The untold stories of the Middle East’s Jewish refugees

I am just one of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran who left, fled, or were expelled from the countries where they had lived, in many cases since the Babylonian period.

By MIRIAM SHEPHER
October 9, 2018 20:47
3 minute read.
Reuven Rivlin

Dov Lipman and President Reuven Rivlin present a ID card to a new immigrant to Israel in July. (photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)

 
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It is Shabbat evening. My husband and children are gathered around the dining room table, eagerly awaiting the meal. As I set the last dish down – traditional Tunisian couscous – I am transported to the Shabbat dinners of my childhood and my mind fills with thoughts about the birthplace of my family dating back thousands of years: Tunisia.

In 1948, when I was six months old, my mother risked everything to escape Tunisia with my siblings and me in search of a better life. My father stayed behind, until he could meet us at our final destination, years later. We crammed into a ship called the Negba and endured a difficult journey to France. We waited for a year until it was our turn, at last, to enter the land that my mother had always considered our home: Eretz Israel.

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I am just one of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran who left, fled, or were expelled from the countries where they had lived, in many cases since the Babylonian period. In the years that followed the independence of the State of Israel, Jews in Arab countries suffered unbearable discrimination and acts of violence that led to their forced expulsion. They left their property and belongings behind, carrying only necessities with them as they escaped to safety.

Jews were forced out of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria – and later, Iran. Like my family, nearly half of these refugees settled in Israel. Entire Jewish communities were wiped out; centuries of religious customs, traditions, culture and music vanished from the Middle East and North Africa. 

Our stories remain largely untold. Many still do not know of our collective trauma.

I carried my roots with me as I grew up in Israel. My life changed at the age of 11, when I was given the opportunity to live on a kibbutz. My father had since passed away in Israel, and my mother was struggling to provide for us.


IT WAS ON this kibbutz where my life as an Israeli really began and where I discovered a true sense of family. I learned about the land and people of Israel and came to understand that I was blessed to live in a time where the centuries-old dream of the Jewish people was a reality. I fell in love with my country.

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Today, my family’s path has led us to America, where my husband and I have raised our children – but I have never forgotten where I come from. Yet it seems that to international bodies and human rights organizations, we are invisible. In the United Nations and around the world, people cry out for Palestinian refugees. Aren’t we, the forgotten refugees, just as deserving of this global sympathy? We are living proof of the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries and Iran.

The State of Israel has sought to correct this injustice by passing into law a memorial day to commemorate the tragedy of these Jews who were forced to flee their homes. Now, every year on November 30, my story and the story of hundreds of thousands of other Mizrahi Jews is honored.

In Tunisia, the Jewish community and our religion were largely repressed. Today, through my role with the Israeli-American Council (IAC), I have the privilege that my family in Tunisia did not – I am proud to be an active member of the Jewish and Israeli-American communities. I am blessed to be able to engage in work that strengthens Jewish identity, bridges Israeli-Americans and Jewish Americans, and helps ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.

The same sense of family that I found at the kibbutz in Israel, exists within the IAC. The IAC family is made up of Israeli-Americans with diverse stories and histories, but is ultimately is one, passionate, embracing, coast-to-coast family.

This year, the day of commemoration for Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran will fall during the fifth annual IAC National Conference, to take place from November 29 to December 2. The council will dedicate a special session to this day of commemoration. We will come together, as an IAC family, to tell the story of these 850,000 Jews.

Our story will no longer go untold.

Miriam Shepher is a member of the National Board and Los Angeles Council Chairwoman Emeritus of the Israeli-American Council.

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