Where are the Ashkenazim?

By Michelle Huberman, Harif creative director

Last night in London I watched the premiere of David Kahtan’s film: Escape from Baghdad - Moshe Kahtan’s story. Moshe was the last Jew to escape Iraq before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. It was then illegal for Jews to leave the country. The film gives a moving account of Moshe’s “two years of hell” in the city of his birth – a catalogue of threats, extortion and harassment - and gives a nail-biting account of his near-capture by the Iraqi navy as he was smuggled across the Shatt-al-Arab waterway to Iran.  Barely two years later, nine Jews were executed in Baghdad on trumped-up spying charges. Moshe had no doubt that had he been caught, he would have been the tenth. The man who smuggled him out was caught and executed.


Audience in London of David Kahtan’s film: Escape from Baghdad - Moshe Kahtan’s story
After the film, Moshe told the audience how it was only later that he understood that the bribes paid to smugglers to help Jews escape had actually been organised by the State of Israel - and how grateful he was to Israel for saving his life. The audience was full of elderly Sephardim, who were able to share their harrowing stories of escaping hostile regimes across the Arab world, most leaving with only one suitcase full of their worldly possessions, but happy to be alive.
The Iraqi gentleman next to me asked the familiar question (readers may be curious too), "so what''s your connection to the Sephardim? Do you have a Sephardi parent or did you marry a Sephardi man?" “No”, I replied. He was puzzled. Even though I have dark hair and drip with ethnic jewellery, I still look very Ashkenazi. I went on to explain "I like Jewish history and take an interest in everybody''s background. We all have the same biblical roots, why should I make the distinction? I would just as much go to a Holocaust memorial event as a Farhud one. He was genuinely startled by this reply. Obviously he had become attuned to the Ashkenazi community''s lack of interest in their ‘darker’ cousins.
Harif is the Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. I''m the creative director and we regularly put on the most fascinating events celebrating the contributions of these communities and sharing their histories. We have a large mailing list from across the Jewish spectrum, but what amazes me is the absence of Ashkenazim at these occasions. Obviously most believe these events "just aren''t relevant to me".
Among some Ashkenazim there is an underlying racism, that rarely speaks its name, but generally translates as irritation with  "Israelis". This is the code word in the UK for the Sephardim (and probably in America too - I remember Jackie Mason joking about his visit to Israel, taking Israelis for Puerto Ricans): the ones people describe as noisy, superstitious and not quite as cultured as them. Too rightwing... not quite understanding of their liberal Western values. Too tough on the "poor Palestinians". I hear it all the time from people who have no idea of my involvement with these communities. When I press them  about which Israelis they don''t like, it''s always those from the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, never their more enlightened cousins from Ra’anana or Herzliya.
And again, it is never said in so many words, but these are the "Israelis" who voted for the current tougher, rightwing government. The ones with experience of living in Muslim lands. They know the Arab and Muslim war against Israel is not about the land, but about the Jews. The Jews have escaped the shackles of their dhimmi status. The one-state solution, now being vaunted in enlightened academic circles, would result in the Jews of Israel reverting to subservience under sharia law in an Arab-majority state.  
Israeli wariness of the Arab side drives the establishment mad here in England. I spent the last Limmud conference listening to every so-called community leader introducing themselves as somebody who loves Israel, but doesn''t support the current Israeli government. Translation: ...... “aaah, those pesky Sephardim, why can''t they vote like us. It was so good in the old days of Labour and Meretz.”
The liberal Ashkenazi elite either harks back to a mythical age of coexistence, or  would rather not know about the catastrophe of the uprooting (Nakba) of a million Jews from Arab and Muslim lands. Ask them why their Israel education programme excludes the Jewish Nakba, and you are met with an apology and the promise that they''ll look into it for next year.
It’s hard to gauge numbers of Sephardim in the UK - the British Board of Deputies only have statistics for members of the main Spanish and Portuguese synagogues. But London is experiencing a Sephardi renaissance: Oriental communities are breaking away from the establishment and founding their own synagogues. I am currently writing a book about these 30-odd synagogues, with communities stretching from Calcutta to Casablanca. They will change the face of British Jewry in the future. You can see an interview with me about it here.
The Ashkenazim need to know the narrative of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa and not believe that everything was rosy between Jews and Arabs until the State of Israel was born. Their history is essential to understanding the Israel/Arab conflict today. As we see daily on our TVs the atrocities towards Kurds, Christians and each other across the Muslim world, I am reminded by the elderly Sephardim that this is how it was for them when they lived in those countries.
As Arab propaganda delegitimising Israel and calling for its destruction moves into mainstream commentary across the Western media, Ashkenazim need to hear the voices of those, like Moshe Kahtan, who escaped from hell.
To find out about Harif events, or If you would like to arrange a showing of Escape from Baghdad - Moshe Kahtan’s story  please contact Harif.

Michelle Huberman can be contacted at: michellehuberman@mac.com