Sunday, June 26, 2011

We need to change the narrative on refugees



Baghhdad-born Ivy Vernon gives her book, Memories of Baghdad, to Michelle Huberman on the Harif stand

Introducing the forgotten Jewish refugees into the conversation about the Middle East changes the narrative and the public's understanding towards Israel. The effect can be revolutionary, writes Michelle Huberman of Harif in Jewish News.

The last month has been a whirlwind of Sephardi events. I have sat sadly watching films and listening to traumatic testimonies of Jews fleeing Libya, Iraq, Egypt and other Arab countries. But the unhappy events ended two weeks ago in a positive one: Celebrating Sanctuary. This is an annual festival on London’s South Bank to celebrate the contribution refugees have made to British life.

Our organisation, Harif, had taken a small stand backing directly onto the Thames. Harif is an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Our stand was decorated like a Jewish Middle Eastern home with a mixture of Moroccan and Syrian furniture that I had shlepped out my house in the early hours of Sunday morning. The sound of Algerian Jewish music playing softly in the background was drowned out by the beat of the ethnic bands playing on the grass near us. In the centre of our stand we had beautiful old Syrian door, bearing a large mezuzah that is the focus of our campaign.

As tourists and visitors thronged along the Thames, they were greeted with dozens of small stalls representing various communities that have found refuge in the UK. Most were friendly and into the spirit of the event. As they stopped to find out more on our stand, they were presented with a Harif mezuzah. We had painstakingly made these by inserting into the cases a scroll of facts and statistics about the 850,000 Jews who had fled or been expelled from the Middle East and North Africa. The Mezuzah is our campaign symbol for Jewish homes abandoned all over these countries.

One of our not–so-friendly visitors was an angry man from the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. "You're changing the narrative!" he spluttered, churning out robotic slogans about 'Ethnic cleansing’ and ‘Palestinian land stolen by right-wing Zionists'.

Well yes, we are changing the narrative. Not many people are aware about the Jewish refugees amongst us from the Arab lands. Nearly one million left these countries after 1948. The poor went mostly to Israel. Those who could went to France, Canada, Central and South America, Australia and the USA. Around 20,000 were taken in by Britain and were helped to integrate here by the Central British Fund (now World Jewish Relief).

This man came back later with his friends from the PSC, and their shouting soon caused a small crowd. But they couldn't win the debate. My colleagues on the stand were born in Iraq, and told them firsthand of their experiences of persecution, quashing theories of Zionist conspiracies in Baghdad.

The rest of the visitors were happy to listen to us. The man from the Moroccan Tagine stall opposite said how much Moroccan Muslims missed their Jewish neighbours. An elderly Arab couple stopped by to greet us. A Sudanese Muslim girl and her Iraqi-Indian companion, who had worked with refugees, were genuinely fascinated by Jewish refugees from Arab countries and requested a copy of our film "The Forgotten Refugees".

A refugee who had to flee Rwanda lingered to say what a struggle it was to get her children interested in their African roots. My colleague Lyn Julius told her that it would be her grandchildren that would want to know more. In fact, numerous young people stopped by to confess that they had a Jewish grandparent but knew nothing about Judaism. They wanted to find out more about their roots and our stand gave them a good opportunity to touch base.

Everybody knows about Jewish Holocaust refugees, but very few of the public had any idea that Jews, predating Islam, had lived for thousands of years in Arab countries - and that 99% of these populations had been ‘ethnically cleansed’.

Harif are starting to change the narrative, but it's a very slow process. Recently myself and Lyn Julius were invited onto a Christian TV channel, Revelation TV, where they have a weekly programme entitled The Middle East. Report. Here they devoted the full programme to the topic.

The hardest struggle remains within the mainstream Jewish community: The narrative needs to be introduced into the conversation about the Middle East that there was more than one community in the region that lost its property. In my experience this changes the understanding and makes the public much more sympathetic to Israel. The effect can be revolutionary.

For more information please contact: michellehuberman@mac.com

Read article in full (page 17)


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