“This is the hardest conversation I’ve ever had – but the harder a conversation is to have, the more important it is to have it,” said David Tsor, as he began addressing the 250 guests at the Sydney Jewish Museum for the annual commemoration the Plight of Jews from Arab Lands and Iran organised by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.
Aged 21, David is the descendant of Iraqi and Libyan Jews who fled the Middle East in the 1940s to Israel and other countries as a result of persecution. The audience grimaced and gasped as David described the horrors that befell many members of his family and the Jewish community of the Libyan capital Tripoli during a three-day pogrom in November 1945 during which 120 Jews were murdered and hundreds more injured. Jewish businesses, homes, schools and synagogues were vandalised and destroyed. The violence suffered by Jewish individuals, including children and pregnant women, was harrowing.
David told the audience that Libyan Jews, some of whom had families living in Libya dating back centuries, had been rounded up in 1942 – some sent to labour camps in Libya and Tunisia, others sent to concentration camps in Italy, eventually being transported to the German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen.
Shadow Minister Walt Secord MLC, Ethnic Communities Council of NSW CEO Mary Karras and Multicultural NSW Acting CEO Ross Hawkey were among the VIPs in attendance, as well as 25 faith and ethnic leaders.
Janine Joseph, incoming AUJS President at the University of Sydney who is of half Ashkenzaki half Sephardi heritage, implored the community not to “conflate being Jewish with being Ashkenazi, as if specific aspects such as Yiddish or Gefilte Fish are a binding force for all Jews”.
She said that the Sephardi/Mizrahi community faces the danger of losing its diverse set of cultures if we do not educate our children about the richness of their heritage and identity.
“I believe this history deserves to be taught in our schools alongside Holocaust education, but also be included in Holocaust education because Nazi propaganda infiltrated the Arab world and influenced Arab leaders. There were concentration camps in Libya and Tunisia, and some of those Jews were transported to the camps in Europe. And like the ‘Righteous among the Nations’, stories of Muslims hiding and protecting Jews from persecution are plentiful”.
At their AGM in September, AUJS unanimously passed a motion to increase the wider community’s awareness of its Sephardi and Mizrahi members. [Full resolution text].
“My hope is for an inclusive space where a forgotten narrative will not only be remembered, but celebrated alongside Ashkenazi culture, not out of a sense of obligation, but out of pride and a desire for exploration”.
After the speeches, candle-lighters came forward to each light a Hannukah menorah in memory of their relatives from Arab lands and Iran – six countries being represented: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Morocco and Yemen.
The commemoration was interspersed with uplifting Mizrahi and Sephardi musical numbers by Emanuel Synagogue’s Cantor George Mordecai and his band, that encouraged audience participation.
Shannon Biederman, Curator Collections at the Sydney Jewish Museum, announced that funding had been secured for a temporary Mizrahi/Sephardi exhibition and her team was currently collecting stories and artifacts.
NSW Jewish Board of Deputies President Lesli Berger said “The destruction of Jewish life in Arab lands is a tragic chapter in our history that must be told. We must tell of the generations and families ripped from their ancestral homes and acknowledge that the pain caused by those events still lingers in those families today. We as a community have a responsibility to recognise that there are many among us who still harbour that pain and we must dedicate ourselves to ensuring that we commemorate those events in the same way we recognise the other many tragedies to have befallen our people.”