As the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, I offer a particular perspective as an Indian Jew of Arab cultural descent. My ancestor Shalome Obadiah Ha Cohen from Syria was the first Jewish settler in Calcutta in 1796. As he prospered greatly, other Jews from West Asia came to India and then on to the Far East to make their fortunes.
During the 200 years that they were in India and across what I call Jewish Asia, which stretched from Baghdad to Shanghai, they became Anglicised and their identity transformed from Judaeo Arabic to Judaeo-British. After Independence, unsure of the future of the newly independent India, most of my community, along with many other Indians and members of minority communities, left the country to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
As an Indian Jew I am blessed and different from Jews in the rest of the world as we have never faced anti-semitism. Being Jewish is one of my many identities that I can embrace fearlessly. After the Holocaust, European Jews had to flee their homes and find refuge in Israel, the reason why the nation was founded, and the only country that accepted them and that they could call home. Arab Jews, who have lived in West Asia for thousands of years and were culturally Arab (as were my ancestors), had to flee their homes when Israel was formed. We, Indian Jews, never faced this predicament.
While Jews did face persecution in West Asia, this was not an ongoing phenomenon. However, the Baghdadi Jewish community of India – made up of Jews from many countries of West Asia East who followed the liturgy of Baghdad, a seat of Jewish learning – grew much larger as Jews from Baghdad fled persecution they faced under Daud Pasha, who ruled Iraq from around 1814-1831. In fact, David Sassoon, the leader of the Bombay Baghdadi Jewish community, fled Baghdad at that time and made his fortune in India.
Today, my heart breaks witnessing the agony faced by so many civilians, especially women and children, in Gaza. As a Jew, I mourn the loss of these lives.
I long for an end to this unprecedented bloodshed. I was sickened by the brutal attack on men, women, and children in the border towns of Israel by a bloodthirsty Hamas. I was traumatised that this dastardly attack by Hamas was celebrated by some who called for death to Jews.
I was disheartened to learn that the rape and mutilation of Israeli women was not condemned by women’s groups and the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
I cringe in shame when some Israeli politicians call Palestinians “animals”, or “vermin.”
Polarised discourse and social media messages flood my Facebook page – many from people I respect and are my friends. One can be critical of both Hamas and the Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government without being anti-semitic or an Islamophobe. I admit being taken aback by the very one-sided frames used to denounce Israel and the messaging that challenges Israel’s right to exist. I see the imperative of holding many truths at once.
A more nuanced understanding and dialogue allows for a forceful denouncement of the disproportionate use of force by Israel in bombing Gaza to punish Hamas for the atrocities it has committed on October 7 and to hold Hamas accountable for not returning the hostages, using civilians as human shields and continuing to aim rockets at Israel.
A two-state solution predicated on the rights and security of Palestinians and Israelis has been necessary since the United Nations in 1947 adopted a resolution to partition Palestine and create separate Arab and Jewish states.
The Israel-Palestine conundrum has a long history embedded in Europe’s persecution of the Jews and cannot be separated from it. To talk about Israel as an occupier state without any historical reference glosses over how Zionists and the majority of Jews who settled in Israel did so escaping persecution first in Europe and then in West Asia.
During the Nakba, an estimated 750,000 fled their homes in Palestine while simultaneously, about 800,000 Jews, who had lived in West Asia for centuries, were expelled and fled to Israel to rebuild their lives.
If Palestinians are given the right to return, should Jews who left their homes and assets also be allowed to return to their homes across West Asia? While European Jews did get repatriations, this never occurred for Mizrahi Jews, as Jews of West Asia are known.
Israel is certainly an economic and technologically strong country and associated with wealth and privilege. To many, Jews and Israelis are considered racially “white”. Jews have always been a Semitic race. Though Ashkenazi Jews (that is, Jews who lived in European countries – forged Israel), today Sephardim (that is Jews originally from Spain, the Middle East and North Africa) constitute 55% of Israel’s Jewish population.
Though small, there has always been a Jewish presence in Israel when, in Biblical times, Israel was much larger than the state of Israel is today. Ashkenazi Jews did culturally and politically dominate Israel in the first four to five decades since Israel became a state, and in many instances, they look down upon Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews. This is no longer true: most Israelis now are of mixed background and there are two million Arab Israelis, who constitute 20% of the current population of Israel.
I live in Calcutta and don’t feel I need to duck for cover due to anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in many parts of the world. Many Israelis and Jews have spoken out vocally, demonstrated and called for an end to the war and denounced the human rights abuses committed in this war against Hamas, where an unconscionable number of civilians have lost their lives.
I deplore the killing of thousands of civilians by Hamas and over 20,000 Gazans by the Israeli Defence Forces – these figures do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. I simultaneously deplore the use of civilians as human shields by a deliberately cruel Hamas regime. I oppose the current divisive encroachment on remaining Palestinian lands by the Far Right government of Israel today as I do the entire settler movement and the current gratuitous violence of the settlers.
I also oppose Hamas and its brutal rule, its corruption and the ways in which they have neglected the basic needs of Gazans while building up their war machine.
I have lost respect for those who post one-sided violent messages against Israel and Israel alone. It smacks of anti-Semitism and furthermore it does not help build towards a culture of peace that is vital now. For example, there is no visceral hate for Americans and their families, because America went to war and destroyed Iraq based on false information on stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction.
The invasion of Afghanistan as well as the war on Iraq was initially supported by many Americans following the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York City, but later divided the American electorate, in support of and against the George W Bush-led government.
Likewise, Israelis and their families should not be targeted and hated as a group for a political conflict that has divided the country. There are Israelis who support and are against the Netanyahu government’s policies. Israelis are trying to find a solution and make sense of this extreme hate and trauma they have suffered and did not initiate on October 7, 2023.
Theirs is a difficult dilemma partially fuelled by extremist rhetoric of politicians. I pray empathy and humanity on both sides will rise out of this wretched violence that has destroyed so many families in Israel and Palestine.
For a sustained peace to have any chance of prevailing, the rhetoric and the blame game need to be dialled down. There is plenty of blame to go around in the way the entire Israel-Palestine situation has evolved and how the peace process in West Asia has unfolded over the last 60 years.
Many proxy battles are being fought in the current conflict. Only when the United States, Iran, powerful Arab countries, Europe, Russia, Israel and representatives of the Palestinian people come together to work on a solution that respects the rights of the Palestinian people and addresses Israel’s security can peace be built.
We can play a role in building bridges of understanding by not fueling hate.
Jael Silliman is an author, scholar, and women’s rights activist.