 1850 - 1975, published in 2012 in French, examines the reason why the Arab world was emptied of its Jews in barely a generation. Since most fled as refugees to the Jewish state from the Arab and Muslim world and now constitute at least half Israel’s Jews, the question has huge implications for the Israel-Arab conflict.
Moroccan-born Bensoussan, who made his name as a Holocaust historian, argues that the Jews have been colonised thrice over.
The first wave of colonisation was Arab-Muslim. By the time the Arab conquerors had swept over the Middle East and North Africa, the Jews had been living in the region for 1,000 years.
Under Islam, according to the eighth-century Pact of Omar, indigenous Jews and Christians were permitted to practise as long as they acquiesced to the “dhimmi” condition of inferiority and institutionalised humiliation. Dhimmis were exploited for specific talents and skills.
Bensoussan observes that the Islamic order was built on a “colonial” notion – submission. The Muslim submits to Allah, the Muslim woman submits to her husband, the non-Muslim dhimmi submits to the Muslim. At the very bottom of the pile is the slave. Women, minorities and slaves are curiously absent from Edward Said’s postcolonial “bible,” Orientalism, Bensoussan notes.
There were times when Jews could, and did, thrive, but Bensoussan puts paid to the assumption that Arab antisemitism is an understandable backlash to the creation of Israel in 1948. He produces incontrovertible evidence that, 100 years before Israel was established, most Jews in Arab and Muslim lands lived in misery and fear.
Dhimmi status was most strictly applied in Morocco, Yemen and Persia – parts of the Muslim world barely touched by European colonisation. Jews were regularly mobbed, robbed, their possessions looted, beaten up on the slightest pretext, or false charge brought by a jealous neighbour. Jews were feminised in the Muslim imagination – cowardly, submissive, unable to stand up for themselves.
The second wave of colonisation – by the European powers – “liberated” the Jews from the strictures of dhimmitude. In Algeria, the Jews even gained French citizenship. But in order not to antagonise the Muslim population, examples abound of anti-Jewish pogroms which the colonial forces of law and order were in no hurry to quell.
For Bensoussan, the post-1948 exodus of almost a million Jews in one generation was not a break with the Muslim world, it was an “aggravated divorce.” The process began a century earlier when Jews began educating their children in western-oriented Alliance Israelite schools. What started as a crack became a gap, then a chasm.
Arguably, 19th century life was nasty and brutish for all, not just the Jews, but upward Jewish social mobility inverted the traditional pecking order. Jews were seen not just as collaborators with European colonialism, but had become “too big for their boots.” The Muslim Arabs lagged behind in literacy by at least a generation.
Blood-and-soil Arab nationalism refused to admit Jews (and Christians, for that matter, unless they converted to Islam) as full participants. As the great Tunisian-Jewish writer Albert Memmi put it: “We would have liked to be Arab Jews, but the Arabs prevented it with their contempt and cruelty.” With the rise of Arab nationalism came marginalisation, exclusion and strangulation of Jews (and other minorities). The last 60 years saw a mass exodus. The Jews were dispossessed on the way out.
The third of type of colonisation belongs to the history books. The history of the Jewish people has been written by western historians; according to Bensoussan, oriental Jewish history has been crushed under the weight of the Holocaust. Even the Jewish museum in Paris, which might be expected to reflect a community originating primarily in North Africa, has reduced their history to folklore – with its displays of jewelry and traditional bridal costumes.
Bensoussan’s great achievement is not just to blow out of the water the myth of Arab-Jewish coexistence predating the creation of Israel, but unfashionably to place the colonial boot on the Arab foot.
Since publishing his book, Bensoussan has had to contend with bien pensant denial (the prevalent post-colonial assumption is that the third world victims of western colonialists can never be seen as oppressors in their own right). He has met resistance from both Arabs and Jews.
Arab historians blame the Jews for causing their own suffering. Jews who deny Arab antisemitism usually lived a charmed life in the European quarters of Arab cities. Bensoussan cautions that reminiscence makes for unreliable history.
All in all, Bensoussan has dropped a bombshell of a book. A sovereign Jewish state in the land of Israel begins to look like the liberation of a colonised, indigenous people from 14 centuries of subjugation. Will Bensoussan have the impact on western intellectual thinking that Maxime Rodinson had, 46 years ago?


It’s a well-worn paradox: on Sunday, a Jew from an Arab country swears that he lived happily alongside Arabs. On Thursday, he says life was awful. So which is the truth?
The Moroccan-born historian Georges Bensoussan imagines he has found the answer in his ground-breaking new book Juifs en pays arabes: Le grand déracinement 1850 - 1975 (not yet available in English). The two experiences are not contradictory, they are complementary.
What passes for the story of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in the West is actually folklore, says Bensoussan in this must-see Akadem video, which I will try to summarise for non-French readers.
The Jews themselves spread the myth of the Jewish idyll in Arab countries because they were children at the time, and childhood is associated with happy memories. And the further you went up the social scale, the happier the memories. But Bensoussan cross-references available historical sources  the Zionist archives in Jerusalem, the Alliance Israelite Universelle archives in Paris and the French national archives in Nantes, travellers’ diaries, such as that of Charles de Foucault (1883) in Morocco, and diplomatic reports. Although the Arab archives remain closed, the overwhelming weight of evidence points to the fact Jews in Arab and Muslim lands lived in misery and fear.
Yet the myth of the enchanted history of the Jews refuses to die. In May Bensoussan issued a rebuttal via the CRIF, the organisation representing Jews in France, to an article in Telerama suggesting that antisemitism arrived in Morocco with the French and that Zionist agents made the Jews leave against their will. Bensoussan also find it irritating that Jewish sources lay great store by historians such as Moroccan Mohammed Kenbib without having read his work. According to Bensoussan, who read every line of Kenbib's doctoral thesis, Kenbib blames the Jews for their own misfortunes.
Historians usually say that the definitive break between Jews and Arabs took place with the establishment of Israel in 1948. But for Bensoussan, the post-1948 exodus was not a break, it was an “aggravated divorce.” The process began a century earlier when Jews began educating their children in western schools; half a million Jewish children passed through the Alliance Israelite Universelle school system. What started as a crack became a gap, then a chasm. The Muslim Arabs lagged behind in literacy by at least a generation. This of course explains why the Nazis found it easy to brainwash the illiterate masses in Arab countries through intensive radio broadcast propaganda during WW2.
Jews were actually expelled only in 1956 in Egypt. Everywhere else, says Bensoussan, “the Arab states did everything in their power to make the Jews leave.”
In the 20th century Arab nationalism took on a Nazi-style blood-and-soil character which excluded Jews, in spite of their huge contribution to culture and society (one third of all writers in Iraq were Jewish). Then Jews were viewed as an ethnicity - today they are seen as a religion.
Bensoussan is one of the few historians to write about Jews in Arab lands as a whole, without treating each community country-by-country. Coexistence with the Muslims was only possible on the understanding that Jews accepted their inferiority as “dhimmis.” “The Jews were the colonised of the colonised,” he says.