University of Miami Professor Henry Green is leading the effort to assemble these oral histories. â€œThe projectâ€™s purpose,â€� he told me, â€œis to give voice to the nearly 1 million Jews that confronted growing discrimination and violence beginning in the 1940s.â€� From the Tigris and Euphrates to the Arabian Peninsula and throughout the Mediterranean, these Sephardi Jews were expelled or compelled to flee their homes and communities.
The Jewish population in Arab lands, once totaling 850,000, collapsed in the quarter-century following the founding of the State of Israel; by 1980, 95 percent had been displaced.
Demographers estimate that over 70 percent of these displaced Jews are no longer alive, according to Green; of the remaining 30 percent, many are now mentally or physically incapable of sharing their personal testimonies.
With memories fading and the elderly passing on each day, said Green
, this is probably the last chance to document first-hand this period of Jewish history and its human stories: â€œIf we donâ€™t capture their stories, there will not be witnesses, and their memories will be lost.â€�
While world Jewry has paid great attention to the plight of European Holocaust victims, the plight of Sephardi Jews has long been a â€œforgotten exodus,â€� said Green
project is the first comprehensive effort to record and preserve this vast and rich Diaspora with audio-visual means.
Greenâ€"who is 63 and has no Sephardi rootsâ€"was first attracted to the issue in the beginning of the 1970s, when he earned his M.A. in sociology in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The Israeli â€œBlack Pantherâ€� movement, composed of frustrated and disenchanted young people, was making its first steps then, fighting against discrimination and the lack of the opportunities for the Sephardim in Israel. â€œComing from Canada in those days,â€� said Green
, an Ottawa native, â€œthe issue resonated for me.
â€œThere was a growing Sephardi population In Miami at the time,â€� said Green
, â€œand I was aware of the fact that American Jewry was ignorant of Sephardi contemporary civilization.
Many Sephardi Jews came to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s from all over Latin America because of internal political upheavals in those countries.
But they were not integrating into the existing Jewish community.
So, I tried to build a program that would reach out to their needs and accommodate the demand for Sephardi education.â€�
Ten years ago, at a World Jewish Congress gathering, Green
presented a paper on the possibilities of creating an archive of testimonies from the Middle East and North Africa.
The end goal of all this, says Green
, is to create an extensive, international, digital archive of testimonies and photographs and thus ensure the preservation of the history and heritage of Sephardi Jews for generations of scholars, educators, and the general public. â€œThe ultimate plan,â€� he
said, â€œis to create an archive which can be mined for different purposes: Jewish and general education purposes, human-rights issues, narrating a new story of Zionism, storing the data of the property and assets lost by Jews in Arab lands, of families having legacies of their ancestors and of their memorabilia, etc.