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B’nai B’rith International co-hosted “Jewish Refugees: The Untold Story of the Middle East” at the 6th & I Synagogue in Washington, D.C., bringing to the forefront the untold plight of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees forced from their homes in Arab and Muslim countries. 

Event co-sponsors were Justice for Jews from Arab Countries and the Embassy of Israel.

The refugee narrative of the past 66 years has been largely one-sided, as the United Nations has passed more than 100 resolutions on the situation of Palestinian refugees, but not even one on the plight of Jewish refugees emerging from the same Middle East conflict. Programs such as this, to mark the expulsion of Jews from the Arab world and Iran, are focused on righting the historical record.

It is tragic that the story of the Middle East’s formerly thriving Jewish communities is so often overlooked. There were approximately 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, forced to leave behind the lives they knew.
Rabbi Elie Abadie, co-president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, spoke to the audience of his family’s ordeal in leaving first Syria, then Lebanon. Abadie told of his mother ‘s and father’s harrowing escape from Syria, which included his father hiding on a train and narrowly avoiding discovery by Syrian officials. 

Growing up in Lebanon, Abadie said he and his family were officially classified as refugees, but life was extremely difficult until they were able to emigrate from the country.

Israeli Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Reuven Azar spoke next, discussing the importance of keeping these stories alive. The Israeli Knesset this year designated November 30 as a national day of commemoration of the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran; the Washington event took place the same week, in conjunction with that date.

Ira Forman, the State Department’s special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, also joined the program, reflecting on the current size of Jewish communities in Arab and Muslim countries, compared to 1947. 

He noted that communities formerly ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of Jews had now dwindled down to single digits—or none at all.

Maurice Shohet, president of the U.S.-based World Organization of Jews from Iraq, told the story of his family’s escape from Iraq. Shohet said he and his immediate family elected to stay behind after many of his other family members and friends moved to Israel and reported back on the tough conditions that awaited Jewish immigrants. 

Eventually Shohet and his family were smuggled out of the country, but not before a close call with Iraqi security forces.

Shohet also talked about the rescue of Jewish archival items in the early days of the Iraq war. These items were restored by the National Archives and placed on exhibition in Washington, D.C. and New York. Shohet’s presentation featured a screening of the film “What We Left Behind,” produced by Dr. Henry Green of the Sephardi Voices organization, which recounted this process.

Eric Fusfield, B’nai B’rith’s director of legislative affairs and one of the event’s organizers, told the audience that the work of commemorating the Jewish heritage of the Arab and Muslim world and promoting the rights of those refugee populations is ongoing. “The goal of our efforts is to underscore the vast, centuries-old Jewish legacy in Arab countries and Iran, which was largely erased in the 20th century as a result of the Middle East conflict. The November 30 anniversary that Israel has designated for purposes of commemorating the expulsion of Jews from the Arab and Muslim world is essential to this end.”

“Unfortunately we’ve lost a lot of time on keeping this narrative alive, but it’s important to our community that we don’t forget the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were forced from their homes in the Middle East,” B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin said. 

“We heard some powerful testimonies at this event. We must keep working to ensure these personal accounts and the memories of once-vibrant Middle Eastern Jewish communities don’t fade from our communal or global consciousness.”