YU considers Jewish heritage in Arab lands


Commemorating the 1948 forced exodus of nearly one-million Jews from Arab countries, Yeshiva University paid tribute to the rich cultural heritage of modern Jewry in Arab lands, at a Dec. 5 event that featured an address by the Israeli Consul in New York General Dani Dayan and a lecture by Dr. Daniel Tsadik, associate professor of Sephardic and Iranian studies at YU.

They spoke to a packed house on the Israel Henry Beren Campus of YU in Manhattan’s Washington Heights.

Tsadik noted the importance of remembering these Jews and their unique cultures, including their literature, theater, cinema and sports. Tsadik’s research focuses on the modern history of Iran, Shi’ah Islam and Iran’s religious minorities. 

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, many of the Jewish communities in the Middle East were granted equality and access to education beyond religious subjects, which helped them integrate into their host societies. In Egypt, for example, Jews became bankers, merchants and government officials. They published dozens of newspapers in many languages, some of which were intended for Egyptian society at large.

Jews were prominent musicians, composers, singers, actors, and athletes who competed on national and international levels, even winning gold medals for Egypt at the Olympics. But when the 1948 war broke out, Jews were suddenly seen as the country’s enemy; the government confiscated Jewish property, and bombs were thrown at Jewish homes and businesses. Thousands of Jews were forced to flee for their lives.

Tsadik noted that the Egyptian story is not unique. In Iraq, before they were expelled, Jews contributed significantly to Arabic literature and poetry. In Tunisia, Jews were at the forefront of music, the record industry, and theater. Legendary Habiba Msika, a Jewish performer, became a star beloved by both Jews and Muslims. 

“The Jews influenced the indigenous culture, and were influenced by it,” Tsadik said. “They were part of the society, which made the departure from their homeland even more painful. On one level their cultures have disappeared. But on another level, many elements have persisted over time and space, and have been successfully introduced and transplanted to other countries in the region and way, way beyond.”

The program was sponsored by YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and Sephardic Community Program in partnership with the Consul General of Israel in New York.