Shared history of persecution unites Mizrahi, Sephardic Jews

A band of young, Jewish musicians filled the halls of Hillel at UCLA with traditional Sephardic music as more than 120 local Sephardic Jews gathered at the center on Nov. 24 to commemorate Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran. Sponsored by the nonprofit Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, the event was designed to raise greater community awareness about the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews from various Middle Eastern and North African countries since the creation of Israel in 1948. 

“We have a responsibility to tell the world about the stories of our Jews that had been living for many centuries throughout countries in the Middle East and overnight became refugees by the Arab and Islamic regimes in those countries,” Israel’s Consul General in L.A. David Siegel said, calling upon those gathered “to teach your children about the near 1 million Jews who were left homeless and had everything taken away from them.” 

According to Norman Stillman’s book “The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times” (Jewish Publication Society, 2003), between 1948 and the late 1970s, nearly 900,000 Jews from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Yemen either fled their homes penniless because of pogroms by Arab mobs or were forced into exile by Arab regimes in their native countries. More than 200,000 Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries resettled in Europe and North America, while more than 500,000 settled in Israel. According to local Iranian-Jewish leaders, nearly 80,000 Jews have fled Iran since that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The gathering at Hillel at UCLA came in conjunction with the Israeli Knesset’s recent designation of Nov. 30 as a national day of commemoration for the expulsion and flight of Jews from Middle Eastern countries since 1948. 

JIMENA’s local leadership said the event resonated with community members who experienced the violent pogroms that occurred from the late 1940s through the 1960s.

“Many members of the audience were former refugees themselves, and [they] felt as though we honored them personally and gave a voice to their story,” said Natalie Farahan, JIMENA’s Los Angeles program director.

JIMENA was founded in 2001 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, by a group of Bay Area Jews from Arab countries with the goal of educating the public about the history and culture of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. The group now has official chapters in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has held events in Chicago and New York in recent years, where Jewish Mizrahi former refugees tell their stories of escape and exile for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

JIMENA was also created to share the story of Israel’s role as an ethnically diverse Jewish homeland and safe haven for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Farahan said.

Perhaps the event’s most emotional speech came from former Libyan Jewish refugee Penina Meghnagi Solomon, who recalled for the audience the traumatic experience of fleeing rioting Muslim mobs outside her home in Tripoli during Israel’s Six-Day War.

“In June 1967, there were rumors of a war between Israel and the Arab nations, and we received news that there was pillaging of Jewish homes and businesses, and they were killing Jews in Libya,” Solomon said. “I saw crowds outside our home shouting ‘Slaughter the Jews, slaughter the Jews!’ as they rioted in the streets — it was truly a frightening experience.”

Solomon said she and her family were forced to leave Libya with just one suitcase, then, eventually, relocated to refugee camps in Italy with thousands of other Jewish refugees from North Africa.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Los Angeles-based Sephardic Educational Center, said the story of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews fleeing Middle Eastern countries during the 20th century remains relevant because of the rising tide of anti-Semitism worldwide and Israel’s status in the stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

“It is easy to forget, but we must tell our story and remember what happened to the Jews of the Middle East who fled oppression, pogroms and were exiled from their homes,” Bouskila said. “We must tell the world that we as Jews are not some foreign entity implanted in the Middle East during the 19th century, but our ancestors have been living there for many millennia.”

With the growing trend in recent years of Arab scholars and leaders denying the existence of Jewish populations in their respective countries, in 2010 JIMENA launched a campaign to video record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. Refugees in the videos tell their personal histories as well as stories of human-rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, material losses and resettlement in new societies in the West. In 2011, JIMENA began translating personal accounts of Mizrahi refugees into Arabic and Persian, with the help of Middle Eastern dissidents, and launched an Arabic Facebook page last year, which has 10,000 followers.

JIMENA leaders said that in 2015 they are planning a variety of events, including a backgammon tournament, a local Sephardic music festival, a human-rights panel discussion about minority groups in the Middle East and a Mimouna celebration — a traditional Moroccan-Jewish event with music and food that begins at nightfall on the last day of Passover and continues the following day until sundown.

To read more about JIMENA’s event at Hillel at UCLA, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at

Arab Accountability

When people hear about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, they assume that Israelis are white, European oppressors and that Palestinians are indigenous people of color being taken over and kicked out of their native home. The familiar script of European racism and colonization thus plays out in people’s minds. It is from this understanding and the accompanying desire for justice that many people across the globe feel outraged even by the very existence of Israel.

Ironically, Jewish leaders are the ones who created the perception of Jews as white. Given the way Jewish heritage has been taught and presented for decades, when we say the word "Jews," the vision that pops into our mind is not the black faces of Ethiopian Jews or the dark-brown skin of Yemenite Jews. When we look for Jewish names, we don’t look for names like Comerchero, Sarshar or Mo’alem.

When we think "Jewish," we think bagels and cream cheese; we think Poland, Russia and Germany. When the Jewish community itself renders the faces and voices of Jews of color invisible, how is the world to know that Israel is not a white, European nation yet again colonizing third-world, native people of color? How is the world to know that the majority of Jews in Israel are Mizrahim — the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their millions of children. Mizrahim are indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, having lived in the region since the beginning of the Jewish people 4,000 years ago — that’s more than 2,500 years before the advent of Islam and the Arab conquest of the region.

The story of Mizrahim is inextricably intertwined with the current Arab-Israel conflict: Palestinian leadership had a strong hand in the terrorization and expulsion of Mizrahim throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In 1941, for example, numerous Palestinian leaders — most notably Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem — arrived in Berlin, as guests of the Nazi regime. Al-Husayni drafted a political declaration, which he presented to the Axis allies of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, in the hope they would adopt it. In paragraph seven of the declaration, he would have Germany and Italy "recognize the rights of Palestine and other Arab countries [to] resolve the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and the other Arab countries in the same way as the problem was resolved in the Axis countries" — i.e., through genocide.

Furthermore, in a meeting between Hitler and al-Husayni, on Nov. 28, 1941, Hitler promised the Palestinian leader that "[the] Führer would offer the Arab world his personal assurance that the hour of liberation had struck. Thereafter, Germany’s only remaining objective in the region would be limited to the annihilation of the Jews living under British protection in Arab lands."

With these assurances, al-Husayni voiced his hope for a "final solution" to the Jewish presence in the Middle East in a speech given at a rally in Berlin on Nov. 2, 1943. "National Socialist Germany knows the Jews well and has decided to find a final solution for the Jewish danger which will end the evil in the world. The Arabs especially, and Muslims in general, are obliged to make this their goal, from which they will not stray and which they must reach with all their powers: it is the expulsion of all Jews from Arab and Muslim lands."

Not long after, severe anti-Jewish riots erupted throughout the Arab world. Jewish citizens were assaulted, tortured and murdered. In a few Arab countries, Jews were outright expelled. Throughout the region, billions of dollars worth of Jewish property was confiscated and nationalized, forcing Jews to flee from their homes of thousands of years.

We do not hear about the Jewish refugee problem today, because Israel absorbed about 600,000 of these 900,000 refugees. For the past 50 years, they and their children have been the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, with numbers as high as 70 percent. To the contrary, Arab states did not absorb the Arab refugees from the Arab war against Israel in 1948. Instead, Arab states built squalid refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, at the time controlled by Jordan and Egypt, and dumped innocent Arabs in them — Palestinians doomed to become political pawns. Countries such as Lebanon and Syria continued funding assaults against Israel instead of funding basic medical and educational care for the Palestinian refugee families.

It is high time that we all hold Arab leadership accountable for their actions against all the refugees of the region — Jewish and Arab. Without an accurate and complete view of the history in the Middle East, government leaders and peace activists will continue to push the region into an unstable future that lacks integrity, and peace will remain an illusive dream.

Loolwa Khazzoom (“> and editor of “Behind
the Veil of Silence: North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Women Speak Out”
(Seal Press, 2003). She lives in Israel.