Andre Aciman, the New York Times and Arab Jewish Discourse

David Shasha

Posted Jun 12, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Andre Aciman, the New York Times and Arab Jewish Discourse

by David Shasha

In his Op-Ed discussion of President Obama’s speech in Cairo published in the New York Times on June 10 (“The Exodus Obama Forgot to Mention”), the writer Andre Aciman makes the following statement:

With all his references to the history of Islam and to its (questionable) “proud tradition of tolerance” of other faiths, Mr. Obama never said anything about those Jews whose ancestors had been living in Arab lands long before the advent of Islam but were its first victims once rampant nationalism swept over the Arab world.

Looking back on a piece Mr. Aciman wrote for the same New York Times Op-Ed page on April 13, 1995 (“In a Double Exile”), he states a contrasting view that does not include the word “questionable” as it relates to Egyptian tolerance.  It is worth noting that 9/11 separates the 1995 piece and the one that was just published. 

The earlier piece states:

After almost three centuries of religious tolerance, we found ourselves celebrating Passover the way our Marrano ancestors had done under the Spanish Inquisition: in secret, verging on shame, without conviction, in great haste and certainly without a clear notion of what we were celebrating.

The 1995 Op-Ed was published on the heels of his excellent 1994 book Out of Egypt where we were ushered into the complex web of Mr. Aciman’s Levantine Jewish world; a universe of shady characters in a society that was fraying and in convulsion

Out of Egypt was a deeply curious piece of work: Aciman, as he readily admits, was lost in an Egypt that had ceased to honor its egalitarian tradition of religious tolerance.  In fact, this tradition of tolerance produced the splendid figure of Maimonides and later on the great Kabbalist David ibn Abi Zimra (1479-1572).  Egypt was honored to house two of the great rabbis of the contemporary period, Refa’el Aharon ben Shim’on (1848-1929) and Haim Nahum Effendi (1872-1960).  Ben Shim’on was a critical figure in the articulation of a deeply modern understanding of Jewish ritual law, while Nahum dazzled his Egyptian compatriots with his incisive intellectualism and his sensitivity for the needs of a community in transition.

In Esther Benbassa’s definitive study, Haim Nahum: A Chief Rabbi in Politics, 1892-1923 (University of Alabama Press, 1995), she presents Nahum prior to his Egyptian sojourn when he was the last Chief Rabbi, Hakham Bashi, of the Ottoman Empire. 

Describing his later years in Egypt, Benbassa relates:

Even after he had become blind, he led his community under successive regimes, including Nasserian nationalism.  He remained in the service of Egyptian Jewry until its dispersion began in the 1950s, when the atmosphere deteriorated following the establishment of the state of Israel.  The Suez campaign in 1956 sounded the death knell of that old Jewish community.  Senator, founding member of the Academie Royale de Langue Arabe, writer, and translator, Nahum was no ordinary chief rabbi in Cairo either.  At first a witness of the flourishing years of Egyptian Jewry, then more than ever politician and diplomat in difficult times, he died in 1960 and was buried in Cairo, in the Orient to which he was so closely attached.

The proud traditions of the Egyptian Jews cannot be reduced to a simple schematic of persecution and expulsion.  Over the course of many centuries, Egyptian Jewry produced a substantial culture.  From the great Philo of Alexandria (20-50 CE) in the classical period, to the days of Se’adya Ga’on al-Fayyumi (882-942) and Maimonides (1138-1204), to the emergence of modernist writers like the great aphorist and poet Edmond Jabes (1912-1991, author of the classic multi-volume work The Book of Questions) and the Alexandrian novelist Yitzhak Gormezano Goren (1941-present, author of a Hebrew trilogy on Alexandrian Jewish life) in the 20th century, Egypt’s Jews not only contributed to Middle Eastern civilization, but were critical figures in our historical understanding of the region.

In his recent study of the legendary Sephardic-Egyptian sage Moses Maimonides, Maimlnides: The Life and World of One of Civilizations Greatest Minds (Doubleday, 2008), Joel Kraemer makes this point clear:

One reason for the prodigious Jewish achievement in the Islamic milieu was that the cultural context was Arabic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew.  Arabic-speaking Jewish intellectuals – mainly physicians, merchants, and government bureaucrats – studied the Qur’an, grammar and lexicography. Tradition (hadith), jurisprudence, theology, medicine, the exact sciences, philosophy, and also belles letters and poetry.  These intellectuals emulated the Muslim study of the Qur’an, grammar and lexicography by studying the Bible and the Hebrew language, and they imitated Arabic poetry by writing Hebrew verse.  In a gesture of mimetic competition, they extolled their own cultural treasures (the Bible and Hebrew) as superior to their Arab models.

The illustrious history of the Egyptian Jews came to a crushing end at the time of the founding of the Jewish State in 1948.  In the tumultuous years that followed Israel’s independence, many of the emerging Arab states made the fatal decision to create a moral equivalency between Israel’s stance towards the Palestinian Arabs and their own Jewish populations.

Mr. Aciman applies this principle to history in general as he writes that the Jews of Egypt:

The president never said a word about me. Or, for that matter, about any of the other 800,000 or so Jews born in the Middle East who fled the Arab and Muslim world or who were summarily expelled for being Jewish in the 20th century.

By using a word like “expulsion” and linking Egyptian Jewish history to that of German Jewish history, Aciman seeks to euphemistically push some very sensitive buttons, and in so doing recast the history of Arab Jews in a very dangerous frame.

In Out of Egypt Aciman told the story of a family in defeat.  It is a story that should indeed be better known to the world at large.  But the problem in that book, as well as in Aciman’s other writings, is that it does not choose to provide the context in which to properly understand the Egyptian Jewish tragedy. 

We do not hear any mention of what has become known as “The Lavon Affair”; an episode in Israeli history that is often left forgotten.  “The Lavon Affair” was a spy intrigue that was ordered by Israeli officials to cause havoc during the course of the British exit from Egypt. 

The episode is discussed by Ian Black and Benny Morris in their study Israel’s Secret Wars: A History of Israel’s Intelligence Services (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991):

On 2 July 1954 small firebombs were placed in several post-boxes in Alexandria.  On 14 July small, harmless bombs exploded in US cultural centers in Cairo and Alexandria.  On 23 July network members set out to plant bombs in cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria and in a railway marshalling yard in Alexandria.

Ignoring the massively complicated state of war that Israel and Egypt were engaged in, Aciman points to Arab nationalism as being the sole culprit in this tangled web of affairs.  In truth, without trying to engage in any moral relativism, the status of Jews in Egypt was fatally compromised by the ongoing violence and psychological struggle being waged by both countries.  Sadly, Israel was generally indifferent to the internal socio-political dynamics of the Egyptian Jewish community.  Sending various emissaries to Egypt as spies and scouts on behalf of the Israeli secret services, Israel showed a blatant disregard for the integrity of a Jewish community whose future was precarious without further complications.

This is certainly not to discount the Nasser regime’s often malicious treatment of minorities and his dispossession of the Egyptian landed classes.  Jews played a part in the ongoing attempt to redistribute wealth and property in Nasser’s neo-Socialist system.  Egyptian Jews were not a monolithic community, but contained poor and rich, socially well-connected and those on the outside of the power structure.  For every wealthy family like the Cattaouis or the Mosseris, there were dozens of families who struggled to make ends meet.  But as history has shown, Nasser’s iron hand was critical in reforming the Egyptian society and in his economic programs he frequently took on the wealthy class of the country and nationalized private businesses and properties.  Jewish shops and business firms were affected in quite negative ways by the new regime.

This economic plan affected not only Jews, but all sectors of Egyptian society.  That the Jews had the additional burden of being a religious minority who could be exploited when the need arose was something that remained a nagging reality.  In addition, the ongoing hostilities with Israel and the Western powers provided even more instability for Egyptian Jews.  The fall of Egyptian Jewry is far more complex than a single-cause theory allows.

Unlike the blanket and pejorative assessment of Egypt by Aciman, we can point to the figure of Haim Nahum Effendi who worked under the many constraints that served to undermine the Egyptian Jewish community.  Amid the depredations of Nasserism, Zionism and Arab socio-cultural upheaval, Nahum often counseled the community to remain calm and not panic. 

Indeed, the fact that he did not himself leave Egypt during the later years of his life, dying in Egypt in 1960 a few years following the Suez debacle which ultimately decimated the Jewish community, speaks to the tenacity with which he fulfilled his personal mission of securing the legitimate place of Jews in the Arab world.

Though Rabbi Nahum’s voice has been occluded amid the emergence of competing and conflicting visions, the wider history and tradition of Arab Jewry is there for all to see.  Regardless of the ethno-cultural and religious hatreds that have been promoted by many of the voices that we hear today, we must never forget the organic roots of Jews in the Arab-Muslim world.

In Aciman’s article we see a deeply hostile and passionately antipathetic view of Jewish life in the Arab world.  While we routinely hear voices of peace in The New York Times discussing the need for rapproachment with the Arab world, in the context of Jews who are native to the region all we hear is the endless refrain of a misanthropic Jewish presence that has little to do with the cultural development of the Middle East. 

This militant refrain has led to developments in the political world from groups such as the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC).  WOJAC was formed by the Israeli government in the 1970s as a wedge against Palestinian claims for material compensation and to promote the idea of a historic population exchange that would serve to further undermine Palestinian claims, creating many unforeseen issues for the Israeli politicians who set it up. 

And then there is the more recent Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) that picked up the same initiative WOJAC had failed to achieve.  Both WOJAC and JJAC are Ashkenazi initiatives that seek to exploit the Arab Jews rather than to open up cultural exchange and dialogue with the Arab world.

This union between Israeli and Arab Jewish interests is one that is fraught with complications.  As we have already seen from our reading of “The Lavon Affair,” Israel’s interests and the interests of the Egyptian Jewish community were not one and the same.  Without consulting the Egyptian Jewish leadership, Israeli secret services recruited spies to create havoc and violence on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria which would serve to make a difficult situation even worse for the native Jews, but would further Israeli aims of destabilizing the Egyptian enemy.  The dissonance between Rabbi Nahum and the Israeli leadership has generally been forgotten as the intervening years have created an Arab Jewish amnesia and a militant acceptance of the official Israeli narrative.

In a recent discussion of the matter of Arab Jews in this volatile context of refugees, expulsions and populations exchanges, Tel Aviv University’s Yehouda Shenhav has made the point clear:

Any reasonable person, Zionist or non-Zionist, must acknowledge that the analogy drawn between Palestinians and Arab Jews is unfounded. Palestinian refugees did not want to leave Palestine. Many Palestinian communities were destroyed in 1948, and some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled, or fled, from the borders of historic Palestine. Those who left did not do so of their own volition. In contrast, Arab Jews arrived to Israel under the initiative of the State of Israel and Jewish organizations. Some arrived of their own free will; others arrived against their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab lands; others suffered from fear and oppression.

The history of this immigration is complex, and cannot be subsumed within a facile explanation. Many of the newcomers lost considerable property, and there can be no question that they should be allowed to submit individual property claims against Arab states (up to the present day, the State of Israel and WOJAC have blocked the submission of claims on this basis). The unfounded, immoral analogy between Palestinian refugees and Mizrahi immigrants needlessly embroils members of these two groups in a dispute, degrades the dignity of many Arab Jews, and harms prospects for genuine Jewish-Arab reconciliation.

The uniqueness of Aciman’s personal experience plays a critical part in how he sees history and reality.  After his father made the fatal decision to remain in Egypt after 1956, a year that was central to the Egyptian Jews and the mass departure from their homeland, he saddled his family with a burden that was impossible to bear.  In the years following “The Lavon Affair” and the Tripartite Aggression in Suez – where the French, British and Israelis failed in their mission – life in Egypt changed dramatically.  It marked the end of a certain way of life for all Egyptians and created an intolerable climate for Jews.

There is little argument that the Egypt Aciman discusses was a hell for the few Jews who remained.  But we must not ignore the historical background that allows us to better understand the wherefors and the whys of the situation; even if this does not change the bitter personal experiences of those who were forced to live under such persecution, it can give us a more nuanced understanding of the reasons for the breakdown.

And we must keep in mind the rich history of Egyptian Jewry and its great cultural productivity over the course of many centuries.

A telling statement made by Aciman in his 1995 New York Times Op-Ed that we have already referred to earlier, indicates that this Jewish tradition was alien to him. 

Discussing the Passover seder he admits:

I don’t know Hebrew.  Nor do I know any of the songs or prayers.  I can’t tell even tell when the seder is officially over.  Often I suspect the whole ceremony has petered out or has been cut short for my benefit – or drawn out to prove a point.  I always attend with misgivings, which I communicate to others at the table, and try to atone for by reading aloud when my turn comes, only to resent having been asked to read.

In so many ways, Aciman’s lack of Jewish culture is a product of his father’s fateful decision to remain in Egypt.  Bereft of the religious leadership once expertly provided by Rabbi Nahum, Egypt lost its Jewish component.  Of this there is absolutely no question. 

But memories or Egypt must go beyond the immediate past.

We can lop off the final act of the Jews of Egypt and dwell on the dysfunction, or we can place that tragic era into a larger historical context which would permit us to get beyond the hostility and the fatalism that Mr. Aciman chooses to provide us.  Consider coming late to a performance of “Hamlet” and seeing all the dead bodies piled up on the stage but not knowing how they got there.

It is curious that in a world that has largely ignored the voices of Arab Jews, the few we hear are filled with anger, resentment and hostility toward Arabs.  Such anger is justified from the perspective of the final act of Arab Jewry in its sojourn, but serves to distort the larger historical context in which that venerable community was able to produce a culture of lasting worth; a culture that has been devalued in Israel and by a Western Jewish world that often treats Arab Jews with derision and a bemused contempt. 

Arab Jewish voices have today largely been silenced, and with that silencing has come the lamentable absence of a perspective that could allow us to see the Middle East in different ways. 

Rather than accept the harshly pessimistic and bitter fatalism of Mr. Aciman’s hostile rhetoric, we need to look at history more objectively and see that within the construct of Middle Eastern history is a shared culture which I have called “The Levantine Option” that does not focus on the religious differences between the peoples of the region, but which promotes a universal culture based on the principles of Religious Humanism that have anchored Arab civilization at its most vigorous and pluralistic.

As Joel Kraemer has said in his brilliant article “Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: A Preliminary Study”:

Expressions of humanistic tendencies came ot the fore in the world of Islam during the ninth and tenth centuries.  This period, the zenith of the “Intermediate Civilization of Islam,” witnesed the emergence of an affluent and influential middle class which, having the opportunity and desire to acquire knowledge and social status, contributed to the diffusion of the ancient cultural heritage.  Caliphs, emirs and viziers became devout patrons of learning, and entertained philosophers, scientists and litterateurs in their resplendent courts.  The growth of commerce and trade, extending beyond the boundaries of mamlakat al-Islam, as well as urbanization, facilitated communication among peoples of different backgrounds.

In contrast to the fatalism of many contemporary commentators, there lies buried within Arabo-Islamic civilization a generous pluralism that has been short-circuited by the polemics and the politics of the modern age.  There is little question that protagonists both Jewish and Muslim have sought to suppress this knowledge in favor of a religious parochialism that supports their xenophobic ethnocentrism.

Looking forward, we will need this old tradition of Arabo-Islamic civilization in order to secure peace and prosperity for all residents of the Middle East.  Thus, it was President Obama’s visionary address in Cairo that accurately articulated the historical traditions of the region rather than Andre Aciman’s bleak assessment.  The carnage and dysfunction that we witness on a daily basis remains a crucial impediment to solving the many problems we face.  It is what we do not hear about or see that will allow us to better arrange a peaceful future.

The pain of all parties in the Middle East must certainly be acknowledged, but not at the expense of the larger picture of a region whose civilization was once able to be inclusive of all its members.  Today, the voices who are most prominently heard in the discussion promote the idea that we are fated to live in dysfunction and must privilege the wounds of the recent past rather than the more brilliant civilization of a period increasingly forgotten.

“The Levantine Option” is, as I have said many times, a new way of seeing things based on a very old culture. 

It is this old/new way that can potentially lead us into a better and more wholesome place if we could only free ourselves to acknowledge its existence and validity.