James Edward Johnson

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The forgotten refugees … from Arab lands and their descendants in Iowa City

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My column in today’s Iowa City Press Citizen:

The forgotten refugees …

from Arab lands and their descendants in Iowa City

James Eaves-Johnson
Writers’ Group

The Jewish community in Iowa City is small but unusually diverse. Its synagogue is one of a few affiliated with both the Reform and the Conservative movements in Judaism. While the synagogue in town is traditionally Ashkenazi (Jews more recently from Eastern Europe), a sizeable and active component of the community is Sephardi or Mizrahi (Jews more recently from the Mediterranean and farther east).

Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, in particular, have important and unheard stories to tell. The lack of familiarity with these stories is unfortunate because these Jews have a history that, while less lethal than the history of Ashkenazim during the Holocaust in Europe, is nearly as tragic.

In the past 100 years, Jews in these lands have declined from more than 1 million to near zero.

The Ottoman Empire

Margot Lurie is a Mizrahi Jew. She lives in Iowa City today, attracted here by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Like many Americans, her background is diverse, but much of her family is from the Middle East. Her grandfather, Elias Levi, was among the first Jews to flee Arab lands in modern times. He was born to a family of Baghdadi Jews that very well may have lived in Mesopotamia for millennia.

At the beginning of the 1900s, the Middle East was changing rapidly. The Turkic Ottoman Empire, which had dominated North Africa, southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia was losing its power and would soon be reduced to Turkey. In World War I, Jews had been a fairly well protected, if subservient, minority in the Ottoman Empire. However, the weakening of the Ottomans degraded this protection.

It was in 1913, when Lurie’s grandfather was a toddler, that her family fled Baghdad. Her great-grandfather was a reserve officer in the Ottoman army and had heard of an anti-Semitic plot against the Jews of Baghdad. Her family fled to the places where they could — Calcutta, India and to Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). Her grandfather spent the bulk of his younger years growing up in Burma. While he was in high school, he founded the Rangoon Zionist Society and began writing for various Jewish publications in the Far East. Just prior to World War II, he traveled to the U.S. for religious study. The Japanese invasion of Burma kept him here permanently.

While today we consider Myanmar’s ruling junta to be one of the more repressive regimes on the planet, it was a haven for many Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Arab lands. By fleeing then, Lurie’s family escaped one of the worst anti-Jewish pogroms in modern history.

Although Baghdad was arguably the most Jewish metropolitan area in the world, it would succumb to a pro-Nazi uprising in 1941. The pogrom following that uprising, the Farhud, would kill more Jews than were killed by the Nazis in the Kristallnacht pogrom.

Morocco’s Jewish population

Coralville resident Moshe Peri was born in Israel to Moroccan parents. He works at Rockwell Collins and moved here to join his wife, who is getting her Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. Until coming to the U.S., Peri’s background was typical of Moroccan Jews.

Morocco, to its credit, is probably the Arab country that has demonstrated the greatest tolerance of the Jews. During World War II, Sultan Mohammed V tried to limit the impact of the Vichy race laws against the Jews. As a result, they fared better than Jews in Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. But in all these countries, thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps. Some were even deported to Auschwitz. Moreover, the end of the war won Moroccan Jews no reprieve. In 1948, the Jews of Morocco faced anti-Jewish riots and boycotts.

Moshe observes that Moroccan Jews “all shared the same dream to immigrate to Israel.” And so, once Jews could flee to Israel, they did. In 1948, large numbers of Jews began leaving Morocco for Israel. Today, Morocco’s Jewish population stands at less than a tenth of its peak size. Most of those who left have found refuge in Israel.

Dealing with anti-Semitism

As a practical matter, it was Zionism that finally provided refuge to Jews in the Middle East. Jewish populations were consistently treated as foreign and subordinate to the domestic population wherever they went. They had to constantly appeal to the power of local rulers and seek foreign diplomatic protection. Indeed, many Jews of these areas carried European passports and generally identified as members of those European nations more than as members of the Arab countries where they resided.

Unlike Lurie’s family, the Baghdadi Jews who remained through the end of the Ottoman Empire faced this problem acutely as their Ottoman protectors were displaced by the British. In 1918, Baghdadi Jews recognized the precariousness of their situation. The Chief Rabbi expressed to the British that local authorities would be unable or unwilling to protect minority populations and that such conditions contradicted the democratic values of the Allied forces. To remedy this, the Chief Rabbi requested that Baghdadi Jews be given all the rights and duties of British citizenship. Britain would go on to offer limited protection to the Jews but would never meet this request.

Interestingly, Lurie’s grandmother had a parallel experience. She had left German Breslau late in the interwar period to escape rising anti-Semitism there. She arrived in the British Mandate of Palestine to help with the Jewish movement of national liberation — Zionism. While some Jews did fight the British colonial presence there, most knew it would be short-lived and preferred to work with the British while simultaneously pursuing their Zionist goals of statehood.

It was under these circumstances that Lurie’s grandmother joined a women’s auxiliary of the British Royal Air Force and served in Egypt, identifying Nazi planes for the Allies during World War II. Unfortunately, her opportunities were somewhat limited in the RAF. As Lurie notes, “it was tacitly understood that Jews weren’t permitted to occupy important positions.” (Lurie recently published an article on her grandfather’s experiences in “The Boy from Rangoon” in Tablet Magazine at www.tabletmag.com/life-and-religion/19238.)

Jews in Arab lands

Peri’s family had little opportunity for such resistance to the Nazi presence in World War II. Indeed, Jews in Arab lands were generally prohibited from possessing arms for self defense, let alone being allowed to fight in the war. They did, however, have the good fortune of living in Agadir, in southern Morocco. The long reach of the Holocaust would be cut short from reaching his family by the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942.

The flight of Moshe’s family to Israel would enable him to live a life previously unavailable his family. Before moving to Coralville, Moshe would go on to serve in Shayetet 13 (Israel’s version of the Navy Seals), get an engineering degree and lead the R&D department for an Israeli wireless telecom company. In just one generation, his family would go from being subjugated Moroccan Jews to proud and strong Israeli Jews.

Lurie and Peri have the tremendous benefit of a real transformation away from the experience of their ancestors. Both are proud and outspoken Jews who do not fear standing up for their people. Not all Jews from Arab lands are so lucky.

See original: http://www.press-citizen.com/article/20091206/OPINION01/912060306/1018/OPINION/The-forgotten-refugees-…

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Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, December 6, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Posted in antisemitism

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