For over a century, ever since the Zionist project began, Jews have been vilified in the Arab press as usurpers of Palestine. There were also the religious aspects in the condemnation of Jews as evildoers and enemies of the prophet Mohammad. Even after the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the Egyptian media viciously portrayed Jews using such old medieval calumnies as accusations that Jews kill children to use their blood on Passover matzos. Israel’s peace with Jordan in 1994 did not do much to improve how the Jordanian people saw Israel and Jews. In short, the governments of both Egypt and Jordan failed to prepare their people for peaceful people to people relationships.
The recent Abrahamic peace treaties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain signed in the White House, with the President Donald Trump serving as the facilitator, has brought on a refreshing air of amity and positivity. It is a more real peace that is not just between governments, but rather has the people on sides involved, as well as in business relations, and two-way tourism. The Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), an Emirati-Saudi media conglomerate based in Dubai has presented a drama series called “Umm Haroun,” aired during month of the Ramadan fast, a major TV audience occasion, especially with the coronavirus keeping many people at home, thus increasing the watching audience. The series explores the Jewish roots in the Gulf, and the historic ties Jewish people have to the Arab Gulf region.
Umm Haroun ((Mother of Aaron) TV series is creating a storm in the Arab world. Perhaps for the first time, it shows that the Palestinians are not the only victims in the region. The Jews of the Arab world lived in the region long before the advent of Islam, and even before the birth of Christianity. They were brutally expelled from the Arab states at the birth of the Jewish state in 1948, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, about a million Jews altogether. Their properties were expropriated by the Arab governments in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, to name a few. They were destitute upon their arrival in Israel.
The center of the series involves a female Jewish physician and her family, faced with the difficulties of being a persecuted minority during the 1940’s. Many among the viewing audience throughout the Arab world expressed anger at the MBC creators of the series, for showing the Jews as victims of the Arab Muslim majority. Arab audiences are used to receiving a steady diet of the narrative that presented the Palestinian Arabs as victimized by Jews. These same Arab protesters are furious that the series speaks of the birth of Israel at the termination of the British Mandate. They expected instead to hear that Israel has risen as the British Mandate terminated on the soil of Arab Palestine.
Although the events in the Umm Haroun series are essentially fictional, and take place in an unnamed location, the writers based their script on the real life experience of Bahrain’s Jewish community. The protagonist – Umm Haroun, played by a veteran Kuwaiti actress Hayat al-Fahad, is inspired by the real life persona of Umm Jaan in Bahrain. The fictional drama focuses on tolerance, moderation, openness, and coexistence; showcasing according to its writers “life before sectarianism.” According to the MBC group, “The series has so far secured the number one spot in the Ramadan TV Gulf dramas in Saudi Arabia.”
To prepare for the actors to play Jewish characters, the series writers Ali and Mohammad Shams and director Mohammed El Adl called in the help of Nancy Khedouri, a Bahraini politician, businesswoman, and writer. She is one of the few remaining Jews in the country. Khedouri has documented the history of Bahraini Jews in her book titled, “From Our Beginning to Present Day.”
The series has highlighted a fierce debate in the Arab world about relations with Israel. It also exposes the split in the Arab world over the issue of Israel. In, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, areas dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the fiercest criticism is directed towards Saudi Arabia. These critics in the pro-Iranian sphere claim that the Saudis have increasingly been pushing to the margins the Palestinian issue. They point out the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative, and the more recent Saudi endorsement of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” The same critics charge that Umm Haroun is meant to change public opinion in the Arab world toward Israel and Jews, and thus, pave the way for normalization with Israel. The Qatari sponsored Al-Jazeera TV is leading the attack on Umm Haroun. It is clear however, that much of it is directed by Iran, which is seeking to prevent the formation of a U.S., Trump administration inspired NATO-like coalition of moderate Sunni-Arab states and Israel, as barrier against Iran’s aggression and expansionism.
As far as the Saudis are concerned, the criticism and hatred displayed towards them, stems from envy by these Arab states for the success and wealth of the Saudis and their Gulf partners including the UAE and Bahrain. The most vicious attacks though, over the showing of Umm Haroun, have come from Palestinians social media surfers. They have called the Saudis “primitive desert camel drivers.” Saudi social media surfers responded by reminding the Palestinians that they have for decades now provided them with millions of dollars, and that the money disappeared without the Palestinians achieving their national goals due to corruption. They accuse the Palestinians of being “ungrateful and treacherous.” The conflict between the Palestinians and the Saudis has intensified following Saudi Arabia’s sanctions against Qatar in 2017. Qatar’s mouthpiece, Al-Jazeera has become the propaganda voice for the Palestinians. Umm Haroun is another issue by the Palestinians and Qataris to attack the Saudis.
The creation of Umm Haroun is indicative of a recent change in the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it is not surprising that such a production that presents Jews with objectivity is occurring in the Gulf and not in Iraq, Lebanon or Syria. It is quite amazing to see Arab-Muslim actors playing Jews, speaking Hebrew (albeit with mistakes), and telling a story that describes the persecution of Jews in the Arab world. In fact, the subject of the expulsion of the Jews, almost a million strong, from the Arab countries, was a taboo until now. Arab textbook publishers have only been allowed to have one refugee story and its ultimate victimhood – that is the story of the Palestinian who was expelled from his land. The Jew, on the other hand, is characterized as the “Zionist usurper.” In the Arab world there is the concern that Israel might use the expulsion of the Jews from Arab lands to vacate the “Palestinian refugees’ right of return.” The “right of return” has been the primary weapon the Palestinians and the Arab world have used to undermine the Jewish state through demographic means. This is the key to understanding Arab criticism of the Umm Haroun TV series.
Are we entering a new Middle East? Is the existential threat Iran poses to the Sunni-Arab Gulf states, the reason for the changed attitude regarding Israel and Jews? Is the change temporary or a sincere realization that peace with Israel, and religious tolerance will benefit everyone? Only time will tell…