Rep. Ilhan Omar at a news conference on prescription drugs at the Capitol, Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo/JTA-Alex Wong-Getty Images)
Rep. Ilhan Omar at a news conference on prescription drugs at the Capitol, Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo/JTA-Alex Wong-Getty Images)

The ‘crime’ of Zionism and dangers of dual loyalty charge

At the end of February, when Rep. Ilhan Omar accused American Jews of dual loyalty, to the United States and to the State of Israel, many Jewish former refugees from Arab countries and Iran recoiled, remembering the innocent Jews imprisoned and killed in their countries of origin because of anti-Semitic accusations of dual loyalty.

American Jews, including those from the Arab world and Iran, questioned why leaders of the Democratic Party insisted on keeping Rep. Omar on the House Foreign Affairs Committee after she had repeatedly spouted the same anti-Semitic tropes that led to the oppression and ethnic cleansing of 1 million Jews in the Middle East and North Africa. Jewish immigrants from Arab countries remember how seeds of anti-Semitism sprouted into full-fledged, state-sanctioned anti-Zionism as Arab nationalism spread through the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century.

For example, in 1948, an Iraqi law was amended to equate Zionism with anarchism and immorality — a crime punishable by seven years’ imprisonment. A 1956 amendment to Egypt’s nationality law barred “Zionists” from being Egyptian nationals. In 1961, Libya passed a law restricting citizenship for all but six Jews — leading to the ethnic cleansing of an entire Jewish community. When Ayatollah Khomeini took control of Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he promptly murdered a prominent leader in the Jewish community: Habib Elghanian was accused of being a Zionist spy, and his sham trial and subsequent murder sent a very clear message to the Jews of Iran.

Zionism was hardly ever defined by the governments in these and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and this ambiguity enabled terrible acts of anti-Semitism under the color of law. Jews were denied legal representation in courts of justice, and Jews throughout the region were regularly imprisoned, tortured and even hanged because of their supposed dual loyalty and alleged relationships with the “Zionist regime.”

The irony of anti-Zionism laws in Arab countries and Iran is that they ultimately helped strengthen Israel. As Jews in those countries faced mounting anti-Semitism that was codified as part of national anti-Zionism agendas, daily life became untenable, ultimately leading to the departure and ethnic cleansing of 1 million Jews from the region; 650,000 Jews fled to Israel as dispossessed refugees. This led to a population boom in Israel and a brain drain in Arab world — losses that still reverberate today.

By ignoring the oppressive and violent anti-Zionism in Arab countries and Iran, we continue to sanction anti-Semitism in the Arab world.

Another irony is that the anti-Zionism that pervaded the Arab world in the 20th century did nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians, and this consequence should be noted by those leaning toward anti-Zionism for the sake of Palestinian rights. Those supporting movements to isolate, boycott and divest from Israel are pushing a dangerous and divisive agenda that has proved to be totally ineffective and even counterproductive. In their narrow attitudes and approach, they seem not so different from the anti-Semitic governments that expelled and ethnically cleansed Jews.

While anti-Zionist activists and leaders here in the United States continue to drum up anti-Semitic controversies, they are missing efforts taking place through diplomatic and grassroots channels to strengthen relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. It’s been widely reported that this past winter three delegations from Iraq visited Israel, and a growing number of progressive groups in the Arab world are eager to reestablish relationships with diverse Jewish communities around the world — including those in Israel. This is not to mention the range of Jewish groups in the U.S., including JIMENA, that work closely with Arab partners both here and in the Middle East. We come from a multitude of backgrounds and outlooks, and it’s a total fallacy that only those groups and leaders labeled as progressive are able to lead and engage in productive normalization efforts.

Anti-Zionist leaders here in the U.S. couldn’t care less about diverse normalization efforts, because they are solely focused on mainstreaming the vilification of Israel and its supporters. Like Arab governments that criminalized Zionism as a means of persecuting Jews, anti-Zionist leaders here have time and again been seen to center their activism more on the delegitimization of Israel and the isolation of Jewish people than on the advancement of Palestinians. If “progressive” activists and politicians truly cared about finding equitable solutions for Palestinians, they would cross ideological barriers and work with diverse coalitions and groups on developing new strategies and solutions, rather than continue to promote failed ones like BDS.

In order to be truly aligned with progressive values, it’s important for American Jews and progressive politicians like Rep. Omar to pay close attention to both the threats of white supremacy and the current manifestation of anti-Semitism that comes from the Middle East. By ignoring the oppressive and violent anti-Zionism in Arab countries and Iran, we continue to sanction anti-Semitism and further marginalize the 1 million Jews who fled or were ethnically cleansed from Arab countries and Iran.

Sarah Levin
Sarah Levin

Sarah Levin is the executive director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, an advocacy and education institution based in San Francisco dedicated to advancing the rights and the heritage of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.