A recent picture article “The Arab World’s Dwindling Jewish Diaspora”, displayed images of former and existing Jewish communities in the Arab world and North Africa that poses a revelatory idea. Political changes as a result of the uprisings could, eventually, present an opportunity for exiled Arab Jews to return to their former homes around the region or at least finally have the chance to pay a visit. This supposition comes at a time of the unfolding story of ethnic minorities in the uprisings.
Historically, the Arab world once had a thriving Jewish community, who, on many levels were well assimilated and integrated into Arab life and society. However, persecution and discrimination over the course of history initiated an exodus which continues into the 21stcentury. The formation of the State of Israel in 1948 underpinned a major mass exodus leaving only tiny scatters of Jewish communities behind in the Arab countries.Many were also driven out in the subsequent period after the 1967 Six Day War and the continuing Israel/Palestine conflict has served only to polarise Arab and Jewish communities.During their exodus, Arab Jews had to leave behind their homes, possessions and jobs. But they did not leave behind their identities and traditions. Many have become ordinary Israeli citizens or citizens of nations around the world. Yet they continue to relish in their heritage in spite of not being formally recognised as Arab Jews.
Exiled Arab Jews such as David Gerbi - a Libyan by birth – believes that with a genuine desire to, the Arab uprisings has posed opportunities for Arab citizens to establish pluralistic environment to foster a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society with equal rights which is conducive for Arab Jews to return.
But putting the Jewish question aside, the revolutions and uprisings should be giving hope to religious and ethnic minorities for political, social and economic reforms to provide a new lease of life in a liberal democracy and releasing them from long endured persecution and institutional discrimination. Copts, for example, who make-up 10% of 80 million population in Egypt, have expressed how they now feel threatened by the Arab uprising with the tide of Islamism dominating the newly elected government in Egypt. Copts were once united with their Muslims counterparts in the popular movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak but the relations between the two did not last. In the past year sectarian violence and violence against Copts by the military and police has heightened anxieties about the future that Copts and other minorities could be facing.Coming back to the Jewish debate, in addition to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Arab minorities, Gerbi’s experience of resistance from some Libyans in Tripoli reiterates that change for liberal democracies does not necessarily translate into changes in attitude towards Jews or minorities in general. This notion is evident through a study by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry in Israel which has revealed an increase in anti-Semitism during the uprisings.
The current reality in the Arab world fails to breed optimism for changes to the lives of existing religious and ethnic minorities. Therefore, a radical change as a re-emergence of a Jewish Diaspora, even as minority in Arab nations, is a bit far-fetched. However, this should not purport to undermine Gerbi’s romanticised desire to return to his rightful home or for that of any other Jew of Arab origin. In theory, the concept of diversifying and unifying Arab populations along religious and ethnic lines is a positive vision for a new Middle East. But practically this vision is only possible if existential anti-Semitic attitudes and subjugation of ethnic and religious minorities cease to exist. Evidently such changes are not going to diminish anytime soon.