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Jews are people too

By Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet

Those of you who listen to me often (I don’t recommend it), will probably be able to identify that one of my frequent refrains is ‘Jews are people too.’ When I say this I mean in in the sense that Judaism is like other religions and Jews are like other people– and often, when we’re struggling to understand something about Judaism it’s helpful to zoom out and simply consider what the human response is. Today, I’m interested to discuss a totally different meaning of the phrase ‘Jews are people too’ – this time because quite a few people have been suggesting exactly the opposite! 

If you’re not aware, it is presently Ramadan– and one of the modern rituals for observant Muslims is the Ramadan soap-opera. Usually produced by Saudi Arabian TV or another wealthy Gulf state, Arabic TV dramas which air every night over the course of the month of Ramadan are wildly popular. Families break the fast each evening while watching one of these shows– and as a result, they are extremely influential on Arab and Muslim society. Technically called a musalal, it’s basically the Arabic equivalent of a telenovela– and this year’s major offering has caused quite a scandal. 

A private Saudi TV network has been broadcasting the drama Umm Haroun (Aaron’s Mother) over this Ramadan– and boy are people angry! Umm Haroun tells the fictionalised story of a real woman, a Jewish midwife who became a folk hero in Bahrain and then Iraq in the 1930s and 1940s. Umm Haroun focuses on an elderly Jewish nurse and her family in 1940s Kuwait, how they interact with their neighbours, and how the changes in society affect them. Doesn’t sound that radical, does it? Well, the problem of course is that the show makes it seem as though Jews are people, too. 

Admittedly, it is quite unprecedented to see Jews represented positively (or even neutrally) in contemporary Arab media. Certainly there is no discussion of Israel, and as a result, the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries in the 1950s is largely ignored or denied. Yet, Umm Haroun addresses an historical reality– Jews did live largely in peace with their Muslim and Christian neighbours in the Persian Gulf up until the 1950s. The show features love-triangles, mistaken identities, medical crisis and surprise twists (telenovela, remember?) that treat the Jewish protagonist and her family as no different from anyone else. There’s even a rabbi! 

Unfortunately this has evoked significant anger among many Palestinian groups, particularly Hamas, whose spokesman said that Umm Haroun, “…spreads strange ideas that call for coexistence with the occupation, and dare[s] to question the Palestinian cause” (Just to be clear, it doesn’t do any of that). Another Hamas official suggested the show was a “political and cultural attempt to introduce the Zionist project to Persian Gulf society,” adding: “The character of Umm Haroun reminds me of [Israeli prime minister] Golda Meir, the head of the occupation, who was a murderous criminal. This is the goal of normalisation: hatred, slow killing and internal destruction.” Guess it’s two thumbs down from them then? 

This critique is ridiculous and belies one of the root problems in Palestinian civil society: some (probably a minority) believe that it is not Israel which is the problem, but Jews. Umm Haroun isn’t about Israel. It isn’t about the 1948 war, nor the 1967 war, nor Golda Meir. Nor are the actors, producers, or filmmakers Jewish. Only the subject is. What Hamas objects to is showing that Jews are people too. It’s saddening to see this become so explicit, but it’s also good, because it helps us to see who is actually interested in peace and cooperation and who is hopelessly entrenched in racism and antisemitism. 

When Umm Haroun is eventually subtitled in English, I’m looking forward to watching it– partially to spite Hamas and partially because I do love a good over-dramatic telenovela. Surely there will be cliffhangers and twists, but what won’t be a surprise to me is this simple fact: Jews are people too.

Rabbi Adam Zagoria Moffet is rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue

Posted on 12 May 2020