“A Jew has been born in our house!”
Imposing a sense of clarity on our past does not become easier with age. We think, mistakenly, that our memory becomes sharper as we age. We think that childhood memories dissipate but memories of our adulthood are abiding. But I think our memory is in dialogue with our present; occurrences in the present make us revise the meanings of our memories much like historians revise history over generations. The process is much more fraught for an individual since only our subjective self has the authority to undertake this process of objective reflection.
An online acquaintance replied to an Instagram story I posted about Palestine, challenging me on how it was reductive of Jewish social memory, and it sparked an engaging discussion about racism, the diversity of Jewish life and culture, and the interconnections of Jewish and Muslim history. Later on, I listened to an interview between Claudia Roden and Adam Shatz, which essentially functioned as a kind of oral history by Roden on Jewish diasporic culinary life. I excitedly shared this episode with my acquaintance, and it sparked another interesting conversation. Unexpectedly, I began to reconsider an abiding fragment of my memory.
“Saaday ghar Yahoodi jum gaya hae!” my grandmother would exclaim, mockingly but with a hint of scorn. Yahoodi means Jew. It is hard to imagine that the usage of the word Yahoodi wasn’t inflected with the anti-Semitism that prevails in Pakistan. Growing up, it was common to hear about grand conspiracies between the US, Israel, India, and Russia (a very odd coalition) to undermine Pakistan. And this is the relatively tame variety of anti-Semitism I witnessed. When I tell people in the West about this remark, they’re puzzled. What does Jewishness have to do with anything? What indeed.
My grandmother found my gravitation towards Western culture, as she understood it, a little troubling. I had relatives who lived in the US who, when they would visit, would speak better English than anyone I knew with an accent that resembling the characters on the TV. They represented, in my mind, all that was modern. Whenever I spoke incorrect Urdu, I would face derision, yet whenever I strived to speak English well, I would be praised at school and at home. Throughout my school life in Pakistan, my spoken English distinguished me among my peers and I took pride in it. Urdu represented stagnation, English and the culture of the English-speaking word represented progress. Claudia Roden grew up in Egypt but spoke French at home and the language carried a similar prestige among her family. This germinant cosmopolitanism disturbed my grandmother I suspect.
My hero of later years, Frantz Fanon, would probably scold me for my shameful abandonment of my native being in exchange for approval from the White man. He would be correct. If it please his memory, I now have an abiding hatred of Whiteness. White, the constructed categorisation, not the people considered to fall into the categorisation.
Categorisation. That’s the word. My grandmother wished to categorise me as resembling the ‘Other’. The Jew. Anti-Semitism, as I have learned, was chiefly a product of Christendom, that later took root in the Muslim world through geopolitical events. A noteworthy example is the Protocols of The Elders of Zion, which was a concoction by a Russian ultra-Orthodox religious writer, but today influences people across the “Muslim World”.
My grandmother had never met a Jewish person in her life, but she was acquainted with the image of ‘The Jew’ as a conspiring monolithic emblem that is responsible for all that is ill in the world, especially the Muslim world. Jewishness represented to her a foreignness that would take all that is dear to her away and corrupt it to its own ungodly ends. She expressed a common and latent fear that I would abandon her native culture, adopt un-Muslim habits, marry outside the faith, have children that would be raised non-Muslim and speak only a foreign tongue divorced from her native culture, and ultimately be stolen from the collective wealth of her society itself by this foreign influence. But why Jewishness and not Whiteness? Why Jewishness and not Englishness or American-ness?
Herein, lies the tragedy of forgotten history. She is not aware, for example, that both Jews and Muslims were victimised by the Spanish Inquisition. That when Hadrian expelled the Jews from Judea, they found refuge in Mesopotamia among societies that would later be Muslim. When Christians persecuted Jews, they found new lives in places like Damascus, Cairo, Rabat, Baghdad, and even as far as the Pakistani port city of Karachi. This is not to say there was never conflict between Muslim and Jewish societies, but from what I do know of Jewish history, Christian persecution prevails overwhelmingly in shaping the Jewish historical experience.
This act of forgetting facilitates the implantation of these anti-Semitic ideas among swathes of people in the Muslim world. Chief among the animus towards Jewish people, is the state of Israel and its impunity in dispossessing and killing Palestinians explicitly in the name of advancing its ethnonationalist interests.
It is an egregiously anti-Semitic notion to conflate all of Jewry with Israel, a notion that the state of Israel very explicitly promotes. Today, this conception is the overriding consensus across Israeli society and faces no substantial challenge in international relations either. As Joe Biden once said, if there was not an Israel, then the USA would have to create an Israel in the Middle East; so important is Israel to the US strategic interest.
The tragedy of The Holocaust is desecrated when it is instrumentalised to silence people who hold Israel to account, and that an explicitly Christian, foundationally genocidal empire facilitates this immoral manoeuvre unequivocally makes it all the worse. All of this is done to serve imperial interests which involve the mass murder and dehumanisation of Muslims across the world. In this climate of Othering, categories and hierarchies of race flourish, erecting hurdles that make remembrance of shared histories impossible.
That is what it takes to extinguish, in the minds of hundreds of millions of Muslims, the sense of solidarity between Jews and Muslims that could exist. That perhaps did exist, in pockets if not universally, across history. Indeed when reading Roden’s discussions of Sephardic cuisine, the culinary overlap between Muslims and Sephardic Jews speaks volumes about past harmony.
The conditions for this solidarity have never been stronger. Today, in Europe and in North America, fascistic forces are prospering. Today their chief target is Muslims and people from further East. A scattered people, impoverished through colonialism and war wrought on them by the imperialist West, finding themselves under suspicion for their different ways of life when they try to make a new life in the West. Does this imposition of foreignness not sound familiar to the lives of Jewish people in the past?
Fascism remembers. It remembers its hatred of Jewish people and it exhibits it, somewhat paradoxically, through an effusive loyalty to Israel. This is most pronounced whenever some alt-right neo-Nazi type is accused of anti-Semitism, to which they restate their consistent and effusive support for Israel. How could, they ask, could one be anti-Semitic and also so supportive of Israel?
The common thread is ethnonationalism. It is the process of constructing categories of race and the violence necessary to enforce the consequent hierarchies. The colonisers oldest trick: divide and rule. After over a millennium of persecution, Jewish people have been “promoted” by the benevolent Whites. In colonised Uganda, Hindus were similarly promoted by the British over the Black natives. In Haiti, the French privileged mixed race affranchise over African born Black slaves. But anyone who knows history, would recognise that the existence of such hierarchies of power must themselves be eradicated. Freedom is merely privilege extended, if not enjoyed by one and all.
“At first glance it seems strange that the attitude of the anti-Semite can be equated with that of the negrophobe. It was my philosophy teacher from the Antilles who reminded me one day: “When you hear someone insulting the Jews pay attention; he is talking about you.” … Since then, I have understood that what he meant quite simply was the anti-Semite is inevitably a negrophobe.”
Frantz Fanon — Black Skins, White Masks
I dream of the existence of an impossible world every morning, a world I have no reason to believe can exist. I feel compelled by the weight of history to use this limited period of sentience and agency the universe has afforded me to evangelise for this impossible world. My voice is my most powerful tool to affect and effect. And so I write to inspire reflections among my readers, to give them pause, and to urge them to take up moral arms against the sea of troubles afflicting the Earth we inhabit.
A chance conversation with an acquaintance, an oral history, and reflecting on my own diasporic life inspired me to write this essay (?). Maybe, dear reader, I will spark some reflections within you.