Around me, I could hear murmurs of different languages including Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, French, and Spanish. The eclectic crowd at the Nov. 30 event organized by the Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa organization represented the many Jewish communities that existed for centuries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
JIMENA is an organization that seeks to preserve and maintain Sephardi and Mizrachi cultures, in addition to seeking recognition for the one million Jews who were displaced from their countries of origin throughout the 20th century.The organization’s goal is to incorporate the narrative of Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews into mainstream Jewish history and bridge the gap between Jewish and Middle Eastern communities. It brings to light the multitude of diversity present among the Jewish people and seeks to commemorate those displaced from countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia. According to statistics provided by JIMENA, prior to 1948, approximately 950,000 Jews lived in Muslim-dominated countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
The event opened up with the mesmerizing performance by the band Bazaar Ensemble. Their exotic middle eastern melodies captivated the audience. If you were to close your eyes in that moment you would feel as if you were in the center of a lively bazaar in Morocco.
David Siegal, the consul general of Israel, was the event’s first guest speaker. He announced the new Israeli law that had been enacted to commemorate the Jewish refugees from Arab lands and the Middle East who were expelled from their homes. Siegal made a powerful statement regarding the constant hardships Jews faced living in foreign nations and their ongoing perseverance.
“We have been through much worse, and we have overcome,” Siegal asserted. Prior to being expelled from their countries of origin, the Jewish people led successful and fruitful lives. Upon the establishment of Israel in 1948, Arab countries turned against their own Jewish populations, persecuting communities that had existed there for centuries. The Jewish people in these countries were forced to flee their homes, leaving their possessions and all that they knew behind.
Panina Meghnagi Solomon, another guest speaker, shared her amazing story of how she was forced to flee from her homeland during a period of extreme anti-Semitism. Solomon was born in Tripoli, Libya, where her family lived until circumstances forced them to flee to Italy. The Libyan government confiscated the Jews’ homes and froze their assets, essentially leaving them destitute. Solomon was welcomed to Italy because of her affinity for the language, which she spoke in addition to Berber, Arabic and English. During her first year in Italy, Solomon lived under harsh conditions in a refugee camp and cleaned showers in order to make a living.
“My first purchase with the money I made was to buy a magen David (star of David). This was a dream for me because we were never allowed to wear this before,” Solomon elaborated.
JIMENA seeks to raise, commemorate and celebrate the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in order to raise awareness of the adversity Jews have faced all over the world. For years now their modern narrative had been excluded from Jewish history. JIMENA provides an outlet for these refugees to finally be able to share the stories of their plight and rich culture. In order to strengthen the cultural continuity of Judaism, we must hear out and acknowledge everyone’s story.
To learn more about Sephardi and Mizrachi Jewish history and upcoming JIMENA events, check out the resources on the JIMENA website.