Seeking tales of Jews fleeing from Arab countries

From the Jewish Chronicle

Joseph Samuels, born Yosef Sasson in Baghdad, was 18 years old when he fled Iraq for the new state of Israel. It was 1949, and life was becoming increasingly difficult for Jews in Iraq, as it was throughout the Arab world. Yosef’s parents urged him to leave, promising they would follow.

He took a train to the coast with his younger brother, where they crammed into a smuggler’s boat with 16 other Jewish youths. They rowed secretly to Iran, where the Sasson boys were airlifted to Israel.

Like many Holocaust survivors, Samuels, who Anglicised his name when he moved to Los Angeles, only shared bits and pieces of his story with his children.

Unlike Holocaust survivors, however, his story, and that of more than 800,000 other Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, is not widely known.

These Jews, part of large, ancient communities in nine Arab countries, were victimised and persecuted, stripped of their rights and property, and in some cases forcibly expelled from the lands of their birth from the 1940s through to the 1970s. Finding refuge mainly in Israel, France and North America, they became the forgotten refugees of the Middle East conflict.

An international consortium of Mizrahi organisations in Britain, Israel and the United States is trying to change that.

Led by Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the University of Miami in Florida, a visual history project is under way to interview the aging survivors of this mass exodus and preserve their stories.

“We’re trying to do what [Steven] Spielberg did,” said Prof Henry Green of the University of Miami, referring to Mr Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute, which has more than 50,000 videotaped interviews with European Holocaust survivors.

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