The commemoration of the Exodus is an antidote to denial


Professor Mohamed Aboulghar is a busy man – an obstetrician, a politician and an amateur historian who has published two books on the Jews of Egypt. Apparently they are selling like hot cakes. In a recent Zoom meeting, however, his claim that few Jews were driven out after the 1956 Suez Crisis, and that the rest had left of their own accord, sparked outrage.

Some 25,000 Jews expelled: dozens of Egyptian Jews testify having been expelled with 24 hours’ notice, or interned for months and embarked on a ship leaving Egypt, their property sequestered without compensation.

As the saying goes, “denial is a river in Egypt” – but denial is not limited to the Arab world. Many academics and opinion makers in the West believe that Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully before the creation of Israel. Executions in Iraq? Torture in Egyptian prisons? Deadly riots in Libya? If all of this was not the figment of the Jewish imagination, they say, it was an “understandable backlash” for which the Zionists are ultimately to blame. (The Farhud massacre in Iraq seven years before the creation of Israel, and the Tritl in Fez, Morocco, in 1912, are more difficult to explain.)

The Jews who recall their idyllic childhood in Arab countries themselves contributed to the denial of the Exodus. Their golden age only lasted during colonial times in the Middle East and North Africa. Arab nationalism quickly marginalized and oppressed minorities. Other Jews suppress negative memories because they suffer from some kind of Dhimmi syndrome, a survival strategy developed over 14 centuries of “coexistence” that involves silence and submission.

The Jews rightly welcomed the Abrahamic Accords. But in our eagerness to embrace them, it is tempting to dwell only on the positive points of connection between Isaac and Ishmael. Building bridges, some believe, involves ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the past.

Israeli organizations and embassies across the Jewish world prepare to observe November 30, date designated by the Israeli Knesset to mark each year the departure and exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran. It is a necessary reminder that a healthy relationship must be based on an honest and balanced assessment of the past, and not on lies and revisionism.

Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Faded Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).