Monday, December 07, 2009

Discovering Jews of the Mid East in the Mid West

The last place you might expect to find Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews is Iowa City, in the heart of the American Mid West. Kudos therefore to James Eaves-Johnson, a regular reader of Point of No Return, for his well-written article published in The Press Citizen. His piece introduces local readers to a history of Jews from Arab lands 'nearly as tragic' as that of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe.

The Jewish community in Iowa City is small but unusually diverse. Its synagogue is one of a few affiliated with both the Reform and the Conservative movements in Judaism. While the synagogue in town is traditionally Ashkenazi (Jews more recently from Eastern Europe), a sizeable and active component of the community is Sephardi or Mizrahi (Jews more recently from the Mediterranean and farther east).

Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, in particular, have important and unheard stories to tell. The lack of familiarity with these stories is unfortunate because these Jews have a history that, while less lethal than the history of Ashkenazim during the Holocaust in Europe, is nearly as tragic.

In the past 100 years, Jews in these lands have declined from more than 1 million to near zero. Margot Lurie is a Mizrahi Jew. She lives in Iowa City today, attracted here by the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Like many Americans, her background is diverse, but much of her family is from the Middle East. Her grandfather, Elias Levi, was among the first Jews to flee Arab lands in modern times. He was born to a family of Baghdadi Jews that very well may have lived in Mesopotamia for millennia.

At the beginning of the 1900s, the Middle East was changing rapidly. The Turkic Ottoman Empire, which had dominated North Africa, southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia was losing its power and would soon be reduced to Turkey. In World War I, Jews had been a fairly well protected, if subservient, minority in the Ottoman Empire. However, the weakening of the Ottomans degraded this protection.

It was in 1913, when Lurie's grandfather was a toddler, that her family fled Baghdad. Her great-grandfather was a reserve officer in the Ottoman army and had heard of an anti-Semitic plot against the Jews of Baghdad. Her family fled to the places where they could -- Calcutta, India and to Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). Her grandfather spent the bulk of his younger years growing up in Burma. While he was in high school, he founded the Rangoon Zionist Society and began writing for various Jewish publications in the Far East. Just prior to World War II, he traveled to the U.S. for religious study. The Japanese invasion of Burma kept him here permanently.

While today we consider Myanmar's ruling junta to be one of the more repressive regimes on the planet, it was a haven for many Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Arab lands. By fleeing then, Lurie's family escaped one of the worst anti-Jewish pogroms in modern history.

Although Baghdad was arguably the most Jewish metropolitan area in the world, it would succumb to a pro-Nazi uprising in 1941. The pogrom following that uprising, the Farhud, would kill more Jews than were killed by the Nazis in the Kristallnacht pogrom.

Coralville resident Moshe Peri was born in Israel to Moroccan parents. He works at Rockwell Collins and moved here to join his wife, who is getting her Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. Until coming to the U.S., Peri's background was typical of Moroccan Jews.Morocco, to its credit, is probably the Arab country that has demonstrated the greatest tolerance of the Jews. During World War II, Sultan Mohammed V tried to limit the impact of the Vichy race laws against the Jews. As a result, they fared better than Jews in Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. But in all these countries, thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps. Some were even deported to Auschwitz. Moreover, the end of the war won Moroccan Jews no reprieve. In 1948, the Jews of Morocco faced anti-Jewish riots and boycotts.

Moshe observes that Moroccan Jews "all shared the same dream to immigrate to Israel." And so, once Jews could flee to Israel, they did. In 1948, large numbers of Jews began leaving Morocco for Israel. Today, Morocco's Jewish population stands at less than a tenth of its peak size. Most of those who left have found refuge in Israel.

As a practical matter, it was Zionism that finally provided refuge to Jews in the Middle East. Jewish populations were consistently treated as foreign and subordinate to the domestic population wherever they went. They had to constantly appeal to the power of local rulers and seek foreign diplomatic protection. Indeed, many Jews of these areas carried European passports and generally identified as members of those European nations more than as members of the Arab countries where they resided.

Unlike Lurie's family, the Baghdadi Jews who remained through the end of the Ottoman Empire faced this problem acutely as their Ottoman protectors were displaced by the British. In 1918, Baghdadi Jews recognized the precariousness of their situation. The Chief Rabbi expressed to the British that local authorities would be unable or unwilling to protect minority populations and that such conditions contradicted the democratic values of the Allied forces. To remedy this, the Chief Rabbi requested that Baghdadi Jews be given all the rights and duties of British citizenship. Britain would go on to offer limited protection to the Jews but would never meet this request.

Read article in full


Victor said...

A hearty thank you!!!!! to Mr. Eaves-Johnson for writing this great article and for teaching people about the history of Jews from Arab-majority lands. Their story is not known well enough.

JamesEJ said...

Thank you so much for noting my column. It was a privilege to write about such an important issue. Hopefully it will not be my last.

Independent Observer said...

An excellent article. However, for the sake of readers unfamiliar with the Mideast, I wish the article had made clear that Sephardim-Mizrahim are refugees from Arab and Muslim countries in which they had resided for millennia.

Inependent Observer said...

For example, many Midwesterners might not know "Mediterranean and further east" to refer to Arab countries. Thus, it would have been clearest had the second sentence stated:

While the synagogue in town is traditionally Ashkenazi (Jewish refugees from European countries), a sizeable and active component of the community is Sephardi or Mizrahi (Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries).

Otherwise, a superb article.