Sephar­di Voic­es: The Untold Expul­sion of Jews from Arab Lands

  • Review
By – March 21, 2022

Not only does this hand­some, glossy hard­cov­er include a gallery of stun­ning por­traits mak­ing it a per­fect gift and cof­fee table book, but the tim­ing of its pub­li­ca­tion is essen­tial. Hen­ry Green and Richard Sturs­burg have cap­tured the voic­es and faces of the still-liv­ing gen­er­a­tion of Jews who have expe­ri­enced first­hand — as chil­dren and adults — the great uproot­ing from their home­lands in Africa and the Mid­dle East in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. This is not a book that lingers in dis­tant his­to­ries of dead Jews, but one that puts front and cen­ter the ongo­ing sto­ries of Sephar­di and Mizrahi Jews who have lost so much, strug­gled, and yet also rebuilt rich, mean­ing­ful lives in their new home­lands, pre­dom­i­nant­ly Israel, France, Cana­da, and the Unit­ed States.

We are increas­ing­ly see­ing more and bet­ter reports, his­tor­i­cal research, and sto­ries that appear about Jews from Islam­ic lands, not just in acad­e­mia but also in the press and not the least on social media. In France and Israel, this rec­ti­fi­ca­tion has in no small part been due to the fact that Sephar­di and Mizrahi Jews make up the major­i­ty of the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion and that they have con­tributed to an impor­tant revi­tal­iza­tion of Jew­ish cul­ture and joie de vivre in coun­tries where the shad­ow of the Holo­caust hangs heavily.

Pub­li­ca­tions on the top­ic in Eng­lish have lagged behind, but books like Lyn Julius’s recent Uproot­ed: How 3000 Years of Jew­ish Civ­i­liza­tion in the Arab World Van­ished Overnight, and now Green and Stursburg’s stun­ning and much-antic­i­pat­ed con­tri­bu­tion, help fill the lacu­nae on the top­ic. While the authors of Sephar­di Voic­es have cre­at­ed an aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing pub­li­ca­tion, they also pro­vide ample his­tor­i­cal con­text to give the read­er a sol­id sense of the gen­er­a­tions of Jews that called places like Moroc­co, Tunisia, Iran, Iraq, and Ethiopia their homes.

Before 1948 there were 856,000 Jews, many self-iden­ti­fied as Arab Jews, liv­ing in Islam­ic lands; today, less than 4,315 remain. In 2014, the Israeli Gov­ern­ment des­ig­nat­ed Novem­ber 30th as Yom HaGerush, or Expul­sion Day, a memo­r­i­al day for Jew­ish refugees from Arab lands and Iran. This rel­a­tive­ly recent annu­al mark­ing incen­tivizes Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties around the world to cre­ate pro­grams that com­mem­o­rate this unique his­to­ry and legacy.

Final­ly, Green and Sturs­burg pro­vide many rel­e­vant sources — orga­ni­za­tions, films, video archives with inter­views and tes­ti­monies, and books — for the read­ers to turn to for more infor­ma­tion. But their great­est accom­plish­ment is that they have made these sto­ries come alive on the page. Through inti­mate glimpses and snap­shots of life before, dur­ing, and after expul­sion, we glean a vast col­lage of human des­tinies. The dra­mat­ic stu­dio por­traits — artis­tic close ups in black and white — give a sense of inti­ma­cy and urgency; I’m talk­ing to you,” the faces seem to say, and my sto­ry matters.”

Discussion Questions