Are Arab Jews Extinct?
by Naava Mashiah, guest contributor
A man holds a misbaha in the old city of Jerusalem. (photo: Flavio Grynszpan/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The growing rift between Israel and the Arab world makes it hard to imagine that Jews and Arabs once coexisted across the Middle East. At one point these identities could be found not only in the same neighborhood, but even in the same person.
Is it an oxymoron to be an Arab Jew? An Arab Jew refers either to a Jew living in the Arab world or one whose ancestors came from Arab countries. This term flourished once in the Middle East but is not widely known today. Not long ago there were Jews living in the cities of the Middle East who were integrated into their societies and held influential roles in their communities and economies.
My grandfather, Baba Yona Mashiah, was such a figure in Baghdad. He was, I would say, an Arab Jew. My childhood was sprinkled with stories of his grand personality, power and business acumen. He was a prominent land and real-estate developer and in the 1940s contributed to building “Baghdad el Jedidah,” a chic neighborhood in the Baghdad suburbs. His partners were mostly Muslim and some were prominent government officials.
Over the years I have accumulated stories about Baba Yona like pearls on a string and play with these beads, just as he played with the beads on his misbaha, the traditional Muslim prayer beads. My father recalled how he used to accompany my grandfather, who was also known by the Arabic name Abu Fuad, to meetings in cafés and the respect that people showed him.
Baba Yona was an integrated member of Baghdad society and its business world, yet he was a Jew.
In the 1950s the Jews of Baghdad experienced an exodus from Iraq. A reluctant exodus, I would claim, which was brought about by a combination of increasing Zionism, anti-Semitic propaganda, envy of the privileged life Jews had when Iraq was under British control and the creation of Israel. The displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies were the final blow.
Life had become unbearable for the Jews and even those who had wanted to stay were compelled to leave. Jews were assumed to be a fifth column and turned into scapegoats following the defeat of Arab armies by the Israeli Defense Forces. Baba Yona watched his empire crumble. His peer and neighbor, Mr. Addas, another influential Jew, was hung in the square. He himself was imprisoned for three months, accused of having Zionist connections.
At a certain point the Iraqi government offered a deal for Jews, inviting them to escape to Israel if they would renounce their citizenship and relinquish their property. Baba Yona was forced to leave Baghdad with over 100,000 other Jews to the one country that would accept them at the time — Israel. Ironically, the Zionists, whose movement played a part in alienating Muslims from their Jewish compatriots, were there to save them.
So as they were airlifted out of Baghdad, did my nine year-old father know where he was headed? Was it en route to Cyprus and during the eventual landing in Israel that he stopped being an Arab Jew?
In Israel, the younger generations became embarrassed by their Arabic-speaking parents. My father, Sabah, was given a Hebrew name, Shaul, but his brother who had arrived in his late teens, too late for a name change, is called Jamil until this very day.
In fact, my father’s Arab identity was totally effaced in Israel. It was a combination of external pressures and self denial. Thus he became successfully integrated into the dominant culture in Israel of that period.
My interest in my Arab roots began about ten years ago when I established my business, which focuses on economic cooperation between Israel and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Many Israelis asked me why I had chosen to do so. The notion that Israel should forge economic ties with other countries in the MENA region is not self-evident within Israeli society.
Their questions led me to excavate my own identity and connect with my grandfather’s world. I am discovering more and more young Jews like myself who have been able to distance themselves from their parents traumatic experiences and proudly reclaim their Arab roots.
I recall one day when I brought home old records of Abdul Wahab, a famous Egyptian singer, and put them on the phonograph. My father Shaul transformed back to Sabah and sang all the words. He did not understand how I could be interested in this music. My curiosity for the poetry and music is deep-rooted to an extent that baffles him.
Today when I ask my father if my grandfather was an Arab Jew and he proclaims, “No way, there is no such thing,” I beg to differ.
Naava Mashiah is CEO of M.E. Links, focused on the transfer of technology from Israel to the MENA region, Senior Consultant at ISHRA and the editor of MEDABIZ.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on January 17, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
The Three Christmases of the Holy Land
by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor
In the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the first of three Christmas celebrations was on December 24, the Christmas of the English, or so we thought of it then in the years of my adolescence. My family — ethnic Armenians, Christians by subscription more than piety — had settled in Jordan, a largely Muslim country, where I grew into adulthood, pulled this way and that by the three Christmases of the Holy Land. Of course it was a misnomer to call it the Christmas of the English because December 24 was celebrated by Catholic and Protestant Arabs as well.
In those days, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Middle East was a very different place from what it has become of late. Unlike the Christians of Iraq today, we had little fear, did not hide our religious affiliation but did not brag about it either. In the Holy Land of those times, celebrations of Christmas were for us and Muslims, at least at our post-colonial school which had been run for many years by English missionaries; it had a mixed student body of Christians and Muslims.
For me, the home of the English Christmas was the Ahliyyah School for Girls, which I attended after third grade and all the way to the end. The Ahliyyah, which is still a thriving school, was the successor to the Christian Missionary School, whose British headmistress was whisked away in the wake of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. The school’s name was changed, as well as the board. The Christmas celebrations persisted.
The Nameless, Faceless 1,027 Palestinian Prisoners and One Named Israeli Soldier
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
On the surface, it seems like the Palestinians and Hamas won a major victory in today’s exchange of prisoners. Gilad Shalit, one Israeli soldier, in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinians. The numbers are theirs to claim. How could Palestinians not be declared the victors?
With all this media coverage, I really only know one name. The general public truly only knows one name. One face. One set of parents. One human story of drama and pain and sacrifice. I know Gilad Shalit. He’s my son and my brother and my friend. He’s the child I would sit out in the rain and the blazing sun to protect and bring home. I ache for his family and his country. He’s human, he’s real, he’s flesh and blood.
With the Palestinian prisoners, I don’t know the name of one person. We don’t know the name of one person. No headlines in the papers or blogs exclusively devoted to the single surname of a Palestinian prisoner returned to her family. I know only numbers and politics and negotiators. I don’t know the woman above. We don’t know her. The story of a daughter and a sister and a mother and a wife. We don’t identify with her because she has remained faceless, nameless, lost. How long has she spent inside an Israeli prison? How long has her family begged their government to make a deal for an exchange? She goes unnoticed and unnamed by all of us.
Even the description of the photojournalist doesn’t identify her but names one man:
“A Palestinian prisoner hugs relatives after arriving in Mukata following her release on October 18, 2011 in Ramallah, West Bank. Israeli Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit was freed after being held captive for five years in Gaza by Hamas militants, in a deal which saw Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.”
This is the tragedy of the circumstances. When the dust settles and history remains our only chronicler, we will remember the name of Gilad Shalit — a young man who spent five years in Palestinian cell — but not the name of this one Palestinian woman. And we will remember that the Palestinians received 1,027 people in return. Numbers get confused in our memories, but the story and image of one individual, one life worth retrieving, will remain with us forever.
But, now at least, I know her face. We see the love of a family and the pain of return. And, even though it’s not the equivalent, it’s a beginning. The Palestinian leadership would do well to remember this, and so should the media, including us.
Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
The problem starts with the ridiculous crowns we claimed for ourselves and with the hypocrisy, emptiness, and blindness characterizing them. … Who isn’t against terror and for Shalit’s release? But that same sobbing society did not for a moment ask itself, with honesty and with courage, why Shalit was captured. It did not for a moment say to itself, with courage and with honesty, that if it continued along the same path there will be many more Gilad Shalits, dead or captured. In successive elections it voted, again and again, for centrist and right-wing governments, the kind that guarantee that Shalit will not be the last. It tied yellow ribbons and supported all of the black flags. And no one ever told it, with courage and with honesty: Shalit is the unavoidable price of a state that chooses to live by the sword forever.
—Gideon Levy, from his op-ed in Haaretz, “Shalit Is Returning to a State in Psychosis”
A stark contrast to the perspective of Yossi Klein Halevi and the quotation we posted from his latest piece on Gilad Shalit’s release and the trading of prisoners with Hamas. Both should be read.
Photo by Erin Nekervis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For more than a year the Shalits have lived in a tent near the prime minister’s office. When I walked nearby I would avoid the protest encampment, ashamed to be opposing the campaign. This past Israeli Independence Day, though, I saw a crowd gathered around the tent, and wandered over. “GILAD IS STILL ALIVE,” banners reminded: It’s not too late to save him. Inside the tent, Noam and Aviva were sitting with family and friends, singing the old Zionist songs. I wanted to shake Noam’s hand, tell him to be strong, but I resisted the urge. I didn’t deserve the privilege of comforting him.
I wanted to tell Noam what we shared. As it happens, my son served in the same tank unit as Gilad, two years after he was kidnapped. I wanted to tell Noam that that was the real reason I couldn’t bear thinking about his family. That in opposing the mass release of terrorists for Gilad, it was my son I was betraying.
—Yossi Klein Halevi, from “Everyone’s Son” in Tablet
This beautifully written essay is poignant, well-reasoned, and honest. And perhaps that’s what makes me so uncomfortable about this necessary read. Yossi Klein Halevi, whom On Being recently interviewed during our trip to Israel and the West Bank, puts you inside the difficult mindset of those Israelis who are frightened about giving ground to Hamas and Hezbollah, even at the expense of their own families, and yet lauds the decision of a benevolent state and its “hard leaders” to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli, Galid Shalit.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Now this is a graphic worth pondering and wrapping your mind around. What a wealth of information from the National Post:
Graphic: What would a Palestinian state look like?
As the Palestinian Authority’s at the UN moves forward, the Post looks at what a Palestinian state would look like. For a large version of this graphic, download the PDF here
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Sari Nusseibeh Discovers God in Cambodia
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom, Cambodia (photo: Ran Phang/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh comes from one of the oldest families on record in Jerusalem. His Muslim ancestors have been in the Holy Land since at least the seventh century. Earlier this year, Nusseibeh traveled to Cambodia where he glimpsed inside another ancient civilization. And it was there, as he tells it in the audio link above, that he had an epiphany about God:
“One thing that struck me was the four faces in many of the gates that were on those temples of Buddha. I was asking the guide what they stood for. He said, “Care, compassion, charity, and equality are the four faces of Buddha in those temples. And as he said them I just felt, to me, this is God. And I’m not a Buddhist.”
Listen to more of our interview with Sari Nusseibeh in this week’s show, “The Evolution of Change.”
Picasso in Palestine for the Very First Time: An Interview with Khaled Hourani
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
This summer, for the first time, an original painting by Pablo Picasso was exhibited in the West Bank city of Ramallah. What’s the big deal, right? Museums and galleries loan each other works of art all the time. But in Israel and the West Bank, where politics, borders, and security concerns rule the day, organizing a public exhibition of Picasso’s $7.1 million “Buste de Femme” turned out to be no easy feat. Who would insure the painting? How could its physical security be guaranteed? How would it be transported across military checkpoints?
For the last two years, Khaled Hourani has been doggedly figuring out answers to those questions together with the Van Abbemuseum in Holland. Hourani is arts director at the International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) in Ramallah where the “Buste de Femme” was on display. The Van Abbemuseum holds Picasso’s painting in its collection. Theirs is a story of a cross-cultural team triumphing over bureaucratic hurdles.
The Van Abbemuseum sent us over one hundred pictures documenting the painting’s careful voyage from Holland to Ramallah. The photographs tell their own story with the “Buste de Femme” as a silent, cipher-like protagonist. The painting is a magnet for attention and inspection and yet it also seems a little lonely and plaintive as it winds its way through customs and checkpoints into the IAAP’s exhibition room.
We reached out to Hourani to learn why he wanted to exhibit a single Picasso painting in Ramallah, and how the experience of working on this project affected him personally. Here’s his answers to my questions via email:
There are several reasons for this choice. The students of the Art Academy were at the center of the selection process from its early stages. The students voted in full consensus for Picasso as an artist and for the chosen painting in particular.
The Academy conducted a thorough research in Palestine about “who is the most popular international artist in our region?” The answer was Picasso. I recall asking my mother about the most well-known artist or painting she favored. Her answer was Picasso as an artist, and “Mona Lisa” as her favorite painting.
I had other personal reasons for selecting Picasso. His name was carved in the memory of my childhood in the early stages of my upbringing. When I was a child and used to paint, my teachers nicknamed me “Picasso.” Later in my life, when I started working, the name Picasso accompanied me. In our culture it is very popular to give a nickname to someone after a well-known figure; and, for me, Picasso became my nickname.
When I listened to the show on the Palestinian camps and found out people could move out, but many do not for several reasons, I started to think of my relatives who choose to remain on the reservation in spite of the poverty. They do not want to leave the cultural and traditional ties they now have.
Dreams and Nightmares from Aida Camp, in Black and White
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor + Susan Leem, associate producer
Mohammad Al Azzeh is a resident of Aida refugee camp whom we met while conducting interviews in the West Bank city of Bethlehem this past March. The 21-year-old Palestinian has been actively involved in Lajee Center, a cultural center in the heart of this neighborhood, and now manage its gallery and photography department.
His interest in photography and documenting the human condition within Aida was fostered as a teenager at the center when Rich Wiles, an English photographer, worked with ten 15-20 year olds to create a project titled “Dreams and Nightmares.” Each participant took two pictures: one of a dream, a hope, and the other of a nightmare, a fear.
In the audio above Mohammad describes his art and following are his two photos with captions: