Michael David Lukas, a writer who has spent a lot of time looking at ancient Jewish cemeteries in Muslim countries like Tunisia and Egypt, seems clueless as to why the nearly one million Jews who lived in Arab lands prior to 1948 are no longer there.
NY Times Lucas says, I spotted the front gates of the graveyard one morning on my way to Arabic class in downtown Tunis. Squished into a crowded metro car, I couldn’t see clearly around the other passengers, but that Hebrew and Star of David were unmistakable.
In the 15 years since then, I’ve visited at least a dozen other semi-abandoned synagogues and Jewish cemeteries across the world — in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco and India — but you never forget your first graveyard.
A short walk from the Cité El Khadra metro station, the Borgel Cemetery is on the outskirts of downtown Tunis. When I got to the top, I heard a commotion and saw a group of kids gathered in the alley below. “The Catholic cemetery is over there,” said one of the older boys. He pointed in the direction of a nearby graveyard, this one filled with crosses.
“You are Catholic,” one of the others asked, “aren’t you?” I hesitated for a moment, then told them the truth. “My father is Catholic,” I said, “but my mother is Jewish.”
They looked somewhat stunned by this admission. If they had been born 70 years earlier — when Jews made up 30 percent of the city’s population — they might have had Jewish neighbors and friends. They may have bought their produce from a Jewish grocer. Their mother might have worn jewelry made by a Jewish goldsmith.
These days, however, there are only a few hundred Jews left in Tunis and they tend to keep to themselves and most of these boys had probably never seen a Jew.
It isn’t difficult to find vestiges of Jewish life in Europe. Outside Europe, these remnants are more difficult to find, though not for a lack of history.
For centuries, the intellectual and cultural center of Jewish life was in the capitals of the Middle East. Less than a hundred years ago, there were vibrant Jewish communities in Baghdad and Isfahan, Bukhara, Aden and Fez, cosmopolitan economic hubs where Jews lived alongside Muslims and Christians, Armenians, Berbers and Kurds. Today — aside from a few notable exceptions in Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Iran — these communities have vanished.
I turned my attentions to Burrabaazar, the neighborhood where the Beth El and Magen David Synagogues are. For the rest of the afternoon — walking around the synagogues, talking to their watchman, and listening to the story of their reconstruction — this question kept playing in my head. Jews used to live here? The sweetmaker had been working in the neighborhood for years and had no idea that there were two enormous synagogues around the corner.
It might be difficult to find the traces of Jewish history in Kolkata or Cairo or Baghdad or Fez. And it might be difficult to imagine that now-vanished world in which Jewish bakers lived side by side with Muslim doctors, Armenian tailors and Zoroastrian jewelers.
But that’s all the more reason to search out those places. In visiting these semi-abandoned cemeteries and synagogues, in seeking out the remnants of this mostly forgotten past, I’ve tried, in my own small way, to pay my respects to the dead and to remember that lost world in which they lived.
Not once in the article is the reader given any context as to why the Jews who had lived in these places for so long suddenly disappeared. The taboo of mentioning the obvious fact of Muslim antisemitism – especially after Israel was reborn, but also throughout history – is simply too strong. Instead of being ethnically cleansed, the Jews who attended these synagogues just magically disappeared.
Perhaps Lucas should have looked through the archives of the New York Times:
In a mere 50 years, roughly one million Jews were expelled from Arab lands for the sole crime of sharing the religious identity of the resurrected Jewish state. Thousands of communities were wiped out of existence, as well as the world’s collective imagination – those for whom nobody (and no UN agency) will speak. Arab rulers who initiated the ethnic cleansing of Jews have been absolved of the guilt typically assigned to those who commit such reprehensible acts.
However, it is simply undeniable that Jews were expelled from their homes by quite particular Arab rulers – those who cynically exploited prevailing antisemitic mores to justify freezing Jews’ bank accounts, confiscating their assets and expropriating their property, revoking their national citizenship, and inciting murderous riots.
It is not an overstatement to compare such measures which stripped Jews of their citizenship to the Reich Citizenship Law of 1935(Nuremberg laws), and Arabs’ theft of Jewish assets (estimated to be valued at over $100 billion) are similarly analogous to Nazi measures against Jews initiated in the late 1930s.
What about the ‘Right of Return’ for nearly 1 million Jewish refugees who were kicked out of many Arab countries?