Last month, the Lebanese embassy in Paris invited Lebanese Jews for a ‘family reunion’. Was this a ‘welcome home ‘ or a transactional event, a cynical, fundraising advertisement for the fantasy of a pluralistic Lebanon? David Daoud does not mince his words in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily, Tom):
Identity is complicated.
The incongruity of my fluent Lebanese Arabic and the Star of David always hanging around my neck usually prompts curious inquiries into my origins – those origins. I prefer to cut those questions short, invariably responding, “I’m from Connecticut.”
Particularly with Lebanese interlocutors. I know they’ve probably heard of Lebanese Jews. Maybe from their parents, or they’ve seen Beirut’s Maghen Abraham synagogue, or watched a documentary about the community. Rarely have they met one, but seldom is their curiosity about my origins meant to initiate a genuine inquiry into Lebanese Jewry – our identity, customs, sentiments, or beliefs. Rarely, it seems, are Lebanese interested in us as real people rather than props. These interactions often carry an implicit invitation to claim my presumed “Lebanese patrimony,” tied to my parents who left in 1989, thus stamping my hechsher on an imagined pluralistic Lebanon, a country which rejects my Jewish identity. But I unfailingly refuse these invitations.
I’m simply not Lebanese. I don’t, and don’t want to, fit into their “Lebanese” box, a token, yet another “Arab Jew” – that irksome term seemingly designed to erase our ethnic identity – playing a role created by someone else.
That’s why, when I saw that the Lebanese government had taken the unusual step of inviting Jews who’d left Lebanon to a “family reunion” in its Paris embassy, where the Lebanese ambassador told them the Lebanese state was in danger and “all sects” needed to come to its aid, calling on them to come “home,” I didn’t feel the delight of a long-delayed recognition of kinship. Quite the opposite.
I grew up thoroughly American in Connecticut, where I formed my most meaningful early memories and childhood connections. Without the memories (or sufficient substitutes) which anchor the older generation’s nostalgic, albeit complicated, longing for a “lost homeland,” I failed to develop any feelings for Lebanon. What little childhood exposure I had to Lebanon came from my mother – the language, music, or occasional dish – but it failed to resonate. I knew of Khalil Gebran, of Fairouz, Sabah, and Wadih al-Safi, and kibbeh nayyeh. But my father preferred Frank Sinatra, the Foundations, and Bob Dylan, among others; these were the soundtrack of my childhood, before I even formed my own musical tastes. And I thought kibbeh nayyeh was gross. I still think it’s gross.
My mother’s stories about Lebanon seemed like fables, their characters and settings lacking counterparts in my childhood surroundings. And her Arabic lessons only distanced me from Lebanon. I chafed against learning a language incomprehensible to my American friends, and which, at the time, served only to expose me to the region’s widespread antisemitic and anti-American sentiments. America was my only country, and Israel was my ancestral homeland – two nations that gave my people dignity, whose sights and smells I’d experienced firsthand, and which embodied identities I lived daily, not an intangible one left behind by my parents in a distant land where Jews were second-class citizens.
When I first visited Lebanon as an adult, my sentiments and identity had been fully formed. The experience reinforced my emotional detachment, the sense that I couldn’t belong without abandoning the meaningful parts of my identity. I still remember fretting over whether to pack my tallit and tefillin and my relief as I passed through Beirut airport’s security without them being discovered. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but why would I even want to belong to a country where I’d ever have to feel that way, where I felt the need to hide my identity?
I also found myself unable to relate to the Lebanese – their culture, history, aspirations, triumphs, travails, and prejudices were simply not my own. I spoke their language and could understand them on an intellectual level. But I would never innately relate to the world through a “Lebanese lens.”
Not to mention the casual antisemitism, and the characteristic smugness with which Lebanese would pontificate – inaccurately – on Jews and Judaism. It wasn’t everyone, but there was enough of it to be off-putting. The Shiite woman and her daughter who recounted their fear of being poisoned by Moroccan Jewish hoteliers in France; the self-assured Sunni doctor who lectured me on how the “pornography” of the Song of Songs accounted for Jewish women’s “loose morals”; the Christian woman who surprisingly borrowed a Qur’anic term – al-maghdoub alayhum, those who anger God – to describe Jews.
I also recall my inability to respond. It is with that mindset of indifference and wariness that I initially reacted to the Lebanese Embassy in France’s invitation to local Lebanese Jews to a meet-up in Paris, an invitation that several dozen Jews answered by attending, joined by France’s Chief Rabbi, Haim Korsia. “Are these your cousins?” a friend of mine jokingly texted. “God, I hope not,” I dismissively responded. To another friend, I responded “Mixed feelings, tbh.”
I’d felt those same mixed-to-negative feelings about Maghen Abraham’s restoration a decade prior – “That’s nice, but so what? Actually, maybe it’s a bad idea for Jews to visibly congregate in a country dominated by Hezbollah…”
But then I read the fine print, and indignation replaced indifference. A 70- year-old Jewish woman who had left Lebanon three decades ago asked Ambassador Rami Adwan “Why now?” He responded that Lebanon was “currently in danger, and all of its citizens, of all sects, must help save it.”
This wasn’t a welcome home party. Per An-Nahar, “this meeting dealt with the Jews as…as one of the capabilities [qudra min qudurat] of the Lebanese diaspora communities which, as a result, have the abilities to help Lebanon emerge from its downfall.” This was a transactional event, a fundraising advertisement for the fantasy of a pluralistic Lebanon, with some Jews thrown in for good measure. Lebanon was cynically manipulating these guests – their nostalgia, memories, and longing for their birth country – to use them as an untapped resource, no different from the offshore hydro-carbon deposits it is disputing with Israel.
The media has almost completely ignored the annual commemoration of the exodus of Jews from Arab countries and Iran, argues HonestReporting, while Matt Lebovic, writing in the Times of Israel, says that Jewish persecution has been denied or downplayed (with thanks Michelle, Dan):
The media went into overdrive this week with wall-to-wall coverage of the United Nations’ “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” that marked the 74th anniversary of the historic partition proposal that would have – but for its rejection by the entire Arab world – resulted in a Jewish state alongside an Arab one. In fact, this series of speeches and ‘cultural events’ only served to legitimize the Palestinian ‘right of return’ demand that would – if ever actualized – destroy the Jewish state by weight of numbers.
In stark contrast, the November 30 commemoration by Israel and the entire Jewish world of the expulsion of Jews from Arab and Islamic lands that took place following the Palestinian leadership and neighboring Arab states’ violent rejection of the UN Partition Plan generated virtually no coverage by prominent news outlets.
Surrounding Cairo’s Tahrir Square, houses confiscated from Jewish families host Egypt’s top foreign embassies. To this day, ambassadors from Germany, Switzerland, and the United States work or live in homes expropriated from Jews after 1948, while other formerly Jewish-owned homes became the Great Library of Cairo and government offices.
The expulsion of 850,000 mostly Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) and Sephardic Jews from Arab and Muslim countries took place before, during, and after the Holocaust. As nationalist Arab leaders aligned with Nazi Germany in the name of oil and expelling the British, Jewish communities were targeted for pauperization, expulsion, and murder.
Despite the region’s centrality to Jewish history, the narratives of Middle Eastern Jews have long been considered “supplemental” in collective Jewish memory, as well as that of the rest of the world. One of several reasons for the marginalization of their accounts is that Mizrahi Jews developed different ways of telling their stories, according to historian and journalist Edwin Black.
The grand-daughter of a Moroccan refugee, Meirav Cohen, is now a minister in the Israeli government, but more must be done to educate Israelis about the plight of refugees. To-date, no Arab government has accepted responsiblity for driving out their Jews, says President Isaac Herzog, whose mother was born in Egypt. Both Minister Cohen and President Herzog addressed the official commemoration of the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran. The Jerusalem Post reports:
President Isaac Herzog speaks on the first night of Hanukkah at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, November 28, 2021. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog and Social Equality and Pensioners Minister Meirav Cohen (Yesh Atid) also addressed the commemoration ceremony.
The underlying message by all the speakers as well as by compère and radio and television personality Jackie Levy was that more than two thousand years of the achievements and traditions of Jews in Arab lands, had been largely ignored in Israel, and it was imperative for the stories to be told.
Herzog himself said that even though immigrants from Arab lands and Iran had arrived in Israel with virtually nothing, there was a spark of optimism in that they had overcome their difficulties and had contributed to the upbuilding of the nation. Cohen was the symbol of this, Herzog said, noting that her grandparents Saadia and Sala had come from Morocco and had been sent to Ramle, where Saadia worked very hard to provide for his family, and today his granddaughter is a minister in the government of Israel.
Long before Cohen’s grandparents and others like them came to Israel, said Herzog, there had been a steady trickle of migration from Morocco for some five hundred years.
There is no doubt about the how or the why Jews left Arab lands, and to this day, no Arab government has accepted responsibility, said Herzog. Acknowledging that more of the story must be told, Herzog praised a woman in the audience who has put the story of Iraqi Jews on the Internet for the whole of the world to see.
He was hopeful that changes in the region and the normalization of relations between Israel and various Muslim countries will help to strengthen relations between Israel and the few Jews still living in those countries.
Today is 30 November, the date designated by the Israeli Knesset to mark the 20th century departure and exodus of Jews from Arab countries and Iran and the destruction of their communities. Many commemorative events are being held around the world at this time. We highlight three of the many articles which have appeared in the press to mark one the end of this 2,600-year old chapter in Jewish history – and the start of a new one:
Learning about Middle Eastern and North African Jews can help solve Jewish challenges (David A Dangoor – Jerusalem Post)
When the law to create a Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran to be commemorated annually on November 30th was passed in the Knesset plenum in 2014, there was great excitement and expectation, especially among Jews from those countries which in total make up nearly a third of global Jewry.
Nonetheless, in the seven years since the passage of the law, it is clear that the event remains very much unknown and un-commemorated by the vast majority of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.
Worse still, one of the central components of the law, that Jews in Israel and around the world would learn about the history, culture and subsequent expulsion of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) goes unfulfilled.
Apart from a worthy effort by Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), a nonprofit organization headquartered in San Francisco, there has been little or no attempt at formalizing a curriculum to educate students of all ages on the heritage and history of MENA Jews.
Unfortunately, at almost every global Jewish educational institution, Jewish history means European Jewish history, Jewish culture means Ashkenazi culture, and almost every event to discuss Jewish global challenges is absent a voice representing MENA Jews.
Even in the current discourse of pluralism and widening the Jewish tent to include multiple Jewish identities, MENA Jews remain conspicuously absent outside of their own institutions. The global Jewish conversation remains limited by their absence.
The global Jewish narrative remains minimally European in context and exclusionary to those whose history and heritage remain outside of the continent.
Even Zionism is still taught as a purely European modern project, unfortunately leaving room for anti-Israel voices to make the inaccurate and defamatory assertions that it is colonial or imperialist in nature. There is no mention of the millennia of practical Zionists from the non-Ashkenazi world, including the Ramban, Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi and rabbis Yehuda Bibas and Judah Alkalai, from whom, through his grandfather, Theodore Herzl would later adopt the idea of a practical and physical restoration of sovereignty in the indigenous and ancestral Jewish homeland.
The Jews of MENA did not need to learn of a modern Zionism, because it was a constant theme throughout their Diaspora. There was no firewall for many Jews of the Sephardi and Mizrahi world between the fulfillment of religious prophecy and the practical ideas of sovereignty, self-determination and statehood.
Added to this, is the moderation and flexibility of MENA rabbinical leaders from antiquity to the modern era, which chose a communitarian Judaism over an individual, and a commitment to the balance inherent in the Maimonidean “Golden Mean” of a Judaism which sits comfortably eschewing extremes.
These and many other aspects of MENA Jewish history, culture and tradition are vital more than ever.
Learning about them and understanding their worldview would undoubtedly help us meet many of the issues facing the Jewish world today, whether Israel-Diaspora relations, tensions between the religious and secular and global Jewish solidarity.
There is much in the MENA Jewish experience and worldview of value for 21st-century global Jewish challenges.
Moreover, commemorating the day is an important act of solidarity.
Jews from the MENA region have for too long been thought of as the “other Jews” as Prof. Daniel Elazar once described Jews of Mediterranean, Western Asian or African descent. This othering has led to myths that Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are somehow “backward,” “superstitious” or “medieval.”
These myths about communities that were, in reality, cosmopolitan, highly educated and worldly, and rational in their outlook, perpetuate ongoing prejudices.
Education, clarity and the study of MENA Jewry would clear up these problematic myths and bring our people, as a whole, closer together. The more one understands each other and our different but equal experiences and histories, the more we can build a better future.
Yom HaGirush: the inside story of Expulsion Day (Edwin Black – syndicated to 35 media outlets)
In June 2015, I and a group of committed communal leaders were able to do what many memory-seared families called the impossible: proclaim International Farhud Day at the United Nations in a historic event globally livestreamed by the U.N. itself.
But I always wanted to do more and give identity and homage to the mass expulsion. This month, with the support of my colleagues in many countries, on a special edition of “The Edwin Black Show,” I proclaimed Nov. 30 forever more to be a day of remembrance named “Yom HaGirush.”
That name, Yom HaGirush, marks when Jewish communities across many countries were once again dispossessed, but became repossessed in the free nation of Israel. The Jewish state now possesses these people and their descendants—and they in turn now possess their Jewish state. Possession is nine-tenths of survival. Israel has become the final stop for the Jews.
From Morocco to India, and from Yemen to Afghanistan, the lives and centuries of legacies were incinerated. It was done in broad daylight with barely a murmur from the world.
Remembering the troubled yet rich history of Jews in Arab lands (Avi Benlolo – National Post, Canada)
Despite the fact Jews were scattered in Arab-dominant lands for more than 2,000 years, their rich history has been mostly silent. However, attention to their plight has gained momentum in the past several years, culminating in the naming of Nov. 30 as an official memorial day to mark their expulsion and departure from Arab countries and Iran. The date was chosen for symbolic reasons as it was soon after the Nov. 29, 1947, United Nations announcement of a partition plan for Israel and an Arab state, that Jews in neighbouring Arab and Persian countries started to experience hostility there.
With the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948, Arab nationalism and anti-Semitism increased and Jews living in Muslim-majority nations had little choice but to flee. While German Nazism inspired and emboldened violence against Jewish communities between 1940-1945 in Arab-majority lands, the soil was fertile for Arab states to turn against their own Jewish citizens once the declaration for an independent Jewish state had been made in Tel Aviv.
Thus came about the beginning of the end of an incredible and rich history. Palestinians often claim that 1948 was the “nakba” for their descendants. But what is often ignored is that over one million Jews living in Arab lands would also experience their own “catastrophe” that has never been acknowledged or compensated. They became refugees overnight — uprooted from their homes and communities. Most found refuge in the fledgling State of Israel, while others moved to France, Canada and America.
Their communities, families and cultures were shattered into a million pieces. To put this devastation into perspective, some 265,000 Moroccan Jews left behind their homes; 140,000 Algerian and 105,000 Tunisian Jews locked up their ancient synagogues and cemeteries; 75,000 Egyptian and 135,000 Iraqi Jews closed their schools and businesses; 63,000 Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel; and Syrian, Lebanese, Persian, Turkish and Libyan Jews made their dangerous trek to Israel on barges and across deserts.
Despite the fact that many Jews from Arab lands were educated professionals, they faced hardship and often times discrimination in Israel. My own grandparents, having lived a modern, well-heeled cosmopolitan life in Casablanca and having been educated in the Alliance French school system, were sent to a refugee camp in the southern city of Ashkelon. In one of his last letters before passing away from an illness at the young age of 46, my grandfather, Emile Azoulay, spoke of his daily challenges adapting to his new life.
This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.
Point of No Return
Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
One-stop blog on the Middle East's forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.