Editors Note: In Israel Yad Vashem records the Holocaust and Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Palestinian refugees who left Israel, after Israel’s War of Independence are remembered because the Arab League decided to use them as a political weapon against Israel refusing them resettlement status in other Arab countries. The Jews who fled from Arab countries at the same time are largely forgotten because they ceased being refugees within a short time after their arrival at their destination.
This page tells about current actions to remember them.
THE STORY OF 'THE OTHER' JEWS
A Canadian professor is recording the memories of 5,000 Mizrahi Jews who experienced both joy and persecution in Arab lands.
Steven Spielberg took pains to record the memories of Holocaust survivors. Now someone is doing that for Mizrahi Jews — Jews with roots in the Middle East and North Africa.
The man behind the project is a Canadian who’s actually an Ashkenazi Jew — one with European roots. Prof. Henry Green, a historian and sociologist at the University of Miami, has been gathering the testimony of Jews from Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.
Green, who hails from a religious family in Ottawa, says he decided to collect the stories of Mizrahi Jews — also known as Sephardi Jews — because the Ashkenazi story was so much better documented. “If I don’t document them now, it will be too late,” he told Haaretz on a recent trip to Israel.
Since Green launched his Sephardi Voices project in 2009, he has filmed around 300 Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Britain, Canada, France, the United States and Israel. They have told him about their prosperity living in Arab lands as well as the persecution and expulsion.
Until the establishment of Israel in 1948, 1 million Jews were living in Arab countries, most from ancient communities. After 1948 the persecution worsened until most were forced to leave their property behind. Many moved to Europe and North America; most came to Israel. Green estimates that about 70 percent are no longer alive.
Green has interviewed people describing pogroms and other atrocities: 150 Iraqi Jews killed in June 1941, 130 Libyan Jews killed in Tripol in 1945, and dozens of Jews killed in Egypt in 1948.
In the 1970s Green studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, when he heard about the travails of Mizrahi Jews — in Israel, where they protesting injustices at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment. If Green meets his goal, within a few years he will have filmed interviews with around 5,000 people.
In the countries involved, Sephardi Voices is being carried about by local staff. Most participants are volunteers who take donations that pay for the film crews. The project joins a number of others around the world over the past two decades that have documented the lives of witnesses to Jewish history.
“None of these projects have dealt with the experiences of the displaced Jews from North Africa, the Middle East and Iran who left their homes,” says the Sephardic Voices website. “By recording the stories of the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews, the memories of individuals who grew up in communities which often no longer exist will be passed on to the next generations and create a sense of pride and continuity.”
In Israel there are two projects documenting the War of Independence and its veterans. Holocaust survivors have been recorded by Yad Vashem and Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Tens of thousands of people have been interviewed, most of them Ashkenazi. Green’s efforts represent a different Zionist story that expands the Jewish identity that we’re familiar with, he says.
Green is in contact with the National Library about the possibility of making his work available to the public. In the meantime, the testimonies can be viewed at the British Library in London. They are not available on the Internet.
Only five Israelis have been interviewed for the project so far. The project in Israel will now include cooperation with the Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University’s Division of Oral History and the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center.
AS IRAQI JEWISH VOICES DIE OUT, A PROJECT SEEKS TO PRESERVE THEIR RICH HISTORY
A handful of scholars are creating a multimedia resource to give Mizrahi Jews the same platforms to tell their stories as Ashkenazim who suffered in the Holocaust
NEW YORK — Although Oded Halahmy left Iraq in 1951, Iraq has never left him.
“Every aspect of my life has been influenced by my first home, the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’ I remember from my childhood. Palm and pomegranate trees dance in the wind,” said Halahmy, 79. “I can visualize the narrow alleyways, the houses built of ancient stones with beautifully sculpted doors, circular windows of exquisitely colored glass. My memories of Iraq are real and alive, and my attachment to Iraq is very strong. My Baghdad is the most beautiful place on earth, the Garden of Eden.”
Halahmy was 13 when he, his parents, his siblings as well as hundreds of other relatives left for Israel. Now, as his generation ages, first-person stories like Halahmy’s are slipping into the shadows of history.
“These are the very last years to capture firsthand accounts of Jewish life in Iraq. There will be no witnesses left and so there is an urgency to get the stories. It’s a last grasp. Mizrahi Jews account for half the world’s Jewry, yet their stories remain virtually untold,” said Tamar Morad, a writer and editor living in Israel.
That’s where The Iraqi Jewish Voices Project, IJVP, comes in. Using black and white portraits, interviews, and scanned historical documents, the multi-media project records the stories of the last Jews of Iraq and what it was like for them to immigrate to Israel, France, the United States and beyond.
Oded Halahmy for the Iraqi Jewish Voices Project. (Liam Sharp)
The project aims to shift the meta-narrative of world Jewry in the 20th Century, which has almost always revolved around the history of European Jewry. The bold initiative might just be the thread that stitches the Jews of the Mideast’s past to the future.
Morad, who grew up in Boston, is of Ashkenazi descent. Her husband’s family came from Iraq. In no time she realized the more she asked her father-in-law, as well as her husband’s 105-year-old grandfather, about what life was like in Iraq before they left, the more she wanted to know.
She found others wanted to share their stories as well. “You see the eagerness of people to tell their stories. It’s the first time some of them have told their stories in full,” Morad said. “It’s time the world should know it. To progress we need to be educated about the past.”
Morad co-manages the project with Henry Green, executive director of the NGO Sephardi Voices, and professor of Judaic and Religious Studies at the University of Miami.
Morad is basing the project on the book, “Iraq’s Last Jews: Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon” — an oral history collection co-edited by Morad with Dennis and Robert Shasha — and plans to revisit and expand on some of the people and places featured in it.
The Iraqi Jewish Voices Project comes under the auspices of the nonprofit Sephardi Voices (SV), which aims to collect thousands of interviews of Jews who lived in Arab and Muslim lands. It wants to do for the Jews of Arab lands what the Shoah Foundation did for Holocaust survivors in collecting and preserving their testimony about life before, during and after World War II, Green said.
Iraqi Jewish Voices Project backers Robert Shasha, Tamar Morad, Dennis Shasha, and Henry Green. (David Langer)
SV has so far conducted hundreds of interviews of Jews from 10 countries including Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco and Syria. Interviews are conducted in English, French and Hebrew as well as Judeo-Arabic, Ladino and Haquetia, an endangered Jewish Romance language.
“It will empower a population that has largely been invisible. It will make it so the children and grandchildren of these men and women will take pride in their heritage. If Jews are to understand their collective history then the story of Mizrahi Jews must be told,” Green said.
The long, rich history of Mizrahi Jews
The history of Mizrahi Jews is interwoven into the earliest chapters of the United States. Congregation Shearith Israel, established in 1654, is the oldest Jewish congregation in the US. It’s often called The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. And there’s the famous Floridian, David Levy Yulee, of Moroccan origin: In 1845 he became the first Jewish senator to serve in the US Congress, representing his home state of Florida.
Across the Middle East, North Africa and Iran, Judaism predates Christianity by 500 years and Islam by 1,300 years. Now less than a handful of Jews remain in most Arab countries, or, as is the case in Algeria and Libya, none at all.
The stories of interviewees often recall rich and colorful lives in their birth countries, “full of friendships, partnerships and political alliances with their Muslim and Christian compatriots,” said Dennis Shasha.
There was a time when Jews accounted for one third of the population of Baghdad and numbered 150,000 across Iraq. Representing doctors and lawyers, teachers and scientists, musicians and politicians — Jews were integral to Iraqi life.
Then in the 1930s and 1940s political persecution and anti-Semitism swept across the region like a sandstorm and destroyed the vibrant community. With the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 the situation grew ever more precarious.
“Ambitious tyrants in their countries, using Israel as a bogeyman, made Jews a scapegoat for those tyrants’ own mismanagement and corruption. So the Jews had to leave,” Shasha said.
And so between 1949 and 1952 nearly the entire Jewish community, about 120,000 people, was airlifted to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. It was the largest air migration of refugees in history. The remaining population left in the 1960s and 1970s because of the brutal persecution it faced under Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
JVP will also include new black and white portraiture. When complete, the project will be included with the SV archive, which will eventually be available free of charge on an Internet portal at the National Library of Israel.
Indeed, as well as collecting new stories, Morad, Green and producer David Langer will revisit those who are still alive today among the book’s original interviewees.
The Institute has launched a campaign to record at least 50 testimonies from the North Africa and Middle East region, where the Nazi regime had gained a foothold during World War II.
USC Shoah Foundation collected the first four testimonies in May of 2014 and is raising funds to begin phase two, in which it plans to record 20 more.
These audiovisual testimonies, once collected, will be digitized, indexed and made accessible to people around the world through the Institute’s Visual History Archive.
The Testimonies from North Africa and the Middle East collection includes the life stories of Jews who were living in North Africa and the Middle East during World War II and witnessed the destruction created there by Nazi occupiers or governments that were Nazi sympathizers.
Though far from the Holocaust in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East were an important part of Hitler’s Final Solution. Hitler intended to exterminate all Jews, not just those in Europe, and according to Holocaust scholar Sir Martin Gilbert, the persecution of the Jews in French North Africa was an integral part of the Holocaust in France. For example, Nazis occupied Tunisia from November 1942 until May 1943, and Jews throughout this part of the world were subjected to deportation, imprisonment in concentration camps, and the destruction of their homes, as well as severe anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish laws from their own governments.
In the first phase of the project in spring 2014, program director Jacqueline Gmach interviewed Armand Abecassis, Andre Nahum, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and Albert Memmi, who are each highly respected scholars and/or authors living in Paris. She was accompanied by interviewer Serge Moati, a French artist, journalist, film director and writer, and videographer Olivier Raffet. Ruth Pearl, mother of the late journalist Daniel Pearl, also gave her testimony about growing up in Iraq during the Farhud of 1941.
For the second phase, Gmach is working on identifying 20 new interviewees who lived in North Africa and the Middle East during World War II. The collection may expand to include people of different faiths and cultures, and those who lived in non-Arab countries. Testimonies will be in English, French and Farsi, and potential interviewees currently live in Montreal, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Because of the advanced age of many potential interviewees, Gmach said that time is of the essence for embarking on the second phase.
NEW DIMENSIONS IN TESTIMONY
USC Shoah Foundation has also partnered with USC Institute for Creative Technologies and Conscience Display to conceive and design a cutting-edge technology called New Dimensions in Testimony, which enables people to interact with a projected image of a real Holocaust survivor, who responds to questions asked in real time.
With this endeavor, a handful of Holocaust survivors who have already sat before a camera for USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive are giving testimony again. This time, however, they sit before 50 cameras arranged in a rig to capture a three-dimensional recording of them telling their stories in a new way, by answering questions that people are most likely to ask. Funding for New Dimensions in Testimony was provided in part by Pears Foundation and Louis. F. Smith.
SRAEL LAUNCHES $2.6M PROJECT TO DOCUMENT LIVES OF MIZRAHI, SEPHARDI JEWS
Project will interview Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab lands or Iran, and descendants of Jews expelled from Spain.
schools to mark Jews' exodus from Muslim countries to Israel
Israeli schools to teach Mizrahi Jewry instead of Italian fascism
The stories, heritage and history of Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab lands and Spain will be documented as part of a new national project, approved Sunday by the cabinet.
The project will collect personal testimonies, both filmed and written, from Jews of Sephardi and Mizrahi origins, referring to Jews who were displaced from the Iberian Peninsula following the Spanish Inquisition, and those of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
The subjects will document their lives before they made aliyah, their situations when they left, fled or were expelled from their countries, and the tales of their absorption in Israel.
The Social Equality Ministry, headed by Minister Gila Gamliel, will allocate 10 million shekels ($2.6 million) to the project, which Gamliel initiated. “This is not a uniquely Mizrahi interest but a national, Jewish and Zionist interest,” she said, after the project was approved. “From now on, the Jewish story will be more complete and Israeli citizens young and old will get to hear, study and become familiar with both the Eastern and Western sides of the glorious heritage of the Jewish people.”
The Government Press Office will run the project, after investigating options for cooperating with Beit Hatfutsot – the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, or Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, two institutions with long experience in documenting the life of Diaspora Jewry.
In recent years, there have been several projects producing video documentation of the history of various populations. Some are private initiatives, while others are under the auspices of public or government agencies.
One of the most prominent is the “Israel History” project, which has taken video testimonies from 1,100 people who lived through the founding of the state in 1948. That project began as a private initiative but was later taken under the wing of the Jewish National and University Library.
A parallel project called “Documenting the 1948 Generation,” which interviewed 930 people, was conducted by the World Zionist Organization and the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive. Those interviews are currently available for viewing on YouTube, and in the future will be featured on the website of the National Library.
A project similar to the one the government approved Sunday was previously pursued as a private initiative called “Sephardi Voices.” This was overseen by an American historian and sociologist, who documented hundreds of Jews who originated in Arab countries and moved to Britain, Canada, France, the United States and Israel.
This new government initiative is one of a series of moves the government has made “to correct an injustice” – in the government’s words – by shining a light on parts of the Jewish people’s history that have been absent from textbooks, national ceremonies and other public remembrances.
“The initiative is part of a comprehensive national effort to deepen public knowledge and awareness about the story and legacy of Eastern Jewry, after long years in which they were pushed aside from public discussion and Israeli consciousness,” Gamliel said on Sunday.
Other steps taken by the government include establishing a memorial day to mark the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab lands and Iran. This has been marked since 2014 on November 30, the day after the United Nations approved the partition that led to the establishment of the State of Israel – after which the situation of Jews in Arab countries worsened.
The Education Ministry set up the Biton Committee, which this summer recommended changes to the school and university curricula to include more content about Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. And last month, the ministry announced it was creating a database of speakers to “perpetuate the heritage of the Jews of the East and Spain,” who will come to schools to tell their personal stories.
Gamliel claimed Sunday that “the chapter on Eastern Jewry is starting to be written today.” This is an exaggeration, though, since institutions like Yad Ben-Zvi have spent decades writing “the chapter on Eastern Jewry” and have published hundreds of books, pamphlets and articles on the Jewish communities in Spain and the East.
Presented by The Documentation Center for North Africa Jewry during World War II, the Ben Zvi Institute, International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem April 5, 2016
From the time they assumed power – and even beforehand – the Nazi regime's policy towards the Jews drew responses from both the Jewish and the non-Jewish world. Many aspects of the Nazi influence outside the areas over which they ruled have been addressed by scholars, but very little attention has been given to aspects related to the Middle East (aside from the Jewish settlement in the land of Israel and the Mufti of Jerusalem). The aim of this conference is to address various aspects of this neglected issue.
Jacqueline Semha Gmach, born in Tunisia during WWII, is a Holocaust educator and is serving as the Project Director of USC Shoah Foundation's Testimonies from North Africa and the Middle East collection. At the conference, she will give a lecture on "Four Iraqi Jews' Testimonies - Their Life Stories Prior, During and After World War II."
TESTIMONIES FROM NORTH AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST is a project documenting testimonies from survivors and eye-witnesses who lived through the events of over 70 years ago in North Africa and the Middle East, and the destruction created there by Nazi occupiers or governments that were Nazi sympathizers. These experiences are crucial for understanding the global impact and scale of Nazi ideology and its' policies. After the war, many of these individuals experienced continued anti-Semitic persecution in their home countries and were forced to flee.
THE MIZRAHI PROJECT
initiative of Christians United for Israel to record testimonies of the 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.
Headed by CUFI's pastor Dumisani Washington, the project was launched in July 2016 in California. 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.
The website invites readers to submit their stories.
CHRISTIANS UNITED FOR ISRAEL, JIMENA, AND THE "MIZRAHI PROJECT"
Christians United for Israel Reaches Out to Mideast Jews in Online Programs The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Karmel Melamed, 18 July 2016
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.
Q&A: CUFI’S PASTOR DUMISANI WASHINGTON ON NEW MIZRAHI PROJECT LAUNCH
From The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles Karmel Melamed, July 13, 2016
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.
From The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, July 17, 2016
Sephardi Voices Sephardi Voices is the first comprehensive digital audio-visual archive that documents and preserves the life stories and photographs of Jews who lived in Islamic lands.
Jerusalem Post, August 27 2017 Operation Michaeltsberg’s Iraqui Immigrants Mark 70th Anniversary,