A few weeks ago, I blogged about stolen Eastern European communal historic documents for auction. I’ve also been appalled at the deliberate destruction of Jewish cemeteries in Poland and formerly great synagogues up for sale for pennies on the dollar. All of these bear witness to the disappearance of Jewish communities in Europe.
This week, the Times of Israel shared a few articles about isolated or shrinking ancient Jewish communities in other regions of the world. In Central Asia, the thousand-year-old Mountain Jews preserve old traditions, but as this older article from JTA points out, they have dwindled from a population of about 8,000 thirty years ago to between 500 and 1200 today.
More devastatingly, in Iraq, the 2,600-year-old Jewish community is but a memory. With a recent death, Iraqi Jews now number four. Four. Jews once made up as much as 40% of Baghdad’s population. In the 1950s, almost 150,000 fled, having been forced to give up everything they had to leave. Even today, they cannot legally get their nationality restored and certainly not their property.
Similarly, Jews fled from other Middle Eastern and North African countries in the 1950s. 850,000 refugees. And if you search online for ancient Jewish community dwindled, the results you will find today, offers a plethora of stories of Jewish communities throughout the world reduced to nothing due to persecution, expulsions, migration.
Until the founding of Israel, our people had no home. I think of the term sojourn, that is, a temporary stay. Sometimes for a few decades, sometimes for many centuries, but always temporary. Once exiled from the land of Canaan, our history has taken us many places, and usually not because we wanted to move. I find the Wikipedia entry for Expulsions and exoduses of Jews a hefty reminder of how unwanted we as a people have been throughout history. Its list begins in 733 BCE and although the last entry is in 2014, the entry contains a caveat that it is incomplete.
Israel’s founding in 1948 gave us a home, a place of refuge, where we can go. And so many have made it their home. I know I did for over a decade, and part of my heart (and one of my sons) lives in Israel. The country today is an amazing amalgamation of cultures, of music, of customs, of a delicious variety of food, with Jews from all over the globe who have come together and come home. Israel’s Jewish population is a testament to all the places we as a people sojourned, all the different paths we have taken.
But Israel’s establishment and the decimation of so many communities across the globe doesn’t only mean we are left with an enormous challenge of how to preserve history where thriving Jewish communities once stood. There is also the bigger questions of how Jewish history should be taught — and how we should think of ourselves. We are one people with many threads woven into our tapestry. The controversy over the ethnic studies curricula in California offers an example of what happens when a fragmented approach is taken. When you specify groups to include, you will invariably exclude others. And as I’ve blogged in the past, the way many organizations approach diversity and inclusion efforts runs the same risk.
The Jewish people cannot afford any kind of fragmentation. We are a single people who have been made disjointed by others. Our responsibility now is to both preserve the individual paths our families have taken and to weave these threads together with those of Jews who sojourned elsewhere. This we need to do for ourselves.