This is the fifth in a series of CAMERA Arabic posts showing how Arabic language news networks, including those affiliated with Western media outlets, frame the topic of Jews who originate from or live in the Mid-East and North Africa, by distinguishing between ‘loyal’ Jews and ‘treacherous’ Zionists. (See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 of the series.)
The two previous posts in the series focused on the use of falsehoods and half-truths to deny the historical and contemporary connections between Middle Eastern Jews on the one hand and Zionism and Israel on the other:
- Post #3 surveyed Egyptian columnist Fatima Na’out and her attempt to decide what the last few Jews remaining in Egypt think without asking them, in order to prove that they “renounce” the “Zionist entity” and are therefore “true patriots” (all while ignoring the thousands of Jews of Egyptian heritage who moved to Israel over the years and live there today).
- Post #4 demonstrated how an item by Sky News Arabia used Israel as a scapegoat to indirectly absolve Iraq, Egypt and Yemen of historical responsibility to their own Jewish communities; the item accused the Israeli secret services of sowing strife between innocent Jews and Muslims in these countries so that the Jews would flee to Israel.
To what lengths would Arab writers – willing to empathise with the region’s Jews while at the same time unwilling to be tagged as a normalizer of Israel – go in order to distort reality to better fit their desired narrative?
Compared to Sky News Arabia, which made up historical facts, and Fatima Na’out who fabricated contemporary opinions, the author of the next item we analyze went as far as inventing lively Jewish communities out of thin air, thus refusing to admit they had ever vanished. Amjad As-Sa’eed, a London-based journalist writing for Independent Arabia, is therefore the winner of this dubious competition.
Admittedly, As-Sa’eed’s article from April 29th, 2020 has a favorable tone towards the Jews of the Middle East, defending a Ramadan television series, “Um Haroun”, which features a Jewish protagonist from one of the Gulf States in the 1940s (her character is inspired by the true story of a Bahraini Jewish midwife named “Um Jan”). The series triggered vast online protests in the Arab world. The article, however, claimed that boycotting it due to alleged “normalization” is unjustifiable since it has no connection to Israel (all translations, emphases and in-bracket remarks are by CAMERA Arabic):
“The allegations of propagating ‘the Israeli enemy’ came about at a time when [it was already clear that] the series does not feature or include Israelis, neither do they write nor direct it. Additionally, the story’s events were not about Israel at all, but rather about Arab Jews in Arab countries, who lived and participated in the artistic, cultural and social life in their countries.”
Alas, after the truly brave description of the past, came the jaw-dropping leap into the present:
“Many of them still live in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, even in Iran and Turkey, having an ordinary life, freely practicing their rituals and engaging in various walks of life.”
With the exception of Morocco and non-Arab Iran and Turkey, where several thousand Jews still live today, in none of these countries which As-Sa’eed mentioned do “many Jews still live […] an ordinary life”. The following are estimates regarding the numbers and condition of Jews in each of these Arab states, which would not bring the words “many” or “ordinary” to mind:
Bahrain – According to American rabbi Mark Schneier, who was invited by King Hamad Al Khalifa to visit the local Jewish community in June 2019 as part of a US-led international conference, it numbers about 37 Jews. Among them are the former ambassador in Washington, Houda Nonoo, and member of parliament Nancy Khedourie. Analysts perceive the kingdom’s treatment of its tiny Jewish community a component of the kingdom’s foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis the United States.
Egypt – Between the two communities of Cairo and Alexandria, the Times of Israel estimated the total number of Jews who lived openly in Egypt to be 17, based on observations by both its reporters and AFP’s.
Syria – According to a BBC Arabic television crew who were sent to Damascus in the summer of 2019, all the Jews who did not exit the country following its civil war now live in the Syrian capital. Based on interviews with a few members of the local community, the crew estimated that it includes about 15 individuals.
Algeria – French Marxist historian Benjamin Stora indicated in 2013 that there are still “a handful” of Jews in the country, all practicing in secret in the capital city of Algiers. The last Jewish person who was openly affiliated with a Jewish establishment (she was a client of the JDC), Esther Azoulay, passed away in 2011.
Iraq – According to an April 2018 ynet interview with ‘Emad Levy, who had left Baghdad for Israel seven years prior, he was staying in touch with all 5 members of the local Jewish community.
Lebanon – Lebanese director Rabee’ Damaj claimed in July 2019 that there are 5 “registered” Jews in the entire country, and that all but one, Liza Srour, either did not live and practice their faith openly or merely maintained residency in Lebanon while their center of life was actually found elsewhere. This is consistent with Lebanese voting records from 2009 and 2004, where the number of Jews showing up to vote was 5 and 1, respectively. Srour passed away one year before Damaj’s piece was published, apparently bringing down the number of Jews in Lebanon to a new low of 4 people. However, since members of the Jewish denomination in Lebanon typically maintain an extremely low media profile, some assessments provided a higher number of several dozen who hide their Jewish identity in one way or another.
Sudan – None. The last documentation of Jewish presence in Sudan dates back to the mid-1970s.
Perhaps it is with that one ill-conceived sentence, based possibly on wishful thinking, As-Sa’eed actually revealed the existence of the exact same connection between modern-day Israel and the historical Jews of the Arab world he was trying so hard to conceal.
By assuming that the fictional stories of previous Jewish generations relate to the life of Middle Eastern Jews today, he himself showed the artificiality of the mental barrier that allows Arab media outlets to accept “Um Haroun” and her family but not their true descendants; after all, the vast majority of their descendants who remained in the region live “ordinary” lives in Israel, and nowhere else.
(Research and writing by CAMERA Arabic. Editing by CAMERA-UK. All translations, emphasis and in-bracket remarks are by CAMERA Arabic unless otherwise specified.)