Jewish Refugee Day: Save the date, even if you’re Ashkenazi!

The following essay (originally published at the Jerusalem Post) was written by Michelle Huberman, Creative Director of ‘Harif: an Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

Jews who fled Iraq register upon arriving in Israel in 1951

Landmark news [last] 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. 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


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.”

Dr Ada Aharoni, the Founder and President of IFLAC, one of a group of activists including JACI who campaigned for a memorail day in Israel, told me – Ayalon has forgotten one important aspect – how this story can promote peace, which is the central point of a memorial day. “Narratives of the past can greatly help us with problems in the present, mainly, the promotion of peace with our neighbours, and the struggle against anti-Semitism that is spreading in the world.” 

Indeed – as I myself discovered when I showed the film The Forgotten Refugees (directed by Michael Grynzspan) to an audience of mainly Arab students at SOAS in London – raising awareness of the forced exodus of the Jewish refugees has the power to change minds and help promote reconciliation.

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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