A restaurant in Vancouver closed for a day, calling for people “to hold the Zionist occupation accountable” for the war in Gaza. Writer Loolwa Khazzoom notes, “When terrorists blow up Israelis, there is often an undertone of accusation: it’s Israel’s fault, the narrative goes, that these tragedies happen…. But who truly was responsible for creating Palestinian desperation, and who is accountable for remedying it?” (photo by Larry Barzelai)
On 9/11, I was 20 blocks away from Ground Zero, sleeping in the living room of a friend when she woke me up, screaming hysterically – something about terrorists and an airplane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. As I tried to comprehend what was happening, my friend turned on the television and, right then, the second plane crashed into the second tower, as we watched in horror.
My thoughts came in this order: Now they’ll understand what it feels like to live in Israel. Watch them blame this on Israel. OMG we’re going to die.
Two decades later, on the morning of Oct. 7 – in the wake of what some are calling Israel’s equivalent of 9/11 – I felt the pain of collective Jewish agony, and promptly reached out to my friends and family in Israel, including those living close to the Gaza border.
Unbeknownst to many, those in the border towns, such as Sderot, are predominantly working-class Mizrahim and Sephardim – children and grandchildren of the 900,000 Jewish refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They are the ones predominantly getting pummeled by Hamas rocket fire, as the world yells about “white European colonist settler Israelis.”
So, it’s no surprise that, after the initial feelings of shock and outrage, grief and concern, I once again thought, “Watch them blame this on Israel.” And they did, within hours – with a BBC News interview going so far as to compare the Hamas attack to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
It’s nothing new, of course. When terrorists blow up Israelis, there is often an undertone of accusation: it’s Israel’s fault, the narrative goes, that these tragedies happen. By creating Palestinian desperation, Israel has created Palestinian terrorism. But who truly was responsible for creating Palestinian desperation, and who is accountable for remedying it?
The Arab world is called just that for a reason. Beginning in the Arabian Peninsula about 1,300 years ago, Arab Muslims launched a brutal campaign of invasion and conquest, taking over lands across the Middle East and North Africa. Throughout the region, Kurds, Persians, Berbers, Copts and Jews were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of death and in the name of Allah.
Jews were one of the few indigenous Middle Eastern peoples to resist conversion to Islam, the result being they were given the status of dhimmi – legally second-class, inferior people. Jews were spared death, but forced to endure an onslaught of humiliating legal restrictions – forced into ghettos, prohibited from owning land, prevented from entering numerous professions and forbidden from doing anything to physically or symbolically demonstrate equality with Arab Muslims.
When dhimmi laws were lax and Jews were allowed to participate to a greater degree in their society, the Jewish community would flourish, both socially and economically. On numerous occasions, however, the response to that success was a wave of harassment or massacre of Jews instigated by the government or the masses. This dynamic meant that the Jews lived in a basic state of subservience: they could participate in the society around them; they could enjoy a certain degree of wealth and status; and they could befriend their Arab Muslim neighbors. But they always had to know their place.
The Arab-Israel relationship and the current crisis occur in the greater context of a history in which Arab Muslims have oppressed Jews for 1,300 years. Most recently, anti-Jewish riots erupted throughout the Arab world in the 1930s and 1940s. Jews were assaulted, tortured, murdered and forced to flee from their homes of thousands of years. Throughout the region, Jewish property was confiscated and nationalized, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the time.
Yet the world has never witnessed Middle Eastern and North African Jews blowing themselves up and taking scores of Arab innocents with them out of anger or desperation for what Arab states did to the Jewish people. Despite the fact that there were 900,000 Jewish refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we do not even hear about a Middle Eastern/North African Jewish refugee problem today, because Israel absorbed most of the refugees. For decades, they and their children have been the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, with numbers as high as 70%.
To the contrary, Arab states did not absorb refugees from the war against Israel in 1948. Instead, they built squalid camps in the West Bank and Gaza – at the time controlled by Jordan and Egypt – and dumped the refugees in them, Arabs doomed to become pawns in a political war against Israel. Countries such as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Lebanon funded assaults against Israeli citizens instead of funding basic medical, educational and housing needs of Palestinian refugee families.
In 1967, Israel inherited the Palestinian refugee problem through a defensive war. When Israel tried to build housing for the refugees in Gaza, Arab states led votes against it in United Nations resolutions, because absorption would change the status of the refugees. But wasn’t that the moral objective?
Israel went on to give more money to the Palestinian refugees than all but three of the Arab states combined, prior to transferring responsibility of the territories to the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s. Israel built hospitals and educational institutions for Palestinians in the territories. Israel trained the Palestinian police force. And yet, the 22 Arab states dominate both the land and the wealth of the region. So, who is responsible for creating Palestinian desperation?
Tragically, the Arab propaganda war against Israel has been a brilliant success, laying on Israel all the blame for the Palestinian refugee problem. By refusing to hold Arab states accountable for their own actions, by feeling sympathy for Palestinian terrorists instead of outrage at the Arab propaganda creating this phenomenon, the so-called “progressive” movement continues to feed the never-ending cycle of violence in the Middle East.
Loolwa Khazzoom (khazzoom.com) is the frontwoman for the band Iraqis in Pajamas (iraqisinpajamas.com) and editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage (theflyingcamelbook.com). She has been a pioneering Jewish multicultural educator since 1990, and her writing has been featured in the Washington Post, Marie Claire, Rolling Stone and other top media worldwide. This article was originally published in the Times of Israel.