Conference convener and emeritus professor Sami Zubaida
A conference on Jews from Arab lands scheduled for 23 - 24 November at the London Middle East Institute (SOAS) is being financed by the University of Bahrain.
Bahrain? Why, you ask, would Bahrain want to celebrate the achievements of Jews in the Arab world? The answer, very simply, is that it is good public relations. Bahrain's royal family has thrown in its lot with the US, whose troops are stationed on this small island opposite Iran. Bahrain has a Jewish ambassador to Washington, Huda Nonoo, one of its 36 Jews. Recently, the king of Bahrain went on a charm offensive meeting ex-Bahraini Jews in New York and London, and offering them incentives to return. A recent Iranian-backed coup to unseat the royal family failed this time, but the next one might succeed: the king probably calculated long ago that he sinks or swims with his Jews.
The aim of this conference is to show the prominence of Jews in all fields and their impressive cultural legacies.
Apart from vague references and one session on the exodus of Jews from Iraq by Abbas Shiblak, (which will presumably minimise Arab responsiblity, as he did in his book) the conference studiously avoids exploring the circumstances in which Jews left the Arab world. This is a bit like a conference on German Jewry discussing Heine and Mendelssohn's contributions to German culture without mentioning how and why the Jews came to be 'ethnically cleansed ' from the country.
Apart from one or two mainstream authorities, such as Professors Shmuel Moreh and Tudor Parfitt, speakers at the conference include a preponderance of post- or anti-Zionists.
There are also 'coexistence mavens' and political doves such as Alon Ben-Meir and Jonathan Freedland not noted for their expertise on Mizrahi Jews.
The conference convener Sami Zubaida harks back wistfully to a cosmopolitan Middle East. He has been quoted saying that he refuses to see Jews as victims or 'oppressed Middle East minorities'. A signatory to the anti-Zionist group Independent Jewish Voices, Sami Zubaida 's ambivalence towards Israel could, perversely, have something to do with the little-known fact that his father was executed by the Iraqi regime.
Abraham Marcus: Lee Kaplan in Front Page magazine has written this about him:"In discussions on the Middle East, even Marcus inexplicably ignores pogroms against Jews prior to and after Israel’s creation in the Middle East in his commentaries. Over 800,000 Middle Eastern Jews were driven from their homes in Arab Muslim lands. Such events led to Israel’s creation as much as the European Holocaust. Yet Marcus suggests Middle Eastern Jews lived relatively unharmed, even though they were dhimmis, or second-class citizens in a Muslim world. This ignores countless murders of the Jews who were hung in the streets of Baghdad for entertainment or murdered in anti-Jewish riots in Cairo and other capitals of the Arab world."
Nancy E Berg is the author of a book on Iraqi-Jewish authors unpromisingly titled Exile from Exile. Zvi Ben Dor Benite's work follows similar lines.
Robert Mabro: Born in Alexandria of Greek Orthodox Christian parents, this energy expert from Oxford is a curious choice for a conference on Jews.
Youssef Courbage : a demographer, also a bizarre choice. In his lecture preamble, Courbage blames the creation of Israel for the dispersal of the Jews from Arab countries. He says that they left Lebanon and Morocco. In fact Lebanon, one of the smallest of Jewish communities, should not warrant undue attention. Courbage is the author of Jews and Christians under Islam, a book which shows how Christianity and Judaism survived and at times even prospered in the region. He wrote (with Oliver Todd) that Iran, for instance, "allegedly an unenlightened, authoritarian, even totalitarian state, because of its religious nature is more uniformly and deeply penetrated by individualism than Turkey."
Daniel Schroeter: The leftwing Nation has charged that "Daniel Schroeter has been denounced (by rightwing Zionists) not for anything he said but for (...) bringing to his campus Muzammil Siddiqi--a Muslim scholar who, local Jewish activists say, has "connections to terrorists."
Not a political animal, art historian and curator Caecilia Pieri 's presentation might prove one of the most refreshing. She seems to have stumbled on Baghdad's Jewish architectural legacy by chance.
Alain Gresh: A Jew by birth ( his father was the Egyptian communist and militant Henri Curiel, murdered by OAS supporters), his step-father was a Copt. Erstwhile editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, he is rabidly anti-Israel and carries the torch for his father's leftism.
The conference has a not-unexpected blindspot when it comes to Israel, although the great majority of Jews from Arab lands and their descendants live in the Jewish state. The reason is that it wishes to portray Jews as homesick and alienated from their natural 'Arab' habitat.
To engage with Israel is a bridge too far for Bahrain. The conference will make strenuous efforts to focus on the fact that not all Jews left for Israel. A paper by Nissim Rejwan on Sephardim in Jaffa and read in his absence will presumably focus on the 'coexistence' model. Otherwise, Israel only figures in this conference as a target for bashing: Yehouda Shenhav and Rachel Shabi ('How Israel took the Arab out of the Jew') have been assigned this role.
There is a positive side to this conference initiative, however: whatever distortions might occur and however unpromising the line-up, we should, I suppose, feel indebted to the kingdom of Bahrain for celebrating a Jewish history in the Middle East that other Arab countries have long erased from their street names, sites and history books.
Full programme here