Lyn Julius

The Hamas massacre is part of the tradition of Arab pogroms

In the past 100 years alone, Arab and Muslim antisemitism has led to a series of attacks on Jewish communities in the region

October 19, 2023 13:26

Jews around the world — as well as anyone with a moral compass — have been outraged and appalled at the Hamas massacre. The slaughter was widely described as the worst since the Holocaust. Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, evoked the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, which claimed 49 lives. Hadley Freeman, in the Sunday Times, wrote of how she is haunted by anti-Jewish pogroms suffered by her family in Poland.

Although the Holocaust also affected Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, you do not have to venture very far away from Gaza to recall comparable events in the Middle East itself, where the Jews have been indigenous for more than two millennia, 1,000 years before Islam.

Before it gained notoriety as the “Ground Zero” of Hamas’s shocking October 7 attack, not many people will have heard of Kibbutz Be’eri, in the Gaza envelope. There, some 100 bodies were recovered from the devastated community, a tenth of the kibbutz’s residents.

Among the founders of Kibbutz Be’eri were a group of young Iraqi Jews, who had trekked across the desert to Palestine in 1947. They were survivors of a pogrom six years earlier, known as the Farhud. They had turned to Zionism because they could see no future for themselves in Iraq.

During the Farhud, in 1941, at least 180 Jews were murdered in Baghdad and Basra by mobs screaming “Itbah al Yahud” (slaughter the Jews). Nobody knows the final death toll — it could have been as many as 600. Thousands were wounded and 900 homes and 586 Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed.

In the same way as their Israeli descendants locked themselves in their bedrooms at Kibbutz Be’eri, only to be shot and burnt to death, families in the Farhud barricaded themselves in their homes against bloodthirsty mobs. Women had their breasts cut off, many were raped. Babies were dismembered. Homes were looted and stripped bare, down to the window frames. Jewish hospital patients were refused treatment or poisoned.

Jews with roots in Arab countries are as shocked as anybody else, but would not have been surprised at the savagery of the Hamas attack.

Memories of similarly barbaric behaviour would have been stirred across the south of Israel, where there is a heavy concentration of Mizrahi Jews from Iran, Morocco and Tunisia. The town of Sderot, pummelled by Hamas rockets, grew out of a ma’abara (transit camp) for North African and Iranian Jewish refugees.

Although they were not on the same scale as in Europe, attacks over the centuries were frequent enough for Jews to be locked up at night for their own safety in the Moroccan Mellahs. Persian Jews built for themselves a network of underground passageways in the Mahala, or Jewish quarter, to escape marauders.

In 1945, Judah Benzion Segal, a captain in the British Army, was a witness to a pogrom in Libya. “Suddenly they appeared — young hoodlums in their hundreds, sweeping along the road some 10 or 15 abreast screaming ‘Yahud, Yahud.’

“It was the unsuspecting Jews of the outlying villages who were helpless, and the killings were many — in all, I think, more than 130. We could chart on the map the progress of murder, rape and looting passing from Tripoli across the countryside — east, west and south, like a well-organised contagion.

“Everywhere the bloodshed continued for two days. I escorted a cortège from Zawiya — a lorry heaped with the bodies of the dead, others with their relatives and friends, some wounded, all dazed and silent, clutching their mean bundles. There was no passion, but submission to the inevitable.”

In 1947, in the Jewish quarter of Aleppo, Syria, houses, shops and the Great Synagogue were ransacked and burnt.

Jews from Aden recall that 87 were slaughtered at the hands of Bedouins armed by the British. In 1948, Jews in Morocco were murdered at Oujda and Jerada.

In the summer of 1948, a series of bombings in the Jewish quarter of Cairo claimed the lives of up to 200 Jews.

The bombs were planted by the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom Hamas shares a theology and an ideology.

The pogroms continued in 1967, when the Great Synagogue in Tunis was burnt and in Libya, where 19 Jews were murdered.

In all these episodes there are many stories of honourable Arab neighbours who saved Jews. But co-existence could flip to murder in an instant. Take the 1929 Hebron slaughter of the Yishuv — a community that had lived in Palestine for five centuries. Ben-Zion Gershon was a one-legged Hebron pharmacist who had over the years served both Arabs and Jews. A witness reported that Arabs broke into his home and cut off both of his hands.

“The very same Arabs who had been cured by him of trachoma and blindness stood over him and gouged out his eyes. The same Arabs whose wives and daughters he had saved from miscarrying and from gynaecological illnesses now seized his eldest daughter, raped her, and killed her.

They also stabbed his wife four times with a knife and brought a nail-studded club down on her head.”

Today the pogromists are no longer rampaging mobs. They are a terror army, trained to use Kalashnikovs, drones and gliders; but the psychology is the same, and so is the end result — the death and destruction of innocent Jewish civilians. These traumatic experiences are embedded in the collective Mizrahi memory. Yet we never hear about them. Why recall the Kishinev pogrom, which claimed 49 lives, and ignore the Farhud, which took over 180?

Because Kishinev was immortalised in Chaim Nahman Bialik’s poem In the City of Slaughter, which every Israeli schoolchild learns to recite. There was no Mizrahi Bialik to memorialise the Farhud. Instead we find only “How lovely, if only the Farhud occurred every day”, a verse from one of the many popular Arab songs gloating over the onslaught in Iraq.

So much more needs to be done to teach the history and heritage of Mizrahi Jews — not just in Israeli schools but in the diaspora — if we are to understand, not only the background to the Hamas massacre, but the antisemitism that drives the conflict with Israel. Yet not one pundit has mentioned those grisly episodes closer to home.

Such is the Eurocentric nature of the scores of articles and analyses of the Hamas attack, now saturating our inbox, that they reinforce tropes that Jews are settler colonialists from Europe. The Mizrahi and Sephardi victims of Arab and Muslim pogroms were terrorised and ethnically cleansed. They finally found a haven in Israel, and now form over half the Jewish population.

We need to set the Hamas massacre, and indeed the 75-year-old war against Israel, in the context of a long history of Arab and Muslim antisemitism.

Lyn Julius is founder of Harif, a charity representing Jews from North Africa and the Middle East

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October 19, 2023 13:26

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