The Jewish calendar is replete with dates, both religious and secular, attesting to momentous occasions and events in Jewish history. Though the exile in the wider Middle East, outside of the Land of Israel, beginning in Babylon more than 2,500 years ago, was the longest, it is not widely studied. And it’s certainly the least commemorated in any sphere.
In 2014, the State of Israel passed a law to officially make Nov. 30 a Day to Commemorate the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from Arab Countries and Iran—a date now marked by Jewish communities around the world. Nevertheless, there remain many issues relating to the Jews from Arab countries that few other Jewish communities face.
In 2017, Sass Peress, a Canadian of Iraqi-Jewish origin, embarked on a voyage of discovery to find his own grandfather’s grave in Sadr City, Baghdad. With the help of local Muslims, he began to unearth his family’s graves, but also realized the abject neglect in Jewish cemeteries around Iraq, some of which had been destroyed. Others saw that Jewish cemeteries around the Middle East and North Africa were either demolished, as in Tripoli for a hotel, or in a terrible condition. Apart from Morocco, almost all were inaccessible for Jews.
In 2018, Sass launched a process that led to a global moment of unity and remembrance, by which an annual Kaddish (the mourners’ prayer) and Azkara (a memorial prayer) were recited together in synagogues across the world, as a testament to and remembrance for Jews whose family members are buried in no-longer-accessible cemeteries in Arab countries.
During the first year, 12 communities participated; last year, participation was extended to more than 50 communities, across four continents.
This year, we are calling on synagogues and other Jewish institutions of all backgrounds to say these prayers on the closest Shabbat to the Day of Commemoration on Nov. 28, in remembrance of and solidarity with the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa who cannot say them in the presence of their departed family members, because many of the cemeteries are inaccessible.
Organizations representing millions of Jews—in communities from across the religious spectrum and from around the world—already have signed up. Thousands have already downloaded the prayer, written by Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom, to be recited in synagogues, in Zoom services or individually, due to the limitations on public prayer imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Judaism, we are meant to understand and learn through ritual. While saying the Kaddish and Azkara prayers is largely a religious undertaking, it is far more than that. It is about creating awareness of the history and plight of our people still suffering because of the ramifications resulting from the exodus of Jews from Arab countries in the 20th century.
Whole communities of almost 1 million Jews, living in these areas for millennia, were emptied within a few short decades, with very little left of their presence or existence. Thanks to organizations like Diarna, The Geo-Museum of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Life, many of us can see our former homes and communities, albeit virtually.
The few who manage to see them in person, such as like Libyan Jewish exile David Gerbi, risk life and limb. Gerbi returned to see his family’s synagogue in Tripoli 44 years after they fled, and almost paid with his life. While there briefly to clean up the prayer hall and say a few prayers, angry crowds formed around him.
“They told me that if I am not leaving now, they are going to come and they are going to kill me because they don’t want Jews here,” said Gerbi, who was then whisked away by hired security guards.
This is the sad reality for many of us, although we have hope that the Abraham Accords could usher in a new era of rapprochement between Jews and Arabs in the region. Nonetheless, before we are able to push these issues with our neighbors, there needs to be greater understanding, awareness and displays of solidarity within the Jewish world.
For many years, the history and exodus of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa were barely recognized or remembered by Jewish institutions, synagogues, schools and organizations in Israel and around the world. While the majority of Jews in Israel and around 1 million Jews in the Diaspora are from the Middle East and North Africa, there needs to be a greater sense of awareness of the history, culture and tradition of these communities.
Unlike the case of other Jewish tragedies, there is no communal showing of religious solidarity for the exodus and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries.
It is vital, thus, that this be a widely recognized initiative to say these prayers annually in synagogues and Jewish institutions in Israel and around the world. Even in communities where there are few Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, these prayers and a display of religious solidarity are vital for breaking down the barriers between our different communities.
To sign up and download the prayer, please go to www.KaddishInitiative.com.
David Dangoor, a businessman and philanthropist, is a member of the Board of the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq (WOJI) and honorary president of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq.
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