In the ‘ma’abara’, but outside the big tent



Where have all the Limmudniks gone? (Photo: Ashley Perry)

It was standing room only when Aisha and Nadia, two Syrian refugees in hijabs, told their story to an earnest crowd of Limmudniks at the annual conference in Birmingham this week.

Tuesday was Refugee Day at Limmud.  The almost 3, 000 attendees  were offered a rich diet of presentations that day. Every aspect of the Syrian refugee crisis was examined, while Limmudniks salved their liberal consciences with a focus on social action, the importance of interfaith relations and the dangers of islamophobia .

In complete contrast, only four brave souls came to a session by Harif, which represents Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK.  The session on ‘How Jewish Refugees can help reframe the Israel debate’ vied for attention with 29 other presentations, including a session on Ladino music. Competition was just too stiff.

The Harif presentation had been consigned to the lunch marquee erected outside the main building. Tomato soup had been splashed onto the floor. Our four stalwarts, surrounded by large empty vats and trestle tables strewn with crumbs, kept their coats on in the draft. Young Limmudniks drifted in and out looking for a last sandwich.They promptly left again, dashing our forlorn hopes that they might stay on to swell our paltry numbers and learn something about Jewish refugees.

Whether by accident or by design, the marquee replicated the conditions that 650, 000 Jewish refugees experienced when they first arrived in Israel in the 1950s. These had been housed in transit camps or ma’abarot, makeshift tents or huts with no heating in winter and not enough food.

While it would be unfair to blame the Limmud programmers for Harif’s poor showing – they did allow this and subsequent Harif sessions to take place and did their best to accommodate us  – it is nevertheless disappointing that so few Limmudniks turned up to hear about Jewish refugees. The Jewish refugees are patently  ‘outside the big tent’ of universalist Ashkenazi concerns.

It is a safe bet that the 100-plus Limmudniks who flocked to hear Aisha and Nadia did not have a clue that 38, 000 Jews had also been displaced from Syria in the last fifty years. Did they know that a larger number of Jews had been uprooted than Palestinian refugees? That almost a million Jewish refugees from the Arab world had been denied recognition and compensation? That their flight has crucial ramifications for peace and the struggle against Israel’s delegitimisation?

Did they care?

Jews seem always keen to burnish their universalist credentials, while remaining indifferent to the travails of their own people.

This disappointing lack of awareness, especially among the young, presents a challenge to Harif. Although the audiences were bigger for its later sessions, few were under fifty years old.

A visitor to Limmud from Israel, Ashley Perry, the architect of the Jewish refugee awareness campaign when he was adviser to the deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon,  took away this lesson:  Our challenge is to educate our own Jewish community on this issue – before we can hope to reach the outside world, ” he said.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)