250 Sephardi stories already on the record

 Juliette Glaser ‘s Egyptian passport

Time is running out to record the stories of Jews born in Arab countries: that’s why projects to document their forgotten exodus such as Sephardi Voices, a worldwide effort to create an audio-visual ‘Spielberg archive’,  are so urgent. Adi Schwartz has this article in The Tablet (with thanks to all those who emailed PoNR):

“Sometimes I still have nightmares,” says
Juliette Glaser to her interviewer, as she sits in front of a video
camera in her Miami living room, recalling in a confident voice her
childhood memories from Cairo—where she was born in 1941 and which she
fled 15 years later. “They were putting the city on fire during the
revolution of 1952. They were getting rid of King Farouk. The city was
black, and there was fire everywhere. I remember Egyptians walking in
the streets, holding big knives, saying, ‘We’re going to kill the Jews,
where are the Jews? Any Jews around here?’ And we would hide in the
basement, turn all the lights off, just shivering, shaking of fear.”

The anti-Jewish policies continued to get worse in Egypt, and in the wake of the Sinai Campaign
in 1956, her father, like many other Jews, was given 48 hours to leave
the country. With only one suitcase for each family member, Glaser, her
parents, and her three siblings left for France and later the United
States.

Glaser’s recorded testimony is part of Sephardi Voices,
an audio-visual history project currently under way to document and
archive the testimonies of Jews displaced from North Africa and the
Middle East in the 20th century. Started in 2009, the project is modeled
after Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute,
which has recorded the oral histories of tens of thousands of Holocaust
survivors. With branches in Los Angeles, Miami, London, Paris,
Jerusalem, and New York, Sephardi Voices has already collected 250
testimonies and is aiming to gather 5,000 in the next five years.

University of MiamiProfessor Henry Green is leading the effort to
assemble these oral histories. “The project’s purpose,” he told me, “is
to give voice to the nearly 1 million Jews that confronted growing
discrimination and violence beginning in the 1940s.” From the Tigris and
Euphrates to the Arabian Peninsula and throughout the Mediterranean,
these Sephardi Jews were expelled or compelled to flee their homes and
communities. The Jewish population in Arab lands, once totaling 850,000,
collapsed in the quarter-century following the founding of the State of
Israel; by 1980, 95 percent had been displaced.(..)

The general Arab conduct toward the Jews throughout the years was
determined to a great extent by traditions originating in the very early
stages of Islam: Believers were required to humiliate non-Muslims
living under their rule, as befits those who reject the divine truth.
Yet, as the historian Bernard Lewis notes in his book The Jews of Islam,
“in contrast to Christian anti-Semitism, the Muslim attitude toward
non-Muslims is one not of hate or fear or envy but simply of contempt.”
Jews were assigned the inferior status of dhimmi (dependent)—a
position that required them to submit to various forms of legal and
social discrimination but also ensured the protection of their lives and
property, and the right to practice their religion.

Starting in the 1940s and later when the State of Israel was
proclaimed, the situation of the Jews in Arab countries deteriorated
greatly. In 1941, for example, 150 Jews were murdered in a two-day
pogrom (the Farhud) in Baghdad. In November 1945, 133 Jews were murdered, and hundreds were injured, in Tripoli, Libya. In 1948, dozens of Jews were murdered in a long series of attacks
in Egypt’s major cities. At the same time, many of the already
independent Arab governments ordered the nationalization of Jews’
property, freezing of bank accounts, and mass dismissals from
employment.

Lisette Shashoua’s family was a victim of such policies, which
continued many years after Israel’s independence. A 65-year-old native
of Iraq and resident of Montreal, Shashoua says in her testimony for
Sephardi Voices that her grandfather “was one of the richest Iraqis in
Baghdad in the 1920s and 1930s. He had hundreds of acres of land … but
the property was either confiscated or frozen.”

Shashoua’s family
remained in Iraq after much of the Jewish community left by the
beginning of the 1950s. But Anti-Jewish sentiments peaked again during
the Six-Day War in 1967, and Jews were treated as spies and traitors and
were rounded up from their homes at night. “My mother told me, ‘You’d
better prepare a bag with your pajamas and toothbrush,’ because she
thought I would be arrested. Every time a car passed by at night in
front of the house, I would wake up and I hoped it won’t stop. I would
pray, I would kneel, that the car does not stop because if it does, then
they came to arrest one of our family.” Shasoua finally left Iraq in
1970.

In Morocco, Jewish life deteriorated greatly after the country gained
its independence in 1956. “It became difficult,” says Gienette Spier
(née Rosilio), a Miami resident who was born in Essaouira in 1938, in
her Sephardi Voices testimony. “It wasn’t safe anymore. That is when
everyone started to leave—for Israel, for Canada, for England. My mother
was worried for me as a girl, since we heard that [Jewish] girls were
attacked. We started to be scared, we started to cling together.” The
last straw was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s visit to Morocco
in 1961, which was accompanied with an anti-Jewish wave of violent
physical attacks. “My mother decided that that’s it, we’re leaving.”

Most of the Jews who were living in Arab countries in the mid-1940s
emigrated to Israel, the United States, the U.K., or France. Today,
there are only a few thousand left; several countries that once had
thriving Jewish communities today have no Jews at all.

While world Jewry has paid great attention to the plight of European
Holocaust victims, the plight of Sephardi Jews has long been a
“forgotten exodus,” said Green. His project is the first comprehensive
effort to record and preserve this vast and rich Diaspora with
audio-visual means.

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