Fathom 21 | ‘Understanding the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa is the key to understanding the whole Middle East conflict’: an interview with Lyn Julius

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Fathom 21 | ‘Understanding the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa is the key to understanding the whole Middle East conflict’: an interview with Lyn Julius

Post by Guest on Thu Oct 04, 2018 4:39 pm

Earlier this year Fathom’s Grant Goldberg interviewed Lyn Julius about her new book, Uprooted, which documents 3,000 years of Jewish civilisation in the Arab world and explains how and why that civilisation vanished in a single generation in the middle of the 20th century. Julius describes what brought Nazi Germany, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem into an alliance and how this impacted Jews in the Middle East and the formation of the State of Israel. 

Grant Goldberg: What prompted you to write the book?

Lyn Julius: I have a strong connection to the region. My parents arrived in Britain in 1950 as Iraqi-Jewish refugees, and throughout my childhood I was very conscious of the connection with Iraq, mainly because I still had family there. Conditions deteriorated for the remaining 3,000 Jews of Iraq after the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel’s defeat of the Arab countries. Saddam Hussein embarked on a reign of terror, executing nine Jews in Liberation Square in Baghdad. My grandparents were still in Iraq as well as various aunts and cousins and all were desperate to leave. The community’s telephones were cut off, their jobs were lost and their university entry blocked. Their very lives were in danger – some 50 Jews were arrested and never seen again.

I honestly think that understanding the Jews of the Middle East is the key to understanding the whole Middle East conflict. The way the Jews have been treated in Arab countries points to a major dysfunction in Arab society: the inability to tolerate anyone who is different from the mainstream, whether non-Sunni Muslims or minority non-Muslims.

I’ve been very involved in Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, which I founded 13 years ago. As well as organising events to raise awareness of the history and culture of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, I’ve been blogging and writing. Eventually, I realised I had accumulated enough material for a book.

Also, there has not been much written about Mizrahi Jews, certainly not in English. The most mainstream work was In Ishmael’s House by Sir Martin Gilbert, published in 2010. Most of the research on the subject has been done by historians writing in French, such as Georges Bensoussan, Nathan Weinstock, Shmuel Trigano, Bat Y’eor and Paul Fenton, who, despite his English origins, is a professor at the Sorbonne. David Litman also wrote about Jews from Morocco. I hoped my book would make the essence of their work accessible to English readers.

GG: You begin your book in the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel, which has been converted to an Islamic holy site in present-day Iraq. Once visited by 5,000 Jews a year, it is now devoid of Jewish pilgrims. What made you start there?

LJ: I wanted to show that Jewish continuity in the Middle East goes back to Biblical times. The prophet Ezekiel is one of 17 Biblical figures buried in Syria, Iran and Iraq. That region has as much of a Jewish history as does the land of Israel. The Jews were taken as slaves to Babylon after the destruction of the First Temple. It’s important to know that Jews have lived for a long time in these lands and shaped the culture. There was a sort of symbiosis between Jew and non-Jew, often misunderstood as coexistence. It wasn’t coexistence; that word assumes there was an equal relationship. The Jews were influenced by, and actively shaped, the culture. Islam is much closer to Judaism than Christianity. Local Muslims felt Jews had a direct line to God as the elder religion. An Iraqi Jewish friend of mine, around the time of Sukkot, once overheard her Muslim neighbours talking as rain fell. ‘The feast of the Jews must be over,’ they said, because they knew that Jews pray for rain at the end of Sukkot. It’s almost as if this culture could set its watch by the Jewish calendar. The Jews were intrinsic to the rhythm of life in the Middle East.

It all ended in the space of a generation. Some 850,000 Jews fled 10 Arab countries; most found refuge in Israel, where over half the Jewish population has roots in Arab or Muslim lands. Israel organised unprecedented airlifts and rescue operations. A greater number of Jews were displaced than Palestinian Arabs from Israel, and it was the largest exodus of non-Muslims from the Middle East until the mass flight of Christians from Iraq after 2003.

However, the plight and dispossession of the Jewish refugees remains an unresolved and unrecognised injustice. Age-old communities are now extinct and only some 4,000 Jews remain in the Arab world. So, with the exception of Morocco, the physical presence of the Jews has been wiped out almost completely from the Middle East and North Africa outside Israel. Memory was also erased; the younger generation often had no idea that Jews ever lived in their lands. However, since the ‘Arab Spring,’ the memory of the huge contribution made by the Jewish community is being revived. In Iraq, intellectuals are lamenting the departure of the Jews and the fact that the country went downhill once they left, leaving it economically and culturally impoverished.



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