Rachel Wahba

From Jewish Refugees to Dudu Tassa’s Iraq n’ Roll

My father an Egyptian Jew, and I would discuss the same issue every few years until his death in 2006. That’s a lot of years going over the same question: Why doesn’t the Israeli government use us Jews from Arab countries in their refugee equation? Why are we marginalized, not just in Israel but almost everywhere to the point that we are virtually invisible to the world at large?

The question was an entry into our ongoing frustration, our sense of helplessness as we watched the whole world cry for the Palestinians and completely ignore Arab Jewish refugees. 800,000 plus of us from all over North Africa and the Middle East were forced out, displaced, stripped of our land and our money and even photo albums when we were forced out of our native lands during the 1950’s. My father’s family who had a presence in Egypt for thousands of years had to sign papers promising “never to return” to Egypt.

My father and I watched a PBS (American public TV station) special on Israel one night in amazement as an Ashkenazi Israeli woman told the interviewer “Why should the Palestinians pay for ‘Europe’s’ sins!”


She lives in Israel, where a majority of the Arab Jewish refugees ended up. The number of displaced Palestinians and the number of displaced Arabic Jews is equal or very close. This fact was not mentioned by her or the interviewer. Its not ignorance that is the problem here.

“They (Ashkenazim) don’t want to identify (with us), my father admits.

We are “other” I add, even in our own country, our Israel.

Why else were our Egyptian cousins learning Yiddish in Yeshivas and our Baghdadi cousins ashamed of being Iraqis?

Why were Jews from Arab countries a threat to the branding of the new State of Israel?

Our Eastern culture had to be undone — we had to be repackaged to look like our Jewish culture started in Europe and continued in Israel. Our Arabic music, language, customs and faces had to be erased. Not only were we uprooted, our roots were shameful and undesirable. In the erasure we lost a connection with our cultural heritage. With enough time, we Arab Jews could be turned into Ashkenazim or “Just Israelis” (with no other identity) as an Ashkenazi Israeli friend once envisioned. Sefardi and Mizrahi Jews would be relegated to a distant romanticized past, no longer a threat.

A friend once told me that “Mizrahi Jews ruined real Israeli music.”

“Oh you mean Polish-Russian music?” I shot back as she remembered she was talking to an Iraqi –Egyptian Jew.

Unfortunately, this comment was and is not an isolated incident, and the problem stems from a person’s deep personal bias.

It’s impossible to ignore the history of the privileging of Ashkenazi culture in Israel, even when the majority population was Mizrahi (before the early 90’s Russian Aliyah shifted that balance).

But it’s not just in the nation-state, not just an “Israeli” issue. It is endemic in the larger Jewish/Ashkenazi community’s perspective, narrative and behavior. We need a shift in consciousness.

My friend’s comment of several years ago reverberated recently when I went to see “Iraq N Roll,” a film capturing the Israeli musician Dudu Tassa’s journey back to his Iraqi musical roots.

“If it was Klezmer it would be full” I answered my Israeli Iraqi friend who didn’t  understand why so few came to the film screening.

Why was the theater almost empty?

In San Francisco  it is not so cool to be a Jew in the first place, it’s less cool to be pro-Israel, and if for some sentimental reason one wants to connect with Jewish roots it has to be Ashkenazi defined.

“Do you miss your grandparents’ Yiddish?” I’ve been asked, even after I tell them where my family was from.

Dudu Tassa from Iraq N’ Roll

The same people will criticize Israel for every kind of bias. It is very cool to accuse Israel of every evil and look me in the face and bemoan the demise of “pure” Israeli music or be surprised (over and over again) that ancient Jewish communities from Algeria to Yemen were snuffed out. It is somehow OK to them to ignore the suffering and displacement of some 800,000 Jews from Arab countries who were forced out of their homes, stripped of their identities and left penniless, — to some it’s not so important that after a 2,500 year Jewish presence, these countries are now nearly all Jew-free.

What? Why?

Israel absorbed Jews from diverse cultures in a feat most, IF any, other nations would not attempt. To criticize Israel while holding on to personal bias is just …disappointing.

Fortunately, despite the damage done and the searing shame of being rejected by one’s own People, Mizrahi culture did not die.

It lives in “Israeli” food, language, custom, music and on the faces of people walking down the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheva. The ingredients finally made it into the great Jewish melting pot, our multicultural heritage. Zohar, Shlomo Bar, Zehava Ben, Yaair Dalal and now Dudu Tassa  refused to let it die.

Now can we Iraq N Roll?

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).