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Albert Memmi

Who is an Arab Jew?

By Albert Memmi February, 1975

The term "Arab Jews" is obviously not a good one. I have adopted it for convenience. I simply wish to underline that as natives of those countries called Arab and indigenous to those lands well before the arrival of the Arabs, we shared with them, to a great extent, languages, traditions and cultures.

If one were to base oneself on this legitimacy, and not on force and numbers, then we have the same rights to our share in these lands - neither more nor less - than the Arab Moslems. But one should remember, at the same time, that the term "Arab" is not a happy one when applied to such diverse populations, including even those who call and believe themselves to be Arabs.

The head of an Arab state (Muammar Ghadaffi) recently made us a generous and novel offer. "Return," he told us, "return to the land of your birth!" It seems that this impressed many people who, carried away by their emotions, believed that the problem was solved. So much so that they did not understand what was the price to be paid in exchange: once reinstalled in our former countries, Israel will no longer have any reason to exist.

The other Jews, those "terrible European usurpers", will also be sent back "home" - to clear up the remains of the crematoria, to rebuild their ruined quarters, I suppose. And if they do not choose to go with good grace, in spite of everything, then a final war will be waged against them. On this point, the Head of State was very frank. It also seems that one of his remarks deeply impressed those present: "Are you not Arabs like us - Arab Jews?"

What lovely words! We draw a secret nostalgia from them: yes, indeed, we were Arab Jews- in our habits, our culture, our music, our menu. I have written enough about it. But must one remain an Arab Jew if, in return, one has to tremble for one's life and the future of one's children and always be denied a normal existence? There are, it is true, the Arab Christians. What is not sufficiently known is the shamefully exorbitant price that they must pay for the right merely to survive.

We would have liked to be Arab Jews. If we abandoned the idea, it is because over the centuries the Moslem Arabs systematically prevented its realization by their contempt and cruelty. It is now too late for us to become Arab Jews. Not only were the homes of Jews in Germany and Poland torn down, scattered to the four winds, demolished, but our homes as well.

Objectively speaking, there are no longer any Jewish communities in any Arab country, and you will not find a single Arab Jew who will agree to return to his native land.

I must be clearer: the much vaunted idyllic life of the Jews in Arab lands is a myth! The truth, since I am obliged to return to it, is that from the outset we were a minority in a hostile environment; as such, we underwent all the fears, the agonies, and the constant sense of frailty of the underdog.

As far back as my childhood memories go - in the tales of my father, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles - coexistence with the Arabs was not just uncomfortable, it was marked by threats periodically carried out.

We must, nonetheless, remember a most significant fact: the situation of the Jews during the colonial period was more secure, because it was more legalized. This explains the prudence, the hesitation between political options of the majority of Jews in Arab lands. I have not always agreed with these choices, but one cannot reproach the responsible leaders of the communities for this ambivalence - they were only reflecting the inborn fear of their co-religionists.

As to the pre-colonial period, the collective memory of Tunisian Jewry leaves no doubt. It is enough to cite a few narratives and tales relating to that period: it was a gloomy one. The Jewish communities lived in the shadow of history, under arbitrary rule and the fear of all-powerful monarchs whose decisions could not be rescinded or even questioned.

It can be said that everybody was governed by these absolute rulers: the sultans, beys and deys. But the Jews were at the mercy not only of the monarch but also of the man in the street. My grandfather still wore the obligatory and discriminatory Jewish garb, and in his time every Jew might expect to be hit on the head by any Moslem whom he happened to pass.

This pleasant ritual even had a name - the chtaka; and with it went a sacramental formula which I have forgotten. A French orientalist once replied to me at a meeting: "In Islamic lands the Christians were no better off!" This is true - so what? This is a double-edged argument: it signifies, in effect, that no member of a minority lived in peace and dignity in countries with an Arab majority!

Yet there was a marked difference all the same: the Christians were, as a rule, foreigners and as such protected by their mother-countries. If a Barbary pirate or an emir wanted to enslave a missionary, he had to take into account the government of the missionary's land of origin - perhaps even the Vatican or the Order of the Knights of Malta. But no one came to the rescue of the Jews, because the Jews were natives and therefore victims of the will of "their" rulers.

Never, I repeat, never - with the possible exception of two or three very specific intervals such as the Andalusian, and not even then - did the Jews in Arab lands live in other than a humiliated state, vulnerable and periodically mistreated and murdered, so that they should clearly remember their place.

During the colonial period, the life of Jews took on a certain measure of security, even among the poorest classes, whereas traditionally only the rich Jews, those from the European part of town, were able to live reasonably well. In these quarters the population was mixed, and the French and Italian Jews were, in general, less in contact with the Arab population. Even they remained second-class citizens, a prey from time to time to outbursts of popular anger, which the colonial power - French, English or Italian - did not always repress in time, either out of indifference or for tactical reasons.

I have lived through the alarms of the ghetto: the rapidly barred doors and windows, my father running home after hastily shutting his shop, because of rumours of an impending pogrom. My parents stocked food in expectation of a siege, which did not always materialize, but this gives the measure of our anguish, our permanent insecurity.

We felt abandoned then by the whole world, including, alas, the French protectorate officials. Whether these officials knowingly exploited these happenings for internal political reasons, as a diversion of an eventual rising against the colonial regime, I have no proof. But certainly this was the feeling of us Jews of the poor quarters.

My own father was convinced that when the Tunisian riflemen left for the front during the war, the Jewish population had been delivered into their hands. At the least, we thought that the French and Tunisian authorities had shut their eyes to the depredations of the soldiery or the malcontents who streamed into the ghetto. Like the carabinieri in the song, the police never came, or if they did it was only hours after it was all over.

Shortly before the end of the colonial period, we endured an ordeal in common with Europe: the German occupation.

I have described in Pillar of Salt how the French authorities coldly left us to the Germans. But I must add that we were also submerged in a hostile Arab population, which is why so few of us could cross the lines and join the Allies. Some got through in spite of everything, but in most cases they were denounced and caught.

Nevertheless, we were inclined to forget that dreadful period after Tunisia attained independence. It must be acknowledged that not many Jews took an active part in the struggle for independence, but neither did the mass of Tunisian non-Jews.

On the other hand our intellectuals, including the communists, who were very numerous, took an active role in the fight for independence; some of them fought in the ranks of the "Destour". I was myself a member of the small group which founded the newspaper Jeune Afrique in 1956, shortly before independence, for which I had to pay dearly later on.

At all events, after independence the Jewish bourgeoisie, which was an appreciable part of the Jewish population, believed that they could collaborate with the new regime, that it was possible to coexist with the Tunisian population. We were Tunisian citizens and decided in all sincerity to "play the game". But what did the Tunisians do? Just like the Moroccans and Algerians, they liquidated their Jewish communities cunningly and intelligently.

They did not indulge in open brutalities as in other Arab lands - that would anyhow have been difficult after the services which had been rendered, the help given by a large number of our intellectuals, because of world public opinion, which was following events in our region closely; and also because of American aid which they needed urgently.

Nonetheless they strangled the Jewish population economically. This was easy with the merchants: it was enough not to renew their licences, to decline to grant them import permits and, at the same time, to give preference to their Moslem competitors.

In the civil service it was hardly more complicated: Jews were not taken on, or veteran Jewish officials were confronted with insurmountable language difficulties, which were rarely imposed upon Moslems. Periodically, a Jewish engineer or a senior official would be put in jail on mysterious, Kafkaesque charges which panicked everyone else.

And this does not take into account the impact of the relative proximity of the Arab-Israel conflict. At each crisis, with every incident of the slightest importance, the mob would go wild, setting fire to Jewish shops.

This even happened during the Yom Kippur War. Tunisia's President, Habib Bourguiba, has in all probability never been hostile to the Jews, but there was always that notorious "delay", which meant that the police arrived on the scene only after the shops had been pillaged and burnt. Is it any wonder that the exodus to France and Israel continued and even increased?

I myself left Tunisia for professional reasons, admittedly, because I wanted to get back into a literary circle, but also because I could not have lived much longer in that atmosphere of masked, and often open, discrimination.

It is not a question of regretting the position of historical justice we adopted in favour of the Arab peoples. I regret nothing, neither having written The Colonizer and the Colonized nor my applause for the independence of the peoples of the Maghreb.

I continued to defend the Arabs even in Europe, in countless activities, communications, signatures, manifestos. But it must be stated unequivocally, once and for all: we defended the Arabs because they were oppressed.

But now there are independent Arab states, with foreign policies, social classes, with rich and poor. And if they are no longer oppressed, if they are in their turn becoming oppressors, or possess unjust political regimes, I do not see why they should not be called upon to render accounts.

Besides, unlike most people, I was never willing to believe (as the liberals naively, and the communists artfully, repeat) that after independence there would be no more problems, that our countries would become secular states where Europeans, Jews and Moslems would happily coexist.

I even knew that there would not be much of a place for us in the country after independence. Young nations are very exclusive; and anyhow, Arab constitutions are incompatible with a secular ideology. And this, by the way, has been recently underlined most appositely by Colonel Qadhafi. He only said aloud what others think to themselves.

I was equally aware of the problem of the "small" Europeans, the poor Whites; but I thought that all this was the inevitable end of a state of affairs condemned by history. I thought, in spite of everything, that the effort was worth making. After all, we had never occupied a major place; it would have been enough had they allowed us to live in peace.

This was a drama, but a historical drama - not a tragedy; modest solutions did exist for us. But even that was not possible. We were all obliged to go, each in his turn.

Thus I arrived in France, and found myself up against the legend which was current in left-wing Parisian salons: the Jews had always lived in perfect harmony with the Arabs. I was almost congratulated for having been born in such a land where racial discrimination and xenophobia were unknown. It made me laugh.

I heard so much nonsense about North Africa, and from people of the best intentions that, honestly, I did not react to it at all. The chattering only began to worry me when it became a political argument that is, after 1967.

The Arabs then made up their minds to use this travesty of the truth, which fell on willing ears once the reaction against Israel had set in after her victory. It is now time to denounce this absurdity.

If I had to explain the success of the myth, I would list five converging factors. The first is the product of Arab propaganda: "The Arabs never did the Jews any harm, so why do the Jews come to despoil them of their lands, when the responsibility for Jewish misfortune is altogether European?

The whole responsibility for the Middle East conflict rests on the Jews of Europe. The Arab Jews never wanted to create a separate country and they are full of trust and friendship towards the Moslem Arabs."

This is a double lie: the Arab Jews are much more distrustful of the Moslems than are the European Jews, and they dreamed of the Land of Israel long before the Russian and Polish Jews did.

The second argument stems from the cogitations of a part of the European Left: the Arabs were oppressed, therefore they could not be anti-Semites. This is ridiculously manichaeistic - as though one could not be oppressed and also be a racist! As if workers have not been xenophobic! Actually the argument is not convincing: the real purpose is to be able with a clear conscience to fight Zionism and thus serve the Soviet Union.

The third argument is the doing of contemporary historians, among whom, curiously enough, are certain Western Jews. Having undergone the dreadful Nazi slaughter, they could not imagine a similar thing happening elsewhere.

However, if we except the massacres of the twentieth century (the pogroms in Russia after Kishinev and later by Stalin, as well as the Nazi crematoria), the total number of Jewish victims from Christian pogroms over the centuries probably does not exceed the total of the victims of the smaller and larger periodic pogroms perpetrated in Arab lands under Islam over the past millennium.

Jewish history has so far been written by Western Jews; there has been no great Oriental Jewish historian. This is why only the "Western" aspects of Jewish suffering are widely known. One is reminded of the absurd distinction drawn by Jules Isaac, usually better inspired, between "true" and "false" anti-Semitism, "true" anti-Semitism being the result of Christianity.

The truth is that it is not only Christianity that creates anti-Semitism, but the fact that the Jew is a member of a minority - in Christendom or in Islam. In making of anti-Semitism a Christian creation, Isaac, I regret to say, has minimized the tragedy of the Jews from Arab lands and helped to confuse people.

The fourth factor is that many Israelis, perturbed by the issue of coexistence with their Arab neighbours, wish to believe that this existed in the past; otherwise the whole undertaking would have to be discarded in despair! But in order to survive, it would be far wiser to take a clear view of the actual environment.

The fifth and last factor is our own complicity, the more or less unwitting complacency of us Jews from Arab countries - the uprooted who tend to embellish the past, who in our longing for our native Orient minimize, or completely efface, the memory of persecutions. In our recollections, in our imagination, it was a wholly marvelous life, even though our own newspapers from that period attest the contrary.

How I wish that all this had been true - that we had enjoyed a singular existence in comparison with the usual Jewish condition! Unfortunately, it is all a huge lie: Jews lived most lamentably in Arab lands.

The State of Israel is not the outcome only of the sufferings of European Jewry. It is certainly possible, contrary to the thinking - if there is any thinking at all - of a part of the European Left, to free oneself from oppression and in turn to become an oppressor towards, for example, one's own minorities. Indeed, this happens very often with many new nations.

And now?

Now it is no longer a question of our returning to any Arab land, as we are so disingenuously invited to do. Such an idea would seem grotesque to all the Jews who fled their homes - from the gallows of Iraq, the rapes, the sodomy of the Egyptian prisons, from the political and cultural alienation and economic suffocation of the more moderate countries.

The attitude of the Arabs towards us seems to me to be hardly different from what it has always been. The Arabs in the past merely tolerated the existence of Jewish minorities, no more. They have not yet recovered from the shock of seeing their former underlings raise up their heads, attempting even to gain their national independence! They know of only one rejoinder: off with their heads!

The Arabs want to destroy Israel. They pinned great hopes on the summit meeting in Algiers. Now what did this meeting demand? Two points recur as a leitmotiv: the return of all the territories occupied by Israel, and the restoration of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinians. The first contention can still create an illusion, but not the second. What does it mean? Settling the Palestinians as rulers in Haifa or Jaffa? In other words, the end of Israel.

And if not that, if it is only a matter of partition, why do they not say so? On the contrary, the Palestinians have never ceased to claim the whole of the region, and their succeeding "summits" change nothing. The summit meeting in Algiers is linked to that of Khartoum (1967), there is no basic difference.

Even today the official position of the Arabs, implicit or avowed, brutal or tactical, is nothing but a perpetuation of that anti-Semitism which we have experienced. Today, as yesterday, our life is at stake. But there will come a day when the Moslem Arabs will have to admit that we, the "Arab Jews" as well - if that is how they wish to call us - have the right to existence and to dignity.

Source: Israel Academic Committee on the Middle East, February, 1975

Original URL http://www.jimena-justice.org/faq/memmi.htm



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