When people hear about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, they assume that Israelis are white, European oppressors and that Palestinians are indigenous people of color being taken over and kicked out of their native home. The familiar script of European racism and colonization thus plays out in people's minds. It is from this understanding and the accompanying desire for justice that many people across the globe feel outraged even by the very existence of Israel.
Ironically, Jewish leaders are the ones who created the perception of Jews as white. Given the way Jewish heritage has been taught and presented for decades, when we say the word "Jews," the vision that pops into our mind is not the black faces of Ethiopian Jews or the dark-brown skin of Yemenite Jews. When we look for Jewish names, we don't look for names like Comerchero, Sarshar or Mo'alem.
When we think "Jewish," we think bagels and cream cheese; we think Poland, Russia and Germany. When the Jewish community itself renders the faces and voices of Jews of color invisible, how is the world to know that Israel is not a white, European nation yet again colonizing third-world, native people of color? How is the world to know that the majority of Jews in Israel are Mizrahim -- the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their millions of children. Mizrahim are indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, having lived in the region since the beginning of the Jewish people 4,000 years ago -- that's more than 2,500 years before the advent of Islam and the Arab conquest of the region.
The story of Mizrahim is inextricably intertwined with the current Arab-Israel conflict: Palestinian leadership had a strong hand in the terrorization and expulsion of Mizrahim throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In 1941, for example, numerous Palestinian leaders -- most notably Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem -- arrived in Berlin, as guests of the Nazi regime. Al-Husayni drafted a political declaration, which he presented to the Axis allies of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, in the hope they would adopt it. In paragraph seven of the declaration, he would have Germany and Italy "recognize the rights of Palestine and other Arab countries [to] resolve the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and the other Arab countries in the same way as the problem was resolved in the Axis countries" -- i.e., through genocide.
Furthermore, in a meeting between Hitler and al-Husayni, on Nov. 28, 1941, Hitler promised the Palestinian leader that "[the] Führer would offer the Arab world his personal assurance that the hour of liberation had struck. Thereafter, Germany's only remaining objective in the region would be limited to the annihilation of the Jews living under British protection in Arab lands."
With these assurances, al-Husayni voiced his hope for a "final solution" to the Jewish presence in the Middle East in a speech given at a rally in Berlin on Nov. 2, 1943. "National Socialist Germany knows the Jews well and has decided to find a final solution for the Jewish danger which will end the evil in the world. The Arabs especially, and Muslims in general, are obliged to make this their goal, from which they will not stray and which they must reach with all their powers: it is the expulsion of all Jews from Arab and Muslim lands."
Not long after, severe anti-Jewish riots erupted throughout the Arab world. Jewish citizens were assaulted, tortured and murdered. In a few Arab countries, Jews were outright expelled. Throughout the region, billions of dollars worth of Jewish property was confiscated and nationalized, forcing Jews to flee from their homes of thousands of years.
We do not hear about the Jewish refugee problem today, because Israel absorbed about 600,000 of these 900,000 refugees. For the past 50 years, they and their children have been the majority of Israel's Jewish population, with numbers as high as 70 percent. To the contrary, Arab states did not absorb the Arab refugees from the Arab war against Israel in 1948. Instead, Arab states built squalid refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, at the time controlled by Jordan and Egypt, and dumped innocent Arabs in them -- Palestinians doomed to become political pawns. Countries such as Lebanon and Syria continued funding assaults against Israel instead of funding basic medical and educational care for the Palestinian refugee families.
It is high time that we all hold Arab leadership accountable for their actions against all the refugees of the region -- Jewish and Arab. Without an accurate and complete view of the history in the Middle East, government leaders and peace activists will continue to push the region into an unstable future that lacks integrity, and peace will remain an illusive dream.
Loolwa Khazzoom (www.loolwa.com) is director of the Jewish Multicultural Project (www.jmcponline.org) and editor of "Behind the Veil of Silence: North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Women Speak Out" (Seal Press, 2003). She lives in Israel.