With the recent publication of their congregational study guide “Zionism Unsettled”, the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has ignited the response of Jewish refugees from Arab nations. Known as Mizrahi Jews (Hebrew for ‘Eastern’), many of these communities endured violence and discrimination in their countries of origin, solely based on their Jewish religion. But instead of recognizing the reality of rampant, deep-seated anti-Semitism in the Middle East & North Africa, “Zionism Unsettled” places blame on the State of Israel and presents a revisionist history of the Mizrahi refugee experience. Among many unfounded claims, the booklet states that Mizrahis “share a history of largely harmonious integration and acculturation in their host countries. Sadly, this model of coexistence was destabilized by the regional penetration of Zionism beginning in the late 19th century.” This corruption of the historical record belittles the suffering, mistreatment and loss of the nearly one million Mizrahi Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries as stateless, penniless refugees.
The publication has sparked profound reactions from members of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East & North Africa, a San Francisco-based nonprofit which aims to achieve universal recognition for Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. After reading survivors’ eyewitness testimonies, one would be hard-pressed to believe that Arab Muslim governments allowed their Jewish populations to live in peace and safety. In his “Open letter to the Presbyterian Church USA from an Iraqi Jew“, Joseph Samuels describes the ongoing brutality which culminated in the Farhud, a Nazi-incited riot in 1941 that claimed the lives of 180 Jews, destroyed Baghdad’s Jewish quarter, and forced the country’s Jewish population to live in absolute fear. “The cause of the Farhud wasn’t Zionism…[it was] purely an anti-Jewish act. At 14, I was chased by two Muslim youths with a knife for stopping them from molesting my neighbor’s teenage daughter in broad daylight. At 18, after graduation from Al A’Adadiah High School, I was refused an exit visa to leave Iraq to study in America because I was Jewish. My story is not unique. I am one of 150,000 Iraqi Jews who was discriminated against, oppressed, and forced to escape religious persecution because of my faith.” The fear of impending violence dictated and suppressed Iraqi Jewish life.
In her “Zionism Unsettled: A response from an eyewitness“, JIMENA President Gina Bublil-Waldman challenges the Presbyterian Church USA to “invite me or my fellow Mizrahi Jews to tell our story. Let your Presbyterian congregants and students hear from eyewitnesses how Jews in Arab countries suffered persecution, arbitrary arrest, torture, and harassment. Let members of the Presbyterian Church hear from eyewitnesses how we were denied the most basic human and civil rights, such as the right to become citizens, the right to vote, the right to hold public office, or hold government jobs.” In speaking from her personal experience of violent expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Jews from Libya, Gina goes on to say that “If we want to understand the refugee problem of the Middle East and find a fair and equal justice, we must take into consideration the plight of nearly one million Jewish refugees.”
The responses are deeply resonating with the broad American public. Samuels’ article has been shared by 7,000 readers and counting. Says JIMENA’s Executive Director Sarah Levin, ” “Zionsim Unsettled” presents unfounded assertions, falsely claiming that Zionism was the driving force behind the exodus of Jews from Arab countries, making it clear that we need to keep vocalizing the personal histories of Jewish refugees and other religious minorities from the Middle East and North Africa, ensuring that their experiences are validated and incorporated into discussions and historical narratives of the region.” JIMENA members welcome an open dialogue with the Presbyterian Church and seek an opportunity for their voices to be equally represented in the discourse on Israel and Arab-Jewish relations.
By Dyanna Loeb