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Before they were bad Zionists, they were good Arabs
Many still blame Zionism, rather than Arab intolerance, for Jewish exodus
In the aftermath of the Gaza War, Newlines Magazine revived an old and tired argument that blames Zionism, rather than Arab intolerance of diversity, for the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries.
This article does not try to discuss — defend or justify — Zionism, but aims at debunking the myth that Arab Jews lived happily among their fellow non-Jewish Arabs, for millennia, before Zionism showed up and spoiled the party for them.
To better understand this complicated subject, we first have to define Arabism and Islam. In this time and age, these two words are often used interchangeably, but Arabism predates Islam by some 1,600 years.
Even though they speak a Semitic language, Arabs are not an ethnic race. The most common denominator is the Arabic language, which can be traced back to 1000 BCE. Old Arabic was also Arameo-Arabic. It evolved into Classical Arabic, now known as Quranic Arabic. The current Arabic is the Modern Standard Arabic that considers the Quran to be its golden standard.
While Arabic started around 1000 BCE, Islam started in 610 CE. Over a millennium and a half before there were Muslim Arabs, there were — before them — pagan Arabs, Jewish Arabs and Christian Arabs. Even in religious tradition, Prophet Muhammad hails from a Hebraic patriarch, Abraham, through his son — Ishmael/Ismail — who was Arabized. The fact that Ismail was Arabized means that he was born a Hebrew, and that the Arabs predated Ismail. In Islamic tradition, the Arabs descended from ancestors other than Ismail. Some of these ancestors are connected to Biblical Eber, associated with Quranic Hud. The ethnonym Hebrews comes from Eber.
The Arabs, therefore, descend from more than one Hebraic ancestor — such as Eber, Katan (Yaktan) and Abraham — and the myth that Arabs and Jews are cousins (given that Ismail was the half brother of the ancestor of the Jews Isaac) does not stand, even by mythological standards.
Jewish and Christian Arabs use the generic Arabic appellation for “the Lord,” Allah, an appellation that Muslims also started using. Newlines Magazine, however, commits the same “identity politics” mistake that non-Arabic speaking Muslims commit by considering Allah to be the actual name of the Muslim deity, which is false. But that was not the article’s only mistake.
The Newlines article argues that the “Hebraic minority” was happily assimilated into the Arab — here assumed to be all Muslim — society. The article also seems puzzled why many Iraqi Jews joined the Communist Party.
Now to understand the behavior of the Jews after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, one ought to briefly discuss the lives of non-Muslim Arabs, or even non-Sunni Muslim Arabs, under Ottoman rule.
The Ottoman rule over “religious minorities” is often touted as tolerant and even exemplary, but it was not even close to being such. The Ottoman perception of minorities was informed by the general principle of Islam, which considers Jews and Christians as the People of the Book.
Islam views People of the Book as dhimmis, or second class citizens. Under Islam, Jews and Christians are allowed to keep practicing their faith, but they have to pay a poll tax. They also cannot be sovereign over Muslims (per Quran 5:51), and cannot proselyte. If a Muslim converts to Judaism or Christianity, he/she would be killed on charges of apostasy. Muslim men can marry Jewish and Christian women, because children are assumed to follow their father’s religion, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry Jews or Christians. Those who glorify Ottoman tolerance think this was fair treatment of non-Muslim minorities.
By the nineteenth century, Ottoman power was in decline. This was coupled with the rise of European nationalism, which fanned the flames of Arab nationalism.
Arab minorities saw a golden opportunity to trounce the Ottoman Muslim rule that had been treating them for four centuries and to replace it with a secular one: Either Arab nationalist, or global Communist. Either way, religious differences between Muslim Arabs and non-Muslim Arabs would vanish, and the “minorities” would become citizens who enjoy equal rights with Muslims. Jewish Iraqis became Communist because Communism was a struggle between classes (poor v rich), as opposed to ethnic or religious configurations which would have kept the Jews a minority.
In his book a House of Many Mansions, my mentor, the late historian Kamal Salibi, argues that minorities, like Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, understood that playing the game of ethnoreligious quotas was not in the interest of his minority Druze, and that for him to stand a chance in leading the country, secularism was his best bet. Jumblatt thus founded the Progressive Socialist Party.
The Christians of Syria and Lebanon also grasped the opportunity and either founded or joined secular nationalist parties. The notorious, yet secular, Baath Arab Party was founded by the Syrian Michel Aflaq, a Christian, and Zaki Arsouzi, an Alawite. The equally notorious (and anti-Semite) secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party was founded by Lebanese Christian Antun Saadeh.
But there was a backlash. Muslims, especially Sunnis, saw in the downfall of the Ottoman Empire a conspiracy against their primacy. This prompted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which pushed secular Arab nationalist parties to accommodate Islam, or at least endorse Muslim history as the history of all the Arabs, including non-Muslims.
With Islam creeping back into the political life, even after the downfall of the Islamist Ottoman government, minorities gave up on their dreams of living with Muslims as equals, and each minority group started lobbying world powers for a state of its own. Christians asked France to create Lebanon for them, and the Alawites got their statelet too (later merged with other statelets to make modern day Syria). It was only natural for Arab Jews to be attracted to Zionism and to relocate to a country where they can be a ruling majority, instead of continuing to live as second class citizens in predominantly Muslim Arab countries.
That the Newslines article shows no awareness of the history of the collapse of the Ottomans and the eventual rise of predominantly Muslim Arab countries, and a few non-Muslim majority countries — like Israel and Lebanon — and insists that the “Hebraic minority” was living happily among Muslim Arabs until Zionism spoiled the party, is an inaccurate hypothesis at best and a horrible and probably politically-motivated revision of history at worst.