On Thursday evening 30 November 2017, around 400 people attended an event at Hoyts Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park, Sydney which included the screening of the short film The Forgotten Refugees and the telling of personal stories by members of the Jewish community from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
The evening recognised the plight of the around 850,000 Jews who were expelled or had to flee from Arab lands. The events were hosted by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, together with the Sephardi Synagogue and the Sydney Jewish Museum, to tell the forgotten story of the ethnic cleansing of Middle Eastern Jews.
The event was attended by a number of community leaders and organisations including the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW, Multicultural NSW, the Australian Egyptian Council Forum, the Assyrian Universal Alliance, the Australian Iranian Community Organisation, the United Kurdish Association of NSW, Australian Middle East Media Group, members of the Indian, Chinese, Catholic, Uniting Church and Salvation Army, educators and journalists.
The main focus of the event was on Yemen as this year is the 70th anniversary of the pogroms against the Jews of Aden that followed the announcement of the 1947 UN vote for the partition of Palestine. Eitan Madar shared the experiences of his mother, who was born in Aden in 1938 and was 10 years old in 1949 when Israel began Operation Magic Carpet in response to increased in anti-semitic violence in Yemen.
Operation Magic Carpet saw 49,000 Jews secretly airlifted out of Yemen between 1949 and 1950 on over 380 flights. There are currently less than 100 Jews living in Yemen – the current government ultimatum states that they are unable to protect Yemeni Jews if they remain in the country as Jews.
The audience was moved with presentations by Alfred Shaul Gabbay of a Hebrew scroll of Esther which belonged to his family in Baghdad; Cely Benchoam, a plate made of wood and mother of pearl typical of Egyptian art and covered with beautiful Arabic writing; Esther Hirschowitz, a silver sacred wine cup from Iran; Sylvia Hazan, a set of Berber jewellery given to her by her Berber grandparents and Ilan Ben-Menashe, a documentary film made about the extraordinary life of his Yemenite maternal grandmother.
The evening was closed by Hila Tsor and Hayley Coombes, both under 25 and with families from Iraq/Libya and Egypt, who stressed how meaningful the event was to them personally and vowed to carry on the duty of remembering into their generation and beyond.
The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, in partnership with the Sephardi Synagogue and the Sydney Jewish Museum, has taken on the duty to acknowledge the history and contribution of Mizrahi Jews, who make up over half of Israel’s population today and almost a quarter of the Sydney Jewish community. The Museum is this year recording personal testimonies and is planning an exhibition on this topic.
Jews have lived in the Middle East for millennia, pre-dating the arrival of Islam in some countries by over 1000 years. By 1948, almost one million Jews were living in Arab lands and Iran. However, the rise of political Zionism, the alliance between some Arab and Muslim leaders and the Nazis and UN’s 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine, combined as pretexts for most Muslim countries to ethnically cleanse their populations of Jews.
From the early 1940s until the 1960s and beyond, Jewish communities in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen experienced pogroms (violent attacks on civilians including murder), seizure of property, imprisonment and public executions. While the world rightly remembers the plight of other 20th century Middle Eastern refugees, particularly Palestinian Arabs, plus recognising the horrors facing refugees today from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, it is important to also acknowledge the Middle East’s Jewish refugees and hear their stories.