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Tragedy of Mizrahi Jewish refugees emerges from the shadows

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.

To properly understand how the Holocaust has been seared onto Israel’s collective consciousness, one should visit the country on the 27th of Nisan, a date in the Hebrew calendar that falls in either April or May in the solar one. On that day, Yom HaShoah, the unsuspecting visitor is dumbstruck by the sight of an entire country coming to a halt.

At 10 a.m. on the dot, a siren sounds across the country. Schools, hospitals, trading floors, garages, news rooms, tech start-ups—all these and more freeze exactly where they are as Israeli citizens observe a minute of silent contemplation. Both the stillness and the weeping siren suggest that this is not an act of anger against the outside world, but a humbling opportunity for all Jews, regardless of background or religious observance, to pay tribute to the 6 million who perished.

It’s a spectacle that also confirms the Holocaust, rightly so, as the most destructive episode in the history of Jewish tragedies. Other persecutions are remembered respectfully, but it’s likely only those with a penchant for history who will learn about the pogroms in Kishinev or Damascus, or the expulsion from Spain. Everyone, on the other hand, knows the scale of the Holocaust.

In that environment, it has been difficult for Jews of Mizrahi descent—those, like my family, who originate from communities in the Middle East and North Africa—to get the State of Israel to properly recognize the tragedy of their dispossession. The point wasn’t so much competition with the Holocaust, but the bald fact that the Holocaust was a civilizational convulsion without peer. And in any case, how many times each year can a nation pause and weep?

Another factor was politics. Israeli leaders for many decades were reluctant to acknowledge that the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries, following the creation of the Jewish state, meant that there were not one, but at least two, refugee populations in the Middle East. Only in the last few years have prominent Israeli politicians emphasized that focusing solely on the Arab refugees from British Palestine in 1948 is a distortion of both history and morality.

It’s interesting, perhaps, that the further we get from those torrid years of Mizrahi Jewish suffering, the more Israel has embraced the memory of what happened. Maybe we’ve gotten to a point where there’s space to remember more than one Jewish tragedy, and without the raw emotion that inevitably marked commemorations during the latter half of the 20th century.

Whatever the explanation, this past Sunday, Nov. 30, marked the first instance of an annual remembrance day in which Israel commemorated, thanks to a Knesset bill passed in June, the “Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran.”

Remembrance ceremonies were held, special classes were conducted in schools, and Israeli diplomats raised the issue with their interlocutors. (In tandem, the Mizrahi Jewish advocacy organization JIMENA held special events in North America and around the world.)

Commenting on the Knesset bill after it was passed, MK Shimon Ohayon noted that “we have finally corrected a historic injustice and placed the issue of Jews who were expelled or pushed out of the Arab world in the last century, on the national and international agenda.”

Elaborating, he added, “In Israel, the history of the Jews who originally came from the Middle East or North Africa, who make up around half of the population, was ignored for too long. This is a vital part of our fight against those internally and externally who delegitimize our presence here and claim we are somehow foreign to the region.”

He’s right. The theme of “indigeneity”—that those deemed to be native to a particular territory have supreme rights over it—has been a core element of the Palestinian and Arab campaign to portray Israel as a colonial interloper, and an alien presence in a Muslim-Arab region. But Jews lived in the Islamic world for thousands of years, just as they did in the land that is now Israel.

In that sense, there is a political goal behind the commemoration day, and it’s nothing to apologize for. Almost 70 years after Jews were stripped of their citizenship and property by avowedly anti-Semitic regimes, their fate remains largely hidden from the gaze of historians and journalists. In part, that’s because these refugees didn’t stay refugees for very long. The majority were absorbed in Israel, still others went to Europe and the Americas, all of them got on with their lives. But fundamentally, the injustice remains unaddressed.

There’s another reason, though, why I think the commemoration day is so important—and it relates directly to the torrid period in which we are living. In recalling what happened to the Mizrahi Jews, we are compelled to focus on the religious and ethnic persecution that continues to disfigure the Middle East today. Kurds are repressed by Syrians, Iranians and Turks; Yazidis and Christians are ethnically cleansed and massacred by Islamist barbarians in Iraq; Sunni and Shi’a terrorists target each other’s mosques; Bahai’s are incarcerated in Iran. It’s a depressing list that could go on and on.

But the point is this. What Israel has shown—for all of the imperfections it shares with other democracies—is that a multi-cultural and multi-faith society is possible in the Middle East. And that is the message that should ring loud and clear from all these commemorative events, whether we are mourning the Holocaust or the expulsion of the Mizrahi Jews.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.  

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