A Yemeni fam­i­ly walk­ing through the desert with a Torah scroll to a recep­tion camp near Aden, 1949 Pho­to: Zoltan Kluger / Gov­ern­ment Press Office (Israel) Image cour­tesy of the publisher

Jews have lived in the Mid­dle East and North Africa since time immemo­r­i­al. They have one of the longest, con­tin­u­ous writ­ten his­to­ries of any peo­ple on the planet.

With the arrival of Islam in the sev­enth cen­tu­ry CE and its con­quest by ear­ly caliphates of North Africa, the Iber­ian Penin­su­la, Pales­tine, Per­sia, and most of the Mid­dle East, the Jews in these areas found them­selves sub­jects of Mus­lim rulers. They became – like the Chris­tians – sec­ond-class cit­i­zens, but were still respect­ed as Peo­ple of the Book.” In parts of the Mus­lim empire they pros­pered; in oth­er parts, they suf­fered dis­crim­i­na­tion. But nowhere did they fare as bad­ly as the Jews of Europe.

The Jews of North Africa and the Mid­dle East con­tin­ued to live in their ances­tral home­lands until the end of World War II. Then, with the rise of Arab nation­al­ism and the found­ing of the state of Israel, their Mus­lim neigh­bors turned against them. The gov­ern­ments seized their prop­er­ty, impris­oned their lead­ers, and stripped them of their cit­i­zen­ship, forc­ing them to flee the places they had lived for mil­len­nia to become refugees in North Amer­i­ca, Israel, and Europe. Their dis­place­ment and dis­pos­ses­sion was large­ly ignored by the inter­na­tion­al community.

In 2009, the Sephar­di Voic­es Inter­na­tion­al (SVI) project was launched to doc­u­ment the lives of those who had to leave their ancient homes, and pre­serve, as best it can, the sto­ries of their ancient cul­tures and of peo­ples. To date, over 450 inter­views have been done, record­ing what life was like for the Jews liv­ing in Arab lands and Iran, what hap­pened to the indi­vid­u­als who had to flee and what has become of them since. The SVI Archive con­tains not only the inter­views, but also fam­i­ly pho­tographs, school report cards, pass­ports, prop­er­ty deeds, iden­ti­ty cards and sou­venirs – a vast assem­blage of mate­ri­als from the world that was lost. It is housed in the Sephar­di Voic­es Inter­na­tion­al web­site and the Nation­al Library of Israel.

The sto­ry of the Sephardic dis­place­ment is not just a sto­ry about a van­ish­ing set of rich cul­tures and peo­ples; it is also a sto­ry of human rights.

Sephar­di Voic­es: The Untold Expul­sion of Jews from Arab Lands ( by Hen­ry Green and Richard Sturs­berg) draws on this extra­or­di­nary col­lec­tion to tell the sto­ry of this for­got­ten cat­a­stro­phe. It does so through the words of the peo­ple who lived through it. They describe their lives before the expul­sions began, the ter­ror they had to endure, and the ways in which they rebuilt their lives in the coun­tries that embraced them. The book includes many of their fam­i­ly pho­tographs and por­traits. These are rare and priv­i­leged glimpses into their schools, fam­i­ly gath­er­ings, mar­riages, and cel­e­bra­tions. They appear as they were then – in Bagh­dad, Cairo, and Algiers – and as they are now. Theirs are sto­ries of loss, but also redemption.

Their sto­ry is told his­tor­i­cal­ly. It begins with the first Jew, Abra­ham, and moves for­ward through the vast reach­es of Jew­ish his­to­ry – the king­doms, the exiles, and the defeats – to the emer­gence of Arab nation­al­ism and Zion­ism in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies. It describes the dead­ly ten­sions caused by the clash of these ide­olo­gies. And it works its way through the great events of the post-World War II peri­od: the found­ing of the state of Israel, the War of Inde­pen­dence, the Six Day War, the Alger­ian War of Inde­pen­dence, the Yom Kip­pur War, and the Iran­ian Revolution.

These events are seen and heard through the voic­es of the dis­placed. There are wealthy bankers and busi­ness­men from Bagh­dad, friends of the last king of Egypt, impov­er­ished arti­sans from the Cas­bah in Algiers, moun­tain peas­ants from Moroc­co, intel­lec­tu­als and Nobel prize win­ners, school­girls in Yemen, dar­ing smug­glers, and influ­en­tial politi­cians. There are wit­ness­es to the pogroms in Libya and Egypt, the burn­ing of the syn­a­gogues in Syr­ia, the Farhud in Iraq; there are pas­sen­gers on the great air­lifts of the Mag­ic Car­pet and Oper­a­tion Ezra and Nehemi­ah; there are fam­i­lies escap­ing through the moun­tains of Kur­dis­tan into Iran; there are hus­bands smug­gled in car­pets into Iran in search of their wives. There are for­tunes rebuilt in Lon­don and New York; there are nov­els writ­ten and prizes won.

The sto­ry of the Sephardic dis­place­ment is, of course, not just a sto­ry about a van­ish­ing set of rich cul­tures and peo­ples; it is also a sto­ry of human rights. It is a sto­ry of not just what was lost to the Jews, but what was lost to the coun­tries that expelled them.

Richard Sturs­berg is the author of The Tow­er of Bab­ble (2012), named by The Globe and Mail (Canada’s nation­al news­pa­per) one of the best books of the year; and The Tan­gled Gar­den (2019), which was short­list­ed for Canada’s Don­ner Prize for the best book on pub­lic pol­i­cy. He is the Pres­i­dent of PEN Cana­da and Chair­man of Sephar­di Voic­es International.