The Story of 'The Other' Jews

A Canadian professor is recording the memories of 5,000 Mizrahi Jews who experienced both joy and persecution in Arab lands.

Ofer Aderet
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
From 'Sephardi Voices'.
From 'Sephardi Voices'.Credit: SV
Ofer Aderet

Steven Spielberg took pains to record the memories of Holocaust survivors. Now someone is doing that for Mizrahi Jews — Jews with roots in the Middle East and North Africa.

The man behind the project is a Canadian who’s actually an Ashkenazi Jew — one with European roots. Prof. Henry Green, a historian and sociologist at the University of Miami, has been gathering the testimony of Jews from Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.

Green, who hails from a religious family in Ottawa, says he decided to collect the stories of Mizrahi Jews — also known as Sephardi Jews — because the Ashkenazi story was so much better documented. “If I don’t document them now, it will be too late,” he told Haaretz on a recent trip to Israel.

Since Green launched his Sephardi Voices project in 2009, he has filmed around 300 Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Britain, Canada, France, the United States and Israel. They have told him about their prosperity living in Arab lands as well as the persecution and expulsion.

Until the establishment of Israel in 1948, 1 million Jews were living in Arab countries, most from ancient communities. After 1948 the persecution worsened until most were forced to leave their property behind. Many moved to Europe and North America; most came to Israel. Green estimates that about 70 percent are no longer alive.

Green has interviewed people describing pogroms and other atrocities: 150 Iraqi Jews killed in June 1941, 130 Libyan Jews killed in Tripol in 1945, and dozens of Jews killed in Egypt in 1948.

In the 1970s Green studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, when he heard about the travails of Mizrahi Jews — in Israel, where they protesting injustices at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment. If Green meets his goal, within a few years he will have filmed interviews with around 5,000 people.

In the countries involved, Sephardi Voices is being carried about by local staff. Most participants are volunteers who take donations that pay for the film crews. The project joins a number of others around the world over the past two decades that have documented the lives of witnesses to Jewish history.

“None of these projects have dealt with the experiences of the displaced Jews from North Africa, the Middle East and Iran who left their homes,” says the Sephardic Voices website. “By recording the stories of the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews, the memories of individuals who grew up in communities which often no longer exist will be passed on to the next generations and create a sense of pride and continuity.”

In Israel there are two projects documenting the War of Independence and its veterans. Holocaust survivors have been recorded by Yad Vashem and Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Tens of thousands of people have been interviewed, most of them Ashkenazi. Green’s efforts represent a different Zionist story that expands the Jewish identity that we’re familiar with, he says.

Green is in contact with the National Library about the possibility of making his work available to the public. In the meantime, the testimonies can be viewed at the British Library in London. They are not available on the Internet.

Only five Israelis have been interviewed for the project so far. The project in Israel will now include cooperation with the Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University’s Division of Oral History and the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: