Eastern Jews and Arab Jews

Why did prominent Lebanese author Elias Khoury join the boycott of the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe’s l’exposition « Juifs d’Orient »

By: Elias Khoury (Translated from Arabic)

Simone Bitton’s film “Ziyara” (2021) was a great thing at the “Jews of the East” exhibition, organized by the Arab World Institute, in Paris (Institut du Monde Arabe).

This exhibition comes in the midst of a major celebration entitled “Arabofolies” «ارابوفوليز», which brings together youth bands, and a group of seminars entitled “Days of History”, which discuss various topics.

The scene seems strange, why was an Israeli-Moroccan singer included in the music program, is it because she sings in her original language and feels alienated in Israel? Why was this issue not clarified? Doesn’t Neta Elkayam deserve a special show for her, instead of the organizers of the celebration “smuggling” her amid the “noise” of Arab youth bands?

But this is not the main issue here.

The question is about the Jews of the East, especially the Arab Jews, and about their history and the tragedies of their displacement and expulsion from their countries, to the point that the late novelist Shimon Ballas declared in a symposium he held at New York University in 2004 that he is an Iraqi writer who feels exiled in Israel and in the Hebrew language, which is not his original language.

Very strange program for this celebration, where are the Arab Jews? And what is their story?

It is surprising that this exhibition was held in the absence of the Iraqi-Israeli academic and writer Ella Shohat, who was the first to ask this kind of question. It is true that her questions cost her to leave Israel and live in New York, where she teaches at university, but in return they earned her the honor of a culture that serves nothing but truth and conscience.

And where is the academic, writer and translator Yehuda Shenhav, who wrote a great book about Arab Jews? Was it that they were not invited because they were anti-Zionist and pro-Palestine?

The questions keep coming: Is it possible to hold an exhibition honoring Arab Jews without referring to the works of Shimon Ballas, Samir Naqqash, Edmond Amran El Maleh, and Ibrahim Sarfati?

Why was Emil Alkalay forgotten, and Naïm Kattan, Sélim Nassib, Sami Shalom Chetrit, and even Sami Mikhail ignored? Who is the cultural elite of Arab Jews if these names do not lead them? There is no space to talk about these people one by one. I owe them, for their transparency, culture and morals. Their pain is a mirror of the Palestinian pain.

What must be emphasized is that the tragedy of the Arab Jews is the other side of the Palestinian Nakba. Just as the Palestinians were expelled from their land in a brutal process of ethnic cleansing in 1948, the Arab Jews were expelled in a process that is a mixture of terrorism, and buying and selling, so that they found themselves with a choice of those who had no choice.

The Arab regimes sold them for money to Zionism, and Israel bought them in order to fill the land of Palestine with them; after the depletion of Jewish immigration shortly after the establishment of the state. They were settled in the “ Ma’abarot” (Hebrew: מַעְבָּרוֹת‎), which resembles refugee camps, and were later moved to remote places and development cities.

The Israeli historian Tom Segev, in his book “The Early Israelis” narrated about the Jews of Yemen who were sent to drain Lake Hula, and many of them died of malaria, and their infants were stolen from them to be sold to Ashkenazi Jews.

The story must be told. Israel seeks to erase the memory of Arab Jews, just as it sought to erase the memory of the Palestinians. The Zionist state is a great eraser of the truth, and the task of culture is to remove the layers of forgery so that human pain does not go to waste amid the seven decades of Israeli celebration of racism and lies.

These facts were absent in the exhibition, which included two hundred and eighty works, brought from the whole world. But what is the use of the memory of things if the memory of humans is absent from it?

To be fair, the Iraqi director Samir’s film “Forget Baghdad” deserves to be seen, because he succeeded in collecting prominent Iraqi Jewish literary names, among them Samir Naqqash, who was born in Iraq in 1938 and died in Petah Tikva in 2004, and who insisted until his death on writing in amazing Arabic, that he introduced within it the dialect of the Jews of Baghdad.

All these absences could have been swallowed up. After all, we are in France of 2021, and not in France from which we learned the values ​​of the French Revolution and apprenticed to its great thinkers from Sartre to Foucault to Althusser to Barthes to Bourdieu.

I said that it was possible to swallow all these absences, and say that the task of reviving Arab-Jewish culture is the task of Arab intellectuals, and we are satisfied with making side remarks, but two statements drew attention, the first of which was the head of the Arab World Institute, Jack Lang, in which he announced his welcome to the Moroccan-Israeli security agreement and invited us to normalization. And the second is from Denis Charbit, the French-Israeli historian and member of the scientific committee organizing the “Jews of the East”, in which he announced that the institute borrowed pieces of art from the Israel Museum and the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. But he told the truth when he said, “This exhibition is the first fruit of the Abraham Accord and this begins with normalization. We are no longer afraid to hold an exhibition on the Jews of the East. Heaven will not apply to earth if we establish cooperation with Israel.”

These two statements raise the alarm, for the Arab World Institute should know that Arab culture is not at the disposal of authoritarian regimes, and that Gulf money allocated to whitewash Israel will not be able to transform culture into a commodity in the market of dependence and normalization.

Simone Bitton said, that Muslim Moroccans are today the guardians of Jewish memory in Morocco. Today, Arab intellectuals find themselves in the position of those Moroccans whose stories the film told; as guardians of Jewish Arab and Palestinian memories, that is, guardians of truth.

An open letter to the Institut du monde arabe in Paris:

“Culture is the salt of the earth and we shall not allow it to be used for normalizing oppression.”

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