Jews From Islamic Lands Speak on Muslim Immigration

By Hannah Lee, Philadelphia Jewish Voice, March 3, 2017

Iranian Jewish refugee from Kurdistan, leaving with Torah (Tehran, Iran, 1950) by Moshe Shapiro in The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (Creative Commons License)

The president’s travel ban for people from seven Muslim countries (now temporarily suspended by federal judges) has provoked outcries from the liberal community in the United States. Rallies and other acts of dissent have sprung up in most major cities. I last wrote about the response to the travel ban in the general Jewish community. I now seek to learn more from Jews who have lived in Muslim countries.

“In just 50 years, almost a million Jews, whose communities stretch back up to 3,000 years, have been ‘ethnically cleansed’ from ten Arab countries. These refugees outnumber the Palestinian refugees … , but their narrative has all but been ignored. Unlike Palestinian refugees, they fled not war, but systematic persecution,” according to Point of No Return, a blog on Jewish refugees from the Middle East.

Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Mikveh Israel is one of these Jewish refugees, and he has an amazing story that many American Jews do not know: Rabbi Gabbai was originally from Egypt. With the outbreak of the Six-Day War, Egypt rounded up all the Jewish men and put them into prison camps. (I recall learning in an earlier conversation with him that his mother brought food to the prison daily because he and his brothers did not get kosher prison rations.) Three years later, he was driven to the airport. He was given a French laissez-passer (travel document), and he arrived in Paris, with just the shirt on his back. I could have spent much more time learning about his personal story, but our conversation diverged into his views on Muslim immigration in America.

I also had the opportunity to interview two Jews from Iran. One was Ephraim Dardashti, who left Iran before the Revolution of 1979. The other, DD, who prefers to remain anonymous, left Iran after the Revolution.

Below are my questions, with responses from Rabbi Gabbai and the two Iranian-born Jews.

How was life in your native land?

DD: In Iran, by 1979, most of the Jewish community had moved out of the Jewish ghetto. I’m the third child in my family and the first one that was born outside the ghetto. Jews had started to excel both academically and financially. There was still a great deal of anti-Semitism and overt discrimination all around. The hostility took a sharp turn for the worse starting in 1978.

ED: During the reign of the Shah, the Jews were overall well-off at the time. They had economic and educational opportunities that were unprecedented. The ruling regime wanted to move the country to the modern age and leave the Middle Ages behind as quickly as possible. The Jews took advantage of this opportunity, and as result, were far over-represented in the professions and in the economic life of the country.

The socio-religious prejudices were below the surface, but they never disappeared despite the assimilation of the Jews into the society at large. Shiite Iran and pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Iran had a long checkered history when it came to the treatment of the Jews. Prior to the 20th century, there were frequent violent outbursts against the Jews and forced conversions. The Jewish community was battered. Missionaries and the religion of Bahaism made strong inroads among the Jews in the 19th century.

What is it like now? Is there still a Jewish community?

DD: There is still a Jewish community in my hometown of Shiraz, although it has shrunk quite a bit. The Jewish school is controlled by the government, with a Muslim administration, and the school is required to operate on Shabbat. The Jewish education books are issued by the government and taught in Farsi. The contents have a Muslim slant. Jews are excluded from positions of authority and certain professions.

ED: At the time of the Islamic Revolution, the population of Iran was 35 million; the Jews numbered around 125,000. Today, the population of the country is around 80 million, and the Jewish population numbers around 20,000. I think that the numbers speak for themselves.

HL: According to Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University in The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, at most, less than ten Jews remain in Egypt today.

What is your view on the United States welcoming Muslim refugees?

AG: As Jews, we welcome people who are persecuted. As Jews, we have to protect ourselves. As Jews, we have to follow the law of the land: dina d’malkhuta dina (Aramaic: דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא‎‎).

The guiding principle should be that whoever comes here is not here to harm us. As a Jew who was persecuted for his faith and ethnicity, I sympathize much with people who were persecuted, despite being innocent of any crimes.

We are always guided by our Jewish principles. The laws of Maimonides for tzedakah (charity) direct us to focus first on our inner circle – the family – before we address the needs of the community. We cannot solve the problems of the whole world.

Millions want to come here for a better life. We’re not being honest with ourselves if we don’t admit that.

Syrians have fled to Turkey and Jordan. They’re not being killed there. The United States can send them money, medicine and blankets. It does not make sense to bring them here.

We should not discriminate between Christians and Muslims, black and other, when we’re talking about saving people whose lives are in danger.

What are your thoughts on the impact of Muslim refugees on American society?

AG: Germany allowed entry to close to one million Muslims. Most are not from Syria, but are from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa. About 80-90% of these people are able-bodied young people, who are not escaping from war, but choosing a better life. They do not care for assimilation.

They live in enclaves, in suburbs such as outside Paris. They cannot afford to live elsewhere. This complicates the problem of assimilation and fosters radicalization. These are police “no go” zones. Muslim community peer pressure enforces a rigid form of piety.

DD: I think Islam, at least the way it is taught in almost all Muslim countries, is the problem, not the Muslims. I’m more concerned about the Muslim schools and mosques, mostly funded by Saudi Arabia, that indoctrinate the followers with Islamic supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideology. I have an employee who is a Muslim from India who was confiding to me that he could not find a mosque that followed the moderate version that he was used to in India.

I do think that American citizenship requires acceptance of American law. I was catching a flight back from Detroit a few months ago, and I was stuck behind a Muslim lady who was trying to board with a full niqab (a full-body covering, with only the eyes visible). I think requiring that level of acceptance in America is unreasonable.

ED: The problem facing Europe and the U.S. has fundamentally to do with the nature of Islam. Islam had a golden period in the Middle Ages: the sciences, mathematics and medicine coming out of the vast Islamic lands were far superior to anything comparable in Medieval Europe. But, Islamic societies have hit the wall.

A glorious past, but nothing to show these days despite its oil wealth in parts of the Islamic world. The Islamic world resembles a person who has a glorious lineage, but he or she today has nothing to show for it. The Islamic lands have tried all the “isms” out there — socialism, nationalism, communism and capitalism — yet they are behind in every facet.

Does the resettlement of Muslims differ between the United States and Europe?

AG: In the U. S., there is more opportunity to be part of the “melting pot” because of the American approach to life and liberty and to our greater tolerance for diversity. (Note: In the Arab Middle East, there is no tolerance for diversity.)

DD: I’m a bit conflicted. On the one hand, being an Orthodox Jew, I understand the desire to maintain one’s cultural identity. On the other hand, we Jews, or other similar groups such as the Amish, do not try to impose our way of life on others or resort to violence if our religious sensitivities are offended. I think the U.S. has been somewhat more successful than Europe in absorbing Muslims.

Having experienced the indoctrination that goes on in Muslim countries — having attended a public school — I think there is a clash of civilizations. That said, many Muslims who are trying to migrate to the U.S. and Europe are also escaping the repressive culture. We somehow need to be open to the moderate Muslims and those escaping repression, while fighting the Islamic supremacist ideology, including the institutions and people that promote it here.

ED: These societies are imploding as demonstrated by the Arab Spring. Folks are fleeing them and moving to the heartlands of nations that colonized them in the past, or others, like the U.S. and Canada, that have sheltered them.

In Europe overall, immigrants from Islamic lands are reminded on a daily basis — by self-comparison — how backward they are. Those coming from male-dominated cultures are baffled by the sexual morality of their adopted countries, freedom of thought and generational gaps.

In Europe, as well as in their home countries, the elixir for all the miseries and jealousy has been a return to a misunderstood and over-glorified past. If only Shariah and Koranic rule were in place, then they would be back as great or greater than their glorious ancestors. Islam has to confront itself and modernize. The Jews have done that successfully over the ages.

The frustrated, damaged “refugee” clinging to the unreformed Islam of his ancestors is a time bomb, as demonstrated in Paris, Brussels, Tunisia and elsewhere. Iranians represent the largest non-American ethnic group in the ranks of professors in American colleges and universities. These are the children of the “westernized” and secularized Iranians dating back to the advances under the Pahlavi regime.

This is not about immigration or refugee resettlement, but rather about time-traveling — folks moving from the Middle Ages to the 21st century and their ability to adapt. Eastern Jews made the leap when they moved to Israel. Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees adapted. The Muslim communities sending their kids to madrassas in Minnesota, California, Michigan, New York and Tennessee haven’t, and they are ticking time bombs. The problem is Islam being stuck in the mud of the Middle Ages and dragging into the earth those clinging to that version of it.

Political correctness and the mediocre state of “liberal” education and the fact that we see everything from the prism of the 60’s racial-equality battles have robbed us of the ability to think and analyze. The problem is not immigration or refugee resettlement, but rather a poisoned and dying Islam that, unless it reforms itself, will take down its own adherents and those they come in contact with.

AG: Here, when you ask for directions in accented English, people go out of their way to help, even if by giving erroneous directions.

On Being An Alien

By Hannah Lee 

            Animal species adapted to protect itself from the unknown: it’s always Us or the Other.  So, animals explore with their world warily with long-range vision, acute hearing, and a fine sense of taste (e.g., toxic substances taste bitter).  Human beings have devised more sophisticated ways to assess the foreign, the unfamiliar.  The rare pioneers are the ones who journey to a new land, try a new food, or welcome strangers.  I get that.

           In a recent issue of the New York Times [10/11/2016] on the front page, an editor wrote about a disagreeable incident when a woman yelled at his family, from the safety of her car, to “go back to China.”  Yes, Michael Luo is Chinese-born; he graduated from Harvard and probably speaks and writes English better than the provocateur. He leads a team of reporters focused on investigations and long-form narratives. In 2016, his reporters were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in three categories: investigative reporting, local reporting and feature writing. Luo posted an open letter on the Times’s website and it sparked a tremendous outpouring of responses, mostly from Asian-Americans with their own stories of racial prejudice, both overt and subtle.  As a Chinese-American immigrant from Hong Kong, I, too, have my stories. 

           People fear that this country is changing, but the ship has already left the port: among today’s young people, nearly one-half are members of racial minorities [New Republic, 11/2014].  The world is a large place and we cannot keep our borders closed— not from people, not from technology or ideas, not from viruses or pathogens.  All but the Native Americans are immigrants to this new land.

            I approach the world with curiosity and wonder.  Whenever I travel by taxi, I look at the name tags, and I ask if the driver was born abroad.  If so, I ask what they like about America, their favorite foods, and if there’s a restaurant that serves their cuisine.  It’s fun and I broaden my knowledge of other cultures, other peoples.   At my work, I routinely ask people with unusual names, what is their ethnicity? Sometimes, I’m rebuffed, but often times, it leads to a small conversation about themselves.

            Each year, Jews are reminded to remember that they were once strangers in a strange land, in the Hagadah reading on Passover [Exodus 23:9].   (Actually, to be a Jew is to be a stranger, writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.)  It seems that Americans, all of foreign ancestry, need to keep in focus the poem of Emma Lazarus (inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty) to develop the empathy for the foreigner:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Until we are all free, we are none of us free.