The Sephardi Association of Ottawa commemorated the Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran, November 30, with a lecture by Christopher Silver at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre on “Jewish Life in the Arab World at the Mid-20th Century.”
The day, which has been observed in Israel since 2014, was created to recognize and acknowledge the trauma of about one million Jews who left or were forced out of Arab countries and Iran in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel.
November 30 was chosen for this observance as it is the day after the anniversary of the United Nations vote in 1947 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states – thus beginning the persecution of Jews in Arab countries.
Silver, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at McGill University, discussed some of the most prominent Jewish musicians who created and performed in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria.
“The Jewish-music scene in the Arab countries was an entanglement of Hebrew and Arabic,” said Silver.
“Back then,” he said, “a Jewish Moroccan could become a superstar in Morocco, and his fans were Jews and Muslims.”
In Morocco in 1947, Salim Halali, a Holocaust survivor, established a cabaret in Casablanca that became “the talk of the town,” Silver added.
Although Zionism was outlawed in Egypt in the 1950s, the distinction between Judaism and Zionism was very vague; so many Egyptian Jews were still able to balance their Egyptian and Jewish identities, Silver said.
“At that point in time, many Egyptian Jews were not yet sitting on their suitcases, ready to leave,” he said. “In 1951, Egyptian radio returned to normalcy and resumed playing ‘Kol Nidre’ on Yom Kippur.
“Jewish and Muslim lives were still intertwined,” he added, “and they were extraordinary and ordinary, exhilarating and devastating.”
The second speaker was Radamis Zaky, an Egyptian-Canadian PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, who recently visited Israel.
Growing up in Cairo, Zaky recalled the Jewish community was enclosed in “a small neighbourhood, guarded by police, dehumanized and sometimes referred to as ‘traitors.’”
Zaky presented a series of photos showing the remarkable old Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo and the monumental collection of Jewish manuscripts known as the “Cairo Geniza” that were discovered there.
“Anti-Semitic nationalism has prevented preserving Jewish heritage in Egypt. But, it needs to be preserved soon,” Zaky said, “because Jewry there will soon be gone.”