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Israel needs a museum dedicated to Middle Eastern Jewry

Building an official museum dedicated to the history, culture and exodus of the Jews from Arab and Islamic countries should be a national priority, as well as a moral and ethical imperative.

1953, Moshav Bar Giora, Israel. Newly arrived immigrants from Yemen and Morocco make their homes in a new village founded by the Jewish Agency in the Judean Hills. Credit: The Central Zionist Archives.
1953, Moshav Bar Giora, Israel. Newly arrived immigrants from Yemen and Morocco make their homes in a new village founded by the Jewish Agency in the Judean Hills. Credit: The Central Zionist Archives.
Ashley Perry
Ashley Perry is an adviser to the Middle East Forum’s Israel office. He served as an adviser to Israel’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister from 2009 to 2015. He is president of Reconectar, an organization dedicated to relinking the more than 200 million descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to Israel and Jewish life. Originally from the United Kingdom, he moved to Israel in 2001.

The recent renovation projects involving Jewish synagogues and sites in Iraq, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Afghanistan are interesting developments. On the whole, it is a positive move back towards recognition of these nations’ Jewish communities that were either wholly erased or significantly reduced during the last century’s exodus and expulsion of almost a million Jews from Arab and Muslim countries.

However, due to the lack of a significant Jewish community in these countries, these restoration projects are merely about bricks and mortar and rarely about reaching out to the communities, or their descendants, who remain largely unwelcome in the lands where their families lived for centuries and even millennia.

Nevertheless, if in these lands there is remembrance and memorial without community, in Israel there is community without remembrance and memorial.

In the more than 71 years since the foundation of the State of Israel, there has yet to be built a single official memorial or institution dedicated to the memory and history of the Jews from Arab and Islamic countries.

Considering that the majority of Jews in Israel have ancestry in the Middle East or North Africa, this is negligence at best.

For many decades the issue was almost completely ignored, or actively kept off the national agenda for a variety of reasons, from not wanting to further complicate complex relations with neighboring countries, to trying to sever Jews from these nations from their history and culture, which was largely associated with the Arab enemy.

This permeated the mindset of subsequent generations of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, who were told explicitly or implicitly to forget about the past and look to the present and future.

Of course, such an attitude was reserved solely for them; European Jews would have been rightly outraged had such an approach been taken with regard to them.

To ignore the history and culture of Mizrahi Jewry is not to tell the full Jewish story, whether to ourselves or outsiders. Thus, it is no surprise that most around the world fail to fully grasp Jewish indigenous and ancestral rights and see us as a foreign European import.

Even when the issue was finally placed on the national and international agenda during the past decade, it was no easy undertaking.

In 2011, the National Security Council, which sits in the Prime Minister’s Office, wrote a decision this author was proudly centrally involved in, to the effect that, among other recommendations on the issue, Israel was to build a museum dedicated to the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. However, nine years later, pitifully little action has been taken to achieve this.

Passing legislation to create a Day of Commemoration for the Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran was no plain sailing; one senior minister at the time tried to expunge the idea from the coalition agenda, arguing that “because we have a Holocaust Remembrance Day, you want one, too.”

Thankfully, the law passed in 2014. Now there is at least one day a year when Israeli children learn about the history of Jews of Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and other communities of the Arab and Islamic world, and national and international events are held.

Nonetheless, there is still a glaring need for an official public institution that tells the story of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.

The Jewish tradition is very much about experience and the need to replicate our history through physical representations, whether through the Passover seder plate or living in Sukkot booths for seven days.

We are commanded to be witnesses to the past and to be able to touch history.

Building an official museum dedicated to the history, culture and exodus of the Jews from Arab and Islamic countries should be a national priority, as well as a moral and ethical imperative.

It needs to be built as a place all Israeli schoolchildren and soldiers are brought to, in the same way they are brought to Yad Vashem.

It also needs to be a place where foreign dignitaries are brought, in order to complete the picture of the Jewish people and their restoration to Zion.

Apart from rectifying a historic injustice, recognition of the story and exodus of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa is an important antidote to accusations of foreign colonialism and occupation. In fact, it turns these accusations on their head if one truly understands and appreciates the full history of the Jewish people in these countries where Jewish communities lived far in advance of any Arab or Islamic presence.

For these and many other reasons a museum must be built in a prominent place in Jerusalem, the historic capital of the Jewish people, that is accessible and on a grand scale, close to other museums and sites of importance.

Until this happens, there is a sizable hole in our national narrative, the narrative which serves as the foundational pillar for our people’s future.

Ashley Perry (Perez) is an international strategic consultant, content manager and creator, and public-relations adviser to companies, organizations and individuals in a variety of fields and arenas at the highest levels globally.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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