Sephardi Stories, on the Record
The Sephardi Voices history project collects testimony from Jews who fled Arab lands after Israel was founded
“Sometimes I still have nightmares,” says Juliette Glaser to her interviewer, as she sits in front of a video camera in her Miami living room, recalling in a confident voice her childhood memories from Cairo—where she was born in 1941 and which she fled 15 years later. “They were putting the city on fire during the revolution of 1952. They were getting rid of King Farouk. The city was black, and there was fire everywhere. I remember Egyptians walking in the streets, holding big knives, saying, ‘We’re going to kill the Jews, where are the Jews? Any Jews around here?’ And we would hide in the basement, turn all the lights off, just shivering, shaking of fear.”
The anti-Jewish policies continued to get worse in Egypt, and in the wake of the Sinai Campaign in 1956, her father, like many other Jews, was given 48 hours to leave the country. With only one suitcase for each family member, Glaser, her parents, and her three siblings left for France and later the United States.
Glaser’s recorded testimony is part of Sephardi Voices, an audio-visual history project currently under way to document and archive the testimonies of Jews displaced from North Africa and the Middle East in the 20th century. Started in 2009, the project is modeled after Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute, which has recorded the oral histories of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors. With branches in Los Angeles, Miami, London, Paris, Jerusalem, and New York, Sephardi Voices has already collected 250 testimonies and is aiming to gather 5,000 in the next five years.
University of Miami Professor Henry Green is leading the effort to assemble these oral histories. “The project’s purpose,” he told me, “is to give voice to the nearly 1 million Jews that confronted growing discrimination and violence beginning in the 1940s.” From the Tigris and Euphrates to the Arabian Peninsula and throughout the Mediterranean, these Sephardi Jews were expelled or compelled to flee their homes and communities. The Jewish population in Arab lands, once totaling 850,000, collapsed in the quarter-century following the founding of the State of Israel; by 1980, 95 percent had been displaced.
Demographers estimate that over 70 percent of these displaced Jews are no longer alive, according to Green; of the remaining 30 percent, many are now mentally or physically incapable of sharing their personal testimonies. With memories fading and the elderly passing on each day, said Green, this is probably the last chance to document first-hand this period of Jewish history and its human stories: “If we don’t capture their stories, there will not be witnesses, and their memories will be lost.”
Jewish communities existed in the Middle East and North Africa for over 2,000 years, with particularly large populations in Baghdad, Cairo, Aleppo, Tunis, and Casablanca. When the Jews fled in the middle of the 20th century, they left behind not only property and real estate, but also an immense spiritual and cultural heritage. It was in today’s Iraq that great scholars wrote the Talmud nearly two millennia ago. It was near Cairo that the Jewish philosopher Maimonides lived in the 12th century C.E. More recently, the first finance minister of independent Iraq in the 1930s, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was Jewish, and one of the most successful Egyptian singers of the 1940s and ’50s was Leila Mourad, a Jewish convert to Islam.
The general Arab conduct toward the Jews throughout the years was determined to a great extent by traditions originating in the very early stages of Islam: Believers were required to humiliate non-Muslims living under their rule, as befits those who reject the divine truth. Yet, as the historian Bernard Lewis notes in his book The Jews of Islam, “in contrast to Christian anti-Semitism, the Muslim attitude toward non-Muslims is one not of hate or fear or envy but simply of contempt.” Jews were assigned the inferior status of dhimmi (dependent)—a position that required them to submit to various forms of legal and social discrimination but also ensured the protection of their lives and property, and the right to practice their religion.
Starting in the 1940s and later when the State of Israel was proclaimed, the situation of the Jews in Arab countries deteriorated greatly. In 1941, for example, 150 Jews were murdered in a two-day pogrom (the Farhud) in Baghdad. In November 1945, 133 Jews were murdered, and hundreds were injured, in Tripoli, Libya. In 1948, dozens of Jews were murdered in a long series of attacks in Egypt’s major cities. At the same time, many of the already independent Arab governments ordered the nationalization of Jews’ property, freezing of bank accounts, and mass dismissals from employment.
Lisette Shasoua’s family was a victim of such policies, which continued many years after Israel’s independence. A 65-year-old native of Iraq and resident of Montreal, Shasoua says in her testimony for Sephardi Voices that her grandfather “was one of the richest Iraqis in Baghdad in the 1920s and 1930s. He had hundreds of acres of land … but the property was either confiscated or frozen.” Shasoua’s family remained in Iraq after much of the Jewish community left by the beginning of the 1950s. But Anti-Jewish sentiments peaked again during the Six-Day War in 1967, and Jews were treated as spies and traitors and were rounded up from their homes at night. “My mother told me, ‘You’d better prepare a bag with your pajamas and toothbrush,’ because she thought I would be arrested. Every time a car passed by at night in front of the house, I would wake up and I hoped it won’t stop. I would pray, I would kneel, that the car does not stop because if it does, then they came to arrest one of our family.” Shasoua finally left Iraq in 1970.
In Morocco, Jewish life deteriorated greatly after the country gained its independence in 1956. “It became difficult,” says Gienette Spier (née Rosilio), a Miami resident who was born in Essaouira in 1938, in her Sephardi Voices testimony. “It wasn’t safe anymore. That is when everyone started to leave—for Israel, for Canada, for England. My mother was worried for me as a girl, since we heard that [Jewish] girls were attacked. We started to be scared, we started to cling together.” The last straw was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s visit to Morocco in 1961, which was accompanied with an anti-Jewish wave of violent physical attacks. “My mother decided that that’s it, we’re leaving.”
Most of the Jews who were living in Arab countries in the mid-1940s emigrated to Israel, the United States, the U.K., or France. Today, there are only a few thousand left; several countries that once had thriving Jewish communities today have no Jews at all.
While world Jewry has paid great attention to the plight of European Holocaust victims, the plight of Sephardi Jews has long been a “forgotten exodus,” said Green. His project is the first comprehensive effort to record and preserve this vast and rich Diaspora with audio-visual means.
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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