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Sephardi Stories, on the Record

The Sephardi Voices history project collects testimony from Jews who fled Arab lands after Israel was founded

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Juliette Glaser shows her French passport, issued in Alexandria in 1950. (Alex Broadwell)
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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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The one issue I would raise with this article is that the deterioration of the Jews’ condition in the Arab world did not begin with the rise of the State of Israel. In fact, Zionism started with the start of deterioration of the Jews’ condition there in 1840. Specifically, the Damascus blood libel led Rabbi Yehuda Alkalay of Sarajevo to conclude that the Jews’ safety could only be secured with an independent Jewish state. Bernard Lewis’ chapter “The End of the Tradition” from The Jews of Islam goes on to list other instances of the decline of the Jews’ condition in the Muslim world in the 19th and early 20th century, much of it before the first Zionist settlement in Palestine.

ich bin eine jude, and i would like to see some justification or a quote for a critical line like this, “Believers were required to humiliate non-Muslims living under their rule, as befits those who reject the divine truth.”

Or at least qualifiying it with the common senseical fact that human beings through history follow or dont follow rules. and interpret them differently. I mean for G-d’s sake, we Jewish believers, according to the Torah, are required to stone to death Sabbath violaters and homosexuals. How many of us do that. Even ultra frum folk dont.

The history of Jews under islam encompasses large areas and time periods, so whether that belief is on the books or not, the actual treatment of Jews in the Islamic world varied tremendously over different eras and countries, from Judenrien Mecca and Medina, to the Golden Age of Islamic Spain, and all points inbetween, including the Ottoman empire where Jews were allowed safe haven from fanatical Christians of Spain, and where they thrived.

i would also say, that in my experience most ultra orthodox Jews have exactly that attitude, contempt, towards Jews like me, let alone to goyim… and you take your avg Amerikan jew with zero knowledge of history and they read that, and what does it it leave them with? hatred and islamaphobia and zero nuance.

Just an FYI, Jews from Arab nations are not Sephardic, they are Mizrachi. Sephardic Jews are from Spain and Portugal, Southern France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and North Africa. While both groups are more similar to each other than they are to the Ashkenazi, there are some noted differences.

mishamb says:

Here are just a few examples to illustrate the point — until 1910, when the French forced the change, Jews had to go barefoot to leave the Jewish Quarter in Fez, there was the 1840 Damascus Blood Libel mentioned above, the long-standing prohibition on Jews praying at the Tomb of the Patriarch and Temple Mount (still in effect), the mass murder of Jews in Basra in 1776, Bagdad in 1828, Hebron in 1834, Marrakesh in 1864 and 1880, Fez in 1912 and on and on. Even the Golden Age in Spain ended with the mass murder of Jews in Cordoba and Granada.
Jews had to pay special taxes. They had rocks thrown at them on a regular basis in Yemen. In the 1860s, I think, a British Jew paid for an awning to protect Jews praying at the Western Wall from stones tossed at them from the Temple Mount. Again the list is endless. The best work on the treatment of Jews in the Arab world is in French, but there’s plenty of information available in English too.

Clearly you don’t know this because you don’t want to and your comment is simply a straw man.

simply a straw man.

gukibupytew says:

my friend’s mom makes $71/hour on the internet. She has been fired from work for 8 months but last month her pay was $17649 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on  Zap22.c­om

Jean Naggar says:

For Avi Schwartz:

I was interested to read your article, and would like to point you to my recent Huffington Post piece, EGYPT’S FORGOTTEN JEWS:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jean-naggar/egypts-forgotten-jews_b_2235098.html

I would also like to draw your attention to my memoir of a childhood growing up in Egypt before Suez, SIPPING FROM THE NILE, My Exodus from Egypt:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1612181414/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_g14_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0T3QRNTX67S3GK32MHER&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=470938631&pf_rd_i=507846

You can find many links of interest at my website, http://www.jeannaggar.com
I would welcome hearing from you and can be contacted through my Contacts page on the website.

inHaifa says:

mishamb… we no longer do a lot of things that the torah talks about… why is that… because we no longer practice Biblical Judaism, we practice Rabbinic Judaism (well at least most of us). Unlike Muslims who in some cases are still stuck in the literal reading of the books. Just FYI.

sammyaugust says:

There is a very large Sephardi community in Brooklyn on Ocean Parkway. In the past 30 years they also split and many from that community live in Deal, NJ. For the most part it is a very affluent community and should be able to contribute to these recorded testimonies. I grew up on the Jersey shore where they would summer each year and arrange marriages for their young daughters to much older men members of the community. As an Ashkenazi Jew, I always found the differences fascinating. Even the foods were different. One of the children of our summer neighbors grew up and wrote a wonderful and beautiful book about the history and foods of her people. The title is Aromas of Aleppo. Check it out and buy it. It has great recipes and more than that is a beautiful history of the Jews of Aleppo.

Bataween Smith says:

A good resource on Jews from Arab and Muslim lands in English:
http://www.jewishrefugees.blogspot.com (Point of No Return)

This is an amazing and commendable project, but I find the confused and misleading use of the word “Sephardi” to be troubling.

Yes, Jews have been living throughout what is now the Arab world since ancient times, yet Sephardic jews have only been in Arab lands since around the time of the expulsion from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century. Some of them went to the Arab Lands (particularly North Africa) but large numbers also went what is now Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans which aren’t Arab at all. More importantly, they have a separate language, history, and culture than Jewish groups found in North Africa and Southwest Asia.

Certainly, Mizrahi, or even Arab or Mediterranean Jewish Voices would have been a better description. As much as I support the aims of this project and believe it to be a potentially invaluable resource, lumping all non-Ashkenazi Jews into the same category using a term that only describes one specific group seems to go directly against the goal of creating an accurate understanding of history and identity.

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Sephardi Stories, on the Record

The Sephardi Voices history project collects testimony from Jews who fled Arab lands after Israel was founded

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