My Word: Forgotten refugees and the proud Mizrahi heritage

Of all the things that unnecessarily divide Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, one of the most striking is the perception that talking (or cursing) in Yiddish is the main sign of a shared cultural heritage.

A man enters the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A man enters the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
You might have missed it. November was Mizrahi Heritage Month and judging by the lack of publicity surrounding the events, it will take a lot more than 30 days a year to put the topic in the spotlight.
Of all the things that unnecessarily divide Israeli and Diaspora Jewry – or at least Jews in English-speaking countries – one of the most striking is the perception that talking (or cursing) in Yiddish is the main sign of a shared cultural heritage. Other Jewish languages and dialects such as Ladino are often overlooked. Without detracting from the beauty and value of the mamaloshen, I favor putting more emphasis on learning Hebrew – the one language that should unite Jews everywhere. Not every synagogue is a shul, after all, and you don’t have to speak Yiddish to preserve Yiddishkayt (Jewishness).
A few years ago I witnessed an example of the extent of the problem. A radio broadcaster dismissively used the Yiddish word “gornisht.” “What does that mean?” a Sephardi colleague asked me. “Nothing,” I replied, and added for good measure the Yiddish for “absolutely nothing”: “gornisht mit gornisht.”
Mizrahi Heritage Month – celebrating the lives and legacy of Jews from Arab lands and Iran – was born somewhat arbitrarily. On November 29, the date that the UN in 1947 accepted the Partition Plan that would lead to the establishment of the State of Israel, the world body now cynically marks “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.” After too many years of being ignored, Israel determined that the following day, November 30, would be dedicated to commemorating the expulsion of the hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands. These are the Middle East’s most overlooked refugees. They came to Israel, overcame tremendous hardships to start build new lives in harsh conditions and helped make the country the success it is today.
Growing up in London in the 1970s, I was, like most Jewish youth at the time, very involved in the campaign for Soviet Jews. The struggle for the release of Soviet Jewry in many ways served as the core around which our Jewish identity was formed. That sort of solidarity is sorely missing today, when Diaspora Jewish youth are as likely to be pitched against each other, in pro-Israel versus pro-Palestinian configurations.
I don’t remember how I learned that there were other Jewish communities suffering in even worse conditions. The effort to help Soviet Jews come out of the cold completely overshadowed the plight of the Jews in places like Syria and Iraq who were literally dying to get out – pushed out by antisemitism, pulled by Zionism.
The work on behalf of Mizrahi Jewry was of necessity more low-key. Drawing attention to a refusenik made the Soviet authorities realize there were international eyes following what they were doing and conditions might be improved as a result. The same could not be said for the Jews in Syria, for example. Here, drawing attention to a specific member of the community was likely to result in that person’s disappearance.
Fortunately I came across a group called The Jews in Arab Lands Committee headed by the late Percy Gourgey MBE and with the special energy and ability to magic up free time that are the gift of youth, I founded a student branch with members willing and able to campaign for our neglected brethren.
According to Foreign Ministry statistics, more than 850,000 Jews lived in Arab lands in 1948, when the State of Israel was created. Today there are some 4,000. It’s hard to see this as anything other than ethnic cleansing – unless, of course, you happen to be in the UN.
As Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan noted in an opinion piece in this paper this week: “Entire communities from Morocco to Iraq, from Egypt to Syria, Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere were effectively wiped out. Along with them, thousands of years of Jewish heritage, history and culture were also erased.”
The UN offered no ongoing help to those Jews forced from their homes.
What it did do was support the narrative of Palestinian victimhood. Uniquely, Palestinians are entitled to pass on their status as refugees throughout the generations, hence the roughly 750,000 who either left or were forced to flee during the war the Arabs declared on the nascent Israel in 1948 have now, some five generations later, turned into five million. There is a UN body, UNRWA, dedicated solely to Palestinian “refugees” – all other refugees anywhere in the world are handled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UN has several units whose raison d’etre is promoting the Palestinian issue, including the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. I have attended CEIRPP workshops; peace parleys they were not.
Instead of solving the problems of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants, the UN has perpetuated their status. Instead of forming their own state, the corrupt Palestinian leadership was happy for the Palestinians to live on handouts from the UN, EU, Arab world and others and fomented a cult of terrorism and anti-normalization.
One of the many benefits of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, is that they focus on what we have in common and allow us all to proudly share our heritage while not losing our unique identities.
Jews first settled in future Arab lands following the Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judea, more than 2,500 years before the term “the West Bank” came into use. There are plenty of Sephardi, Mizrahi, Persian and Yemenite families who have lived in the Land of Israel for centuries, but the majority of arrived after 1948, with the majority of Iranian Jews fleeing after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Most of those forced to flee Arab lands left behind their businesses, homes and possessions. It is occasionally suggested that any future peace agreement with the Palestinians should include a compensation deal involving the Jewish losses for Palestinian losses. This type of restitution, however, raises the question of whether the state has the right to treat the Jewish property left behind in Arab countries as its own, rather than belonging to the families who had to flee.
Today, there are more non-Ashkenazi Jews than Ashkenazim in Israel and “mixed marriages” between Ashkenazim and Sephardim are so common that most of my friends have children and grandchildren who can proudly claim to be a bit of both. (And let’s not forget the Indian, Ethiopian, Yemenite, Balkan, Bukharan, Caucasian and many other Jewish communities.)
The corona crisis strangely has had a positive effect in this case, with street minyanim, the makeshift outdoor prayer groups, being more diversified than standard synagogues.
When the pandemic first reached Israel in March, we reacted as Jews have traditionally reacted to tough times – with humor. Many of the jokes were at the expense of the Ashkenazim, but luckily the ability to laugh at ourselves is part of our DNA, wherever our family origins lie. “Health regulations require no hugging, no kissing and no kissing mezuzot,” went one joke, “Ashkenazim can carry on as normal.”
“Losing a sense of taste is a possible sign of COVID. Those eating Ashkenazi dishes should not worry,” went another.
It’s the type of humor that made the Israeli sitcom Sabri Maranan popular: Take a man from a stereotypical Ashkenazi family married to a woman from a stereotypical Mizrahi family and see what happens as they eat with each other’s parents on Friday nights.
There’s no reason not to combine the best of both Jewish worlds. Mizrahi Heritage Month is far from perfect, but it’s better than gornisht.
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