Putting Jewish Refugees From Arab States on the Global Agenda
JNS.org – Do you know what we commemorate on November 30?
Sadly, for most Israelis and Jews around the world, it is just another day. However, according to a law passed in 2014 by Knesset member Dr. Shimon Ohayon, November 30 is now the official day of commemoration for Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
It should be an important day on the official global Jewish calendar, because the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa are an essential part of Jewish history, even for those of us who did not come from there.
One of the issues I was able and proud to raise during my time in government was the ethnic cleansing of almost a million Jews from the Middle East and North Africa — communities massively predating Islam and the Arab conquest of the region in the seventh century — and the appropriation of their assets, estimated in today’s prices to be many billions of dollars.
Unfortunately, this history — the forced exodus of Jews who, along with their descendants, constitute the majority of Jews in Israel — is barely studied, mostly ignored, and seemingly of little interest to the general population and Diaspora Jewry.
Apart from the great work of organizations like Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, and Harif, I was amazed that the issue had only seldom been raised in any meaningful way around the world.
Growing up in a thriving Jewish community, attending a Jewish school, and being involved in the Jewish community and Zionist organizations, I am astounded now, thinking back, how little was taught about the long and illustrious history of the Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, and their subsequent expulsion.
How many are taught about the Jewish communities of Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen — to name but a few of many nations now completely without a Jewish presence?
While in government, we often raised this issue on the international stage, and at the foreign ministry under the leadership of then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, we even initiated a now annual event at the United Nations solely devoted to the issue of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries with our partners in the World Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
However, the more we pressed the issue, the more I understood that Jews in Israel and abroad are not even aware of it.
Dr. Ohayon created for the first time ever a Knesset caucus for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, and although the meetings were well-attended and frequent, the attendees were mostly the survivors of pogroms in the Arab world and the expellees themselves, and a few from the following generations.
To spread greater understanding of the issue abroad — along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions, headed by Akiva Tor — we created a traveling exhibition that would be sent to embassies, consulates, Jewish communities, and organizations around the world to print out locally and display at relevant events surrounding the date. (The exhibition is still available for anyone who wants to receive the PDF slides.)
Every year, more events are held around the world, organized with the assistance of Israel’s embassies and consulates, and the local Jewish communities. But it is still not enough. The issue is rarely part of any high-level Jewish or pro-Israel conference, barely touched in any pedagogic or educational syllabi, and barely addressed by any mainstream Jewish or pro-Israel organizations.
Before we ask the world to recognize and address the refugees’ moral, legal, and historic rights, we should inform ourselves about the history of these communities, as well as their cleansing and extinction during the 20th century.
For many around the world, Jewish history and culture is largely defined by the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe. Still, the Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa bestowed great scholarship, and cultural and economic successes on many occasions without parallel anywhere in the world.
It is an uphill battle and one that our opponents do not want to become widely known, because it flips on its head all standard notions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including conquest, oppression, and indigeneity. I know of an academic who tried to hold a purely historical conference on the history of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, and was turned away by dozens of American universities, even Jewish-studies departments, because the subject matter was considered “too controversial.”
Digest that for a moment: the 2,000- to 3,000-year history of Jewish communities — their achievements, their successes, their suffering — was deemed too controversial.
We should not allow the suffocation and extinction of these historic communities to be erased from the pages of history. We should share their stories and keep their memories alive, especially their destruction, which was largely ignored around the world.
Please join us in making November 30 not another day, but a vital date in our calendar.
Ashley Perry (Perez) is an international strategic consultant, content manager and creator, and public-relations adviser to companies, organizations, and individuals in a variety of fields and arenas at the highest global levels.