Yemenite food and Moroccan-style music are popular in Israel, but that doesn’t mean that most Israelis are truly familiar with the history and culture of the Jewish communities that once lived throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
With the recent national commemoration of the exile and expulsion of Jews from Arab states and Iran, many believe it is time to broadly educate Jews and others about the heritage of more than half of Israel’s population today.
Individuals representing these Jewish communities came from around Israel and abroad to weigh in on discussions held on Tuesday at the Knesset on a variety of issues related to a new law establishing the annual commemoration.
In addition to establishing an annual day of commemoration on the Israeli national calendar, the new law, sponsored by MKs Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beyteinu) and Nissim Zeev (Shas) and passed by the Knesset last June, requires the Education Ministry to increase instruction in schools on the history and culture of Jews from Arab countries and Iran. It also directs the Foreign Affairs Ministry to boost international awareness and recognition of the Jewish refugees from Arab states and Iran and their right to compensation.
Some 900,000 Jews fled, or were forced to flee, their homelands following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. As a result, the Jewish population of the Middle East (excluding Israel) and North Africa shrank from 856,000 to just 4,400 today.
November 30 was chosen as the day of commemoration, as it immediately follows November 29, the date on which in 1947 the UN voted to partition Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab state. On November 30, 1947, Jews residing in Arab states began to immediately feel the pressure and persecution that led to either flight or expulsion from their homes, in most cases having to leave their wealth and property behind.
While the Absorption Committee focused on the contentious issue of reparations for Jewish refugees from Muslim countries and the role it might play in eventual peace negotiations with the Palestinians, there was consensus in the Education Committee’s meeting about the importance of exposing younger Israelis to the historical narrative of Jews whose origins are not European.
“More than fifty percent of Israelis are descended from Jews of Arab lands and Iran, but the younger generation doesn’t know anything about it. It hasn’t been documented or commemorated,” said Ohayon as he opened the Education Committee discussions.
“In a span of 25 years, these communities stopped to exist. Their story ended, and their contributions to the Jewish people have not been told, and they have been forgotten,” he said.
Those invited to testify before the committee unanimously agreed that school curricula must address the lacuna.
“The subject is already part of the matriculation exam studies, and soon we will be introducing it from the first grade,” testified an Education Ministry official.
“We can’t let the subject be an elective in schools. No change will happen unless it is integral and mandatory to the curriculum,” argued Yaron Atias from Hadasim, an organization promoting Sephardic Judaism.
Edwin Shuker, vice president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), came from London to emphasize to the committee the importance of recording the oral histories of Jews from the Arab world and Iran.
“When my father arrived in Israel from Iraq in 1971, no one was interested in his story,” he said. “Now the window is closing and we must collect these personal and communal histories.”
San Francisco-based Gina Waldman, president of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North America told the education committee she was incensed to see that none of the Israel tourism websites she searched made mention of the various museums around the country dedicated to telling the story of Jews from Muslim countries, such as the Libyan Jews Heritage Center and Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, both in Or Yehuda.
Waldman, who escaped Tripoli in 1967 as anti-Semitic mobs attacked their Jewish neighbors, also asked for assurances that the curricular materials on Jews from Arab countries and Iran produced in Israel will be translated into English for use in North America and elsewhere.
“It is important to educate our children not only here in Israel, but also abroad, because unless we can share our history and heritage and show that the conflict here created two groups of refugees, our children will not be able to fight the psychological war against Israel…We need to create a foundation for our children to understand the conflict in a much deeper way,” she said.
According to Stan Urman, JJAC executive director, one of the key pieces of information young Jews are missing when they engage with others about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the fact Jews have been indigenous to the Middle East for 2,500 years.
“Jews were in the region 1,000 years before the arrival of Islam,” he said.