Friday, December 04, 2009

The Sephardi Spielberg project comes to Britain

Jews from Kurdistan being airlifted to Israel in 1950 - 51

In Britain, interviewing begins in January to record the stories of an ageing population of Jews from Arab countries. It's the latest stage in an international effort - dubbed the 'Sephardi Spielberg project' - to preserve a vanishing history before it's too late. Sue Fishkoff reports for the Jewish Chronicle:

Joseph Samuels, born Yosef Sasson in Baghdad, was 18 years old when he fled Iraq for the new state of Israel.

It was 1949, and life was becoming increasingly difficult for Jews in Iraq, as it was throughout the Arab world. Yosef’s parents urged him to leave, promising they would follow.

He took a train to the coast with his younger brother, where they crammed into a smuggler’s boat with 16 other Jewish youths. They rowed secretly to Iran, where the Sasson boys were airlifted to Israel.

Like many Holocaust survivors, Samuels, who Anglicised his name when he moved to Los Angeles, only shared bits and pieces of his story with his children.

Unlike Holocaust survivors, however, his story, and that of more than 800,000 other Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, is not widely known.

These Jews, part of large, ancient communities in nine Arab countries, were victimised and persecuted, stripped of their rights and property, and in some cases forcibly expelled from the lands of their birth from the 1940s through to the 1970s. Finding refuge mainly in Israel, France and North America, they became the forgotten refugees of the Middle East conflict.

An international consortium of Mizrahi organisations in Britain, Israel and the United States is trying to change that.

Led by Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the University of Miami in Florida, a visual history project is under way to interview the aging survivors of this mass exodus and preserve their stories.

“We’re trying to do what [Steven] Spielberg did,” said Prof Henry Green of the University of Miami, referring to Mr Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute, which has more than 50,000 videotaped interviews with European Holocaust survivors.

Jimena, a San Francisco advocacy group for Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, began interviewing subjects in the western United States in October. The American Sephardi Federation in New York launched East Coast interviews in September.

London’s effort should get under way in January, said Lyn Julius, an Iraqi Jew who co-founded Harif, a four-year-old organisation dedicated to preserving the heritage of Sephardic Jews in Great Britain.

She has gathered a nucleus of about 50 mainly Iraqi Jews willing to take part, and is reaching out to enclaves from Morocco, Tunisia, Aden, Egypt and Libya. There are only 10,000 to 20,000 Mizrahi Jews in Britain, she says, mostly in London and Manchester.

“We are just starting, and people who have valuable memories are well into their 80s already,” she noted.

Read article in full

The project in California

Iraqi Jews' testimonies

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