Israel Launches $2.6m Project to Document Lives of Mizrahi, Sephardi Jews

Project will interview Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab lands or Iran, and descendants of Jews expelled from Spain.

Immigrants from Yemen at a transit camp in central Israel, 1950.
Seymour Katcoff, GPO

The stories, heritage and history of Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab lands and Spain will be documented as part of a new national project, approved Sunday by the cabinet.

The project will collect personal testimonies, both filmed and written, from Jews of Sephardi and Mizrahi origins, referring to Jews who were displaced from the Iberian Peninsula following the Spanish Inquisition, and those of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

The subjects will document their lives before they made aliyah, their situations when they left, fled or were expelled from their countries, and the tales of their absorption in Israel.

The Social Equality Ministry, headed by Minister Gila Gamliel, will allocate 10 million shekels ($2.6 million) to the project, which Gamliel initiated. “This is not a uniquely Mizrahi interest but a national, Jewish and Zionist interest,” she said, after the project was approved. “From now on, the Jewish story will be more complete and Israeli citizens young and old will get to hear, study and become familiar with both the Eastern and Western sides of the glorious heritage of the Jewish people.”

The Government Press Office will run the project, after investigating options for cooperating with Beit Hatfutsot – the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, or Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, two institutions with long experience in documenting the life of Diaspora Jewry.

The "Sephardi Voices" project, which filmed interviews with Sephardi Jews
Sephardi Voices

In recent years, there have been several projects producing video documentation of the history of various populations. Some are private initiatives, while others are under the auspices of public or government agencies.

One of the most prominent is the “Israel History” project, which has taken video testimonies from 1,100 people who lived through the founding of the state in 1948. That project began as a private initiative but was later taken under the wing of the Jewish National and University Library.

A parallel project called “Documenting the 1948 Generation,” which interviewed 930 people, was conducted by the World Zionist Organization and the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive. Those interviews are currently available for viewing on YouTube, and in the future will be featured on the website of the National Library.

A project similar to the one the government approved Sunday was previously pursued as a private initiative called “Sephardi Voices.” This was overseen by an American historian and sociologist, who documented hundreds of Jews who originated in Arab countries and moved to Britain, Canada, France, the United States and Israel.

This new government initiative is one of a series of moves the government has made “to correct an injustice” – in the government’s words – by shining a light on parts of the Jewish people’s history that have been absent from textbooks, national ceremonies and other public remembrances.

“The initiative is part of a comprehensive national effort to deepen public knowledge and awareness about the story and legacy of Eastern Jewry, after long years in which they were pushed aside from public discussion and Israeli consciousness,” Gamliel said on Sunday.

Other steps taken by the government include establishing a memorial day to mark the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab lands and Iran. This has been marked since 2014 on November 30, the day after the United Nations approved the partition that led to the establishment of the State of Israel – after which the situation of Jews in Arab countries worsened.

The Education Ministry set up the Biton Committee, which this summer recommended changes to the school and university curricula to include more content about Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. And last month, the ministry announced it was creating a database of speakers to “perpetuate the heritage of the Jews of the East and Spain,” who will come to schools to tell their personal stories.

Gamliel claimed Sunday that “the chapter on Eastern Jewry is starting to be written today.” This is an exaggeration, though, since institutions like Yad Ben-Zvi have spent decades writing “the chapter on Eastern Jewry” and have published hundreds of books, pamphlets and articles on the Jewish communities in Spain and the East.