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Racism in reverse?

On display at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris: From a north African country, a scroll on parchment from the ‘Torah’ (one of the Five Books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament).

‘Paris Museum, do not show off Jewish culture’, says the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement. Not surprising: no Arab states have museums about the Jews’ presence in their countries for eons.

In Israel’s west Jerusalem, there is a whole museum dedicated to Islamic culture.

Yet here’s an astonishing and disillusioning fact about the Arab world: there is not a single museum honouring or recognising Jewish culture, even though Jews have lived in the Middle East for over three thousand years and developed numerous world-renowned texts including the Babylonian Talmud. In the 20th century, for example, the majority of members of the Iraqi national orchestra were Jewish — which resulted in the national orchestra’s collapse when Jews were driven out or fled after pogroms by local Iraqis and hangings later by the Saddam regime. (When Saddam fell from power in 2003 there were fewer than 40 Jews left in the whole country.)

Soon after the US and Britain sent troops into Iraq in 2003, a local taxi driver in the southern city of Basra pointed out we were driving through the ‘Jewish Quarter’. Where are the Jews, I asked. Gone, he said. I don’t know why.

It’s ironic that the Jews’ role in Arab countries is at last being acknowledged — in Europe, not in the Arab world. In late 2021 the Paris-based Institute of the Arab World (Institut du Monde Arabe) opened an exhibition about Jews from that region, tracing some aspects of the three thousand years of Jewish habitation across what later became the Arab and Islamic world in the Middle East and North Africa. (Islam started with Mohammad, born in 632 AD, and his forces’ rapid penetration across the Middle East and north Africa from Mecca and Medina, cities in Saudi Arabia).

The exhibition, though, has enraged supporters of BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions). It campaigns worldwide for governments and businesses to boycott and disinvest from the Jewish State, Israel.

Earlier this month, 52 Arab intellectuals signed a letter of protest addressed to the Institute, attacking the Jews of the Orient exhibition. It had been opened at the end of November by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The reason these 52 people gave for opposing the exhibition was thate Israeli institutions were involved, among them the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, helped provide content. Museums and research centres in France, the UK, Morocco, Spain and the US have provided manuscripts, photographs, paintings and other materials, all illustrating the religious and cultural life of the Arab world’s Jewish communities.

The letter attacked the Israeli academic Denis Charbit, a member of the exhibition’s organising committee, who had reportedly hailed the participation of Israeli institutions as a fruit of the historic peace accords signed in 2020 between Israel and several Arab nations. Those nations were among the eighteen Arab countries that in 1987 established the Institute and its displays.

The letter claimed the Institute’s Jewish exhibition “would betray its intellectual mission” by “normalizing” and “standardising” cooperation with Israel,. It said the exhibtion was an attempt “to present Israel and its regime of settler colonialism and apartheid as a normal state.”

They claimed the exhibition had “appropriated the Jewish component of Arab culture, by presenting it as Zionist, then Israeli, before tearing it from its true roots to use it in the service of its colonial project in the region.”

Among the letters’ signatories were Joseph Massad, a professor at Columbia University in New York City who has been accused of antisemitism on several occasions and veteran PLO politician Hanan Ashrawi. Two musicians also signed.

Strong criticism of the letter was voiced by the Israeli Embassy in Paris, which accused its authors of trying “to rewrite and make people forget the history of the Jews of the Arab and Muslim countries.”

“It is unfortunate that people claiming to be intellectuals are participating in an attempt to gloss over an entire section of Middle Eastern history,” an embassy spokesperson told the AFP news agency.

In its response to the letter, the IMA emphasized that the institution and its president, the former Socialist Minister of Education Jack Lang, continued to support the Palestinians in “unwavering” fashion.

Omar Barhgouti, the principal founder of the BDS movement — whose main goal is the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state and its replacement with a State of Palestine — said:

“Exactly the same way apartheid South Africa was boycotted, apartheid Israel must be isolated for the sake of freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians.”

Barghouti said the Institute would “end up losing its credibility among the [Arab] public as well as the figures of Arab culture”.

He did not address the more basic concern: why did no Arab museums contribute from their own exhibitions of Jewish culture in their countries? Answer: because they do not have any such exhibitions. Why not?