Sephardi Stories, on the Record
The Sephardi Voices history project collects testimony from Jews who fled Arab lands after Israel was founded
Green—who is 63 and has no Sephardi roots—was first attracted to the issue in the beginning of the 1970s, when he earned his M.A. in sociology in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The Israeli “Black Panther” movement, composed of frustrated and disenchanted young people, was making its first steps then, fighting against discrimination and the lack of the opportunities for the Sephardim in Israel. “Coming from Canada in those days,” said Green, an Ottawa native, “the issue resonated for me. That was just after we in Canada dealt with issues of women’s rights, homosexuals and lesbians, and other minorities. Fighting for the rights of the Sephardim seemed like a perfect continuum.”
He stayed in Israel for a few years and worked on a plan to integrate the Sephardi population and help them get into the labor market. The plan was later published as a book. After completing his Ph.D. in religion studies in the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, he went on to become director of Judaic studies at the University of Miami in 1984. With his special interest in Sephardi issues, he added Sephardi studies to the curriculum and initiated courses relating to Sephardi history and heritage.
“There was a growing Sephardi population In Miami at the time,” said Green, “and I was aware of the fact that American Jewry was ignorant of Sephardi contemporary civilization. Many Sephardi Jews came to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s from all over Latin America because of internal political upheavals in those countries. But they were not integrating into the existing Jewish community. So, I tried to build a program that would reach out to their needs and accommodate the demand for Sephardi education.”
Ten years ago, at a World Jewish Congress gathering, Green presented a paper on the possibilities of creating an archive of testimonies from the Middle East and North Africa. All funds for the project—totaling $250,000—have since been raised personally by him from private donors and foundations. There are 10 people working in the project worldwide, and the only ones who are paid are the cameramen and a few part-time workers. The rest are volunteers.
Interviewers are professionally trained, and the interviews are usually between one and two hours long. Unedited interviews are saved on hard drives and currently stored in different locations, as there’s still no central institution where the whole archive is collected. Sephardi Voices is in final stages of an agreement with the British Library on storing the U.K. testimonies there.
The end goal of all this, says Green, is to create an extensive, international, digital archive of testimonies and photographs and thus ensure the preservation of the history and heritage of Sephardi Jews for generations of scholars, educators, and the general public. “The ultimate plan,” he said, “is to create an archive which can be mined for different purposes: Jewish and general education purposes, human-rights issues, narrating a new story of Zionism, storing the data of the property and assets lost by Jews in Arab lands, of families having legacies of their ancestors and of their memorabilia, etc. The archive would be possible to mine in order to make documentaries and to publish books. I myself intend to use the data for both films and books, but anyone would be able to do that. The idea of putting it online is to create transparency and universal accessibility.”
Stanley Urman, executive vice-president of Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, says that just as Spielberg documented the stories of survivors in order to negate Holocaust revisionism, Sephardi Voices can ensure that nobody can deny the legacy of Jews from Arab lands. “Arabs say that Jews weren’t discriminated against in their countries and that they left from their own free will,” he said. “They try to expunge the legacy of Sephardi Jews from the history of the Middle East. Jews lived in the Middle East for over 2,500 years—1,000 years before the advent of Islam. Jews are the indigenous people of the Middle East, and their story must be told and recognized.”
At the end of his testimony to Sephardi Voices, 58-year-old Edwin Shuker calls the oral histories project a “mission.” Currently a London resident, Shuker left his native Baghdad in 1973; he believes Sephardi Voices is a good way for people to hear his story. “Whatever means it takes for the world, for Iraq, for Jews, to hear,” he says, “I will use.”
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