(April 29, 2019 / JNS) Each year, on May 15, Palestinian activists around the world mourn the nakba (“catastrophe”), or the re-creation of the Jewish state, with fictitious stories of how the “white” Jewish Europeans came and colonized the land of the indigenous “brown” Palestinians.
Lost in this debate over what did or didn’t happen to the Palestinians in their catastrophe are the stories of the tens of millions that suffered genocide, expulsions and forced assimilation (cultural genocide) under Arab and Turkish imperialism.
My family is Berber (Amazigh) Jews on my father’s side and Iraqi Jews on my mother’s. Both were expelled from their lands, and because of this persecution I came to learn about these largely untold stories. Over time I have learned that many other groups were persecuted, en masse, without any restitution or “right of return,” and that the global community was (and is) silent. Why the double standards? In the past 150 years, nakbas have occurred in North Africa, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The victims of these largely unknown genocides include: the Assyrians (300,000 from 1914-1920); Armenians (1.5 million from 1914-1923); Kurds (180,000 from 1986-1989); Greeks (750,000 from 1913-1920); Yazidis (10,000 in 2014 alone, other numbers unknown); and the Sudanese in Darfur (300,000 from 2003-2009).
The victims of expulsion and persecution leading to emigration include Lebanese Maronites (8 million to 14 million Lebanese in the diaspora, and 4 million in Lebanon); Assyrian Christians (15 million in the diaspora and in Syria); and the Armenians under the Turkish Empire (11 million in the diaspora today).
There there are the 850,000 Jews that were expelled or forced to flee North Africa and the Middle East, as well as the 1 million Copts that have left Egypt.
Where expulsions or emigration did not occur, widespread persecution did.
Who hears today about the forced assimilation of the Berbers, Kurds and Sudanese? Since the 1960s, these communities suffered forced Arabization in schools and government institutions. For example, Berber only became an official language in Algeria in 2002; prior to 2002 Kurdish was forbidden in Turkish media; and apartheid laws against Jewish communities in Yemen dictated that Jewish children be taken from their families and given to Muslims in forced conversions. There are numerous similar examples regarding Jewish communities throughout the Middle East—even in the late 20th century. To this day, no restitution has been made by the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.
These are not stories you will hear in the universities, or at chic parties in London or in Paris and certainly not on Al Jazeera, AJ+, Turkish television or, sadly, even in mainstream international media.
Instead, around the globe, you will be told by “experts” that the Middle East has been Turkish, Arab and Iranian since the dawn of time. They will wax eloquent about how these peoples have been the victims of European and Zionist aggression, all the while ignoring the histories of every group in the region.
Armenians, Georgians, Assyrians, Kurds, Jews and Lebanese Christians sought independence from the reigning Arab and Turkish empires. Before them, even the Greeks and the Serbs did the same. And yes, many of these groups appealed to Western Europeans for help.
From the 1880s until 1923, The Pan-Turks sought to unite the various Turkish peoples and were central in claiming the places that Turks had conquered as settler colonialists, like Armenia, Greece and the Assyrian parts of present-day Turkey, as theirs. They were also instigators of genocides in these areas when groups subject to their rule, including the Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians, showed any sign of pursuing independence.
Turks ensured the Kurds and Assyrians who remained would be subjected to forced assimilation, and expelled all the Greeks and Armenians from Turkey.
Pan-Arabs claimed areas where Arabs had settled under settler colonialism in the Middle Ages and sometimes later, as original Arab homelands. In aiding the British in overcoming the Ottoman Empire, Arab leaders positioned themselves to take over multicultural countries and pursue their own imperialist goals.
Thus, Pan-Arabs forced Arab culture and customs upon the Assyrians, Berbers, Maronites and Egyptian Copts. By the 1940s, they had created the Arab League and tried to Arabize all of North Africa and the Middle East.
In fact, all of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East, from the Kurds to the Assyrians, to the Jews and the Maronites—many already diminished by mass murder—were present at the Versailles Treaty and called for national self-determination. Only the Jews and the Armenians (the Jews under the British and the Armenians under the Russians) were able to obtain independence.
As we near May 15, countless activists will push a PR campaign to commemorate the Palestinian Arab refugees of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I wish these people had half the sympathy they have for the Palestinians for the millions that were and still are truly oppressed by imperial powers.
This essay is from Hen Mazzig’s new book: “Bad Progressive,” available from August 2109 on Amazon Books.