Beyond ‘Ashkenormativity’: Sharing the Stories of Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands

Dec. 8, 2020

By ZACHARY ZARNETT-KLEIN

Nov. 29, known by some as Kaf-Tet b’November, is an important day to Jewish communities around the world. It was on that day in 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the plan to partition British Mandate Palestine between Arabs and Jews. David Ben-Gurion, leading the nascent nation, subsequently declared the State of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948.

Perhaps less well known is that the following day, Nov. 30, serves as a solemn occasion of remembrance and tribute to Jewish refugees from Arab lands, including the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa. It is known as Yom Plitim (“the Day of Recognition for Jewish Refugees”).

The UN’s support for the establishment of a Jewish state is seen as a turning point in the history of minority Jewish populations across the Arab world, who had lived there for centuries. During the mid-20th century, these Jews, primarily belonging to Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, were persecuted, and subsequently expelled from the places that they had called home for generations. It is estimated that 850,000 Jewish refugees were displaced from Arab and Muslim lands from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. 

Many found haven in Israel, while others immigrated to countries around the world, including Canada. These communities have continued to preserve and pass down their heritage, while contributing to society as a whole. From flight to perseverance, the stories of Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be treasured. More than that, they should be retold.

Yet, I’m struck by the seeming lack of awareness regarding this important history. Despite growing up in an Ashkenazi household, attending Jewish day school and summer camp, and taking several Jewish studies courses in university, I find myself undereducated on the history of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This is a startling gap.

I think that Jewish continuity and identity are rooted in education. I hope that curricula for day schools, post-secondary Jewish studies courses, and experiential/informal Jewish education will better integrate the stories of these Jewish refugees.

Part of the problem is that well-meaning Ashkenazi-majority communities have often sought to further their own history while placing the stories of minorities within the Jewish community on the back burner. This problem has been worsened by external factors, such as “traditional” depictions of Jews and what it means to “look Jewish,” which often typify an Ashkenazi stereotype that many have come to internalize.

From my understanding, this has caused Jews from outside the Ashkenazi norm to feel distanced from “the community.” By breaking off into segments, our tent becomes smaller and weaker. Our institutions fail in their stated ideal of being inviting, instead leading to further isolation.

While recognizing these shortcomings, I want to applaud various community organizations that have made significant strides in the right direction. This past summer, I was fortunate to participate in the UJA Genesis Community Leadership Accelerator. This program made a concerted effort to include speakers from a diverse array of Jewish backgrounds.

As a prime example, Erez Zobary, a young educator and musician, shared with us the stories of her Yemenite Jewish heritage. Her paternal grandparents’ determination and resilience to make a better life in Israel, while remaining connected to its roots, rang of a delicate, dynamic balance. It was particularly interesting to hear her experience, having been born in Canada, of fitting into a Jewish community school where most of her friends and teachers were of Ashkenazi heritage.

Additional efforts have been undertaken by Jewish organizations to raise awareness about Jewish refugees from Arab lands. This past Nov. 29, the Consulate General of Israel for Toronto and Western Canada, in conjunction with Sephardi Voices, the Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and a handful of congregations, marked Yom Plitim. They held a virtual event that featured Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae. The keynote speaker, Linda Menuhin Abdul Aziz, herself a Jewish refugee from Iraq, went on to work in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offering an invaluable perspective into Arab culture and geopolitics.

B’nai Brith Canada held a similar event the next day. The organization fittingly described its webinar, in part, as an opportunity “to virtually commemorate this tragic but little-known chapter in Jewish history.” To honour this history, B’nai Brith encouraged participants to contact their MP and urge the government to list Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity, based on a motion passed by the previous Parliament. I am glad to see a range of Jewish organizations marking this important epoch.

So what else can we do?

At a time of increasing polarization, we should reach out, challenge our assumptions, and learn something new. We should question why certain stories are retold, while others are overlooked. We should amplify the voices of minorities within our own community. We should harness this moment for inclusion and understanding. Most importantly, we should undertake considerable outreach and strive for all Jews to be reflected in our community at large.


Zachary Zarnett-Klein
Zachary Zarnett-Klein

Zachary Zarnett-Klein is a university student from Toronto. His passions include community involvement, civic engagement, and human rights.

Statement From York Centre Liberal Candidate Ya’ara Saks

Oct. 19, 2020

My name is Ya’ara Saks and I’m the Liberal candidate in the riding of York Centre in the upcoming federal by-election. Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m a dedicated mother of two teenage daughters. I’m a small business owner in York Centre and I’m an active community advocate, in particular for better access to mental health services.

Ya’ara Saks

Like so many of us in Canada, I cherish my roots and where my family comes from. I’m the daughter of a Sabra. My father was born in Israel after my grandparents settled in what was then British Mandate Palestine. They fought in the War of Independence. I went to school in Israel; lived there, worked there. It was in Israel, working in the government of the City of Jerusalem, that I lived through the Second Intifada and found my love of public service, working for the Mayor. My family and I contributed to the building of the State of Israel, and we have done so out of a deep love, one that I share with so many of you.

I am a proud Canadian, and I am also an unapologetic Zionist who believes passionately in the State of Israel. I oppose and condemn BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) and every other form of antisemitism. I have the privilege of being a dual citizen of Canada and of Israel, and having spent many years living in Jerusalem and around Israel, I know firsthand the serious threats that face Israel and Jewish communities around the world.

I believe in a Jewish and democratic Israel, with safe and secure borders, founded on the promise of the rule of law and equal rights enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. I believe that a secure peace is a moral and political imperative and that the only solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a two-state solution reached through direct negotiation between the two parties. I believe that the Abraham Accords are an important shift in diplomacy and I am excited for the prospects of Israel’s neighbours finally recognizing its right to exist in peace and security, with the opportunities that it creates.

In Canada, we do not shy away from diversity of thought or of opinion. We embrace it. Our Canadian Jewish community is all the richer for that diversity. Disagreement and debate are rooted in our history, in our culture, in the way we practice our shared faith, and in our politics. It is a defining characteristic of who we are as a people, and it has served us well through the millennia.

This is just as true in Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. From Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, from Eilat to Rosh Ha’Nikra, Israelis often disagree with their government and with each other. I will not pretend that I agree with every initiative and policy made by Israel’s current political leadership.

But let me be clear: there is a difference between criticism of government policy and questioning the state’s existence. And let me be equally clear: I will never compromise on Israel’s right to exist, on its right to self-defence, or on its right to fair and equal treatment internationally. I oppose BDS and every other form of antisemitism at every turn. I was proud when the Liberal government condemned the BDS movement. I was pleased when the Liberal government formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. I was thrilled to see the Canadian government strengthening bilateral relations with Israel, including signing the updated Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement and standing strong against threats of violence and intimidation against our Jewish communities and institutions here in Canada. I will always work with anyone who shares those values and supports Israel and the Jewish community, even when we disagree on the best way to do so.

I have dedicated my entire career to building communities based on two pillars of common understanding. The first is that compassion is our greatest currency as human beings, and the other is that ?? ????? ????? ??? ?? – all of Israel is responsible for one another. As your Member of Parliament, as a proud Canadian and as a Zionist, I will stand by these principles.

In seeking your support as your Member of Parliament in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, in a world that is changing as rapidly as it ever has, the ideas of compassion and mutual responsibility guide me more than ever. These are the values that will inform everything I do representing the people of York Centre. From mental health support to the environment, from the economy to health care, and from striving for fair and equal treatment of all Canadians to supporting a safe and secure Israel, I will be there. For you. For our children. For all of us.

For a statement on Israel from York Centre’s Conservative candidate, Juilus Tiangson, click here.