It’s not often that non-Jewish groups show any serious interest in forming friendship with or have any desire to learn about the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California. Such was the case earlier when the “Christians United For Israel” (CUFI) organization’s leadership recently outreached to Los Angeles area Iranian Jews.
We as Iranian Jews are a minority within the larger Jewish community. We can trace back our ancestry to the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C. after the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jewish temple and took the Jews captive to what is now modern day Iraq and Iran. Earlier this year I had the unique opportunity to interview Pastor Dumisani Washington, the national diversity outreach coordinator for CUFI after he meet with Iranian Jewish community activists at the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s synagogue in West Hollywood. CUFI’s new “Mizrahi Project” was the primary reason Washington has sought help from Southern California’s Iranian Jews in an effort to educate Christians about the more than 850,000 Jews who during the 20th century were either expelled or forced into exile from Arab countries and Iran. CUFI’s goal with this new project is to have Iranian Jews and other Mizrahi Jews tell their own stories via online films about their exile and escape from Islamic lands in order to show the importance of Israel’s existence as a home to Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East.
Indeed many Iranian Jewish leaders and activists I have spoken to regarding the Mizrahi Project are optimistic that perhaps their experiences shared online with the help of CUFI, the largest pro-Israel group in America, will gradually transform the dialogue in the U.S. and worldwide regarding the complexities of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Coming across non-Jewish groups that share the same strong sense of Zionism that the vast majority of Iranian Jews in Southern California, has most likely drawn Iranian American Jews to support CUFI.
With my recent article this week in the Journal about the launching of the Mizrahi Project, the following is a portion of my conversation with Pastor Washington regarding the project…
Can you please shed light on why you think it is important for young Christian Zionists in your organization to know more about the plight of 850,000 Jews who fled or were forced out of the Arab lands and Iran during the 20th century?
Like much of the world, most Christians are completely unaware of the story of the Mizrahi Jews. 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 It reminds Christians that the God of the bible is indeed gathering the “dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth,” by challenging them to think beyond the Jews of Europe. It is also a reminder that Jewish communities in what are now Arab or Muslim countries predated Islam and Christianity by more than 2,000 years. Finally, 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. For example, knowing that the Jews of ancient Babylon or Iraq were persecuted and expelled during the Farhouds of the early 1940’s is evidence that the current “conflict” is not truly about territory. It’s about hatred for the Jewish people.
With all due respect, the Ashkenazi Jewish community in the U.S. has never shown an interest in hearing about the story of the forced Jewish exile from the Arab lands and Iran. As you indicated, some do not even know about it. Why do you believe Christians will have interest in this story?
Not only do I believe Christians will be interested in the Mizrahi narrative, CUFI is already seeing the extent of the interest. In January we shared this story with CUFI’s top college advocates during our Student Advocacy Leadership Training Conference. There were also many pastors and CUFI staff in attendance. We connected the Mizrahi Jews with the biblical narrative, and showed 19th century pictures of the Jews of Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen. The conference attendees were inspired, empowered, and strengthened in their spiritual faith. A few pastors asked that the presentation be made at their churches. Many wanted even more information. The stage is set.
I understand you’ve mentioned to CUFI members and even to Christians who had support for the Palestinians about this issue of the forced Jewish exile from the Arab lands and Iran in your speeches here and there. What have been their initial reactions to learning about these Mizrahi Jews and their forced exile during the 20th century?
As I mentioned, our ‘CUFI On Campus’ leaders and pastors were very intrigued by the initial presentation we made at our annual student conference in January. Since that time I’ve had the opportunity to share the Mizrahi narrative in our introductory events which are Pastors briefings, and the reaction has been consistently positive. Also, I have begun including the information in campus lectures – lectures that have both pro-Israel and anti-Israel attendees. Even Israel’s detractors are taken aback by the unfamiliar story of over 850,000 Jews expelled from Arab and or Muslim lands. 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 de-legitimization of Israel – especially during BDS campaigns.
Can you please share why you have outreached to the L.A. Iranian Jewish community and other Mizrahi communities to tell their story about their forced exile and escape? What impact do you believe it will have if Christian Zionists here it directly from those whose families experienced this exile?
I’m a believer that one who has actually experienced something can make the most compelling case for it. For The ‘Mizrahi Project’ that will include both the first generation who fled to Israel and other places, as well as their children. 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. The older generation has vivid memories of what it was to live in places like Egypt and Turkey. One of my dear friends is a Jew of Egyptian and Iraqi descent who remembers being stateless for years while waiting for immigration to the U.S. Her mother’s family was kicked out of Iraq with nothing more than what they could carry in a briefcase. Her father left Egypt when the Arabic version of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” became a best seller.
Please explain how CUFI has spoken out against Christian Anti-Semitism since its inception and how you plan to use the Mizrahi Project to continue the fight against such anti-Semitism?
It is a sad reality that – as CUFI founder John Hagee says – Christian anti-Semitism is still alive and well in the U.S. This is why CUFI’s first priority is sharing the biblical mandate for standing with Israel with Christians and church leaders. For a Christian, Jesus is the central figure of the bible. And Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who lived in first century Judea. CUFI stresses the importance of understanding the Hebrew origins of our Christian faith. In so doing, we remind other Christians of God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people. This is the starting point to building the Christian Zionist case for Israel.
The return of the Jews to Israel after almost 2,000 years of exile from all across the globe is a modern day miracle. Yet, it is a miracle that God said would happen. There are reportedly some 700 verses in the bible that deal with Aliyah. Sharing those scriptures to others and pointing to the Mizrahi, among others, is proving to be a powerful teaching tool even among skeptical Christians. Sometimes anti-Semitism is a result of biblical and historical illiteracy. The Mizrahi Project will address both and will, hopefully, help turn the hearts of Christian anti-Semites.
What are you hoping to achieve with this Mizrahi Project on a wider scale as far as the general American and international community who may not necessarily be supporters of Israel?
In June 2014 the Times of Israel ran a story entitled, “UNESCO vetoed display on Jewish refugees from Arab lands”. The Arab states did not want any international discussion of the Jewish people’s 3,500-year connection to the land of Israel, or the 850,000 Jewish refugees who fled North Africa and the Middle East once the state of Israel regained its sovereignty. The implication is clear: Israel’s enemies do not want the truth uncovered for the world to see. This is because truth is a greatest remedy for deception, lies, and propaganda. The more people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds have access to the truth, the more anti-Zionist campaigns of falsehood are rendered ineffective. This is our fervent hope for the Mizrahi Project. We will tell the story of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran through short videos, opinion articles and possibly a full-length movie.
I mean no disrespect, but some Ashkenazi Jews have often questioned CUFI’s motives in supporting Israel and claim that you may be attempting to convert Jews to Christianity. Can you please response to this accusation?
CUFI is not a conversionary or proselytizing organization. When CUFI began John Hagee was severely criticized by many church leaders for not attempting to convert Jews. To this day there are some who continue to attack him on this issue. Fortunately, CUFI has proven itself to be what it was originally intended – a grassroots movement of Christians who stand in support of Israel and the Jewish people. This has allowed us to work closely with our Jewish friends from various denominational and ideological perspectives. CUFI has no ulterior motives. We simply stand with Israel.
Can you please share some of the feedback you’ve received from the Iranian Jewish community, other Mizrahi communities and groups like JIMENA as far as their support for your new Mizrahi Project?
I can honestly say that I have been both saddened and humbled by the overwhelming receptivity. Saddened because I often hear the question, ‘you want to tell our story’ followed by, ‘No one has really been interested in our story’. That makes me sad and gives me even more of a sense of urgency. I’m humbled that virtually every member of the Mizrahi community that I’ve spoken to is willing to talk to me. It’s as if they take me into their emotional living rooms and begin opening a photo album of memories. I’ve literally wept as I listened to stories of exile, persecution, lynching, dispossession, and a world that could not care less. We’ve had political discussions of the United Nations and the international community providing billions of dollars in aid to refugees all over the world, while the Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa never received anything. Nothing.
Then, there are the stories of triumph and redemption. Whether in Israel, the U.S., or other parts of the world, many of the Jews who fled the Arab or Muslim world have gone on to build businesses and families that have impacted the world. While I was at the Iranian American Jewish Federation meeting last month, I was introduced to a gentleman who is one of the top spinal surgeons in the world. Last summer I had the honor of meeting Haim Saban who I learned later is a Jew of Egyptian descent.
As you know Jews were the first religious minorities forced into exile or forced to escape from the Arab and Islamic lands in the last century. Today we see this same purging of and persecution of the minority Christian community in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East aside from Israel. Will you be raising the current issue of Christian persecution in the Middle East as well in the context of teaching CUFI members about the Mizrahi persecution? If so, to what extent?
Absolutely. The story of the Mizrahi expulsion from the same lands where Christians are now experiencing ethnic cleansing is directly connected. I’ve heard a saying, “first the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.” Radical Muslims expelled the Saturday people, and now they’re slaughtering the Sunday people. The only reason Jews are not being killed throughout the Middle East is because the Arab nations forced them to leave during the 1940’s and 1950’s. As CUFI is raising awareness of our persecuted brethren in North Africa and the Middle East, we are also telling the world that the one place in the region where Christians are safe and even growing in number is the Jewish state of Israel.
Pastor Washington, you are the national diversity outreach coordinator for CUFI and taking your message of supporting Israel to African American and other minority Christian groups nationwide. As you know many Jews like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were strong supporters of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and Dr. King was a supporter of Israel. Unfortunately after Dr. King’s assassination the relationship between African Americans and Jews has slowly deteriorated over the decades. How are you and minority Christian Zionists like yourself hoping to repair and strengthen this relationship between both communities?
I first need to mention that the relationship between African-Americans and Jews has not deteriorated as much as it had faded. Sadly, controversial leaders with the Black community like Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton have made anti-Semitic comments that have been spread wide due to media coverage. Individuals like that have never spoken for the majority of the Black community. We’ve also seen anti-Israel rhetoric in some corners of Black academia, but it is as fringe now as it was in the late 1960’s when it began in earnest.
At more than 2.8 million members, CUFI is the largest and most diverse pro-Israel organization in the country. There are many very active African-American as well as Hispanic, African, and Asian members. As head of CUFI’s Diversity Outreach Department, my job is to reach the multi-ethnic Christian church and provide pro-Israel content that will especially resonate with diverse audiences. Because Israel and the Jewish people are a multi-ethnic community, I simply have to tell that story. The Mizrahi Project is one of the ways we are doing that.
I also have the privilege of serving with our CUFI On Campus staff. National Campus Director, David Walker and I accompanied 35 African and African-American college student leaders to Israel this spring. This was the first ‘CUFI On Campus’ Israel tour of its kind. And it just happened to come on the heels of the Knesset Caucus on Israel-Africa relations. Prime Minister Netanyahu told the African leaders gathered that he intended to strengthen the Israel-Africa alliance more than ever. He will be visiting Uganda and Kenya this summer to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the hostage rescue in Entebbe. CUFI’s Black college Israel delegates have returned from their Israel trip and are focused on establishing new CUFI on Campus chapters as well as strengthening the Black-Jewish alliance for generations to come.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me Pastor Washington.
The following is CUFI’s first Mizrahi Project film…
(left to right: IAJF President Susan Azizzadeh and CUFI's Pastor Dumisani Washington, photo by Karmel Melamed)
(Mizrahi activists after meeting with Pastor Dumisani Washington regarding the Mizrahi Project at the IAJF Center in West Hollywood, photo by Karmel Melamed)