Eyes glaze over when David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, whose wife escaped Libya in 1967, tries to raise the issue of the forgotten Jewish refugees from Arab countries. But the main reason for the general amnesia is that Jews driven from Arab countries have been able to pick up the pieces of their lives. Here’s his eloquent re-working of an earlier article for the Times of Israel (with thanks: Roger, Edna, Dhia):
I am a forgotten Jew. My experience — the good and the bad — lives on in my memory, and I’ll do my best to transmit it to my children and grandchildren, but how much can they absorb? How much can they identify with a culture that seems like a relic of a past that appears increasingly remote and intangible?
True, a few books and articles on my history have been written, but— and here I’m being generous — they are far from best-sellers.
In any case, can these books compete with the systematic attempt by Libyan leaders to expunge any trace of my presence over two millennia? I repeat, can they vie with a world that paid virtually no attention to the end of my existence?
Take a look at The New York Times index for 1967, and you’ll see for yourself how the newspaper of record covered the tragic demise of an ancient community. I can save you the trouble of looking — just a few paltry lines were all the story got.
I am a forgotten Jew.
I am one of hundreds of thousands of Jews who once lived in countries like Iraq and Libya. All told, we numbered close to 900,000 in 1948. Today, we are fewer than 4,000, mostly concentrated in two countries—Morocco and Tunisia. We were once vibrant communities in Aden, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and other nations, with roots dating back literally 2,000 years and more. Now we are next to none.
Why does no one speak of us and our story? Why does the world relentlessly, obsessively speak of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars in the Middle East — who, not unimportantly, were displaced by wars launched by their own Arab brethren — but totally ignore the Jewish refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars?
Why is the world left with the impression that there’s only one refugee population from the Arab-Israeli conflict, when, in fact, there are two refugee populations, and our numbers were somewhat larger than the Palestinians?
I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to understand this injustice. Should I blame myself? Perhaps we Jews from Arab countries accepted our fate too passively.
Maybe we failed to seize the opportunity to tell our story.
Look at the Jews of Europe. They turned to articles, books, poems, plays, paintings, and film to recount their story. They depicted the periods of joy and the periods of tragedy, and they did it in a way that also captured the imagination of many non-Jews.
Perhaps I was too fatalistic, too shell-shocked, or just too uncertain of my artistic or literary talents. But that can’t be the only reason for my unsought status as a forgotten Jew.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to make at least some noise. I have. I’ve organized gatherings and petitions, arranged exhibitions, appealed to the United Nations, and met with officials from just about every Western government. But somehow it all seems to add up to less than the sum of its parts. No, that’s still being too kind.
The truth is, it has pretty much fallen on deaf ears. You know that acronym — MEGO? It means “My eyes glazed over.”
That’s the impression I often have when I’ve tried raising the subject of the Jews from Arab lands with diplomats, elected officials, and journalists — their eyes glaze over (TEGO).
No, I shouldn’t be blaming myself, though I could always be doing more for the sake of history and justice. There’s actually a far more important explanatory factor, I believe.
We Jews from the Arab world picked up the pieces of our shattered lives after our hurried departures — in the wake of intimidation, violence, and discrimination — and moved on. We didn’t stand still, wallow in self-pity, or pass on our victim status to our children and children’s children.
Most of us went to Israel, where we were given a new start. The years following our arrival weren’t always easy — we began at the bottom and had to work our way up. We came with varying levels of education and little in the way of tangible assets.
But we had something more to sustain us through the difficult process of adjustment and acculturation: our immeasurable pride as Jews, our deeply rooted faith, our cherished rabbis and customs, and our commitment to Israel’s survival and well-being.
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.