For greater solidarity, Jews should join mass kaddish on Nov. 30

In the first half of the 20th century, almost 900,000 Jews lived in Arab countries, whereas today there exists no more than a few thousand.

A JEWISH man prays at a Moroccan synagogue. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A JEWISH man prays at a Moroccan synagogue.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For many Jews around the world, November 30 is just another day with no special significance. However, since 2014, this date has been set aside as the official Day of Commemoration for the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.
This is the day where we remember and mourn the ending of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century, many of which had lasted for millennia, long before the advent of Islam or Christianity.
In the first half of the 20th century, almost 900,000 Jews lived in Arab countries, whereas today there exists no more than a few thousand. A campaign of discrimination, dispossession and violence against Jewish communities in these lands ended these most ancient of all global Jewish communities.
Whereas the majority fled to the fledgling State of Israel, which itself was still fighting for its existence, many fled further afield to the United States, United Kingdom and Western Europe. Apart from in France, these communities – variously known as Sephardi and Mizrahi – are a distinct minority among a larger majority of Jews whose origins lie largely in Central or Eastern Europe.
As a result of the majority’s attitudes, culture and history, little is known of the Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa. Its history, culture and traditions are rarely studied at Jewish schools or other educational institutions, even in Israel.
Some, like Prof. Daniel Elazar, who contributed much to the academic study of Sephardim, described these communities as “The Other Jews.” Elazar, writing in 1989, meant this term as an implicit dig against those who saw these communities as the “others,” stressing how the Ashkenazi Jews were the main protagonists of Jewish history and culture.
THREE DECADES later, it is time to end this othering of Middle Eastern and North African Jews and place their history, culture and tradition on an even keel.
On November 30, for the second year running, prayers will be recited in synagogues across the world in remembrance of Jews buried in inaccessible cemeteries in Arab lands. A mass hashkaba (kaddish), at the initiative of a Montreal resident of Iraqi origin, Sass Peress, will be said. For decades, families have been prevented from reciting prayers at the gravestones of their loved ones buried in Arab lands.
Peress said that the hashkaba and prayers help “to create a positive and cathartic event for all.”
Last year, only 12 synagogues in the world took part in this historic event; four times that number are expected to join this year.
Nonetheless, most, if not all of these synagogues and communities are from the Middle Eastern and North African tradition.
To make this a truly positive and cathartic event, it would be extremely gratifying to witness other communities without these origins stand shoulder to shoulder in Jewish solidarity to remember the Jewish communities that were decimated in that part of the world.
In February, the Exilarch’s Foundation sponsored a special event at the historic Bevis Mark Synagogue to mark 50 years since the infamous Baghdad hangings, when nine Jews and others were publicly hanged, an event that spurred the remaining Jews of Iraq to flee.
Bevis Marks is the oldest synagogue in the United Kingdom. Its Spanish and Portuguese founders had no immediate roots in the region, so it was deeply heartwarming that such a Jewish community joined in the occasion to make it a shared point of commonality.
For those of us whose roots are in Iraq and the Middle East but live in an Ashkenazi majority community, it is vital that the barriers between our different communities are broken down. This will only happen if there is a greater sense of awareness of the history, culture and tradition of other communities.
With knowledge comes understanding, and the lines that separate us will begin to blur and disappear. We need literacy in the history and culture of each and every Jewish community to be passed down as the previous generations leave us.
The 20th century was as tumultuous as perhaps no other in the two millennia since Jewish sovereignty was ended in our indigenous and ancestral homeland. The Holocaust, the reestablishment of Jewish statehood and the exodus of the Jews from Arab countries changed the face of global Jewry, for the good and the bad.
Most Jewish families around the world are now no more than a century in their current country of residence as a result of displacement and movement, forced or voluntary.
We have brought a wide and vibrant array of cultures and stories from our previous lands of domicile. Many of our people are meeting once again after millennia of separation.
This reunion gives us an opportunity to celebrate and commemorate our differences as well as our similarities. It should be a time of learning, which leads to understanding, and hopefully to solidarity and cohesion.
It is hoped that there will no longer be any “other Jews”– and there can be no better way to start than to have more and more synagogues and communities join us in our prayers of remembrance and mass kaddish on November 30.
The writer, a businessman and philanthropist, is the head of the Exilarch’s Foundation and Dangoor Education, and is vice president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI).