This magnificent Paris exhibition is worth a detour

For the first time, a major exhibition was held in Paris to showcase the long history of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Lyn  Julius and Michelle Huberman of Harif made the journey from London to see it. Here are their impressions:

All photos by Michelle Huberman and Laurence Julius

Lyn Julius writes: This blockbuster exhibition  would have been unthinkable before the signing of the Abraham Accords : it is an achievement in itself  to acknowledge that Jews lived among Muslims for 14 centuries. And not only that, but it testifies to the fact that the Jews originated in Judea and  were part of the MENA region for millennia – well before Islam. An important point to make when so many are in denial or see Jews as ‘settler colonial interlopers’ from Europe.

Few visitors can fail to marvel  at the dazzling array of treasures on view at the Institut du Monde Arabe’s Juifs d’Orient: une histoire plurimillenaire exhibition in Paris: sumptuous jewellery, embroidered gowns, filigree silver, exquisite tiks (wooden or metal Torah casings).   A  Challah cloth depicted the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount: it was a startling way to illustrate the centrality of Jerusalem to Judaism. Perhaps most impressive of all were books and manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages and illustrating the rich interplay between Jewish and Arab culture, including a manuscript lent by the National Library of France authored by the Muslim philosopher Avicenna with notes in Hebrew and Greek. It is extraordinary to learn that Fez had a Hebrew printing press in 1516,  before it had an Arabic one.

The exhibits were arranged according to timelines and came from a variety of sources around the world. Six objects were lent by the William L Gross collection in Tel Aviv, a fact which drove a group of Arab intellectuals to write a letter of protest at  ‘normalisation’ with Israel.

As to be expected in France, where the Jewish community is predominantly North African Sephardi, there was less emphasis on the Jews of Babylon and the Middle East. A random collection of photos and postcards relating to Lebanon seems to have been an afterthought,  tacked on near the exit perhaps in response to complaints that the Jewish community was being ignored.

Crucially, the exhibition failed to give proper weight to explaining the dhimmi status of institutionalised inferiority for non-Muslims. I counted two cursory mentions, stating that the Jews ‘oscillated between coexistence and sporadic violence’. The  great Cordoba-born rabbi Maimonides ‘went’ to Fez and Cairo: there was little indication that  his family had fled the fanatically intolerant Almohads. A proper explanation of the dhimmi’ would have elucidated the reasons why Muslims  started the Constantine riot in Algeria in 1934. (We were told  ‘because they did not get the same rights’ as the Jews). Someone had thought to record the destruction, which claimed 25 Jewish lives,  in a family album on display.

There was little attempt to explore the root causes of the mass exodus of the Jews.  The  blame for the ‘break’ between Jews and Muslims was laid squarely at the door of the European colonial powers. ‘Tensions arose’ out of the clash between two nationalisms. The immigration of Jews into Palestine in  1936 ‘crystallised tensions’. No mention of the rise of pro-Nazi influence or the 1941 Farhud massacre in Iraq.

A splendid exhibition was marred by over-reliance on  video clips from a series ( Juifs et musulmans, si loins, si proches) made about Jews and Muslims for the TV channel Arté by the Franco-Mauritanian director Karim Miské. The final section of the exhibition, ‘the time of exile’ was disappointingly politicised.  A Miské clip mentioned the 700,000 Palestinian refugees without referring to the 850,000 Jewish refugees. These apparently had been ‘persuaded’ by Israel to leave, and most were now suffering from nostalgia for what they left behind.

There is no avoiding the fact that the French government, which runs the Institut  du Monde Arabe, sought to transmit a political message. According to its chairman, Jack Lang: ‘we hope that this exhibition will resonate in the fight against confusion, racism and fanaticism…the relationship between Jews and Arabs  did not originate with the Israel-Palestine conflict.’

The exhibition remains a major achievement, however, and worth a detour, as the Michelin guidebook might have said.

Michelle Huberman comments:

I loved the exhibition, it was full of costumes, jewellery, amulets, ceramics and more. Plus lots of short videos around the exhibits full of people I know. And of course lots on the Sephardi henna which I live and breathe these days. It was lovely to see Talia Collis’s video on the Yemenite one. The lives of those living in these countries was well recorded with excerpts from Remember Baghdad, The Jews of Egypt and others.
My only disappointment was at the end when there was the concluding video by Miské (a Muslim) who narrated his film from the Palestinian perspective omitting so much information about the founding of Israel. It’s so easy to drip, drip this narrative to an unsuspecting audience.
In the visitors’ book I told visitors to go to the Harif website and to read Lyn’s book Uprooted. And to watch The Forgotten Refugees.







  • It was not organised by Zionists, quite the contrary. The pre-Zionists were described as moving around the Ottoman empire, not specifically to the Land of Israel. Constantinople was Istanbul, emphasising its modern Turkish and Muslim name. The narrative was ‘co-existence between Jews and Muslims’. Zionism was partly to blame for the break between them.

  • I don’t live in France and obviously I haven’t seen the exhibition, but I bet there’s not a single syllable of the Millennia old pre-zionist jewish communities in the land of Israel, at all. What else would one expect from something organized by zionists? I just hope the purpose of this exhibition was not to promote Israel’s narrative because it’s a foregone conclusion that it won’t. Not even a little bit.


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