(Haaretz) — Nathan Weinstock hadn’t planned to write a book about the Jews of Arab lands. But when he looked for information about the modern history of Moroccan or Iraqi Jewry, he was surprised to discover that there was no book in French that told the story of the elimination of the Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa in the mid-20th century.
“In the end,” he says, “I decided to write it myself.”
One of the surprising discoveries he made was about the powerful bond with their roots felt by many of the roughly 1 million Jews in North Africa and the Middle East who left their homes in the decade after the creation of Israel.
“The story I knew,” Weinstock relates in a Skype interview from his home in Nice, in the south of France, “was that the Jews were happy to leave the Arab countries the moment they were given the opportunity to do so. We were not told anything about the Jews’ deep connection with Arab culture, for example. It was only later that I learned that Jewish writers were the foundation of Iraqi literature. And that in mid-19th-century Egypt, the man who invented the nationalist slogan ‘Egypt for the Egyptians,’ and was known as ‘the Egyptian Molière,’ was a Jew named Jacob Sanua.
“In the course of my research,” he continues, “I found out that the story we had been told – that the Jews left the Arab countries because they were Zionists – was for the most part wrong. True, they had an affinity for the Land of Israel – that is certainly correct – but the organized Zionist movement was very weak in the Arab countries. The great mass of Jews left under duress. They were expelled. They were subjected to such enormous pressure that they had no choice but to leave.”
Weinstock, a self-taught historian, now in his 70s, who previously published studies about the Bund movement in Eastern Europe and Yiddish literature, decided to assume the task of chronicling the expulsion of the Jews from the Arab countries. The result is a book that was published in France in 2008 as “Une si longue présence: Comment le monde arabe a perdu ses Juifs, 1947-1967” (“A Very Long Presence: How the Arab World Lost Its Jews, 1947-1967)” and has now appeared in Hebrew (Babel Books; translated by Hagit Bat-Ada).
This is a very thorough, detailed, interesting and persuasive book, with more than 900 footnotes, and it is one of the first to deal in this context with the Jewish minority in Ottoman Palestine. Weinstock has mostly relied on secondary sources, but has also used some primary sources in French from the archives of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris, for example.
What makes Weinstock’s decision to write about the Jews’ expulsion from the Arab world especially surprising is his own political biography: He was one of the leading figures in the anti-Zionist left in France during the 1960s and ‘70s. From viewing Israel and Zionism as a colonial project aimed at dispossessing the Palestinians, Weinstock underwent a dramatic conceptual upheaval that led him to address a painful and rarely discussed aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“This book is the story of a tragedy,” he writes in a special introduction to the Hebrew edition, “of the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews, who were torn cruelly from their homes and homelands. Whole communities of Jews, who had always resided in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, underwent expulsion, persecution and malicious liquidations… Nevertheless, this drama remains unknown and it has been denied for a lengthy period.”