Tag: Jewish refugees

Exodus commemoration is antidote to denial

Jews have rightfully welcomed the Abraham Accords, but enthusiasm must not be allowed to obscure the more unpleasant aspects of Jewish history in Arab countries, argues Lyn Julius in JNS News. That’s why commemorations like the 3o November  events are so essential:

The Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: Panel 10
Young Jewish refugees in a ma’abara in Israel

Professor Mohamed Aboulghar is a busy man—an obstetrician, politician and amateur historian who has published two books on the Jews of Egypt. Apparently, they are selling like hotcakes. At a recent Zoom meeting, however, his assertion that few Jews had been driven out after the 1956 Suez crisis, and that the rest had left of their own free will, provoked outrage.

Some 25,000 Jews were forced out: Dozens of Egyptian Jews could testify to having been expelled at 24 hours’ notice, or interned for months and put on a ship leaving Egypt, their property sequestered without compensation.

As the saying goes, “denial is a river in Egypt”—but denial is not confined to the Arab world. Plenty of academics and opinion-makers in the West believe that Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully before Israel was established. Executions in Iraq? Torture in Egyptian prisons? Deadly riots in Libya? If all this was not a figment of the Jewish imagination, they say, it was “understandable backlash” for which the Zionists are ultimately to blame. (The Farhud massacre in Iraq seven years before the establishment of Israel, and the Tritl in Fez, Morocco, in 1912, are harder to explain.)

Jews who look back to their idyllic childhoods in Arab countries have themselves contributed to Exodus denial. Their golden age only lasted as long as the colonial era in the Middle East and North Africa. Arab nationalism soon marginalized and oppressed minorities. Other Jews suppress negative memories because they suffer from a kind of dhimmi syndrome, a survival strategy developed more than 14 centuries of “coexistence” that entails silence and submission.

Jews have rightfully welcomed the Abraham Accords. But in our eagerness to embrace them, it is tempting to dwell solely on the positive points of connection between Isaac and Ishmael. Bridge-building, some think, entails glossing over unpleasant aspects of the past.

Organizations and Israeli embassies across the Jewish world are preparing to observe Nov. 30, the date designated by the Israeli Knesset to mark annually the departure and exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran. It’s a necessary reminder that a healthy relationship ought to be grounded in an honest and balanced assessment of the past, not lies and revisionism.

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Jewish refugee commemorations to be held worldwide

On 23 June  2014, the Government of Israel adopted a law, which designates 30th November as an annual, national day of commemoration for the one million Jewish refugees who were displaced from Arab countries and Iran in the 20th century. For the seventh year running organisations, universities, synagogues and embassies will be  holding special  events. Here is a listing of 2021 events we know about  to-date:

Online, 18 November. The Edwin Black Show, 3 pm ET: Yom Hagirush

Online 20 November. Los Angeles Beth Am Congregation,  Jews of Iraq. 3:30 PST

Online 23 November. Tel Aviv. With Dana Avrish and Ben-Dror Yemini, 4 pm Israel.

Rome, 28 November –  5 December. ASTREL, Jews of Libya. Details : [email protected] tel. +39 339 8847058

Paris, 28 November . AMUSSEF, 2 pm Europe.

New York, 30 November.  ASF Institute of Jewish Experience. Reclaiming Identity, 9 am ET.

New England, 30 November. Consulate General of Israel Commemoration. With Mijal Bitton 

London, 30 November, JW3/ Harif/ Sephardi Voices. Also online. 7:30 pm UK.

Montreal, 30 November. The Spanish synagogue, 7 pm ET

Santiago de Chile, 30 November – 1 December. Embassy of Israel in Chile./ Oriente Medio/ JIMENA/HARIF. 12 noon Latin

Online , 2 December. Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific NW and LA.

Tel Aviv, 2 December, Dahan Centre, Israel

Nostalgia for vanishing Jews masks their ethnic cleansing

The exit of the Last Jew from Afghanistan, Zevulon Simentov , masks the larger, dark issue of the rejection of the ‘other’. Thousands of years of Jewish history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Dara Horn, author of People love dead Jews has written a heartfelt essay in The New York Times addressing the extinction of diversity, particularly in the Muslim world:

Dara Horn: feeling rage

These stories are used as comic relief, like a Mel Brooks skit injected into the relentless thrum of bad news. But when I read about the Last Jew of Afghanistan, a country where Jewish communities thrived for well over a thousand years, it occurred to me that there have been many “Last Jews” stories like this, in many, many places — and that the way we tell these stories is itself part of the problem.

Dozens of countries around the world have had their Last Jews. The Libyan city of Tripoli was, astonishingly, one-quarter Jewish in 1941; today the entire country is Jew-free. After the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, who banished the country’s lingering Jews during his reign, a lone Libyan Jew came back to Tripoli and took down a concrete wall sealing the city’s one remaining synagogue. But he was soon forced to flee, having been warned that an antisemitic mob was coming for his head.

Chrystie Sherman, a photographer for Diarna, an online museum of Jewish sites in the Islamic world, once told me how she tracked down the last Jewish business owner in Syria, a millenniums-old Jewish community that once numbered in the tens of thousands. In 2009, he took her to a magnificent 500-year-old synagogue. The structure didn’t survive Syria’s civil war. At another synagogue, she had to lie to government agents about why she was there; admitting that she was documenting Jewish history was too dangerous.

In my travels, I’ve also seen what happens in such places decades after the Last Jews have vanished. Often, thousands of years of history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Sometimes, something even creepier happens: People tell stories about Jews that make them feel better about themselves, patting themselves on the back for their current love for Jews long gone. The self-righteous memory-keeping is so much easier without insufferable living Jews getting in the way.

Places around the world now largely devoid of Jews have come to think fondly of the dead Jews who once shared their streets, and an entire industry has emerged to encourage tourism to these now historical sites. The locals in such places rarely minded when living Jews were either massacred or driven out.

But now they pine for the dead Jews, lovingly restoring their synagogues and cemeteries — sometimes while also pining for live Jewish tourists and their magic Jewish money. Egypt’s huge Jewish community predated Islam by at least six centuries; now that only a handful of Jews remain, the government has poured funding into restoring synagogues for tourists.

I have visited, and written about, many such “heritage sites” over the years, in countries ranging from Spain to China. Some are maintained by sincere and learned people, with deep research and profound courage. I wish that were the norm. More often, they are like Epcot pavilions, selling bagels and bobbleheads, sometimes hardly even mentioning why this synagogue is now a museum or a concert hall. Many Jewish travelers to such sites feel a discomfort they can barely name.

I’ve felt it too, every time. I’ve walked through places where Jews lived for hundreds or even thousands of years, people who share so many of the foundations of my own life — the language and books I cherish, the ideas that nourish me, the rhythms of my weeks and years — and I have felt the silence close in.

I don’t mean the dead Jews’ silence, but my own. I know how I am supposed to feel: solemn, calmly contemplative, and perhaps also grateful to whoever so kindly restored this synagogue or renamed this street. I stifle my disquiet, telling myself it is merely sorrow, burying it so deep that I no longer recognize what it really is: rage.

That rage is real, and we ignore it at our peril. It’s apparently in poor taste to point out why people like Mr. Simentov wind up as “Last Jews” to begin with: People decided they no longer wanted to live with those who weren’t exactly like themselves. Nostalgic stories about Last Jews mask a much larger and darker reality about societies that were once ethnic and religious mosaics, but are now home to almost no one but Arab Muslims, Lithuanian Catholics or Han Chinese. It costs little to wax nostalgic about departed Jews when one lives in a place where diversity, rather than being a living human challenge, is a fairy tale from the past. There is only one way to be.

What does it mean for a society to rid itself of other points of view? To reject those with different perspectives, different histories, different ways of being in the world? The example of Jewish history, of the many Last Jews in places around the globe, holds up a dark mirror to those of us living in much freer societies. The cynical use of bygone Jews to “inspire” us can verge on the absurd, but that absurdity isn’t so far-off from our own lip service to diversity, where those who differ from us are wonderful, so long as they see things our way.

On paper, American diversity is impressive. But in reality, we often live siloed lives. How do we really treat those who aren’t just like us? The disgust is palpable, as anyone knows who has tried being Jewish on TikTok. Are we up to the challenge of maintaining a society that actually respects others?

I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. The Last Jew of Afghanistan is gone, and everyone is glad to be rid of him.

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At Succot, refugees remember their ingathering

Three refugees from Arab countries –  from Libya, Egypt and Yemen – tell their stories in this Jerusalem Post piece by David Jablinowitz to mark the ‘ingathering of the exiles’. Jablinowitz also interviews Ashley Perry, the architect of the 30 November date of Commemoration of the exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.  But the story has yet to reach the national or international agenda, he says: (with thanks: Lily)
Jewish Agency representatives greet Yemenite Jews airlifted to Israel in 1949
The festival of Sukkot marks the journey and wandering of the Jewish people through the desert in Biblical times before arriving in the Land of Israel. Through the centuries, Jews have suffered persecution and endured many periods of wandering, and after nearly two millennia, gathered from the exiles with the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948.
As the new state was taking root, an estimated 850,000 Jews living in Arab countries were being expelled or fled their homes in those countries, says Ashley Perry, CEO of the Heritage Center for Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Jewry.
Perry was central in passing a law in the Knesset marking a national day of commemoration – November 30 – for the Jews of MENA.
“The story of the suffering of the Jews driven out of the Middle East and North Africa is one that still needs to be told because it has yet to fully reach the national or international agenda,” he tells The Jerusalem Post. “It is both painful and remarkable and a testament to the tenacity, diversity and indigeneity of the Jewish People in this region,” he adds.
The stories you are about to read are of three individuals who look back on the countries they left at a tender age, as violence sprung up against their families and community, and who then overcame the challenges facing them in their new country, their true home: Israel, to build a new legacy.
“I was five years old when we migrated to Israel – our homeland, the land of milk and honey,” recalls Lydia Bar-Av, who has since had an illustrious career as a renowned Israeli poet and literature teacher after coming to Israel with her family from Libya ”in the blessed year 1950.”

David Harris: ‘I am a forgotten Jew’

Eyes glaze over when David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, whose wife escaped Libya in 1967,  tries to raise the issue of the forgotten Jewish refugees from Arab countries. But the main reason for the general  amnesia is that Jews driven from Arab countries have been able to pick up the pieces of their lives. Here’s his eloquent re-working of an earlier article for the Times  of Israel (with thanks: Roger, Edna, Dhia): 

David Harris

I am a forgotten Jew. My experience — the good and the bad — lives on in my memory, and I’ll do my best to transmit it to my children and grandchildren, but how much can they absorb? How much can they identify with a culture that seems like a relic of a past that appears increasingly remote and intangible?

 True, a few books and articles on my history have been written, but— and here I’m being generous — they are far from best-sellers.
 In any case, can these books compete with the systematic attempt by Libyan leaders to expunge any trace of my presence over two millennia? I repeat, can they vie with a world that paid virtually no attention to the end of my existence?
 Take a look at The New York Times index for 1967, and you’ll see for yourself how the newspaper of record covered the tragic demise of an ancient community. I can save you the trouble of looking — just a few paltry lines were all the story got.
 I am a forgotten Jew.
 I am one of hundreds of thousands of Jews who once lived in countries like Iraq and Libya. All told, we numbered close to 900,000 in 1948. Today, we are fewer than 4,000, mostly concentrated in two countries—Morocco and Tunisia. We were once vibrant communities in Aden, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and other nations, with roots dating back literally 2,000 years and more. Now we are next to none.
 Why does no one speak of us and our story? Why does the world relentlessly, obsessively speak of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars in the Middle East — who, not unimportantly, were displaced by wars launched by their own Arab brethren — but totally ignore the Jewish refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars?
 Why is the world left with the impression that there’s only one refugee population from the Arab-Israeli conflict, when, in fact, there are two refugee populations, and our numbers were somewhat larger than the Palestinians?
 I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to understand this injustice. Should I blame myself? Perhaps we Jews from Arab countries accepted our fate too passively.
 Maybe we failed to seize the opportunity to tell our story.
Look at the Jews of Europe. They turned to articles, books, poems, plays, paintings, and film to recount their story. They depicted the periods of joy and the periods of tragedy, and they did it in a way that also captured the imagination of many non-Jews.
Perhaps I was too fatalistic, too shell-shocked, or just too uncertain of my artistic or literary talents. But that can’t be the only reason for my unsought status as a forgotten Jew.
 It’s not that I haven’t tried to make at least some noise. I have. I’ve organized gatherings and petitions, arranged exhibitions, appealed to the United Nations, and met with officials from just about every Western government. But somehow it all seems to add up to less than the sum of its parts. No, that’s still being too kind.
The truth is, it has pretty much fallen on deaf ears. You know that acronym — MEGO? It means “My eyes glazed over.”
That’s the impression I often have when I’ve tried raising the subject of the Jews from Arab lands with diplomats, elected officials, and journalists — their eyes glaze over (TEGO).
 No, I shouldn’t be blaming myself, though I could always be doing more for the sake of history and justice. There’s actually a far more important explanatory factor, I believe.
 We Jews from the Arab world picked up the pieces of our shattered lives after our hurried departures — in the wake of intimidation, violence, and discrimination — and moved on. We didn’t stand still, wallow in self-pity, or pass on our victim status to our children and children’s children.
 Most of us went to Israel, where we were given a new start. The years following our arrival weren’t always easy — we began at the bottom and had to work our way up. We came with varying levels of education and little in the way of tangible assets.
 But we had something more to sustain us through the difficult process of adjustment and acculturation: our immeasurable pride as Jews, our deeply rooted faith, our cherished rabbis and customs, and our commitment to Israel’s survival and well-being.

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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.