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Educational outlets launch project to amass testimonies of Jews from the Mizrach

Resources and financial support will go to train students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to add videotaped testimonies to Israel’s National Collection and JIMENA’s oral-history collection of personal stories from Jews who originated from Iran and Arab countries.

A Yemenite family walks through the desert to a reception camp set up by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee near Aden. Nov. 1, 1949. Credit: Zoltan Kluger/Wikimedia Commons.
A Yemenite family walks through the desert to a reception camp set up by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee near Aden. Nov. 1, 1949. Credit: Zoltan Kluger/Wikimedia Commons.

The San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) has announced a new partnership program with Israel’s Ministry of Social Equality (MSE), Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of Jewish Peoplehood and Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev to produce a comprehensive collection of oral-history testimonies of Jews from Iran and Arab countries.

Beginning in 2010, JIMENA launched an oral-history program in California to record and preserve the memories of Jews born in the Arab world and Iran. Inspired and guided by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute, the project gives former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees an opportunity to preserve their personal histories and rich traditions in the countries their ancestors lived for more than 2,500 years. Witnesses document their stories of positive memories, as well as human-rights abuses, displacement and integration in new societies.

As an outgrowth of that project, JIMENA and BGU launched a partnership in 2012 to ensure that the collection of testimonies is shared with scholars and preserved in perpetuity. Graduate students at the BGU Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism transcribed, catalogued and added the collection to the university’s archives, where it now resides.

As part of Israel’s 2014 legislation to advance the heritage of Jews from Arab countries and Iran, Israel’s Ministry of Social Equality allocated $2.6 million to launch a national initiative to collect video-recorded testimonies of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. JIMENA and MSE pledged resources and support to train BGU students to collect testimonies to add to Israel’s National Collection and JIMENA’s oral-history collection at the university.

Dr. Adi Portugez, director of infrastructure information systems at BGU’s Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, notes that “this new collection will provide a new database” so that “scholars will be able to study Mizrahi communities from the ground up.”

Part of the new legislation stipulates that the history and culture of these communities must be more broadly integrated into the Israeli education system. As a result, Beit Hatfutsot is working with the MSE’s National Project for Documentation of the Heritage of Jewish Communities in Arab Countries and Iran to develop a mobile app for Israeli students to accumulate video-recorded testimonies of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. Each new testimony will be added to Israel’s National Collection.

The new oral-history app will be translated to English so students in the United States can help gather and add testimonies to Israel’s National Collection. JIMENA will integrate the app into its “Journey to the Mizrah” curriculum, which is being digitally distributed this summer to Jewish day schools throughout North America.

Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA, said “this innovative approach to oral history educates and enables a young, digitally connected generation of Jews to add the authentic voices of Jews from Arab countries and Iran to the historical record of Jewish life in the 20th century.”

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