Tag: Sephardi Voices

Let’s not forget the Righteous Muslims in the Farhud

This Farhud story from Avner Ishak Shaib, as told to his daughter Oshra, appeared in this 2014 article  in +972 magazine byOrit Bashkin.  An academic at Chicago University and author of New Babylonians, Bashkin sees Iraqi Jews as ‘Arab’ nationalists, tends to downplay Nazi influence in Iraq and  highlights the role of Righteous Muslims and communists. But at least the readership of +972, accustomed to feel-good stories of Jewish-Muslim collaboration, was being exposed to the brutal facts about the Farhud. (With thanks: Leon)

The Mufti of Jerusalem with Rashid Ali al-Gaylani

In 1941, about a month ahead of the Shavuot holiday, the rule of the British Mandate in Iraq was toppled by (Rashid Ali) al-Gaylani.

On Shavuot eve, rumors spread that the Iraqi army was defeated and that English had returned to rule Iraq. The Jews celebrated the holiday and the victory in the streets and in the synagogues. Baghdad was in a state of anarchy as the English had yet take power and Nazi rule was crumbling.

The poor people living on the other side of the Tigris took advantage of the situation and crossed the river and to rob, pillage and murder Jews. As news of the slaughter reached out neighborhood, we began to barricade our homes and prepare for self-defense: hot oil, stones, reinforcing the gates to the homes and more.

 Some of the Arabs, which I call “Righteous Among the Nations” protected Jews while risking their own lives. ;My father returned that day from the market, told us about the terrible killing happening throughout the city in the Jewish neighborhoods, and said we must defend ourselves. We, who lived in the heart of the Muslim Arab neighborhood, climbed up on the roof and cried out for help. The aid came from our Muslim neighbor. With his encouragement, we jumped from our roof to his.

As this was happening, the neighbor threatened his mother with a gun that if she will turn us in instead of helping, he will shoot her. We stayed at the neighbor’s house for two days of horror and he protected us and provided us with water and food until the rage faded away. Our house was pillaged but we were saved.

The regime in Iraq always knew how to strike a balance and protect the Jews throughout Iraq and the same happened this time. (As protection was left to righteous individuals this statement seems to contradict the author’s story – ed) I was only 12 years old then but the event led me to later join the Jewish communist underground, believing that this movement and its ways will improve our lot. Later on, I joined the Zionist underground.

Read article in full

Ivy Shashoua’s memories of the Farhud (With thanks: Sephardi Voices UK)

How do Jews from Arab or Muslim countries identify themselves?

The debate rages on: are you a Jew from an Arab or Muslim country, an Arab Jew, a Jewish Arab, or none of the above? Sephardi Voices UK have explored identity in their oral history project: this video illustrates different views. 

In this extract from her book Uprooted,Lyn Julius discusses the issue of identity, with particular reference to ‘Arab Jews’: 

 Widespread is the notion among Arabs and on the radical left, that Jews from Arab countries are not distinct people, but Arabs of the Jewish faith. In other words, the Jews cannot be defined as a people with a right to self-determination.

Anti-Zionists claim that a Machiavellian Zionist conspiracy forced these Jews out of their countries of birth. They buy into the myth that Jews are interlopers from Europe and the US – white Westerners who came to ‘colonise’ and ‘steal land’ from the ‘native’ Palestinian people to whom it rightfully belongs. This myth, drawing on Marxist terminology, gained increasing legitimacy after 1967 when Israel annexed East Jerusalem and ‘conquered’ the West Bank. The notion of ‘occupation’ and the use of the word ‘settlers’ reinforce the concept of Israeli ‘colonisation’ of ‘Arab’ land.

 The colonialism myth supports the idea that Jews are merely adherents of a religion. At the time of the French Revolution, Clermont-Tonnerre said of the emancipation of Jews: ‘We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.’ This would lead to the Jewish community somehow disappearing, leaving only French citizens of Jewish religion or ancestry.

 With the rise of nationalism this concept of the Jew was replaced by a racial stereotype. However, the pendulum has swung back to viewing Jews as a faith community: thus anti-Zionists habitually talk about US citizens of the Jewish faith, Germans of the Jewish faith and now Arabs of the Jewish faith. Mizrahi leftist academics, like Ella Shohat in New York, borrow heavily from Edward Said’s post-colonialist bible Orientalism, which divides the world crudely into ‘the West versus the Rest’, viewing both Mizrahim (‘Arabs

of the Jewish faith’) and non-Jewish Arabs (the Rest) as victims of Zionism (the West).

Ella Shohat features prominently in a film made in 2002, called Forget Baghdad, by the son of an Iraqi non-Jewish communist. The film- maker interviews four protagonists, Jewish members or ex-members of the Iraqi Communist Party including Shimon Ballas, who wrote Ma’abara, the first book to describe the experience of refugees in the tent camps. All were forced to flee to Israel, where they suffered varying degrees of cultural alienation. In a study, Professor Shohat finds that Israeli cinema depicts orientalist cultural stereotypes, casting Mizrahi Jews as ‘boors or buffoons’.

 Anti-Zionist Mizrahim like Ella Shohat and Rachel Shabi see their people as conflicted between their binary ‘Jewish and Arab’ identities and despised by Israel’s Ashkenazi establishment. Rachel Shabi writes: ‘If Israel could find a way to reconnect with its own Middle-Eastern self, the chances are that this would result in the country having entirely different relations with the region. Because long before they were apparent arch-enemies’, she claims, ‘Arabs and Jews were culture collaborators, good neighbours – and friends.’

 Shabi interviews Naima, who was seventeen when she left Iraq. Naima declared of her family’s relations with their Arab neighbours: ‘We got along, and how. Believe me, it was a pleasure.’

 Nevertheless, the concept of ‘Arab-Jewish’ identity remains controversial. As one wag put it, ‘Mizrahim are not interested in being Arabs – except for the music and the food; a lot of Ashkenazim are not interested in being Jews, period.’

 Furthermore, many Jews living in Arab countries in the twentieth century were influenced by Western – specifically French – culture, bore European first names, and many had a marked preference for the chan- sons of Edith Piaf over the ballads of Um Kalthum. No-one stole pure Mizrahi-Arab culture from the Jews of the Maghreb, ‘because most of them had lost it long before they came to Israel’.

 North African Jews arriving in Israel were nicknamed Frenkim. ‘France was my soul home’, writes André Aciman. There are Arab-born refugees in the West who still say they are French so as to avoid having to explain their accents and convoluted life-story.
The writer Jacqueline Kahanoff coined the term Levantinism to describe the multiplicity of identities she enjoyed, growing up in cosmopolitan Egypt. Based on her personal experiences, she advocated a ‘Mediterranean’ model of coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Egyptian Jews were famously multilingual, speaking an average of 4.5 languages, but often only rudimentary Arabic. It was not unusual for them to have a foreign nationality, go to French schools, be cared for by a Balkan nanny, and a minority were the products of mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi marriages.

 Ellis Douek, an Egyptian-Jewish doctor uprooted to the UK (whose family had been British subjects since the eighteenth century) said that he had never pretended to be British, but that nowadays he felt more at home in

Britain – not because he became more British, but because Britain had become more foreign. To tell his patients that he was Egyptian confused them: the Arabs among them did not believe that Jews had ever lived in Egypt. Ellis Douek avoided describing himself as Jewish to British people, since they were embarrassed by religion.

 One Algerian-born Jewess who had lived in France before coming to England described her identity as Jewish. All through her perambulations, it was the one consistent thread of her identity. ‘I’ve been Jewish all the time, the rest has changed’, she said.

 A 2008 conference of Iraqi Jews – the most ‘arabised’ of Middle Eastern Jewries, resoundingly rejected the expression ‘Arab Jew’ as a badge of identity. Purists define an ‘Arab Jew’ as one who is steeped in, or familiar with, literary Arabic. University of Haifa professor Reuven Snir, however, emphasised that the Jews who wrote literary works in Arabic in the early twentieth century felt no need to declare themselves Arabs. It might be more appropriate to describe as ‘Arabic Jews’ those who speak Arabic and have assimilated Arabic culture.

Even if Jews from Arab countries were willing to identify as such, where does the expression ‘Arab Jew’ leave Babylonian, Must’arab, Karaite, Kurdish, Persian or Berber Jews? It is clearly an inadequate description of Haketia-, Ladino- and Aramaic-speaking Jews, not to mention Persian, Afghan, Bukharan and other Jews from the ex-Soviet Muslim republics, who speak Judeo-Farsi dialects and also form part of the ‘greater Babylonian diaspora’ dating back to the First Exile.

 ‘Who am I?’ the Iraq-born author Eli Amir asked rhetorically. ‘I’m a bird wandering between two worlds, sometimes I’m in the West, and sometimes in the East. I’m a man whose dual roots allow me to stand strong. My legs still get confused between two worlds, but I’m a Jewish Zionist Israeli.’

The vast majority of Jews have not historically identified as Arabs – in fact most would be offended to be so labelled. Moreover, to talk of ‘Arab Jews’, when Jews predated the Arab conquest by 1,000 years and lived for the most part under non-Arab Muslim rule, is ahistorical – strictly speaking, it ought only to describe Jews from the Arabian peninsula. Elsewhere the word ‘Arab’ meant, to many city dwellers, Bedouin – someone who roamed the desert and wore traditional robes.

 As well as being an ethnic signifier of comparatively recent vintage, ‘Arab Jew’ gives equal weight to both elements, an equivalence that neither existed under sharia law nor Arab nationalist rule. The ‘Arab world’ is a community of language and culture, but Arabs have never achieved political union, despite efforts to unite various states into Arab federations. It is legitimate to talk of Egyptian and Iraqi Jews, citizens of nation states. But in the same way we could talk of Spanish Jews – citizens of Spain – we cannot do so of Hispanic Jews of Spanish language and culture, an imaginary construct.


More about ‘Arab Jews’

Cairo-born Jewish leader dies in Italy of coronavirus

Michele Sciama, a former secretary-general of the Jewish Community of Milan,  has died of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Born in Cairo in 1941, he was a driving force behind the Edoth project, which aimed to collect oral testimony from Jews born in  Arab and Muslim countries. Article in Moked:

Micky Sciama

 Sciama, known to his friends and family as Micky, was 79 when he died Monday morning. He is survived by his wife, Viviane, and two daughters, Dalia and Stefania, the Italian-Jewish Moked news site wrote in an obituary.

He was particularly close to the family and that of the Egyptian Jewish community.

Life had led him to study in London, where he had graduated in engineering, and subsequently in Milan, where for decades he had been first company manager and then, from 1993 to 2007, secretary general of the Jewish Community.

 After his professional experience he had made his skills and enthusiasm available to Milanese Judaism and the CDEC Foundation. An overwhelming force, a fire that animated him and that forced those around him to share his planning.

Micky was one of the main animators of the Edoth (community) project, which is responsible for collecting the testimonies of Jews forced after the Second World War to abandon the Mediterranean communities, from Syria to Lebanon, from Libya to Iran and precisely to Egypt.

He had promoted it and through numerous interviews with Egyptian Jews and their testimony, which enriches the CDEC collection,  it would have been impossible without the indispensable role played by Micky Sciama.

Read article in full

Oral History project launches English app

On  World Refugee Day, JIMENA  ( Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) launched  the English version
of an Israeli mobile application, “Seeing the Voices.” 

 Synagogues Hall, Beit Hatefutsot (Museum of the Jewish People)

 This is part of a
$2.6m initiative spearheaded by Israel’s Ministry of Social Equality to
build an international Oral History archive of Mizrahi and Sephardi
Jews sharing their personal stories.

partnership with Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of Jewish Peoplehood and
Yad Ben Zvi Institute, the project enables individuals anywhere in the
world to capture the personal stories of Jews from North Africa and the
Middle East and add them to the growing international collection
utilizing basic mobile technologies. The user-friendly “Seeing the
Mobile Application guides individuals through the process of the
interview from start to finish. Users are provided with a step-by-step
guide and questionnaire to conduct and video record testimonies with
their phones. Each interview collected with the mobile application is
automatically added to Israel’s official database of testimonies and are
made available for viewing online.

Since 2018, JIMENA staff
have worked with the Israeli team on developing the English version of
the application. The stories recorded with the aid of the app will form part of a centralised archive.

Download the app:iPhone; Android

Tel Aviv museum showcases tribute to Jewish refugees

The Eretz Museum in northern Tel Aviv is neither fish nor fowl, a campus of 1970s pavilions housing a pot-pourri of exhibits pertaining to Israeli culture and history – from glass, ceramics, ancient wine presses and coin collections reaching back into Israelite times, to the 20th century work of the famous journalist-photographer David Rubinger. Now,  however, in a far corner of the postal history pavilion, is a new temporary exhibition devoted to the exodus of  Jews from Arab lands.

The Israeli curator of Leaving, never to return is Dana Avrish, whose grandparents came from Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Avrish lived in Morocco for two years.

The exhibition title was inspired by the words stamped on the exit certificates and suitcases of hundreds of thousands of Jews: رحلة بدون رجعة (literally: one-way trip).

As the visitor is steered past a pile of suitcases, the film Forgotten Refugees plays on a loop, while the voices ring out of individual Jews whose stories of displacement were recorded by the Seeing the Voices project. Artefacts and everyday objects, ranging from tikkim (the wooden cases housing Torah scrolls) to marriage certificates, documents, musical instruments, jewellery, ornate gowns used at marriages or circumcision ceremonies, and even a piano played on by Habiba Messica, Tunisia’s famous 1920s singer, adorn 11 glass showcases, each representing an Arab country and Iran.

 Below: showcase representing the Jews of Iraq.

Above:  Annette Hemo with her brother and sister, Fez, Morocco, 1908

 From the ceiling hang 11 talithot (prayer shawls) to illustrate the stories (in English and Hebrew) of each  community – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Egypt,Yemen, Aden and Iran. Each bears a historical timeline, family photographs and a paragraph describing Avrish’s own personal connection to that particular country, an anecdote or writer’s quote. There are also works of art on display by modern Israeli artists of Mizrahi heritage.

The talith is the common thread linking the Jews of all these countries. Avrish was inspired to use this representation of religious continuity by an event that took place at the Giado work
camp in fascist Libya during the Second World War:
an officer entered a prison barracks, ran his
finger over the dusty wooden beams, and threatened the 100 or so inmates with
heavy punishment if the barrack was not cleaned. In the absence of
anything but the scant clothing on their bodies, one man took out his
talith, detached its fringes, and turned it into a cloth. And so, more
than the Jews preserved the talith, the talith preserved them.

The last talith suspended beside the exhibition exit is blank, possibly symbolic of the fact that no Jews live in the Arab world anymore. The story of more than 2,000 years of Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa outside Palestine is over, but the talith remains, in all its purity and longevity.

Leaving, never to return is on at the Eretz Museum, Tel Aviv until 31 July 2019.


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.