In May, “Why Are There Still Palestinian Refugees?” a new educational video produced by the website PragerU.com and the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) organization, was released on social media sites retelling the story of the more than 850,000 Jews who during the 20th century either were expelled or forced into exile from Arab and Islamic countries.
The video, which has garnered more than 1 million views on YouTube.com, is the first in a series of brief programs that are a part of CUFI’s new Mizrahi Project. The effort was launched this spring to help educate Christians and others about the plight of Jews from Arab lands and Iran and to strengthen their pro-Israel advocacy efforts.
“Like much of the world, most Christians are completely unaware of the story of the Mizrahi Jews,” said Pastor Dumisani Washington, CUFI’s national diversity outreach coordinator, who is spearheading the Mizrahi Project. “They are somewhat aware of the Holocaust, but do not know that more than half of Israel’s Jewish population came from North Africa and the Middle East.”
According to Norman Stillman’s 1991 book, “The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times” (Jewish Publication Society of America), from 1948 to the late 1970s, more than 800,000 Jews living in Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Yemen had been either forced by Arab regimes to leave their homes in Arab countries or fled on their own to escape being killed in anti-Semitic attacks or other forms of persecution. Often Jews were forced to leave Arab countries where their ancestors had lived for centuries, and their properties and assets were confiscated by Arab regimes.
Habib Levy’s book “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora” (Mazda Publishing, 1999) states that the vast majority of Iranian Jews, who once numbered 80,000 in the country, fled in the years after the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution. According to estimates from Iranian Jewish community activists in Los Angeles, today fewer than 5,000 Jews remain in Iran, and many continue to leave each year.
During the past nearly 70 years, Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran have primarily resettled in Israel, as well as in parts of Europe and North America.
Washington said one of the main objectives of the Mizrahi Project video series is to empower CUFI activists on college campuses and elsewhere to more effectively fight ongoing anti-Israel campaigns in their school communities.
“Knowledge of the Mizrahi Jews gives a more accurate account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, making an even stronger case for the need for a Jewish state,” said Washington, who also appears in the first Mizrahi Project video online. “For example, knowing that the Jews of ancient Babylon or Iraq today were persecuted and expelled during the Farhuds of the early 1940s is evidence that the current conflict is not truly about territory. It’s about hatred for the Jewish people.”
Likewise, in an effort to more accurately tell the story of Mizrahi Jews who were exiled or fled Islamic countries after 1948, Washington said he and CUFI members have reached out to Mizrahi Jewish communities across California and nationally to tell their stories.
“I’m a believer that one who has actually experienced something can make the most compelling case for it,” he said. “I have personally interviewed many members of the Mizrahi community, both in Israel and the United States, and have found them to be among the most passionate and articulate supporters of the Jewish state.”
In January, Washington spoke to nearly two dozen Iranian-Jewish activists at the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in West Hollywood. He asked community activists to participate in the Mizrahi Project by sharing in videos their experiences of anti-Semitism and of escaping from Iran.
“We decided to cooperate with CUFI because as Jews from the Middle East, whenever we see any organization, Jewish or non-Jewish, that is seeking to strengthen Israel and do advocacy on her behalf, we feel a responsibility to support their efforts,” said Susan Azizzadeh, IAJF president.
Recording oral history is not a new endeavor for the local Iranian-Jewish community. In the mid-1990s, the L.A.-based Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, with the help of volunteers, conducted more than 100 video and audio interviews with Iranian Jews who had influenced Iran’s history, literature and culture in some way since 1906. Also in 2009, the local Iranian-Jewish nonprofit 30 Years After (30YA), launched the “Our Legacy” project, videotaping nearly 100 older Iranian Jews who shared stories of painful experiences in Iran during and after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
30YA’s leadership said with the increasing threat of the Iranian regime’s quest for nuclear weapons, it welcomed the opportunity to work with any group that might educate the public about their families’ difficult experiences in Iran and the threat the Iranian regime poses to the world.
“As American Jews of Middle Eastern descent, we are a minority among a minority that should be building bridges across the religious and political spectrum and welcoming bonds with organizations like CUFI that are expressing an interest in our community’s history and future,” said Sam Yebri, 30YA president.
Some board members at the Iranian Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills said they also are willing to work with CUFI on the Mizrahi Project, as their congregation has in the past forged friendships with other pro-Israel Christian groups. Nessah’s past President Simon Etehad said just last year the synagogue hosted an event about Israel advocacy issues featuring evangelical Christian Pastor Robert Stearns and Jewish Journal President David Suissa, which drew nearly 400 attendees.
“There has been a major failure on our part to show what we, the Jews, who were thrown out of our homes, are also refugees who were truly model citizens — just like the Christians who are now being massacred and forced to flee their homes in Arab countries today,” Etehad said. “We should have played the refugee card, not to gain benefits, but rather, to explain that you don’t remain a refugee forever.”
Perhaps the greatest Jewish community support for the Mizrahi Project has come from the San Francisco-based Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), nonprofit that for the past 15 years has been trying to raise public awareness about the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran through lecture series, cultural events, documentary films and community outreach programs.
“Including the issue of Mizrahi refugees into discussions and education regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict adds nuance and complexity,” said Sarah Levin, JIMENA’s executive director. “At its core, this is a human rights and justice issue and my hope is that it won’t become just another ‘hasbara [public relations] talking point’ thrown into overly polarized public discourse about the Israeli-Arab conflict.”
Levin said the stories of Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries have long been overlooked by the larger Jewish community, and perhaps the CUFI Mizrahi Project will shed light on their experiences among Jews and non-Jews.
“The 850,000 former Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa deserve recognition and redress for their heritage and for their losses,” Levin said. “My greatest hope is that CUFI will empower their constituents with not only the story of Mizrahi refugees, but also with the rich legacy and contributions of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.”
Mizrahi activists living in California said they are pleased by CUFI’s project.
“We need to get our history, our stories, our trajectory out there — and Pastor Dumisani is doing what the Jewish community, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, has not been willing or able to do,” said Rachel Wahba, a Mizrahi blogger and activist based in San Francisco. “I have been writing and pleading for the Ashkenazi mainstream to hear our story, to ‘use’ our (Mizrahi) story to debunk the lies about Israel being a white colonial enterprise.”
Wahba said for years she has been sharing with various small audiences her family’s stories of forced exile from Iraq and escape from Egypt, as well as how she and her family were stateless refugees for nearly 20 years, living in Japan and seeking asylum in the U.S. Wahba also said she hopes the pain her family and other Mizrahi families endured as Jewish refugees from Arab countries will finally be brought into the limelight with CUFI’s new project.
Other local Mizrahi activists said their stories should be shared with Christians worldwide, as similar calamities are befalling thousands of Christians in the same Arab countries — many of them being killed or forced out of their communities.
“I firmly believe that greater discussion in small and large groups of Christians can be more effective with personal stories about lives of Jews in Muslim countries,” said Joe Samuels, an Iraqi-Jewish activist living in Santa Monica. “It can also bring awareness about the ethnic cleansings of Christians.”
There has already also been tremendous interest from CUFI members about the Mizrahi refugee stories, and Washington said he will likely also ask the project’s participants to speak to CUFI’s college-age members and at other CUFI events about their experiences.
“Our ‘CUFI on Campus’ leaders and pastors were very intrigued by the initial presentation we made at our annual student conference in January,” Washington said. “I strongly believe that, as this topic becomes a staple in Israel advocacy on college campuses, it will help our students make an even stronger case against the delegitimization of Israel — especially during [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] campaigns.”
In the coming months, CUFI will continue to gather testimonies from Mizrahis with the plan to produce many more for the Mizrahi Project, Washington said.