Risk of Jewish extinction in Mideast Muslim countries, expert

Less than 30,000 left after 2,500 years of history

01 December, 18:43

    Risk of Jewish extinction in Mideast Muslim countries Risk of Jewish extinction in Mideast Muslim countries

    (by Elisa Pinna)

    ROME - In 50 years there will probably be no Jewish community in Arab and Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East and the traces and memory of such an important presence, which dates back to over 2,500 years ago, risk to be cancelled forever. Such a concern has been explained by  professor Hain Saadoun,  a dean at the Open University and member of the Ben Tzivi Institute in Jerusalem, at a conference held at the Link Campus University in Rome attended by Israeli Ambassador Naor Gilon and the president of the university, Vincenzo Scotti.

    Before 1948, some 900,000 Jews lived in the wider biblical area, from Morocco to Iran. They were prosperous communities, protagonists of the national lives of their respective countries, from the arts to science and administration. They enjoyed a sort of ''golden age'', explained Professor Saadoun.

    Then, following the proclamation of the Jewish State, over 850,000 Jews were expelled or forced to flee violence targeting them. They abandoned their homes, their property, their places of worship, their lives, to seek refuge in the new Jewish State.

    In some cases, like in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Jewish communities were traumatically cancelled in just three years, from 1948 to 1951.

    In other countries, emigration was a slower process. ''The incredible thing - observed the Israeli professor - is that the exodus of Jews, such an important component of Middle Eastern societies at the time, was perceived with absolute indifference by local populations''. It was one of the most imposing migrations of the 20th century, more significant, although more ignored, than the one concerning 700,000 Palestinians who left their land during the 1948 war.

    A number of factors led Jews to flee the Arab and Muslim world, said Saadoun. These included the fear of anti-Jewish violence and an uncertain political future certainly, along with the economic potential of migrating to Israel, religious motivations, the role of the Jewish Agency, the fact that they felt like a minority with a higher degree of modernity compared with post-colonial Muslim societies, tensions between the Arab world and Israel.

    According to Israeli estimates, just a little under 30,000 Jews are left today in North Africa and the Middle East. The largest communities are living in Turkey, with some 14,000 Jews in Istanbul, and in Iran where - according to more uncertain data - Jews are an estimated 10,000, especially in Tehran and Shiraz. Some 30 Jews are residing in Cairo while only about 100 have survived in Sanaa, Yemen.

    There are no Jewish districts left and little is done for the survival of places of worship from the past. There are however exceptions: in Morocco, the Jewish museum of Casablanca has been built and important synagogues have been renovated, like the Grand Synagogue in Fez. In Tunisia, the Jewish community in the island of Djerba, about 1,000 people, ''shows great vitality and is quickly rising demographically'', said the professor.

    Saadoun however fears that these few positive contexts are not enough to fill the great gaps throughout the history of eastern Jews (mizrahim).  ''We don't know enough and we have to fight to try to form a collective memory''. The risk is that everything will be reduced to blurred images in black and white of men, women and children as they desperately try to board ships bound for Hafa at the port of Tripoli, in Libya.

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