Oriental Zionism of Arab-born Jews,
One thousand years before Theodore Herzl
My heart is in the East and
I am at the
-Judah Halevi, 1086-1141
The mode of conducting Jewish affairs
among themselves ... is entirely
in Hebrew, which ancient custom
they are very tenacious of and
desirous to maintain.
-W. T. Young, British Consul in Jerusalem,
Clearly the massive exodus of Jewish
refugees from the Arab countries was triggered largely by the Arabs' own
Nazi-like bursts of brutality, which had become the lot of the Jewish communities.
Walter Laqueur writes: "History has always shown that ... men and women
have chosen to leave their native country only when facing intolerable
pressure." But the history is long of persecution against Jews by the
Arabs, a chronicle of "intolerable pressure" that had its beginnings in
and took its inspiration from the seventh-century book of the creator of
History has also illustrated that persecution
and its pressures become "intolerable" only when an alternative other than
death is provided. The Arab-bom Jews suffered in silence until they learned
that they could act out their hope of getting to a Jewish state.
They bore their burdens as did many peoples
of the world before and until the United States became the universal haven
of the oppressed. Yet the hapless black peoples who had been brought to
America as slaves could not even begin to alleviate their oppression
and exploitation here until they began to gain the freedoms and thus the
strength to resist and insist upon their rights-rights that are in some
areas yet to be achieved.
There is no doubt that the long-sought
Jewish national homeland was finally brought into being by a horrified,
conscience-stricken international community, which viewed Israel as a necessary
refuge for Jews throughout the world who had become victims of the Nazis
or their followers. However, after World - War I, in 1918, nearly half
of the total Jewish population in Jerusalem- consisted of "Sephardic" Jews
-- that is, the Jews of the Middle East, non-European Jewry. And it
cannot be denied that the overwhelming majority of hundreds of thousands
of Jewish refugees fleeing from Arab persecution also poured directly into
Israel -- in fulfillment of an unflagging, little-known "Zionism," a national
liberation movement among Arab-born Jews whose gestation period had lasted
roughly two thousand years.
From the Arab conquest, hundreds of thousands
of Jews in the Arab world managed to survive between traditional ravages.
Most had religious affiliations. The-Arabs' general prohibition against
political activities by their Jewish
might have been a factor
that inhibited and submerged the growth of Zionism as a political phenomenon
among the Sephardic Jews. But what may be called "spiritual Zionism" took
root in biblical times in the Sephardic Jewish community; those Jews, who
are uniquely indigenous to the terrain that now is the Arab world, have
retained in their liturgy the steady longing for "return" to the Land of
Israel, a longing that has been mistakenly assumed to be exclusively "European."
Jews from Arab countries often become incensed
when confronted with the argument that Zionism originated in Europe. Every
Sephardic Jew interviewed had the same immediate reaction: the Sephardim
are just as truly believers in Zion, and their ancient uninterrupted Jewish
history led directly from the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem.
They too were descendants of the original
exiles, and, unlike their Western Jewish brothers, their empathy with the
Bible was not dependent upon "unyielding interpretations," because Sephardic
Jews lived in close proximity to the world of the Bible and could more
easily relate to it. During an interview with an eminent Jewish scholar
from Tunisia, I mistakenly likened the Sephardic Jewish communities, which
have burgeoned in Israel and elsewhere since the Jews' exodus from Arab
countries, to the European "shtetl." The scholar promptly corrected
that assumption, somewhat bitterly and with alacrity. He explained that
They are more like our own "mellah
or "hara, " which many people probably never heard of. Zionism was
in the Arab countries with every prayer we uttered for millennia before
Nearly every one of the recurrent "false Messiahs"
who attempted to play the Messianic role in leading the Jewish people back
to Israel were apparently Sephardic Jews. One Messianic movement was
started by two Sephardic Jews who attempted to negotiate with the Pope
in 1524. When they failed to convince him of a plan that would liberate
Palestine for the Jews, another proposal was made to the German emperor,
Charles V, after which both would-be Messiahs were arrested and jailed.
One, Solomon Molcho, was burned to death, "a martyr's death," and the other,
David Reubeni, "a mysterious character," disappeared, leaving his diary
Shabbetai Zevi, who along with his prophet,
Nathan of Gaza, is considered son of "Mordechai of Smyrna." Zevi's followers
came from "Amsterdam to Yemen, from the eastern frontier of Poland to the
outlying villages in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa." His unparalleled
ability to lead the receptive Jewish people "back" was attributed by Gershom
Scholem, the foremost authority on Zevi and his Sabbatean movement, to
"the general atmosphere within Jewry," which was "more decisive in shaping
the movement than the peculiar spiritual state of the youthful ... Sabbatai
Sevi." Because the seventeenth century was fraught with persecution
for both Sephardic and Western (Ashkenazic) Jews, "penitents and seekers
of liberty-rich and poor, scholars and the ignorant-thus united round"
the Messianic movement.
It was Zevi himself who was the "weakest
of its leaders" -- "in 1666 ... the Jews who saw him entering the sultan's
palace" never dreamed that "the messiah had adopted ... Islam." But Zevi
had done exactly that, upon "being threatened with great physical punishment
and even death." Because of Zevi's conversion, one writer says that "The
greater part of Jewry was shaken to the core. The blow was even greater
than the crucifixion of Jesus had been to his followers." The disillusionment
was shattering; "Jesus had paid the highest price that could be demanded
from a man, but Shabbetai had not." Zevi "fell into a state of deep
depression" after his conversion, then recovered and "went wandering from
community to community, preaching . . ." and committing "strange actions"
afterward. The letter of renunciation of his former visions, which Zevi
had been "compelled" by a "strict rabbinical court" to sign in Venice two
years after his conversion, remained intact:
Although I have declared that
I saw the Merkava as Ezekiel the prophet saw it and the prophecy
declared that Shabbetai Zevi is the Messiah, the Rabbis and Geonim of Venice
have ruled that I am in error and there was nothing real in that vision.
I have therefore admitted their words and say that what I prophesied regarding
Shabbetai Zevi has no substance.
Shabbetai Zevi died at fifty in 1676.
Another prominent Sephardic Zionist was
Spanish-bom Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, a major seventeenth-century Jewish
scholar. Rabbi ben Israel became convinced that England -- which had no
Jewish population for three hundred years -- was holding back the redemption
and return to the Holy Land. The horror of the Spanish Inquisition, he
maintained, had fulfilled part of the biblical requisite -- the suffering
-- but the Bible had promised to restore the Jews to Israel only after
they had also been dispersed to every part of the world.
Since ben Israel had ascertained that some
settlers in America were Jewish, he concluded that only England-bereft
of Jews-stood in the way of "return." In a formal "declaration" to the
British, he explained that " . . . before the Messiah come ... first we
must have our seat here likewise." For good measure, he strengthened his
argument by stressing the economic benefits England could derive through
imports and exports from Jewish merchants throughout the world. The British
may have considered other factors more determinative, but some historians
credit Rabbi ben Israel as the direct force that brought about the re-entry
of the Jews to England.
There have been Sephardic Jewish "Zionists"
from the time of the biblical exile of the Jews from Jerusalem in 586 B.C.
"It is common knowledge that religious life in the Diaspora was bound up
with the Holy Land and with the Temple so long as it existed. The connection
of Cyrene, Carthage and the rest of North Africa with Palestine was in
fact quite strong."
"Jason of Cyrene" wrote a five-volume work
about Palestine, where he arrived during the Hasmonean Revolt." The pilgrimages
to Jerusalem by Libyan Jews were recorded in the Bible," as was the Jerusalem
synagogue that was named after them." "Simon the Cyrenian" was one of many
of the Libyan pilgrims who remained in Jerusalem. It was Simon who was
reported by the New Testament to have been " a chance passerby just arrived
from the country," who "was forced to take part in the crucifixion."
The holiday of Passover, commemorating
the Jews' return from exile in Egypt to the Holy Land of Israel, was not
celebrated differently by eleventh-century "Palestinian Jews" than by modem
Jews around the world. It was when the Jews left Egypt, no longer slaves,
that they became organized-a people with the prospect of returning to their
land. Passover service for Jews everywhere concludes with the words,
"Next year in Jerusalem." Sephardic clergy explain rather impatiently that
the basic Sephardic liturgy is "much the same" as the European, although
the Sephardim are particularly proud of the indigenous poetry that enhances
their religious literature.
In fact, much of the universal Jewish liturgical
devotion to the Holy Land has been adopted from.Sephardic-Jewish scholars.
An important example is venerated twelfth-century rabbinical scholar
and poet, Jehudah Halevi, whose words became a prominent part of the universal
Jewish liturgy -- "My heart is in the East and I at the uttermost West
. . ." and "Ode to Zion," among others.
Halevi was also a pragmatist who wrote
serious treatises on the theme that became the foundation of modern Zionism
-- rather than languish in exile, he stressed, the Jews themselves must
take the first step and the Messiah would come later. Faithful to
his enjoinder, Halevi left his thriving family and career as physician,
and set out from Spain in the twelfth century on what was then the hazardous
journey to Palestine.
Halevi was warned by friends and compatriots
when he broke journey in Egypt, according to his German biographies. But
after resting, he resisted their attempts to dissuade him from continuing:
"In Egypt, Providence showed itself in a hurry as it were; it settled down
permanently in the Holy Land only," Halevi wrote. His German biographer
likened Goethe's Faust to Halevi's "highest moment"-"when he first set
eyes on the Holy City, as it came into his view between the mountains."
Halevi "wanted to walk barefooted over the heap of ruins that had once
been the Temple." According to traditional history, he had barely arrived
at the gates of Jerusalem and was kissing the stones of hallowed land,
when he was slain by an Arab tribesman.
The concept of the "return" of the Jews
from exile to the biblical homeland in Zion-the promised land-was an integral
part of Jewish life everywhere, but nowhere was it more fervently held
or more inextricably interwoven with daily life and long-range hope than
among the Sephardim. They were intense in their religious observances.
Some of the most perceptive and distinguished Jewish scholars came from
"Arab" countries, and the revered Babylonian Talmud was compiled in what
is now Iraq. The Sephardic Jews were diligent in their religious pursuits,
and would have disdained any open attempt to deviate from the flexible
norm of religious observance. The synagogues in many haras or mellahs were
the hub of social life as well as a moral duty.
Jewish communities were tightly knit, and
their interpersonal relationships attained the close warmth of an extended
family. They spoke their prayers with understanding and expectation of
fulfillment. Their implorations for deliverance from the austerity of exile
in foreign lands, and the promised ingathering of the Jews back in the
Holy Land was, for many of them, not mere cant recited by rote, but a sincere
profession of anticipation and desire.
Scattered throughout the vast extent of
what became the Arab world, and isolated within it during all the centuries
of harsh Arab rule that came after their exile, the Sephardic Jews looked
forward to this realization of a prophecy. Although from time to time manifested
in the temporary acceptance of one Messianic pretender or another who would
lead them back to Zion, the eventual debunking of these self-anointed zealots
did not diminish hope.
Their synagogues, as every synagogue in
the world theoretically, were constructed so that the worshiper would be
directed toward Jerusalem -- when he entered, upon facing the Torah (holy
scrolls), and when he or she stood to pray." Even in the most isolated
Jewish troglodyte communities of southern Tunisia or the remote island
of Djerba, the prayers which were offered were much the same as those in
the services of a modern American synagogue. Whether said three times
a day, as prescribed by pre-eminent religious Jewish scholars in Arab and
European countries alike, or recited at dawn and sunset-when the Tunisian
Jews from troglodyte villages around Matmata came out of their limestone
caves to pray-the prayers always included the plea to
... Sound the great Shofar for
our freedom; ... bring our exiles together and assemble us from the four
comers of the earth. Blessed art thou, 0 Lord, who gatherest the dispersed
of thy people Israel to return in mercy to the city Jerusa lem; ... rebuild
it soon, in our days.... Blessed art thou, 0 Lord, Builder of Jerusalem.
Perhaps the most unfortunate among the Jews
in Arab countries took their prayers more literally than the relatively
secure. Many orthodox Jewish victims of Euronean nersecution also turned
inward toward hope of redemption, while many others observed fewer symbolic
traditions -- European Jewish citizens who obstinately believed themselves
"assimilated" up until the decree of a death sentence by Hitler's Nuremberg
Laws or their precursors. But for the Jews in the Arab Muslim world, "assimilation"
was a contradiction in terms, as impossible in the twentieth century as
it had been a thousand years before.
For virtually all Sephardic Jews, religious
life was active, and was integrally connected to the "Palestinian center."
Because Jerusalem had been sacred to Jews fifteen centuries before the
Prophet Muhammad was born -- just as Mecca and Medina are sacred to Muslims
because the Prophet Muhammad lived and worked there"--over the centuries
the dispersed Oriental Jews sent offerings to Jerusalem. There a Jewish
center had been established near the "Western" or "Wailing Wall," the sacred
ruin at the site of the original Temple built by King Solomon, and the
site too of the Jews' Second Temple that the Romans had destroyed in A.D.
Though the Jewish refugees from Arab lands
in the twentieth century had no international multigovernment assistance
agency, as the Arab refugees have had UNRWA, the latter-day outpouring
of Jewish funds to modem Israel for its refugees stemmed from an ancient
tradition. Historian S. D. Goitein tells of the disgrace that befell an
eleventh-century Tunisian Jewish community because it had failed to make
its "annual appeal for the Academy of Jerusalem" promptly. However, the
community "assures us that the Jerusalem appeal was carried through....
albeit belatedly," and thus, redeemed itself.
As an amusing example of the geographical
diversity of "Palestine's" jurisdiction over the Jews in Diaspora,
A Jewish court in India . . .
issues, in the year 1132, a [proprietary] document for a local girl and
a merchant from Tunisia in the name of exilarch of Baghdad and of the Palestinian
Gaon [Chief Rabbi], who at that time had his seat at Cairo.*
Jewish schools in the Mediterranean Diaspora
prayed for the "welfare of dedicated community leaders at the holy places
in Jerusalem.' The "synagogue of the Palestinians,"* which described
itself in legal documents as "acting on behalf of the High Court of the
yeshiva [academy] of Jerusalem and its head . . ." was the main
synagogue of Old Cairo, Alexandria, Ramle, Damascus, and Aleppo in the
eleventh century, Documents have been found attesting to Jewish cultural
and spiritual life in a "sizeable" fourteenth-century Jewish community
at Bilbays, a town "on the caravan route from Cairo to Palestine," even
after it had been subjected to forced conversion to Islam en masse, and
its synagogue turned into a mosque.
[* The centuries-old traditional use of
the term "Palestinian" to describe Jews provides forceful repudiation of
the present popular usage of "Palestinian" -- to denote exclusively the
Arab refugees. The psychological propaganda benefit derived by the Arabs
from annexing the word "Palestinian," to designate only Arabs, is considerable:
if the Arab refugees are seen as the "Palestinians," the world reaction
becomes conditioned to identifying the Arab "Palestinian" refugees with
Palestine. Although the greatest bulk of Palestine is known today as Jordan,
this fact has become obscured. There appears today no popularly known "Palestine"
except the smaller area which became Israel, so the perceived connection
between Arab Palestinian refugees and Israel will follow. Thus, the misstatement
now in common use: "Palestine became Israel." See Chapters 8 and 12.]
Pilgrimages such as Rabbi Halevi's or Maimonides'
were frequently made with great difficulty from all comers of the Arab
world. And the inspiration for the Spanish-bom Halevi was provided by the
writings of a native of Fez, Morocco, the eleventh-century Rabbi Isaac
Alfassi, who was called "the symbol of Hebrew scholarship in North Africa."
Complaints were in fact registered about the heavy burden of maintaining
the way stations in Egypt's Jewish community, where Jewish pilgrims en
route to the Holy Land "expected to be equipped" for the rest of the arduous
Documents recording the modern history
of the Jewish national liberation govement give sparse credit to the significant
role of Sephardic Jews' devotion over the centuries to the philosophical
and spiritual nationalism that undoubtedly prepared a base for modem Zionism.
Indeed, a Sephardic Jew, Rabbi Yehudah Alkalay (1798-1878), has been called
the precursor of modem Zionism. Walter Laqueur, in a study dealing
primarily with the European Zionist movement, states: "It should be noted
at least in passing that another rabbi, Yehuda Alkalay, writing in Serbia
... had already drawn up a practical program toward ... the return to Zion";
Sephardic "Zionist" Alkalay's development came twenty years before the
European Zionist whose work Laqueur was discussing.
That some Jews from Arab lands were already
"home" in Alkalay's time is attested to by many recorded visits and foreign
consulate communications. One dispatch from the British Consulate in Jerusalem
in 1839 reported that "the Jews of Algiers and its dependencies, are numerous
in Palestine. . . ." In 1843, a Christian missionary from England wrote
of "the arrival" in Jerusalem of an additional "150 Jews from Algiers,"
and he noted: "There is now a large number of Jews here from the coast
of Africa, who are about to form themselves into a separate congregation.
Not only were the Sephardic Jews "numerous"
in the Holy Land, but their Language, Hebrew, was popularly used "in the
ordinary affairs of life" long before the "new Jewish immigration of the
early eighteen-eighties." In 1839 British Consul Young, in Jerusalem,
reported that "the mode of conducting Jewish affairs among themselves ...
is entirely in Hebrew, which ancient custom they are very tenacious of
and desirous to maintain..." Young had found it "necessary" to
hire a Hebrew interpreter "immediately upon his appointment in 1838."
Another British consul, James Finn, in 1850 transmitted the "translalation"
of a Hebrew petition from "the Moghrabi or African Jews settled in Jerusa...
[who] form a considerable body, increasing in numbers..."
In 1862 Finn suggested sending a Hebrew-speaking
member of his staff to "the Jews of Galilee" and he noted in his memoirs
that, "With regard to pure Hebrew, the learned world in Europe is greatly
mistaken in designating this a dead language. In Jerusalem it is a living
tongue of everyday utility." In fact, Hebrew was "spoken" and widely used
in the "English Consulate." His wife, in her own book, Reminiscences
of Elizabeth Anne Finn, related that in everyday life as well as official
business, "all the men spoke Hebrew, and I have seen men from Kabul, India
and Jerusalem, meeting as total strangers, at once fall to conversing in
Hebrew, which was still a thoroughly living language, for speaking as for
literary and religious purposes." Thus, Sephardic "Zionists" found
a "living" Hebrew when they arrived at "The Land."
Simultaneously, non-Jewish "Zionists" were
urging the "regeneration of Palestine" as a Jewish homeland, in part due
to their horror at leaming of the tortures and persecution of the Jews
of Damascus following the blood libel of 1840 In June of 1842 Colonel Charles
Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough's grandson, wrote that, "in his view,
the Jews ought to promote the regeneration of Palestine and the eastern
Mediterranean region. Were they to do so, they would, Churchill believed,
'end by obtaining the sovereignty of at least Palestine.' Charles Churchill
felt strongly that the Jews should resume what he described... as their
'existence as a people.' "
Another non-Jew reportedly espousing the
Jewish nation was Napoleon Bonaparte, who launched his campaign to conquer
Palestine in 1799 with a pledge to "restore the country to the Jews."
While Napoleon was unsuccessful in his attempt, some believe he was a catalyst
a distinguished gallery of writers,
clerics, journalists, artists and statesmen [who] accompanied the awakening
of the idea of Jewish restoration in Palestine. Lord Lindsay, Lord Shaftesbury
(the social reformer who learned Hebrew), Lord Palmerston, Disraeli, Lord
Manchester, George Eliot, Holman Hunt, Sir Charles Warren, Hall Caine-all
appear among the many who spoke, wrote, organized support, or put forward
practical projects by which Britain might help the return of the Jewish
people to Palestine. There were some who even urged the British government
to buy Palestine from the Turks to give it to the Jews to rebuild.
Sir George Gawler, who had fought in the battle
of Waterloo, wrote in 1845 that "the most sober and sensible remedy for
the miseries of Asiatic Turkey" was to "Replenish the deserted towns and
fields of Palestine with the energetic people whose warmest affections
are rooted in the soil." Gawler published a series of pamphlets on the
theme, one on "the emancipation of the Jews," and in 1849 he made a pilgrimage
to Palestine with his friend, Jewish leader Sir Moses Montefiore. 
In 1847, Lord Lindsay declared his hopes
The Jewish race, so wonderfully
preserved, may yet have another stage of national existence opened to them,
may once more obtain possession of their native land.
Jewish state took on such popular appeal
that the press repeated false rumors that Lord Beaconsfield -- Benjamin
Disraeli -- had attempted and failed to achieve the restoration of Jewish
Palestine, and asserted that "If he had freed the Holy Land and restored
the Jews, as he might have done instead of pottering about Roumelia and
Afghanistan, he would have died dictator."
... The soil of Palestine still enjoys
her sabbaths, and only waits for the return of her banished children, and
the application of industry, commensurate with her agricultural capabilities,
to burst once more into universal luxuriance, and be all that she ever
was in the days of Solomon .
Meanwhile, thousands of miles distant,
more than 2,000 Yemenite Jews were setting out on the perilous journey
to their homeland, where they would arrive in 1881. There the "first enduring
Jewish agricultural settlement in modem Palestine" -- Petach Tikvah --
was founded on the "deserted and ruined" Sharon Plain by "old-time" Palestinian
Jewish families who left "the overcrowded Jewish Quarter of the Old City
of Jerusalem" in 1878. It was four years later that what called the first
a great wave of Jewish European refugees, would settle on the land." Theodor
Herzl came with his own concept of modern Zionism, but not until many years
afterward. In fact, Theodor Herzl's grandfather reportedly attended the
Sephardic Zionist Yehudah Alkalay's synagogue in Semlin, Serbia, and the
two frequently visited. The grandfather "had his hands on" one of the first
copies of Alkalay's 1857 work" prescribing the "return of the Jews to the
Holy Land and renewed glory of Jerusalem." Contemporary scholars conclude
that Herzl's own implementation of modem Zionism was undoubtedly influenced
by that relationship.
Alkalay was subjected to "scornful criticism"
for his unorthodox dream: "that all of Israel should return to the land
of our fathers." Alkalay was perhaps the first to write of the "Damascus
Affair" -- the blood libel of 1840 -- and that episode apparently crystallized
his "daring" ideas. "Complacent dwellers in foreign lands" must be chastened
by the suffering of the Jews in Damascus. Intent upon unifying a worldwide
Jewish coalition for nationhood, in 1874 Alkalay immigrated to Jerusalem
at the age of seventy-six . Although he is cited in some authoritative
chronicles, and anthologies, his achievement remains little-known.
Alkalay and Sephardic Jews in general are given greater cognizance in a
contemporary French study: "From the period of the'golden age' of Spain
to the death of Alkalay ... the contribution of the Sephardim-beyond its
extraordinary cultural influence on Judaism -- to the rebirth of the Jewish
national entity ... resides incontrovertibly in their" overwhelming adoption
of the Jewish state, the intensity of their love for Zion and their unshakeable
belief in the coming of the Messiah."
A dramatic illustration of this point is
the 2,500-year-old Jewish community in Yemen, which in 1948 picked up its
collective self and boarded "the wings of Eagles" to Israel. As discussed
at some length in the last chapter, the Yemenite Jews had remained singularly
adherent to the ancient Jewish tradition despite, or perhaps because of,
the constant persecution and degradation to which they were subjected by
the Arabian Muslims. They seemed still faithful to the reminder that the
venerated philosopher, Maimonides, had written them, in his "Epistle to
Yemen" in 1172:
It is, my coreligionists, one
of the fundamental articles of the faith of Israel, that the future redeemer
of our people will ... gather our nation, assemble our exiles, redeem us
from our degradation, propagate the true religion, and exterminate his
opponents as is clearly stated in Scripture
The general Sephardic stoicism and steadfast
rejection of conversion to Islam in the face of constant abuse was an impressive
monument to cultural and spiritual Zionism, yet in Yemen this quality was
perhaps most pronounced. There the Jews were poor. The Koran has ordained
"twice" (2:1; 3:112) that Jews be poor. The Muslims in Yemen and other
Muslim countries took the words "literally": "Yemenite Jews ... always
were clothed like beggars ... some of the older generation cling to this
habit even in Israel" and at times "Jewish property, even houses, were
taken away from them" by Muslims because "they presented a picture of wealth
incompatible with the state assigned to the Jews by God." Western culture
had barely penetrated anywhere in Yemen, but Yemenite Jews were extremely
clean, and their pious community sent its children to synagogue at the
age of two. By the time they were three or four, they were learning the
Torah (Jewish law and tradition).
Remember, my coreligionists, that on account
of the vast number of our sins, God has hurled us in the midst of this
people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful
and discriminatory legislation against us, as Scripture has forewarned
us, "Our enemies themselves shall judge us" (Deut. 32:3 1). Never did a
nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they...
Although we were dishonored by them beyond
human endurance, and had to put up with their fabrications, yet we behaved
like him who is depicted by the inspired writer, "But I am as a deaf man,
I hear not, and I am as a dumb man that opens not his mouth" (Ps. 3 8:14).
Similarly our sages instructed us -- to bear the prevarications and preposterousness
of Ishmael in silence .... 
The Yemenite Jews seemed, to those who
visited there, to be waiting, in what they also deemed was their necessarily
miserable exile, for the return to the "Perfect World" -- and, in costume,
they rehearsed the celebration of their redemption on every Sabbath on
which they were not forced to work. Israelis who received the Jews from
Yemen upon their arrival in Israel reported that the deliriously happy
Yemenites could not be dissuaded from referring to the Israeli greeters
as "prophets." Some of them were disappointed that "King David" was not
For many more sophisticated Jews from the
Arab centers, the drive toward Israel was based not as strictly on the
mystical or religious aspect of the "return," but on their cultural identification
with a "people." One young Tunisian Jew was described very succinctly in
His fate ... lies not in his birthplace,
Tunisia, but in his ethnic homeland of Israel. There is no future for him
in Tunisia, whereas in Israel, there is a possibility ... of a great existential
experience. "If I have only one life, I want to dedicate my life to something
greater than me."
When, in the familiar Jewish wedding tradition,
the bridegroom stomps on a glass, the crushed goblet is a reminder of the
destruction of the temple in Jerusalm: nowhere is this observed more passionately
than among Sephardic Jews.
The identification with a Jewish homeland,
a Jewish nationality, remained a strong influence even upon the young Sephardic
Jews, whose education and social life broadened with the liberalizing influence
of non-Arab colonials. In twentieth-century Iraq, for example, during a
period when Turkish rule allowed for many young Jews to expand further
into the intellectual mainstream, there was a break with many elements
inherent in traditional Jewish life. Yet the Iraqi Jews continued to observe
the symbolic traditions; they were still fasting on the Day of Atonement
and "maintaining" various traditions "even in recent years."
Significantly, very few of the Jews whose
day-to-day religious observance has dwindled have converted. The pattern
that has evolved in the latter twentieth century, it seems-although the
regular religious observance has assumed less importance as a daily ritual
than it had for their forebears-is that their ethnic or cultural identification
as "the Jewish people" has stood constant and perhaps even strengthened.
Had the Jews from Arab countries enjoyed the same manifold freedoms and
opportunities that are the right of every citizen from many Western nations,
it is uncertain whether the unprecedented virtual emptying of Jews from
Arab countries would have been precipitated by the re-creation of the Jewish
State. Perhaps they would have continued to adhere to the pattern set by
American Jews, of whom a minuscule percentage have moved to Israel.
The hardships faced by hundreds of thousands
of refugees once they arrived in the embryonic Jewish state were multiple-for
Jews born in Arab countries, a new language, modem Hebrew, had to be learned,
and the swarms of homeless had to be housed. The refugee camps and "temporary"
Raphael Patai described some of the conditions
encountered by the hopeful hordes of refugees when they arrived in the
"land of milk and honey":
The great majority of them were
housed in tents which were drenched from above and flooded from below during
the heavy rains of the winter of 1949 and 50. The original plan called
for a sojourn of a few weeks only in the immigrants' camps after which
each immigrant was to be sent to a permanent place of settlement. Actually,
however, in view of the large number of immigrants the rate of evacuation
from the camps lagged constantly behind the rate at which the new immigrants
were brought into Israel, and the period of sojourn in the camps was prolonged
from three months, to four months, to six months, to eight months ...
In 1951, 256,000 Jewish refugees -- or one-fifth
of Israel's population then, which was 1,400,000 -- were still living in
"temporary" settlements. Mordechai Ben Porath, an Iraqi-born Israeli,
and long a member of Israel's Parliament, told of the camps in the '50s:
One of the main immigrant's reception camps
[refugee camps] was that of Rosh Ha'ayin, in which at the height of its
occupancy in 1950 there were some 15,000 Yemenite Jewish immigrants, all
lodged in tents, fifteen of them in each tent. The few buildings in the
camp were used to house the hospital and the clinics.... When the immigrants
arrived many of them were very weak. Mortality was high, and as many as
twenty deaths occurred daily.... very soon, mortality decreased and generally
the strength of the people increased. Practically all the immigrants (98
percent to be exact) suffered from trachoma when they arrived at Rosh Ha'ayin.
After a four months' sojourn in the camp, and constant medical treatment
-- often administered against the wishes of the patients -- this percentage
sank to 20 percent. The health of the children was also in very bad shape.
I arrived in Israel penniless
and, in the early 1950's, directed a transit camp for tens of thousands
of Jews from Arab countries. There my family and I lived with them. I saw
those people housed in makeshift huts without water, without electricity,
exposed to rain, wind, and even flood. Professional people were helpless:
they didn't have their licenses or any other certificates with them. These
had been tom to shreds by Arab officials in certain Arab countries when
The refugees had little in common with their
brothers who had immigrated to the Holy Land generations before. This was
particularly true of the Yemenite Jews. More than two thousand "Zionists"
from Yemen had managed to get to Palestine in 1881. By the time of the
refugee deluge of 1948 and onward, more than 45,000 Jews from Arab lands
already were living in the country. In fact, relative to the total populations
of Jews in Asia and Africa from 1919 to 1948, more Oriental Jews immigrated
from the East than from Europe and America, with approximately one-third
of Yemenite and Syrian Jews becoming immigrants; "as far as is known, there
was no other Jewish community from which such a high percentage immigrated"
to the land of Israel between 1919 and 1948.
Carl Hermann Voss, a theologian and, in
1953, Chairman of the American Christian Palestine Committee, discussed
the "125% increase of population" during Israel's first five years: "A
difficult adjustment was necessary.... The Israel of 1948 had only meager
natural resources, limited capital, and no friendly states on its borders
.... The fabric of this swiftly growing society was strained by the heterogeneity
of ... the several hundred thousand Oriental Jews who came from Iraq, North
Africa, and Yemen."
Voss wrote of his "memorable experience"
to see Jews
coming home from lands of death
and dispersal to a land of life and light ... a fulfillment of the prophecy
of Isaiah ... for Jews who had left the caverns and cellars of North Africa
or the bleak wastes of feudal Yemen. In a Ma'abara work village on the
slopes of Mt. Carmel not far from Elijah's cave, I talked to a bizarre
type of Jew-a Jew from Baghdad, purportedly descended from those who did
not return with Ezra and Nehemiah from the Babylonian exile to rebuild
the Temple 2,500 years ago. In garb that made him almost seemed incongruous
in this modern setting of the new Israel; yet this Iraqi Jew gave new meaning
to a sentence I had learned in my youth: "Behold I shall bring them from
the north country and I shall gather them from the coasts of the earth.
A great company shall return thither."
For Jews born in Arab countries, the many
freedoms in Israel often had to learned. One poignant scene was described
by historian Goitein, who visited refugee way-station camp in Aden, where
Jews fleeing from Yemen were waiting get to Israel.
[It was] in the receiving camp
of Hashid near Aden in November 1949. The scene occurred between two Yemenites,
one an Israeli, a man who had lived in Palestine long enough to become
socially naturalized, and the other an immigrant who had arrived at the
camp only a few days previously.
There are Jews who sought refuge from Arab
countries, who are dedicated to their Jewish homeland, but who retain many
happy memories of their lives in the very communities from which they fled.
Yet during long conversations, as they recalled the past, these people
from different Arab lands related individual experiences so similar in
their discriminatory character that, despite their distances from one another,
they seemed to speak in unison. Although they never had met and probably
never would meet, they narrated a collective chronicle of a buoyant, resilient,
close-knit community life punctuated by fear and demeanment, and by intermittent
terrorizing and anti-Jewish violence.
The Israeli Yemenite, an attendant working
in the camp, of course mixed on terms of complete equality with everyone,
else there, with the director of the camp, the chief doctor and with a
university professor. One day I was standing near him when an immigrant
Yemenite ran up to him and in a fraction of a second threw himself on the
ground before the attendant, kissing his feet and embracing his legs, while
making some trivial request. The mere physical aspect was quite remarkable.
Throwing oneself down on the ground with such force without getting hurt
showed that the man must have had long practice in such matters. Yemen
is, of course, one of the more backward Arab countries; still, that unforgettable
little scene illustrates a tremendous contrast."
Their ambivalent remembrances indicated
a kind of nostalgia for the land and customs of their origin and childhood.
For some, the nostalgic tendency is enhanced by the passage of time and
tempered by dissatisfaction at the frequent conditions of austerity and
hardship in Israel. However, even the mass, admitedly happier within their
own Jewish nation, might wish to erase the blemish of painful. memories.
But this wistful turning to the lovely
scenes of their native lands, their joy in the colorful traditions they
knew in their youth, and the universal, perhaps healthier tendency to prefer
recollection of the sweet moments of life rather than the bitter, should
not obscure the actualities. Many Iraqi or Syrian or North African Jews
have wistful and moving recollections of the streets and the rivers and
the flowers they loved; they long to see Damascus or Cairo or Baghdad again.
But in evaluating the nostalgia, one must remember that there were many
German Jews who had similar memories of Berlin.
This page was produced by Joseph
Middle Eastern Political and Religious
Brooklyn, New York
to a friend
Source: "From Time Immemorial" by Joan
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