An event in London last week to mark the exodus and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries became an opportunity to counter the current far-left narrative that paints Israel as a country of white settlers.
Organiser Lyn Julius, who runs Harif, the association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, told the audience at JW3 that 50 percent of Jews in Israel have roots in Arab and Muslim countries. They had not left those countries willingly, she added, and many left as a result of massacres.
“Families butchered like sheep, bodies buried in the debris of homes in which pogromists had locked the families before setting them on fire. Jewish girls raped, their breasts cut off. No, I am not describing 7 October 2023,” Julius said. “We have been here before. It’s an anti-Jewish atrocity which occurred in Constantine, Algeria, in 1934. But I could have cited any number of similarly barbaric atrocities: in Fez, Morocco, in 1912, in Tripoli, Libya, in 1945, in Iraq in 1941 the Farhud, which claimed the lives of at least 179 Jews.”
She pointed out that Israel was “the solution to pre-existing antisemitism” that had led to pogroms across the region. “In a generation and a half almost all the ancient, pre-Islamic Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa have been ethnically cleansed. Hamas simply wants to finish the job. From almost a million Jews in 1948, only about 4,000 remain, and that number dwindles year by year.”
Julius herself is the child of parents who came to Britain from the Iraqi capital Baghdad in 1950. A film shown at the event presented testimony from Jews who had been forced out of their native counties in the Middle East and North Africa.
Jocelyne Shrago is one of the four people interviewed in the film, commissioned from Daisy Abboudi, deputy director of the oral history archive Sephardi Voices UK.
Shrago, who was born in Algeria, told how during the Constantine pogrom her parents and sister went over the wall to the Arab family who lived next door, who saved them. She recalls the bombing campaign during the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s, when she covered her baby niece with her body to protect her. “People had to leave in ‘62 because on the walls there was graffiti that said ‘La valise ou le cercueil’, ‘the suitcase or the coffin’.” Some went to Israel. Her family on both sides went to France, where she lived until 1968, when she moved to the UK.
Other speakers at the event last Thursday, the ninth that Harif has organised, included Baroness (Ruth) Deech, Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community, Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies, Claudia Mendoza, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, and the Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely. The ambassador said Mizrachi Jews were not just 50 percent of Israel’s population but had shaped her history. “Israel today is a very healthy mix between west and east.”
Mendoza spoke movingly about her mother’s family, who are from Aden. They were forced to flee and her grandfather was murdered. “The clarity with which my family speak when they talk about threats to your life because you’re a Jew resonate more than ever today. They have seen it before and they do not have the luxury of denalism.”
But she also had a powerful and uplifting message to the Jewish community, and warned it not catastrophise or retreat into itself.
“The polling that we’ve done at the JLC [Jewish Leadership Council] after the October 7 attack shows that while there may be a small number of extremists in the UK who support Hamas, and they must be called out, the vast majority of British people recognise them for the murderous terrorists that they are and they reject those that wish to target jews here in the UK.
“If we fight as if we are surrounded exclusively by enemies, we risk by that very attitude making enemies we didn’t previously have, and losing friends whose sympathies we fail to notice. We have so many friends, I promise you that.”
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