Witnessing the horrors committed in southern Israel invoked in me the worst memories from the pages of Jewish history. Hamas’ heinous torture and slaughter of men, women and children in unimaginably cruel fashions could only be compared with the pogroms once endemic to Europe, which ultimately culminated in the Holocaust, thus destroying Europe as a center of Jewish life.

But today, I want to talk about a part of the Jewish world that most Americans have heard little about: the Jews of the Middle East.

First, some background: Historical, archaeological and DNA evidence all indicate that nearly all Jewish communities, including Ashkenazi (European) Jews, have their origins in the Levant. After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and the subsequent Hadrianic persecutions in the second century C.E., thousands of Jews were killed, enslaved or exiled.

Some of these Jews ended up in the Italian peninsula and eventually emigrated north into modern France and Germany, then later to Eastern Europe. It is the descendants of these Jewish communities that most Americans are familiar with, as they make up the majority of Jews in the U.S.

But throughout history, most of the world’s Jewish population was located in the Middle East and North Africa. Thousands of Jewish communities, with a total of close to a million Jewish inhabitants, could be found from Casablanca to Baghdad. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, approximately a quarter of Baghdad’s population was Jewish — approximately 50,000 people.

These communities were far from a monolith, with cultures that varied from region to region. The members of the communities themselves hailed from unique and diverse cultural backgrounds. Many of these Jews had never left the Middle East after the Roman occupation of Judea. These Jews are commonly referred to as Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews. At the same time, there was an extremely influential minority who were the descendants of Sepharadi (Spanish) Jewish refugees who, in 1492, had been expelled from Spain.

I am a Syrian Jew, a descendant of one of these ancient Middle Eastern Jewish communities. My family emigrated to the U.S. from Aleppo (Halab) in the early 20th century. Due to the strong Syrian Jewish community in New York, we have been able to maintain much of our culture and heritage. Additionally, my family is able to trace our heritage to both the Sepharadi and Mizrahi sub-communities of Aleppo.

My family and community’s culture varies immensely from that of our Ashkenazi counterparts. When I think of “Jewish food,” I do not think of matzah ball soup. I think of kibbeh, sambusak, lahmajeen and other dishes shared by various Middle Eastern cultures.

My “Jewish music” consists of pizmonim, where Hebrew, or Judeo-Arabiclyrics are put to the tune of popular Arabic songs.

Today, the Middle East’s Jewish communities are no more. A population of Jews once numbering hundreds of thousands across the Arab world is nearly all gone. Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and nearly all countries across the Middle East and North Africa used to contain thriving Jewish communities. Today, these countries have almost no Jews living in them.

During the 20th century, the Jews of these countries faced persecution to the point of death or expulsion. These came in the form of both riots and pogroms — like the infamous Farhud in Iraq — and government-backed expulsions. Many scholars have described this as an act of ethnic cleansing against Middle Eastern Jews.

The Jews of these countries were ethnically and culturally distinct from their Arab neighbors and, in a wave of antisemitic fervor that swept across the Arab world in the 20th century, they were thrown from the lands they had lived in for thousands of years. This ended thousands of years of history of the Jews in Arab lands.

Many of these refugees resettled in Israel, and today, these Jews’ descendants make up the majority of Israel’s Jewish population. The relatively recent expulsion of Jews in the Middle East is one of the reasons why so many Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews strongly identify as Zionists today. They truly have no place else to go.

The dialogue around the Israel-Hamas war at the University this past month has become quite hostile and has clearly shown ignorance of this history. I have heard a number of times that the “Zionist colonizers” should return to Europe, but as I mentioned, the majority of Israel’s Jews today are not from Europe.

I am not from Europe. Where would I, and my Israeli brothers and sisters, hypothetically return to? Bashar al-Assad has destroyed the country of Syria. The city of Aleppo has been flattened, and Syria’s ancient Jewish sights are left in ruins.

Chants advocating for the expulsion of any people does not help the campus dialogue or anybody for that matter.

When talking about Middle Eastern history, languages or culture, I have witnessed too often a complete disregard for Jewish history in the Middle East and the eventual expulsions that ended that history outside of Israel. I feel that due to my Jewishness, my identity as a Middle Easterner has been ignored, and I have been excluded from those spaces here at Rutgers.

If we really want to make Rutgers a beloved community and improve the campus dialogue, we must acknowledge each other’s history. Without doing so, our University remains a scary and unwelcoming place for many of its students.


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