By Michelle Huberman, Harif creative director
The Palestinians are busy preparing for their Nakba day on 15th May, I understand they will be using the symbol of a huge key to represent their lost Palestinian homes . But what about the greater number of lost Jewish homes in Arab countries? Where is the outcry? When will the plight of the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities be recognised by the international community and by Arab states?
As we mark the Pesah Exodus from Egypt, let us spare a thought for the modern-day exodus of almost a million Jews, whose properties and wealth were stolen by Arab states, or abandoned overnight by their fearful inhabitants. What better symbol of their losses than the mezuzah? We should all be holding up mezuzot and asking for compensation for their properties.
I grew up in the leafy suburbs of North London where having a mezuzah on the outside of your home is the norm. Everyone displays one the outside and once inside the house you''ll find the same on every room barring the kitchen and bathroom. British Jews have been very lucky in the last century, we didn''t experience the deportations of WW11 and there are no memories of the occupants of UK homes with a mezuzah being dragged out in the middle of the night. We have all been taught about the holocaust not just from books and documentaries, but from the holocaust survivors that live with us..
Across the whole Arab world, you will hardly find any Jews today. But you will find wooden door frames with a slanted slot indicating where a mezuzah was once posted - the sign that this was once a Jewish household. Were they removed by the Muslims who took over these Jewish properties? Or did the Jews remove them while they were still living in these homes, to hide their identities? Moroccan Jews are fastidious about enclosing the mezuzah in large metal or wooden cases with the letters Shin, Daleth and Yud. However, during World War ll they removed them themselves, to hide their identities. "There are no Jews, only Moroccans," Mohammed V, the wartime king, was said to have proclaimed. Nevertheless, Jews were banned from public office, quotas applied and they were forced back into the Mellahs. The grooves that I have personally seen in doorways across North Africa clearly show Jewish households that have had a fear of announcing their identity to their neighbours. With the mass immigration of North African Jewish communities to France in the early 1960s all that changed. Despite having experienced persecution and discrimination in their homelands, once on French territory they were happy to display and practise their Judaism openly. A prominent mezuzah on the outside of their homes and businesses was customary along with a High Five and kiss on entry. This was beautifully caricatured in the film La Verité Si Je Mens II: when the Tunisian gangsters rush into a home to beat up their betrayer, they all kiss the mezuzah before the onslaught! These flamboyant communities have re-energised French Jewry. When I lived in Paris in the 1980s, I noticed that assimilated Ashkenazi families did not have a mezuzah on their outside doorposts. I soon discovered that this was to do with their terrible experiences of being dragged from their homes during WWII. A stroll around the Marais district bore witness to asymmetric nail punctures in the doorposts showing homes where Jews had once lived. I observed a great polarisation between the two communities, the older Ashkenazi community whose bitter experiences caused them to lie low and assimilate, and the newer Sephardi arrivals unafraid to proclaim their Jewishness. Their arrival in France represented freedom from the memory of repression and insecurity in their countries of birth. Some 80,000 Jews fled Egypt, many of them expelled overnight by Nasser in 1956. Ellis Douek, who left Cairo, told me: "we generally placed mezuzot inside the door, not outside, in order to avoid asking for trouble. Hardly any of our large, successful and vibrant community were observant, so for them, it was no big deal. We just left, most of us in disgust and contempt, rather than anything else." I heard a similar story about the mezuzah inside the door from a friend who fled Iraq in the 70''s. Fleeing Jews were dispossessed of their homes, schools, synagogues, shops and hospitals in virtually every Arab town and city. The World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries estimates that over 100,000 square kilometers of Jewish-owned land was also seized or abandoned - four times the size of Israel.
If you’re Sephardi or Mizrachi wherever you are in the world, it’s important to share your experiences with the wider community. The stories of Jews from Arab countries are not known. You should be talking in your grandchildrens'' schools, in synagogues, in churches, etc, and sharing your history so that the world knows as much about the plight of the Jews from Arab countries as it does about the Palestinians.
The author can be contacted at [email protected]