Finding a name for the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries

Jewish Nakba? Girush? Nishul? Hisul? There was a mass exodus of Jews from the Arab and Muslim world. But there is no consistent word to describe it. Writing in the Times of Israel, Levi Meir Clancy has been thinking long and hard about this, and has coined an acronym he hopes will catch on: DAMGANA.

Jewish refugees from Arab countries in an Israeli transit camp

Living in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, I have often found myself silenced when talking about Jewish history. However, the silencing did not come from angry mobs or state censorship, as stereotypes would suggest. Instead, the silencing came from neglect towards Mizrahi issues: while words exist for the Shoah, the Anfal, the Nakba, the Trail of Tears, and countless other serious demographic events, no such word existed for the removal of over 99% of Jews from the Islamic world.

Earlier this year, things started to change. Working with some prominent figures in the area of Mizrahi advocacy, there was clear interest in establishing a word. However, early qualitative feedback resulted in noisy and confusing signals from Mizrahi Jews in Israel, Mizrahi Jews in the United States, Arab Muslims, Kurdish Muslims, and non-Muslim minorities in the Islamic world. The only consensus was that it should be rooted in Hebrew, and had to be clear of any problematic meanings or resonances in Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Turkish, and English.

The term had to convey grim realities, to the same degree that Shoah and Nakba both mean ‘catastrophe’ in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. However, it also had to convey a meaningful sense of agency and emancipation. “The riots were a good excuse,” explained one Jewish man in Israel, who felt that although atrocious antisemitism had indeed shaped his family’s exodus from Yemen, their decision to resettle was ultimately a choice to exercise self-determination.

Also, the term had to have resonance with key issues. Early recommendations were נישול Nishul (dispossession) and גירוש Girush (expulsion), the latter being extracted from recent trends on Yom HaGirush. However, both raised major concerns. The word Nishul had weak favorability among Mizrahim who were native Hebrew speakers. Meanwhile, the word Girush impeded a conceptualization that unified Jewish populations that were removed and the very small post-Damgana populations that were not removed. Also, ‘girush’ itself would likely need to be narrowed down with a modifier because it was already in use for the expulsion from Spain, known as גירוש ספרד Girush Sefarad. Each word was good, but rather than being the word, each seemed to work best as a component within a stronger framework.

“Why not create a word?” asked one native Hebrew speaker. This suggestion had positive feedback, and what emerged was not just one word, but an acronym. In Arabic, the creation of an acronym is considered artificial and perhaps derisive. In English, an acronym can range from jargon to conveying sarcasm. However, in Hebrew, the use of acronyms and acrostics is profoundly rooted in tradition, from the foundational books of Judaism to perhaps the greatest Jewish scholar in post-Talmudic history: the תנ״ך Tanakh is derived from תורה Torah, נביאים Neviim, and כתובים Ketuvim; while רמב״ם Rambam is derived from רבי Rabbi משה Moses בן ben מימון Maimon. An acronym, צה״ל‎ Tzahal, is even used as the name for Israel’s armed forces.

In this way, דמגנע Damgana was formed from in-depth qualitative research and a quest for consensus.

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