The 'Exit and Expulsion of Jews from Arab Lands and Iran Day' in today's Israel: memory, ethnicity and politics

By Dario Miccoli
Submitted to Session P4683 (Intellectual and Political Experiences of Middle Eastern Jews, 2016 Annual Meeting
Cultural Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Since 2014, the State of Israel celebrates every 30 November the 'Exit and Expulsion of Jews from Arab Lands and Iran Day'. This newly-established memorial day commemorates the migration and/or expulsion of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa after 1948 and in the 1950s/1960s. But how is this being done? And why just now? Basing upon my own fieldwork at Mizrahi Israeli heritage associations involved in the implementation of the law, as well as through an analysis of legal sources and educational material destined to Israeli schoolteachers and of articles appeared on the press, my paper interprets this memorial day as an event that - even though rightly aiming at expanding the public knowledge of the history of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa - does so in rather problematic ways. In fact, the law itself and the events that relate to the memorial day, focus primarily on issues of property claims, Arab anti-Semitism, on the definition of the whole of the Jewish migrants as ‘refugees’ and only secondarily deal with the Sephardic and Mizrahi identities and cultures. By contextualizing the memorial day and the activities related to it within today's Israeli social and political context and following seminal studies by Rothberg, Sanyal and others on memory and heritage in the postcolonial Mediterranean and in Jewish history, I will try to show the problematicity not of the 'Exit and Expulsion Day' itself, but rather of the historical and ethno-national memory that comes out of it. It is in fact a memory that focuses largely on the negative and most violent aspects of the Sephardic and Mizrahi past and of the relations between Jews and Muslims before the 1950s to the detriment of the rest. Secondly, the memorial day contradictorily presents the Mizrahim as both passive refugees and as active Zionists who contributed to the building of Israel, proposing a comparison with the Palestinian refugees on the one hand and with European anti-Semitism and the Shoah on the other. Yet, considering the fact that the memorial day was established only two years ago, is it still possible to propose a more historically-grounded version of the Sephardic and Mizrahi past that, without denying the traumas that the migrants faced and their legal claims against the Arab states, also acknowledges the long history of cohabitation that Jews and Muslims shared? And if so, how can this be done?