Thursday, February 21, 2008
Nathan Weinstock is not the man he once was. The iconoclastic Trotskyist of the 1970s has had a change of heart about Israel and the Jews, claiming to have ordered all unsold copies of his controversial book, Zionism: false Messiah, to be destroyed. As explained in his Histoires de chiens: la dhimmitude et le conflict israelo-palestinien, he now believes that anti-Jewish racism, viewing Jews as inferior dhimmis, is a key factor driving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Now Weinstock, perhaps under the gentle guidance of his Moroccan-Jewish wife, Micheline, has produced a new book on the Jews in Arab countries, 'Une si longue presence'. Here is the transcript in English of an interview he gave to Information juive (February 2008).
Why do you think that the exodus of nearly all the Jews from Arab countries has been shrouded in silence?
Nathan Weinstock: Several reasons. First, the Jews themselves were embarrassed (it is not something to be proud of, to be 'cleansed' like so much dirt). They wanted to draw a line over their past. And until recently, many Ashkenazim showed a certain contempt of all things Sephardi. Secondly, they felt 'cornered' by the prevailing, simplistic, politically-correct notion of colonialism. The exodus of the Jews from Arab lands was perceived by progressives as a 'settling of scores' with the effects of colonialism. Add to this the unwritten law that only the West can embody evil. Everything coming from the Third Word must necessarily escape criticism. The exiled Jews would therefore be ill-advised to muddy the waters of the simplistic ideology of the onward march to progress. Sympathy with the Palestinians has only reinforced this tendency.
The conditions in the countries you examine in your book are not comparable. What, if anything, do they have in common?
There is a huge range, geographical as well as chronological. Jews and Muslims lived together over 14 centuries and over three continents. You cannot generalise. On the other hand, one could venture to suggest that the Jewish condition under Islam was one of subjugation as a dhimmi. Humiliation is inherent in being 'protected': this does not exclude periods when Jews thrived under benevolent rulers. But even eminent Jews had an inferior status. For instance, during the Algerian Regency, Christian slaves were last in the pecking order to drink from the public fountains. But they had precedence over the native Jews. The Jew was worth symbolically less than a slave.
Has dhimmitude played a major role in causing the exodus?
I would put it differently. Let's say that anything relating to Jews in the Arab-Muslim world is tainted by their subjugated status. The Arab world finds it extremely difficult fully to recognise religious or national difference. The plight of Copts or Christians in Iraq provide striking examples, to say nothing of the tragedy in Sudan. It was to escape dhimmitude and benefit from (albeit limited) civic equality with Muslim colonial subjects, that the Jews looked to the West. This placed them in an existential impasse, torn between democratic western values and the nationalist Arab awakening that willingly exploited an imported antisemitism and claimed to be founded on Islam. Even the Algerian FLN shunned its original Jewish comrades-in-arms.
Despite (dhimmi) status, there was in certain Arab countries a great symbiosis between Jews and Muslims.
I have been struck and moved by signs of cultural interpenetration which went well beyond tolerating Jewish difference. When Muslim neighbours brought bread and butter during the Maimouna, they too were celebrating the end of Passover. It was not simply an acceptance of the Other's presence, but of mutual relations steeped in respect. In Tunisia, the notables went to the synagogue on Shavuoth to hear Saadia Gaon's commentary on the Ten Commandments in classical arabic. The Geniza of Old Cairo also reveals that Jewish families lived in close proximity with Muslim families in the same building, for instance. There were business partnerships where the Muslim replaced his Jewish associate on Shabbat. Many Jewish merchants in medieval Tunisia preferred to have their business disputes settled by Muslim, rather than Jewish courts. One must jettison all preconceived ideas.
How do explain that UNESCO allowed the Alexandria library (proudly, you say) to exhibit The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as one of the founding texts of the monotheistic religions?
One must not bury one's head in the sand. All international institutions where Muslims are strongly represented suffer from the gangrene of the Jewish conspiracy theory. This is the legacy of Hitler (which the Arab world supported at the time) and of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The paranoid vision of the Protocols impregnates the Hamas charter, the Ba'athist regime in Syria, Iran and the radical Islamist movements, insidiously contaminating most of the Arab-Muslim world and its acritical leftist admirers.
The Jewish community of Iraq numbered up to 130,000. In 1917, 80,000 of Baghdad's 200,000 inhabitants were Jews. You write that if there was one Jewish community in the Arab world which could legitimately hope to find its place in national life in symbiosis with the surrounding population, it was the Jews of Iraq. Why?
Of all the Jewish communities of Arab lands, that of Iraq was undoubtedly the most deeply integrated. Thanks to the Jews, local literature blossomed, Jewish musicians played traditional music, local Jewish communist activists played a key role against British rule. In the truly Jewish city that was Baghdad, there was reason to believe that the local Jews - who had their reservations about Zionism, even after the terrible Farhoud pogrom of 1941 - would define the contours of harmonious coexistence with the Muslim majority. Nothing of the sort occurred. With hindsight one could say that Kurdish participation in the Armenian genocide and the terrible massacres of the Assyro-Chaldean Christians, as well as the Farhoud itself, were portents of the expulsion of the Jews and the dreadful massacres of the Kurds to come, and in our times, the bloodbath in the name of religion or politics which continues to ravage the country.
What would you say was the situation of the Jews of Iran?
All the reports about the Jews of Iran cannot help but remind one of Eastern Europe in the blackest days of Stalinism. The community's leaders use eulogistical cliches to affirm how happy a Jew is under the regime of the Ayatollahs in the presence of the regime's henchmen, but one senses an anxiety about the future bubbling up. And unlike the Sunni branch of Islam, Sh'ism has also had an obsessive fear of Jewish 'uncleanliness'. The atmosphere is full of menace while this regime persists.
As far as the Jewish community of Morocco is concerned, you are left with a sense of huge loss.
As it happens, my wife and I have a great number of friends and acquaintances of Moroccan Jewish origin. While many Ashkenazim struggle with their identity, I am attracted to the ease with which Jews of Moroccan origin handle and transmit their traditions in spite of their uprooting. Theirs was an exodus which has remained touchingly faithful to its roots and upheld the richness of its culture, but the Moroccan nation has suffered an enormous loss as a result. I wish (the Jews) could build bridges with the Arab-Muslim world of which they were such an integral part.
You believe the Jews of Turkey have survived due to their discretion. Was this not the case in other Islamic countries?
Yes, it's even been the key to their survival. As my friend Jacques Hassoun (who died before his time) wrote about Egypt, "they had to learn to sing less loudly in the synagogues". Although dhimmitude has been formally abrogated, it still haunts the Arab-Muslim cultural sphere and requires the Jew (and indeed the Christian) to 'know their place'. On the streets in Turkey you will note that Jewish community buildings all fly the national flag - as if to affirm their 'Turkishness', to escape being stigmatised and vaunt the secular values of Ataturk. In Turkey, a number of factors have ensured that a substantial Jewish community has survived. However, under the surface, as it were, many community leaders are worried.
What conclusions do you draw from this piece of historical research?
I would say that wonderful examples of Judeo-Arab cultural interchange should give us hope for the future. Alas, the future remains heavily mortgaged to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I am encouraged to see the rise of several young iconoclastic Arab thinkers in the Maghreb. They are not afraid to question the sacred myths of their culture. Israel is not the only country to give rise to a new generation of historians. There is a glimmer of hope for the future.