Sephardis come together for Jewish Refugee Day
It was a room filled with palm trees, silk tents and people from the Middle East wearing Moroccan hats, kaftan robes and dresses covered in beads and sequins.
People chatted by the meat-laden buffet, watched a troupe of belly dancers and heard Israeli actress and singer Sari Alfi perform at the hotel in central London.
But some might be surprised to learn that the Soirée Orientale event on Monday night was dedicated to recognising the contributions made and challenges faced by Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Around 300 people – most of whom had fled persecution from Iraq to Morocco, Syria, Libya and Iran – came together on February 17 to mark the bill for an annual Jewish Refugee Day currently passing through the Knesset.
Lyn Julius, co-founder of Harif, a UK group that represents Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, reminded guests that on the same day in 1948, the Arab League called on members to restrict the lives, property and legal status of their Jewish citizens.
She said: “In spite of all the pain, Jews from Arab countries have rebuilt their lives. Jews do not want to return to Arab countries, but they do want their rights to memory, truth and justice recognised.
“For so long [they] have been airbrushed out of the narrative.
“Whenever refugees are mentioned in a Middle East context, people think of Palestinian Arab refugees.
“This day will teach people that there were 870,000 Jewish refugees from 10 Arab countries.”
Deputy Israeli Ambassador Eitan Naeh assured guests that: "The Israeli government has taken responsibility to ensure that the people who left their homes are not forgotten.”
Amidst the festivities, Rabbi Abraham Levy, the Emeritus Spiritual Head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ congregation, told guests that despite political tensions, there are still “positive” points of synergy and respect.
Audience members gasped as he revealed that: “I have the zechut (privilege) at least twice a year, with the permission of the government of Iran, to send tefillin and mezuzot regularly for the 25,000 Jews who are still there.
“That is a sign that we have to be optimists and not pessimists.”
But American Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, who is of Syrian descent, said there is still ignorance of Sephardi Jews. “People on the outside look at Jews from the Middle East and put us all in one category," he said. "What we know, is each one of our countries is another beautiful colour, another beautiful expression of the lands we came from. That added beautiful colour and expression to the nation of Israel. One thing we can all agree upon is that we have great food."
He added that Sephardis shared "‘joie de vivre’ (joy of life). It’s what we’ve always brought to Judaism and the people of Israel. We never looked at Torah as something that encumbered us. We looked at Torah as the source of our spirit. We always looked at mitzvot as reasons to celebrate.
"The Jewish world, perhaps, is starting to forget a bit the ‘joie de vivre’ that Sephardim brought to Israel. We need to remind them. Tonight, we don’t only commemorate the plight of our people, we celebrate the life of our people.”
Naim Dangoor, who will also sponsor a conference next month for religious leaders from Iran, Iraq and Israel, was the main backer of the non-fundraising soirée.