Global kaddish planned for neglected exile of N. African Jewry

Some 50 synagogues, mostly serving Middle Eastern and Northern African congregants, will commemorate this painful.

Iraqi Jewish refugees stand in a refugee absorption camp. established in Israel in 1950. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Iraqi Jewish refugees stand in a refugee absorption camp. established in Israel in 1950.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The expulsion and exodus of the almost a million Jews from Arab countries and Iran represents the eradication of the oldest communities in the Diaspora, “which evaporated almost in an instant.”
But this story is scarcely known among world Jewry. On Saturday, November 30, Jewish communities worldwide will commemorate this arduous time in Jewish history with a global kaddish – memorial prayer.
According to British businessman and philanthropist David A. Dangoor, this year some 50 synagogues, mostly which serve Middle Eastern and Northern African congregants, will commemorate this painful day.
The date was chosen by former MK Shimon Ohayon, who drafted a bill in 2014 to establish an official day for commemorating the fate of Jewish communities who fled Arab lands and Iran. This day was chosen “because it was a day after November 29, 1947, when the UN Partition Plan was passed, and the Arab League and its member countries increased the persecution in their Jewish citizens.”
Dangoor, who grew up in Baghdad and serves as vice president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, told The Jerusalem Post that last year, at the initiative of Sass Peress, an Iraqi Jew living in Montreal, a mass kaddish was said in 12 synagogues around the world.
“So far, to the best of my knowledge, almost 50 synagogues will be participating this year, the overwhelming majority of which serve communities whose congregants are from the Middle East and North Africa,” he said, stressing that they “strongly believe that this should become an annual event for all Jewish communities, just as other days are.”
Commemoration is always important and, “if we single out one community whose history is not deemed worthy, then we are not being true to ourselves as a people.
“We should be commemorating the whole Jewish story without ignoring any community,” Dangoor explained. “We celebrated the Ethiopian holiday of Sigd the other day, and that is a vital part of our people’s tradition that is happily becoming mainstream.”
He pointed out that by saying the Psalm 137, which begins with the words “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” it draws a clear line through our history.
“My ancestors, like many others, were taken to Babylon, which is modern day Iraq, and we stayed there for 2,500 years,” he continued. “Most of our community returned to Zion only during the last century.”
DANGOOR HIGHLIGHTED that this history shouldn’t just be remembered in a Psalm, “but we should learn about the events, culture and tradition of our people in between,” adding that holy books still studied today, like the Talmud, “were written and some of the greatest centers of learning took place in modern-day Iraq, [and] it is also the final resting place of Ezra and Nehemiah.
“All over the former Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, we find stories and rich histories like that which evaporated almost in an instant and are being forgotten,” he said.
Asked how to educate and spark interest about this issue among the younger generation of Jewry, Dangoor said that the “first vital step” is creating awareness.
“Currently, few if any Jewish educational systems in Israel and the Diaspora teach the history of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in any meaningful way,” he said. “In Israel, where the majority of Jews derive from these regions, they do not learn about their own history, culture and customs.”
According to Dangoor, this is “a vital part of world Jewry that is largely ignored within mainstream Jewish institutions, so the picture of the [entire] Jewish people, especially its history, is partial.”
He also pointed out that it’s also extremely important to teach this history when looking at the fight against antisemitism, “because it is an antidote to antisemites and anti-Zionists, who tell a story that Jews are purely of European heritage.
“They ignore our indigeneity to the region,” he continued. “I firmly believe that no one who knows the millennia-long history of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, and our subsequent expulsion and exodus, can accept the lies and distortions that some anti-Zionists perpetrate.
“Our story turns their lies on their head,” Dangoor said.
Asked why he thinks this part of Jewish history has been neglected, Dangoor told the Post that there are several reasons for this. He explained that in the Diaspora, “it is mostly a function of numbers.”
“Outside of France, most Western Jewish communities are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, so the community infrastructures and institutions are built in their image,” he said. “In Israel, the Jews who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s from the Middle East and North Africa were not what many of those already in Israel thought of as Jews. They spoke the language of, looked like and had a similar culture to what was perceived as the ‘enemy.’”
He said that the State of Israel “has longed to see itself as part of the West, and so the dominant culture became Western – meaning to many, Ashkenazi.
“It is a sad fact that when many think of Mizrahi [Jews], they think of backward and poor Jews who needed to be rescued – in body, spirit and mind,” he stressed. “However, those who understand our history would know that we were highly educated and successful in many countries like Iraq and Egypt.”
Dangoor also highlighted that the Jews of old spoke multiple languages, studied at the finest universities in the world and had successful businesses in Baghdad and Cairo, which were courted all over the world.
“Our musicians, poets, intellectuals and philosophers were highly regarded internationally,” he continued. “The more one learns about this history, the more these false narratives and perceptions will change.”
What could change perceptions of “othering,” Dangoor said, is education.
“The more the next generation learns about the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa – and other communities– the more we will see the commonality of Jewish history and tradition,” he said. “The greater awareness there is, the more we will see the Jewish people as a whole with all of its varieties and hues, like a beautiful tapestry. We should see all histories and traditions as equal and give equal time to learning about them.”
Dangoor dreams that a Jewish child of Polish or Russian parentage will learn as much about the history and culture of the Jews of Morocco or Syria as that of their Western roots, and vice versa.
“Once that is attained, there will be no more “others” – there will just be one Jewish people.”