Two Events Will Shine a Light on Plight of Mizrahi Jews


As you’ve surely learned in Hebrew school, the history of the Jewish people spans thousands and thousands of years and stretches across many countries.

But one piece of that history that has long been overlooked is that of the Mizrahi Jews who lived in Arab countries.

To address that inequity, two upcoming events will explore this history and help people widen their understanding of the Jewish heritage.

Ilan Troen will be speaking at Bensalem’s Congregation Tifereth Israel on Dec. 11 at a presentation titled, “Jews and Muslims in the Arab World: Haunted by Pasts Real and Imagined.”

It is presented in part by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Mid-Atlantic Region, Philadelphia Chapter.

Troen, Stoll Family Chair in Israel Studies at Brandeis University and founding director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at the university, has served as dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and as director of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute and Archives in Sde Boker, according to his biography on Brandeis’ website.

Lana Pinkenson, a board member of Tifereth Israel as well as a longtime congregant, spearheaded the effort to bring Troen to the congregation.

“Every Jew should be interested at this point and time,” she said. “They should try and get a better insight as to what’s happening in the Middle East and the survival of Israel.”

Troen has written several books that examine patterns in Jewish culture, including American influence as well as the history of Jewry in other countries.

Pinkenson hopes that his presentation will educate guests — she said they are expecting more than 100 attendees — and help them understand current events more.

“They will have a better understanding of what’s happening in the Middle East and they’ll be more supportive to the state of Israel,” she said.

“It’s obvious as I talk to individuals throughout the community they do not have proper information about the Arab-Israeli situation in Israel. It might bring things to a better understanding, and it may open their hearts a little bit to understand that Israel is not the bad guys like the government here portrays them.”

On Dec. 14, at International House Philadelphia, guests are invited to a free screening of The Last Jews of Libya, a documentary about the history of Jews in Libya.

“It’s important that we as a community in Philadelphia begin to pay closer attention and make sure everyone knows about the heritage and history of Jews in Arab countries,” said Hillel Zaremba, community relations director of Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, which is putting on the event.

He highlighted the importance of learning about Mizrahi Jews in addition to Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.

The event follows closely behind the annual day of reflection Israel observed on Nov. 30, which was implemented in 2014 as a “national day of commemoration for the 850,000 Jewish refugees who were displaced from Arab countries and Iran in the 20th century,” according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.

The date was chosen because “after the partition decision was made in the UN Security Council on Nov. 29, the Arab lands started proactively attacking the Jewish communities in their countries with the goal of preventing the establishment of a Jewish land in the land of Israel,” as stated in a 2014 press release from the Knesset.

Learning the history of Jews in these countries is “critical,” Zaremba said.

“It has importance on a lot of different levels,” he explained. “The first level is just to know there was an enormously rich and varied heritage and history of Jews in Arab countries. Besides the fact that each one of the countries produced significant and important scholars in Judaica, Torah scholars. There were athletes, there were artists — I could go on and on.”

For example, he continued, a disproportionate number of Jews who lived in Iran were musicians. When they were expelled from the country, Iran lost a lot of its musical heritage, which many may not know. “Iran not only lost a millennial community, but lost its traditional musicians,” he said.

Another piece of the history of Jews in Arab lands is the “geopolitical questions that come up again and again and again,” he said, referring to the current refugee crisis.

“The perennial refugee issue that is brought up repeatedly is the issue of Palestinians who either left on their own or, in some occasional cases, were forced out because of security issues in Israel around the time Israel became an independent country,” he said.

But not many realize, he added, that Jews were being expelled from other countries and simultaneously facing a similar situation.

“The world doesn’t realize there was a massive transfer of population that went on at the same time,” he said.

The film explores Jewish heritage and history in Libya, which today might be seen in the context of what the country has become under extremist influence. People want to know what it was once like, Zaremba said.

At last year’s event, which focused on Jews in Iraq and Egypt, Rabbi Albert Gabbai from Congregation Mikveh Israel was featured as the speaker and told his story of growing up as a Jew in Egypt. The film shown, The Dove Flyer, also explored these themes and focused on Jews in Iraq in the 1950s and their immigration to Israel.

This year, the speaker is Dr. Jack Abboudi, a local member of the community who will talk about Jews In Sudan.

This will help show how widespread Jewish history was and the importance of understanding “the vastness of what was lost, and how rich it was.”

Zaremba said that those who come out to the event and film screening will gain a better understanding of Jewish history, both in the past and in a more recent context.

“People should be encouraged to come because it is critical that this history and this heritage don’t get lost.”

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  1. “Israel is not the bad guys like the government here portrays them.”

    You mean the US government, who supplies Israel with more support than any other country in the world?


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