Monday, 12 May 2014

Who Is Lost In The Land Of Ashur?

I have just finished reading a most moving, eye-opening book. I recommend it to you all. It is called 'My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search For His Jewish Roots In Kurdish Iraq'. A few words of review about it, so that you'll understand all the rest of the points i want to make.

The writer, Ariel Sabar, describes in beautiful detail his father's childhood growing up in Zakho, an isolated town in Northern, Kurdish, Iraq, where his father's family had lived in the same town since they were exiled there in about the year 720 BCE by the terrifying empire of Assyria (Ashur). Where the local language is still the Aramaic that the Gemara was written in. He charts what happened to the town when Zionism rose, the State of Israel was declared, and finally, in retaliation, even the Jews of remote Zakho were declared stateless, possessionless, and encouraged to flee the country, forced to leave all their possessions behind. His father, his father's family, and all their town had to start over in an Israel that treated them as primitive, backwards hillbillies, and did all it could to stamp out their distinct, devout traditions.

I want to share some realisations it brought to me. It's clear to me, from reading this book, that when Zionists point to the millions of sephardi/mizrachi Jews who were thrown out of Arab lands, and say that this is why we need the State of Israel, to be able to receive them, so that no Jew will have nowhere to go, they are being either disingenuous or, more likely, ignorant of why Jews were thrown out of Arab lands in the first place.

Jews lived in Arab lands for centuries - millennia - with general average happiness and tolerance, certainly more, on the whole, than that extended to Jews in Europe. Perhaps it particularly hard for us to believe now, so used to looking at Arabs as our worst enemy, but Jews in Arab lands had much better lives than Jews in Christian lands. It was only the rise of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel which caused their Arab hosts to finally kick them out for good.

It was startling to me to realise for just how long Jews had lived in the one same town in Arab lands. In Europe, every couple of hundred years, Jews were thrown out of a neighbourhood, town, or whole country. If that. In Arab lands - and in particular in Kurdistan, the focus of the book - Jews lived in the same village for millennia, not just centuries. There was stability. Yes, there was intermittent friction with Arab neighbours, and certainly life was hard for most Jews, but the thought of leaving their country never crossed their minds. It was only Zionism that forced them to leave.

One of the side points that became clear in the book, which I was already aware of and sad and ashamed of, was the extent to which the Zionist leadership looked down on, derided and really failed Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewry. Zionism, it is clear, is an Ashkenazi solution to an Ashkenazi problem, the creation of Jews who have spent centuries being hounded from one town to another, one pogrom to another, who had seen one safe haven after another grow sour and reject them. They needed a State which would never throw them out. They needed a State of Israel. The Jews in Arab lands did not, really, need a State of Israel at all. In fact, Zionism and the creation of the State made life much worse for them. It was the direct cause of their having to leave their homes where they had lived for generations. much of their culture, language, folklore and traditions were lost and deliberately squashed by the arrogant and patronising Ashkenazi Zionist leadership. Sephardi Jews in Israel are really only just beginning to emerge from the trauma caused by the way that their mass aliyah was handled.

At first i though, how unfair. Sephardi/Mizrahi jews should not have had to leave their ancestral lands. they shouldn;t have had to be kicked out just because all these Ashkenazi Zionists had a nationalist dream. The State of Israel didn;t 'save' any Eastern Jew from being homeless and stateless - it made them be homeless and stateless in the first place. AND then the leadership in Israel deliberately disadvantaged, derided, and despised the very Jews whom they forced to come to Israel in the first place.

But then I thought again. I realise some people - many people - will think i've been very unfair on Zionists and Zionism. be that as it may. i do, though, consider the creation of the State of Israel to be a 'Good Thing'. I recognise that the creation of the State required far too many things to happen, in the right order, for it to be only the 'fault' of the Zionist movement. I do very much see the hand of G-d enabling the establishment of modern Israel. Zionism on its own, without divine approval, couldn;t have done this. Man could not have achieved this. So then, to my worldview, G-d wanted the State of Israel to be created. And while no one but the individuals in charge are responsible for the shameful, reprehensible way that Jews from Arab lands were treated when they made aliyah, the fact that they were kicked out of their land, caused directly by the creation of the State, must have been what G-d wanted too.

So i thought about this a bit more.

As i pondered the book, i thought about a verse which is quoted often in it, and which i have long loved and mused over.
ובאו אובדים מארץ אשור, והנדחים מארץ מצרים, והשתחוו לה' בהר קודש בירושלים"
and those lost in the land of Ashur (Assyria), and those detained in the land of Egypt, shall come and bow down to G-d in the holy mountain, in Jerusalem."
I've long been familiar with, and fond of, the explanation that there are 2 'types' of Jews who make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. Those lost in the land of Ashur are those who lost their way, forgot their destination as Jews, in the good lands, in the places of riches and success (ashur עשור means riches, while אשור, pronounced the same but spelt differently, means fortune, happiness). Those detained in the land of Egypt are those who were forcibly prevented, through hardship, suffering, physical detention, and the like, from returning to the Land (Egypt - mitzrayim מצרים in Bebrew - comes from the Hebrew root tzar- צר, meaning constricted, restricted, narrowed, hemmed in). Both those who forgot the desire to return home, and those who wished to come home but were unable to do so, will at the end of days come back to serve G-d in His temple in Jerusalem.

Rav Shlomo Carlebach used to quote this explanation, and add that those making aliyah from America are the ones lost in the land of Ashur, adrift in a sea of material success, who have managed to find their way out of the maze. And the refuseniks from Russia are the ones detained in Egypt-like hardship, restrictions and physical detention, but they have also managed to come back to the Land.

i still like his explanation. But having read about the jews of kurdistan, i realised another layer of meaning. The simple layer of meaning. Those lost in Ashur meant those who were lost in Ashur. The Jews of the Arab lands had stability. Only Zionism caused them to leave the homes they had lived in for millennia. It became v clear to me - G-d wanted the State of Israel to be created, not despite the hardship it would cause for these children of Israel, and not with their hardship being an un-foreseen side effect, but (in part) IN ORDER to cause them to be kicked out. Because nothing else was jolly well going to work! We are used, with our Western, patronising eyes, to looking at their often-primitive living conditions and thinking that they are the furthest you could get from people adrift in material success who had lost the desire to return home. Certainly the Jews of Zakho, as described in My Father's Paradise, were a very long way from material success, or even material average-ness. But remember, lost in Ashur actually is what and who they are. These are descendants of the Jews who didn;t return when Ezra led the first return to the Land to build the 2nd Temple. These are descendants of the original exiled Jews to Babylon and Assyria who just never came back home. Not when Ezra and Nehemia built the 2nd Temple. Not when the Maccabees rededicated it, or when Herod beautified it. The Ashkenazi Jews were detained in the land of Egypt, treated so harshly for generations across Europe, prevented by seas and deserts and hostile empires from returning to Israel. The journey was not quite so onerous for the Jews living already in Iran, Iraq, and the rest of the Arabian peninsula.

And i thought a bit more about the book. i thought about how Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews place so much emphasis on kabbalah and mysticism. It plays an integral role in their theology and dogma in a way that it just cannot in that of Ashkenazi thought. The Zohar, to a large extent, replaces the focus on the physical Jerusalem and temple with emphasis on a spiritual, mystical, conceptual one. The desire to return to the temple is not one of geography, but spirituality. For Jews in Arab lands, i wonder, which is cause and which is effect? Did their strong connection with the zohar cause them to assign their yearning for a return to Zion to a mystical 'yerushalayim shel maaleh', and thus cause their drive to return to the real Zion to wither? Or did their dwindling desire to return to the Land find in the mysticism of the Zohar a world-view and vocabulary that filled their need to replace a Land-centred dogma?

It was fascinating to me to realise that this is another - yet another - aspect of the pre-messianic era we live in, that even those lost in Ashur were finally dislodged. I wish their aliyah had played out differently. I wish they had been welcomed home positively. I wish so much that kibbutz galuyot - the ingathering of the exiles that was instigated as well as enabled by the creation of the State of Israel - could have happened/happen with more good feeling and acceptance of difference. But i'm glad they are here.

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