Blockbuster on MENA Jews in Paris accused of ‘normalisation’

A blockbuster exhibition on Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, Juifs d’Orient: une histoire plurimillenaire, has opened in Paris at an institution dedicated to the Arab world. But it has not been without controversy.

David Zabari studying a holy book in Saa’da, Yemen (Photo: Naftali Hilger)

President Emanuel Macron hailed the exhibition as a tribute to ‘coexistence’ between Jews and Muslims through the ages.

It is the first exhibition of its kind at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) to deal with Jews and follows two others, one on the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and a second on the Christians of the Middle East.

The IMA has partnered with the American Sephardi Federation and the Zilkha family to create the exhibition. Describing the project as ‘a testament to the increasing integration of Jews back into the historical memory and contemporary Muslim cultural milieus’ the ASF states: ‘It will undoubtedly be a revelation for a wide audience and symbolizes the reassertion of classical Middle Eastern values.’

Institutions in Israel such as the Israel Museum and the Yad Ben Zvi Institute, among others,  have collaborated to bring together 3,000 objects in an enormous  space of 1,000 sq.meters. Co-sponsors include JIMENA. Visitors cannot fail to be impressed by manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza, richly embroidered marriage garments, tiks (Torah scrolls encased in wood) , videos of  Moroccan-Jewish singer Neta  Elkayam and of the Yemenite Henna ceremony in Israel. But it also features academic Ella Shohat inveighing against Israel for its ‘discrimination’ against Jews arriving from the Muslim world.

However, the exhibition has elicited controversy. In an open letter to the IMA, which has been circulating on the Internet since 6 December, more than two hundred members of the Maghreb and Mashreq intelligentsia,  such as the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman *and the Tunisian musician Anouar Brahem,  inveighed against  “explicit signs of normalization”, with Israel which they call an ‘apartheid’ state. The IMA finds itself called into question by the very people whose work it has been promoting for almost 35 years.

Jews too have criticised the exhibition, which was designed by the Algerian-Jewish historian Benjamin Stora. While historians such as Denis Charbit have denied this, critics say it does not dwell on the dhimmi status of Jews under Islam. The  exhibition mentions the 700,000 Palestinian refugees, while glossing over the causes and conditions leading to the exodus of 800,000 Jews.

Professor Paul Fenton of the Sorbonne {at 1: 29 minutes into the video (French)} accused the exhibition organisers of ‘falsification’. Those Jewish institutions co-sponsoring the event will always lose out to a narrative promoted by non-Jewish bodies flush with money, he says.

But  the exhibition  breaks a  longstanding taboo. It acknowledges that Jews have been in the MENA for thousands of years,  predate Islam, have a rich heritage and have made a huge contribution to the region’s culture.

The IMA exhibition is on until 13 March 2022.

*in fact Suleiman was born in Nazareth, Israel.


  • A blockbuster exhibition on Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, Juifs d’Orient: une histoire plurimillenaire, has opened in Paris at an Arab institution.

    The Institut du Monde Arabe is not an Arab institution but a FRENCH ONE !!! The Director is :
    Présidence / Direction Générale. Président de l’Institut du monde arabe. M. Jack Lang.
    Without politics, a lot of people could discover a world they never see. Thank you.

  • The reality is untill recently in Historic terms the majority of Jews lived in the Islsmic World.. and it took a liberal emancipated democratic western democracy to create a monster like Hitler

  • This is a very important exhibition at Le Monde Arab in Paris. It describes the uprooting of almost a million Jews from Arab Countries in the mid -twentieth century, which has been almost forgotten by history. Whereas the 700.00 Palestinians refugees who fled from ISRAEL in 1948 is known by the whole world, the narrative of the expulsion and fleeing of the Jews from Arab Countries, where they had been living for more than 2000 years is not known, and this exhibition tells its story.
    An additional aspect of the importance of making the uprooting of the Jews from Arab countries widely known, can help to promote the reconciliation btween Arabs and Jews, and btween Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians can realise that half the population of Israel today, are those Jews from North Africa who were ousted by the Arab countries, and that they went through what the Palestinians refugees went through. This important exhibiton can alleviate the feeling of loss of honor by both the Palestinians who can see that they are not the only victims of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and tby the Jewish refugees from Arab countries who are glad that their history has not been forgotten. I have mad a film on this subject that was enthusiastically received by both Jews and Arabs, entitled: “THE POMEGRANATE OF RECONCILIATION AND HONOR”. It is on YOUTUBE and you are invited to visit it. I have also published several books on this subject, available on amazon.
    *Prof. Ada Aharoni: writer, sociologist, researcher of “The Second Exodus of the Jews of Egypt”‘, Ada Aharoni and her family were part of this Second Exodus.


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