Moroccan Jews living in the Jewish ghetto in Marrakesh circa 1955 / Getty Images
I wish I could cheer the latest bill approved by Israel’s Knesset. I should, theoretically, be happy about it — the new law is designed to address the issues of people like me. And yet, when I read about it, I felt more worried than anything else.
The law sets up November 30 as the national day to commemorate the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands following the founding of Israel in 1948. Every year, on this day, the country’s attention will be directed toward the troubles they endured. Israeli children will learn about the history of Mizrahim — Middle Eastern and North African Jews — who have for decades been sidelined in Israel, despite the fact that they now make up about half its population.
That sounds pretty great, right? Remembering the half-forgotten histories of marginalized people is, generally speaking, a good thing. And on a personal level, I’m grateful for it. My family comes from Iraq (on my dad’s side) and Morocco (on my mom’s side), and they were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews pushed out of those countries in the 1950’s. For me, this bill and the national day it establishes isn’t just an abstraction — it speaks directly to my family and the story of why we are where we are today.
So why am I so wary of this November 30 business? Because the campaign for greater recognition of the plight of Arab Jewish refugees is often part of a larger political campaign to block recognition of the plight of Palestinian refugees. It’s about countering the narrative of the Palestinian people — a people that, after all these years, still insists on the right of its refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel. And it’s about countering the narrative of the “delegitimizers” who question Jewish Israelis’ right to be there in the first place.
How do I know that’s what the bill is really about? Because the people advocating for it say so in black and white. Here’s MK Shimon Ohayon of the Yisrael Beytenu party rejoicing over the bill’s passage in the Jerusalem Post:
This is a vital part of our fight against those internally and externally who delegitimize our presence here in the region and claim we are somehow foreign to the region.
And here he is again, this time in the Hebrew-language Maariv:
850,000 Jews left behind tremendous property, double the number of Palestinians who left their homes in Israel in 1948. Those Jews weren’t mixed up in any conflict or war, and they were hurt for no other reason than because they were Jewish. When people talk about a peace treaty, the first important step to be made by the Arab world must be to accept responsibility for what happened to these ancient Jewish communities.
So. Tell me again about how blocking the Palestinian narrative and putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to peace talks isn’t part of the Jewish Arab refugees agenda?
Aside from the fact that this campaign contains that not-so-hidden agenda — an agenda that I do not want advanced, and especially not in my name — there’s another reason I can’t quite embrace November 30 as a national commemoration day. How can I insist on my right to a day spotlighting my family’s tragedy, when Palestinians are denied the right to a day spotlighting theirs?
I’m talking, of course, about Nakba Day — the day when Palestinians mark the national tragedy (literally, “catastrophe”) that befell them in 1948. Thanks to Israel’s controversial Nakba Law, those who publicly observe the commemoration day can now be financially penalized. Palestinian national memory is being purposefully erased these days, at the institutional level.
If Palestinians aren’t allowed a day to commemorate their national tragedy, then I don’t want a day to commemorate mine. Give back Nakba Day first — and then we’ll talk about a national day for Arab Jewish refugees.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I want Nakba Day first? Well, it has to do with the ancient rabbis. Specifically, the two warring rabbinic schools, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. In the Talmud, we’re told that Jewish law generally follows the rulings of Beit Hillel, and that they received this honor not because they were smarter, but because they were humble. Not only did they teach Beit Shammai’s teachings, but they said them first — before their own. That same Jewish value of humility is what we need to recover here. Otherwise, we’ll be bereft of honor, no matter how many commemoration days we heap upon ourselves.
Sigal Samuel is the Opinion Editor at the Forward. When she’s not tackling race or identity politics, she’s hunting down her Indian Jewish family’s Kabbalistic secret society. Her novel THE MYSTICS OF MILE END tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession. Her writing has also appeared in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and BuzzFeed. Contact Sigal at email@example.com, check out her author website, like her page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.