Aaron Vincent Elkaim’s project on Morocco’s Jewish heritage immediately caught my attention not because of the photographs, but because of words that underpin the ideas and ideals of the project. These words immediately suggested a photographer of considerable intelligence and courage, and willing to accept and understand histories that today lie buried under propaganda, lies and sheer hypocrisy.
Aaron reveals a mind that is sharp, and honest, something he underlines in his statement on the Burn Magazine site that recently featured his work:
Protected under the Islamic Principle of Tolerance since the 7th century, they flourished, holding high positions in trade and government. The Star of David was a symbol shared by all Moroccans, appearing on currency and even the national flag. During the Holocaust, when asked for a list of Jews, King Mohammed V declared, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.” Jews and Muslims were united by culture and kingdom.
Following World War II, Zionists recruiters targeted Moroccan Jews to populate the new State of Israel. Israel’s expansion marked the beginning of a Moroccan Jewish exodus. 300,000 Jews inhabited Morocco as of 1940; it was the largest Jewish population in the Arab World. Today, less than 4000 remain.
There is no bigoted resort to claims of ‘ancient hatreds’ or Arab anti-Semitism, or falsified histories of Jewish persecution in Muslim lands. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post called Seeing Europe Everywhere, Even In The Unfolding Of Another People’s History, where I question the false histories that attempt to convince us that the Arabs are the new anti-Semites.
Aaron Vincent Elkaim knows his history, and he knows also the tightly entwined cultural, political, social, intellectual and economic environment of the Arab Jews and their deep and important contributions to Arab societies and polity. As a man of Jewish descent, his is a voice truly essential and truly beautiful to find.
But these are inconvenient facts, as demonstrated by the reviews and reception of the works of people like Ammiel Alcalay, whose After Jew And Arab: Remaking Levantine Culture was received with tremendous scepticism and in other instances outright hostility.
But works such as Professor Alcalay’s remind us all that is shared and embroiled, rather than the histories that the nationalists and fundamentalists prefer to manufacture. Professor Alcalay explains his intentions about such works in an interview with Al-Jadid magazine:
It always helps to have a dream beyond the constant and unspeakable horrors so many people are subjected to. My work opens new space to forge alliances, even on a small-scale, but with a cold eye cast at the appalling state of things in general. As a critic, activist, writer, translator, and teacher I do have an effect on the way people who encounter me think. It might not be as significant as people in various kinds of life saving professions, but I think it has had an incremental effect in the world.
Indeed, the incremental effects are the long-lasting ones. I can only hope the same for Aaron Vincent Elkaim. These are histories that offer correctives to the nationalist and sectarian fantasies that have been created to justify division, occupation and violence. Whether Arabs or Jews, it is imperative that we begin to take back our lived heritage, our living memories and our genuine histories.
At the very least it is imperative that we begin to develop that ‘…an acute sense not of how things are separated but of how they are connected, mixed, involved, embroiled, linked.’ (Said, Edward (2001) ‘Nationalism, Human Rights & Interpretation’ in Reflections on Exile Granta Books (Page 430)) Projects such as Elkaim’s remind us of this involvement and link.
I look forward to the development of Elkaim’s work and only hope that it acts as an inspiration to others.