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.