Sephardi Voices US have been interviewing Jews who lived in the Muslim world and recording their stories for posterity. Now Dr Henry Green and Richard Stursburg have produced a coffee table book to help fill the lacunae in this field, writes Nina Boug Lichtenstein in her Jewish Book Council review.
Not only does this handsome, glossy hardcover include a gallery of stunning portraits making it a perfect gift and coffee table book, but the timing of its publication is essential. Henry Green and Richard Stursburg have captured the voices and faces of the still-living generation of Jews who have experienced firsthand — as children and adults — the great uprooting from their homelands in Africa and the Middle East in the twentieth century. This is not a book that lingers in distant histories of dead Jews, but one that puts front and center the ongoing stories of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who have lost so much, struggled, and yet also rebuilt rich, meaningful lives in their new homelands, predominantly Israel, France, Canada, and the United States.
We are increasingly seeing more and better reports, historical research, and stories that appear about Jews from Islamic lands, not just in academia but also in the press and not the least on social media. In France and Israel, this rectification has in no small part been due to the fact that Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews make up the majority of the Jewish population and that they have contributed to an important revitalization of Jewish culture and joie de vivre in countries where the shadow of the Holocaust hangs heavily.
Publications on the topic in English have lagged behind, but books like Lyn Julius’s recent Uprooted: How 3000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight, and now Green and Stursburg’s stunning and much-anticipated contribution, help fill the lacunae on the topic. While the authors of Sephardi Voices have created an aesthetically pleasing publication, they also provide ample historical context to give the reader a solid sense of the generations of Jews that called places like Morocco, Tunisia, Iran, Iraq, and Ethiopia their homes.
It is rare that non-Jews from the Arab world should call the exodus of the Jews by its proper name: ethnic cleansing. Writing in Israel 24/7, Salem Ben Ammar is a French political scientist of Tunisian background (with thanks: Imre):
Jews had lived at home in Arabia, Iran, Egypt, the Middle East, Yemen, Libya and North Africa for millennia.
These lands that had become Muslim were marked with the footprints of the Jews.
We cannot say that they have chosen exile, because people never leave their ancestral lands en masse – repositories of memory and history, and to which they have given their all. They were pushed into leaving, against their will.
The exodus of 900,000 Jews is truly a matter of ‘ethnic cleansing’: to purify Muslim lands of their presence.
How can we understand that a community rooted in most Muslim countries before Islam, finds itself driven out overnight, after decolonization and the Six-Day War, driven out like a leper, after having lived for 1,400 years more or less in harmony with Muslims, for whom they have served as an economic, cultural and intellectual catalyst?
It’s as if Palestine acted as a spur to unleashing repressed hatred towards the Jews, subjecting them to what Muhammad and his horde of assassins did to them in Yathrib, a Jewish land that had become the second stronghold of Islam.
The Jews left because they were given no choice but to wish to live in their own place, despite the discrimination they faced.
They sought to live in peace with an environment which they had nourished with their dynamism, their perfectionism, their economic, culinary, cultural and artistic richness, their vitality and entrepreneurial energy, and their unfailing love of life. Or more simply, their joie de vivre and r legendary good cheer.
Their forced exodus is like a curse that has struck all these countries, now orphaned of their Jews.
Their departure brings misery and despair to the Muslim peoples. The light went out in their house. It shines in Israel.
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:
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.
Israel is to gather all the data held in government archives concerning the properties lost by Jews in Arab countries with a view to backing legal claims, reports Ynet News. The article estimates the losses at $150 billion but they could be much greater. The announcement, by the Social Equality minister Merav Cohen, comes as an assessment of lost Jewish property and assets undertaken by a leading accountancy firm based in Arab countries nears completion.
The government will authorize the Ministry of Social Equality to collect information from the archives of government ministries, regarding the rights of those immigrants from Arab countries. Thus, the ministry hopes, they will be able to help them establish future lawsuits against the countries from which they were deported, where they left their property.
The Ministry of Social Equality has been working on the issue of Jewish property remaining in Arab and Iranian countries for years. In 2010, a law was enacted on the subject in order to protect the rights of immigrants. Now that they have access to the archives, the ministry believes that the materials they will find there will help their research as well as, as mentioned, actual claims that will be filed in the future.
The representatives who will enter the state archives will examine various documents, including those deposited there by the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Health, Education and more. The materials will not be photographed or removed from the archive, and reading will be done only to examine the data that will lead the people of the Ministry of Social Equality to reach their goal.
“This proposal emphasizes the commitment and concern of the State of Israel to document the deportation of Jews from Arab countries and Iran and the dispossession of their property,” said Minister of Social Equality Meirav Cohen. “The purpose of the decision is to document the history of the damage caused to Jews who were expelled from their homes and left a lot of property behind.
Cohen emphasized that as a state, “we have a commitment to learn and teach the price paid by the Jews of Arab countries, a tremendous economic price that we do not always understand. This decision will help us to document in depth historically the story of the Jews of Arab countries.”
What really happened to the million Jews who lived in Arab lands? Unfortunately, so many people spread lies about what happened to those Jews – chiefly as a way of propping up a false Palestinian narrative – that most people have no idea of the truth or the scale of the disaster. They see the lies spreading online, but simply do not have the material they need to counter the disinformation campaign. David Collier summarises the issue in his blog:
The ‘Jewish problem’ in the Arab lands:
A simple fact: in the 20th century almost a million Jews resided in ancient Jewish communities spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Another simple fact: at the end of the 20th century, there was almost nothing left.
So what happened?
At the root, although there is no ‘catch-all’ that tells the story of every single Jew in all of the Arab lands – it was belief in the supremacy of Islam, rising Arab nationalism and Islamic antisemitism that all played their role. Whilst it is true that Jewish history in the MENA region was better than the Jewish experience in Europe, this is hardly a difficult benchmark to pass.
Peaceful co-existence’ involved the subordination and degradation of the Jews. The status of Jews as Dhimmi (second class citizens) meant that life was unpredictable; sometimes calm – sometimes violent – but the Jewish experience was always left to the whims of the local rulers.
The 19th century brought about the partial collapse of the Ottoman Empire – and this signalled dark times for the Jews. Pogroms – violent riots against Jews – began to reappear with alarming frequency. The Arab response to the vacuum of power left from the weakness in the Ottoman regime, resulted in power struggles – and both rising Arab nationalism and religious extremism left Jewish blood flowing down city streets. All this upheaval started occurring long before modern Zionism entered the equation.
A key point must be made. The idea that before Zionism, Jews had lived in peace in Arab lands is an absolute myth. For a full history it is worth reading the Lyn Julius book ‘Uprooted’ .
The need for the whitewash:
By the early 20th century, the attacks on these Jewish communities were brutal. Much of it was government driven, with increasing anti-Jewish legislation appearing throughout the region. But there was also a lot of anti-Jewish violence on the street. This all spiked dramatically when Israel was founded but had started long before. The growing hostility was to drive the ethnic cleansing of every major Jewish community inside Arab lands. The creation of nearly a million Jewish refugees.
For those pushing an anti-Israel agenda – and whose entire narrative is built around the non-necessity of Zionism and the tragic existence of Palestinian refugees, the true history surrounding Jewish refugees creates five key problems:
The image of co-existence is a myth
There were more Jewish refugees created than Arab refugees
The value of what the Jewish refugees had stolen from them was many times greater than anything the Arab refugees can claim they lost
The attack on the Jewish communities was unprovoked and on an innocent civilian population. The same is not true of much of the Arab population in the mandate, with many Arab villages choosing a violent confrontation that fuelled a civil conflict
Like it or not, many Arab families in the mandate area had simply moved into the area as the Ottoman empire collapsed – or as Zionist investment created opportunity. This means many of the Arab refugees had no real roots in the mandate area (one example – the ‘Palestinian’ hero of the 1930s, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam – was born in Northern Syria.) The same could not be said of the ancient Jewish roots in places such as Egypt, Iraq or Yemen.
All of these factors create a huge problem for anti-Israel activists. In real terms, the unprovoked destruction of the Jewish communities in the MENA region was far worse than the destruction of the Arab communities engaged in civil conflict in the mandate area.
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.