Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Treatment of Jews in the Arab world

Currently there are numerous misconceptions surrounding Jewish refugees who were allegedly caused by Arab nations during the years that the state of Israel was established. The notion of collective punishment and discrimination under Arab rule has widely been accepted as a fact based on interpretations from verbal accounts on the historic events surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. History paints a different picture of those accusations when the complete story is put into perspective.

Since the beginning of the British frontier in the Middle East, not only was Palestine a British colony in the early 1900s, but the Empire had also controlled Egypt since conquering the French in 1882, as well as Sudan in 1899 and Yemen as early as 1839. The land that was once borderless under Islamic rule was slowly being sliced up and became provinces under the British Commonwealth.

At the outbreak of World War I (1914 - 1918), the new emerging Zionist movement also stood out as a significantly strong entity with slightly differing motives than that of the British. While the British Empire was flourishing from land expansions, Zionism was thriving economically, and many of the Jews of Europe excelled in trade, usury and public relations.

Two of its significant leaders, Dr Weizmann and Baron Rothschild, helped fund Britain’s victory in Europe during the Great War. They had only one request in return for the immense favour they bestowed on the Commonwealth for its victory in the First War, and that was the historic Balfour Declaration which was written to Rothschild in order to hand over one of the regions in the Middle East to establish a Jewish-only state.

Meanwhile Britain had already begun establishing monarchies for favourable families that were subservient to the Empire, so naturally nations such as Egypt became an open gateway to the Middle East for the Jewish community before they could claim a land of their own.

The Kingdom of Egypt subsequently made exemptions to rulings over compulsory visas in favour of Jewish immigrants. Naturally, many Jews flocked to this hub of multiculturalism across the Mediterranean from their origins in Europe. Many Egyptians today tell the tale of Jewish neighbours who had become friends over the years with many cultural exchanges including family recipes and traditions. Egypt provided a safe haven for many Jews who comprised of Sephardi Jews (migrating from Morocco and other Arab countries), Ashkenazim Jews (predominantly from Eastern Europe and those from pre-WWII), Jews from southern Europe, and the native Jews who had already existed in Egypt for centuries (namely the Karaites and Rabbanites) and who were previously living under the laws of the Islamic province of Egypt.

Regarding the lifestyle of these indigenous Jews before British rule, the Islamic governor of Egypt had ordered that others could not interfere with their way of life nor in their celebrated holidays. They were considered Dhimmis or "protected subjects". Their protection came with the precondition that a jizya or "poll tax" must be paid to provide security, build roads, help fund places of worship and other benefits that ultimately influenced fundamental practices of modern governance today with modern tax. While Muslims did not pay jizya, they were obligated to pay zakat, which is part of the tenants of their religious obligations. Obviously since Dhimmis were not required to perform one of the obligatory pillars of Islam, another method of taxation was required of them in society.

In the Muslim world, Jews also obtained high social positions such as doctors, clerks, tax collectors, and even received special positions in the Egyptian courts as early as the 9th century. There are historians today that prefer to consider these minority groups "second-class citizens" simply because they were excused from Muslim duties and the Shari'a Law, yet they were otherwise equal under the laws of property, contract and obligation, and were given rights to maintain their own religious rites and freedoms. Incidentally this provided more flexibility and allowances than what is currently provided in Western society today for those who wish to establish their own religious laws within sub-communities for minorities.

Further to this, under British occupation treatment towards Jews was no different. The Jewish community which had otherwise been persecuted abroad was embraced by Egyptians citizens. Some Jews during British rule even had their entries at the royal court and were able to contribute to the nation's public transport, cotton industry, sugar refinery, banking, department stores, real-estate developments, agriculture, as well as having jobs as accountants, shopkeepers, teachers, and merchants. They had just as much opportunity to fulfil a successful life as any other Egyptian citizen at the time.

Following the popular uprising against British rule in 1919, Britain ended the protectorate in 1922 and the Kingdom of Egypt became nominally independent, although still dependent on Britain financially. This did not phase Jewish migrants.

In 1932 and 1933 the Egyptian government conducted a campaign offering Egyptian citizenship to any resident of Egyptian territory who wanted it. Some Egyptian Jews were among those who took advantage of the offer and became Egyptian citizens, while others chose to remain stateless, though it became more difficult for stateless residents to become citizens later on.

Due to the end of capitulations between Egypt and European countries in 1937, which shielded foreign nationals from the law of the land, and due to high unemployment in Egypt which increased dramatically when many businesses closed after WWII, these foreign nationals, including many Jews, found it difficult to maintain jobs especially because they did not have Egyptian citizenship.

What was worse was that Jewish migration from Europe was growing during WWII and it didn't take long before the Nazis followed them. Amongst many other things, one of the main reasons why Hitler attempted to conquer Egypt was an attempt to eliminate the Jews from Egypt.

These two critical issues created the first wave of Jewish emigration. As a result, they fled based on their own fear and insecurity. But while an attempted eradication of Jews in Egypt was unsuccessful, many Jews still remained in Egypt; especially the higher class citizens that had much of their wealth invested in the country.

After the Nazis failed, the Kingdom continued to maintain its own laws. Some of the Ottoman systems that still existed were sustained by the Egyptian monarchy. At the time, Ottoman systems maintained legal protection for non-Muslim minorities which obviously included the autonomous Jewish communities. Any crimes committed against these Jews were not represented by the Kingdom of Egypt, and were rather considered criminal acts of racism. Although demonstrations and riots broke out following the commemoration of the Balfour declaration with some Egyptians lashing out violently against all who supported the letter to Rothschild, these protests consequently subsided with increased security by the Egyptian government to provide guards to protect the Jewish Quarter.

The Egyptian Kingdom's protection was maintained even after the independence of the state of Israel regardless of the fact that war was declared against the Zionists who took Palestinian territory unilaterally.

Egyptian rulers implemented martial law and stamped down their authority on any Zionist supporters living in Egypt as they were officially declared enemies of the state following the invasion of Palestine. Particular emphasis on "Zionist supporters" rather than Jews themselves was made because it was the growing secular movement with it's intention to take Arab land that was a threat to the nation. This law was not exclusive to Zionists however, as many Egyptians were arrested for violence within a nation that suddenly became volatile. The Muslim Brotherhood became outlawed and so were many other opposition organisations. Egypt was completely alienated due to being in a state of war.

Some Jews (primarily Ashkenazim Jews) were extremely fearful of the animosity of the war between Israel and the Arab world that they decided to migrate to the newly formed state especially because Zionist campaigns encouraged them to run to the hills and take land while it was "there for the taking". This is in contrast to what many people describe as an "exodus" in 1948, especially when the Jews themselves describe this ritual as the spiritual "aliyah" or ascension as was the Jewish aspiration since the Babylonian exile.

Egypt's status changed over the next few years when a military coup overthrew the monarchy in 1952 for failure to protect their neighbours from the humiliating defeat against the Zionist movement's invasion. Other reasons for the coup also included political corruption due to remnants of British influence which had helped form the Zionist state.

The state of Egypt was then transformed into a military ruling nation where emergency laws were enforced. One of the most significant changes due to this law was the deportation of those who lived in Egypt without visas or any other kind of evidence to prove Egyptian citizenship. This wasn't a direct attack on Jews, especially since British and French supporters were primarily considered enemies of the state for their support in the attempted invasion of 1956 by France, Britain and Israel, and so were subsequently expelled from Egypt.

Despite these expulsions, there were still Jews who claimed they were still making a good living from their growing businesses even up until the late 1960's and were reluctant to leave the country empty-handed. They were able to stay because they had citizenship and were not supporters of the enemies of state.

Egypt was drastically changed from having open borders to being in a state of security. This behaviour is common throughout the world today and is mirrored in Western countries such as the US with the establishment of the Office of Homeland Security in response to the September 11 attacks in 2001.

This harsh environment regarding the changes in Egyptian policies were mainly due to the undeniable and overwhelming fear that resulted from the establishment of Israel because the Zionist state posed a very imminent threat for a potential expansion beyond Egypt's borders, as it ultimately did in 1967.

Thus military rule created instability and political uncertainty in Egypt, even when considering the significant shifts in alliances from the Soviet Union to the US and up until the days of Mubarak's downfall. Many Jews actually decided to leave Egypt voluntarily, pre-empting repercussions from the political instability. This is no different than the Egyptian citizens who also fled from their own homeland and became migrants in countries across the world including the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, particularly after the 1967 invasion. These Egyptian migrants were not considered refugees, just as the Jews were not. They fled for much the same reasons, and were considered migrants because applications were never made for refugee status with the UN. Jews either migrated to the United States, France and Australia or had answered to the Israeli call to establish settlements on Palestinian soil.

Currently, some Jews claim that racial discrimination against the few remaining Jews in Egypt still exist today especially because of an isolated incident recently regarding the prevention of a marriage between an Egyptian and a Jew. The reality is that even amongst Jewish sects there are significant cultural differences. The Karaite Jews (followers of the Torah) and the Rabbanite Jews (followers of the Talmud) have their own separate synagogues and their own separate schools, and although they both recognise each other as the indigenous Jews of Egypt who lived there for centuries, mixed marriages were an issue for their cultural traditions, let alone cultural differences between Sephardi Jews from Spain, or the Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe.

Some also claim that discrimination against Jews existed because they were denied the right to vote in elections, however this claim does not take into consideration the fact that all of Egypt including its citizens were denied the right to vote in any national election that existed ever since military rule took control of the country, with the staged formalities of elections to try and show Egypt's "democracy".

There has been a common trend amongst the Jewish Diaspora to isolate the sufferings of Jewish people during the time of war so that their own stories would be vindicated by excluding stories of suffering from the general population in the region as a result of the cruelties of war.

Incidentally this victimisation is also used with the constant reminders of genocide that occurred as a result of the holocaust during WWII while failing to describe the many tens of thousands of men, women and children who also suffered collectively from the war. Somehow the words "holocaust" and "exodus" have only been attributed to the Jewish people and astonishingly these words are not accepted nor tolerated to be used in conjunction with any other suffering people as a result of collective punishment in warfare.

Its time that we started sympathizing for humanity collectively when a population suffers at the hands of invasions and political and economic instabilities throughout the world. This ongoing story of suffering is not exclusively kept for the Jews.


Jewish Emigration from Arab and Muslim Countries Following Israeli Independence
Omar's Conduct Towards The Dhimmis

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