Thursday, February 12, 2015
How do Jews survive in Muslim lands?
Uriel Hellman's article in B'nai B'rith Magazine dates back to 2011, but it is still relevant to the few thousand Jews still in Arab and Muslim countries today. How do they perform their delicate balancing act of survival as Jews, and why don't they leave?
Roger Bismuth: changed his tone
When an American Jewish journalist visiting Tunisia in 2007 asked the leader of the local Jewish community how things were going for the nation's 1,500 Jews, the man offered an upbeat picture.
Jews were free to come and go as they pleased, Roger Bismuth said, and they lived in relative safety. The North African country, which is 98 percent Muslim, even welcomed Israeli tourists, he noted.
Bismuth reserved his highest praise for the country's autocratic president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in office since seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1987. The president, Bismuth noted, directed government funds to restore old synagogues and made sure the Jewish community was protected, particularly from the rising tide of Islamic extremism elsewhere in the Muslim world.
"The president is good to us," Bismuth told the reporter, Larry Luxner of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). "We are very careful. Our security is very tight, even if you don't see it."
But after Ben Ali was ousted in a popular revolution in January of this year and denounced by his countrymen as a corrupt and nepotistic dictator, Bismuth abruptly changed his tone.
"He was behaving like a crook," Bismuth said in January of Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia. "He and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on."
The stark reversal was a sign of the delicate balancing act Jews who live in Arab and Muslim lands must practice to maintain their safety and way of life. In countries where autocratic regimes are the rule and Islamic anti-Semitism an omnipresent threat, the Jews' well-being depends on a good relationship with those at the helm of power.
A popular saying among French Moroccan Jews captures this sentiment. "Which party are you for - this one or that one?" goes the adage. The reply: "Nous sommes avec les gagnants - We are with the victors."
A revolution, a new king, a war in Israel that stirs political passions-any of these can presage a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse.
"They always, always are wondering what will happen the next day," said Norman Stillman, author of "The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times" and director of the Judaic Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma.
Indeed, in Tunisia it took less than a month for popular anger against the regime to spill over into anti-Jewish violence. On Jan. 31, arsonists set a synagogue in Tunisia's southern Gabes region ablaze, burning the Torah scrolls. A Jewish community leader criticized the police for not stopping the attack.
"I was in Morocco in 1971 when there was a coup attempt against King Hassan II. I remember everybody sitting by the radio waiting for the news," recalled Stillman of his Jewish family in Morocco. "Everybody was ready if they were able to get their bags packed and get out."
The insurrection was put down and the king survived, and many Jews took to the streets to celebrate.
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