The man from the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign was angry. “You’re changing the narrative!” he spluttered, muttering slogans about ‘Ethnic cleansing’ and ‘Palestinian land stolen by right-wing Zionists’.
You bet we’re changing the narrative. For the first time at Refugee Week, an annual festival held on London’s South Bank, Jewish refugees were being represented. Our small Harif stand boasted a poster or two, a Syrian door frame bearing a mezuzah, and two finely carved chairs. We were right next to Amnesty International (who graciously handed out our non-political leaflets) and were having our nostrils tickled by smells from Gourmet Pizza and Moroccan Tagine opposite.
Passers-by were mostly friendly. The man from Moroccan Tagine said how much Moroccan Muslims missed their Jewish neighbours. An elderly Arab couple stopped by to say hello. Those who wanted to find out more were handed a plastic mezuzah wrapped in a scroll of facts and statistics. The Mezuzah is our campaign symbol for Jewish homes abandoned all over the Middle East and North Africa.
Among the young people and families strolling past were Jews, delighted to touch base with other Jews. (A few were lost sheep now living in resolutely non-Jewish Peckham or Newcross). One or two had a Jewish grandparent and felt a nebulous sense of kinship.
A refugee who had to flee Rwanda lingered to say what a struggle it was to get her children interested in their African roots. A Sudanese Muslim girl and her Iraqi-Indian companion, who had worked with refugees, were genuinely fascinated by Jewish refugees from Arab countries. They were burning to know more.
Our purpose was to celebrate the 20,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries who had found sanctuary in the UK. Our only awkward customers were the hardcore Palestinian Solidarity brigade, whom we came to recognise by their lapel badges and ‘lean and hungry’ look. In spite of the best efforts of several Jewish refugees from Iraq among us, we soon realised there was no point wasting our breath arguing with them.
As part of Refugee Week in the UK, Harif and the Sephardi Centre will be screening the David Project’s Forgotten Refugees film in London on Thursday 23 June, followed by a Q&A with Professor Henry Green. Full details here.
Above left: Ivy Vernon shows Michelle her book, Memories of Baghdad. Right: Niran Timan touches the Mezuzah on the Syrian door. (All photos: Michelle Huberman and Nadia Nathan)