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Thursday, May 13, 2021

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 jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

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