Friday, July 20, 2012

Even Ashkenazim should save this date

Landmark news this week: Israel has approved a special memorial day to be set aside in the Jewish calendar to mark the exodus of Jews from Arab countries. But you don't need to be Sephardi or Mizrahi to observe this day: Ashkenazim too must save the date, Michelle Huberman argues in her Jerusalem Post blog, Clash of Cultures:

On this Jewish Refugee Day, students will learn about the 850,000 Jewish refugees who fled from their native Arab countries since the establishment of the State of Israel. Here at Harif (the UK association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa), we have worked tirelessly with other organisations across the globe to lobby for this day.

Co-founder of Harif, Lyn Julius stated "We are absolutely delighted, this was a long time in coming, but a great breakthrough and congratulations to Danny Ayalon. Over half of the population of Israel are there because of what happened to their parents and grandparents. My parents went through a traumatic exodus from Iraq in 1950-51 and it's important for the entire Jewish people, not just Sephardim, to remember that until they were forced to flee, these Jews lived continuously in the region centuries before it became known as the Arab world."

This key achievement can be credited to Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. He stated: "a new memorial day would correct a historical injustice by finally recognising the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees and victims who were persecuted and forced to leave their homes in Arabs countries". The recommended date for the commemoration is the anniversary of the "Farhud," the massive pogrom against the Jews of Iraq which broke out on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot on June 1–2, 1941. During the pogrom, at least 170, and up to 780, Iraqi Jews were murdered. See the video here.

Iraqi Jews arriving in Israel in 1951

Ayalon said that "the Arab League should recognise the historical fault of Arab countries and these countries should bear responsibility for expelling the Jews and turning them into refugees."

It is quite unbelievable that in Israel, where over 50% of the Jewish population have Sephardi/Mizrahi roots, that their history is not being taught in schools. But that's about to change. Ayalon stated that on the new memorial day, "we will remember the 850,000 Jewish refugees who were forced to flee from Arab states. This would not just be a symbolic act; in our blood-soaked region, remembrance carries a political and diplomatic meaning. The Palestinians are speaking about refugees at length. Then we will too. While our refugees have assimilated into society, the Palestinian refuges have always been, and still remain, no more than a propaganda tool for their leaders." (...)

Joe Shaki, an Israeli expat living in London, felt this was a fantastic step forward, but he was cynical. Would Israel be able to change the attitudes of the Ashkenazi elite? He still feels bitter that his family lost their considerable wealth in Baghdad and suffer poverty in Israel. "The Jews from Arab countries are still feeling the effects of the Farhud even today and many are still struggling within Israeli society."

The challenge for us at Harif is to mark this day in the UK too. We're hoping that the Jewish establishment in the Diaspora will take on this new day. Our predominantly Ashkenazi community simply don't feel connected when it comes to Sephardi issues. People I meet can't quite understand how I (an Ashkenazi woman) can be interested in Sephardi matters when it doesn't directly concern me.

But it is impossible to have a grasp of Middle Eastern politics and hope to make peace without understanding how the Jews were treated when they lived as 'dhimmis' under 14 centuries of Muslim rule, especially in Yemen and North Africa. So many of our community believe that they previously lived as equals with their neighbours. But their status only really improved in the colonial era. Films like The Silent Exodus and The Forgotten Refugees spotlight a menacing tide of 20th century pro-Nazi Arab nationalism, sweeping away all minorities before it. I know these films have changed my understanding of the conflict.

When you listen to their stories, you begin to understand why the Israeli Sephardi/Mizrahi community are so tough in their politics. Much tougher than their Ashkenazi cousins. And with good reason. They have nothing but their Israeli passports. There are no Polish grandparents through whom to claim an EU passport and retreat when times get hard. They have their backs to the wall, as they fight, work and protect the State of Israel. There is no alternative. No return to Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Libya. Naive campaigns for coexistence at any cost created by the privileged in the West reflect neither their history nor their tragedy.

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Jewess said...

Thanks for posting this, and I agree all Jews need to save this date.

I do have to say, that as a great-granddaughter of Polish and Russian Jews who survived many pogroms in Europe, the last thing I would do is flee to the EU should I need refuge.

The only homeland is Israel. The only refuge is Israel. There is only one Jewish people.

by Davsil said...

This day will mean absolutely nothing if it ignores the story of Palestinian Jewish refugees.

Sylvia said...

"When you listen to their stories, you begin to understand why the Israeli Sephardi/Mizrahi community are so tough in their politics."

There is a lot of truth in that, but to explain their commitment to an independent Israel only by their suffering is too simplistic and misses the complexities of their Israeli experience.

A few pointers:
-The Sephardi masses understand Zionism differently from the Ashkenazis. The historical contexts of their flight from their former countries (Arab, African and Asian nationalisms and independences) justifies the founding of the State as a means of self-determination for the Jewish people. The opposite of colonialism.

-While many Ashkenazim were disillusioned after the collapse of the kibbutz enterprise - and this is a reason why many of them became anti-Zionists - that was not the case for the Sephardim since they never harbored any illusions to begin with - as to the egalitarian tenets of the doctrine, being excluded as they have from that experience.

And while there were a handful of Sephardi Communists who acquired their communism in foreign universities, the phenomenon of the anti-Zionist "red-diaper baby" a la Amira Hass for example is almost inexistent among Sephardim.

There is plenty more to be discussed, unfortunately I don't find a site where all those ideas and more could be discussed. Elyahu's site seems perhaps the most appropriate, but not quite since it deals mainly with history.

yes, I know maybe I should have my own blog :)- well I would but I can't commit to daily maintenance.

bataween said...

I'm not sure I agree with you about the non-existence of 'red-diaper babies' among Sephardim. Think of the Iraqi communists like Sami Michael.

Sylvia, it would be great if you had your own blog, but in the meantime, your thoughtful and well-informed comments are always a welcome asset on this blog. If you would like to write in greater depth on any particular subject I could always put your posts up for you.

Sylvia said...

Sami Michael's communism was acquired -albeit at a young age. His parents weren't communists.

What I mean by "red diaper baby" are those born of communist parents who were milked in the communist "faith" from age 0. For example Amira Hass, Juliano Mer-Khamis, Naomi Klein, etc. Those are/were beyond remedy.
As to the few whose communism was acquired, they usually belong to an older generation and starting to pass away, if they haven't done so already: Abraham Serfaty, Simon Levy, Amram Elmaleh - all gone last year or so, and Sami Michael must be ninety or close to it.

Sylvia said...

Thanks Bataween. You're doing a great job and you have your hands full educating the world. What I have in mind is related, but in the realm of ideas which would require sustained and long discussions.