Professor Mohamed Aboulghar is a busy man—an obstetrician, politician and amateur historian who has published two books on the Jews of Egypt. Apparently, they are selling like hotcakes. At a recent Zoom meeting, however, his assertion that few Jews had been driven out after the 1956 Suez crisis, and that the rest had left of their own free will, provoked outrage.
Some 25,000 Jews were forced out: Dozens of Egyptian Jews could testify to having been expelled at 24 hours’ notice, or interned for months and put on a ship leaving Egypt, their property sequestered without compensation.
As the saying goes, “denial is a river in Egypt”—but denial is not confined to the Arab world. Plenty of academics and opinion-makers in the West believe that Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully before Israel was established. Executions in Iraq? Torture in Egyptian prisons? Deadly riots in Libya? If all this was not a figment of the Jewish imagination, they say, it was “understandable backlash” for which the Zionists are ultimately to blame. (The Farhud massacre in Iraq seven years before the establishment of Israel, and the Tritl in Fez, Morocco, in 1912, are harder to explain.)
Jews who look back to their idyllic childhoods in Arab countries have themselves contributed to Exodus denial. Their golden age only lasted as long as the colonial era in the Middle East and North Africa. Arab nationalism soon marginalized and oppressed minorities. Other Jews suppress negative memories because they suffer from a kind of dhimmi syndrome, a survival strategy developed more than 14 centuries of “coexistence” that entails silence and submission.
Jews have rightfully welcomed the Abraham Accords. But in our eagerness to embrace them, it is tempting to dwell solely on the positive points of connection between Isaac and Ishmael. Bridge-building, some think, entails glossing over unpleasant aspects of the past.
Organizations and Israeli embassies across the Jewish world are preparing to observe Nov. 30, the date designated by the Israeli Knesset to mark annually the departure and exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran. It’s a necessary reminder that a healthy relationship ought to be grounded in an honest and balanced assessment of the past, not lies and revisionism.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).