Jews of the Middle East or Ashkenazi Donors?
The following is an interview with Kouichi Shirayanagi, a graduate student from San Francisco and former employee of the US-based organization Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).
Can you introduce yourself?
I’m Kouichi Shirayanagi, I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area, and I’m a Master’s student at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Missouri. In 2012 I was in Tunisia and I wrote many articles about Tunisian Jewish communities in Tunis and in Djerba. I was working for the first English language post-revolution start-up news website, Tunisia Live. I found out that there was an organization in San Francisco, JIMENA, which was reprinting articles from my website without my permission. They used the entire article instead of posting a snippet and including a link. I contacted them about that and eventually they offered me a job with good pay as their Communications Director in San Francisco. I wanted to come back to the Bay Area for familial reasons, so I accepted. I flew back in August 2012.
What did you know about JIMENA (“Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa”) when you accepted the job?
I looked at their website and I saw that they had a speakers’ bureau of Jews from different countries in North Africa and the Middle East who had left their home countries and had immigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I thought I’d like to learn more about Jewish communities from places I hadn’t been to, like Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.
What did you do when you began?
I wanted to expand the organization’s reach by coming up with new ways of communicating stories about Jews from Arab countries. So I managed to establish a JIMENA blog on the Times of Israel, where most of the writers are usually Ashkenazim, and another one in the Jerusalem Post, also a very Ashkenazi paper. JIMENA also wanted to create a project with twelve websites about Jews from nine Arab countries, Turkey and Iran. I spent a lot of time researching about food and finding stories on the web and I was supposed to promote these websites in Jewish media so that donors would know about them.
So this sounds like a positive experience, so far. Was it?
It was not. It turns out, the organization is heavily dependent on Ashkenazim for their funding and this shifts the focus of the organization from being about an old and precious Jewish culture to being an Israel advocacy organization almost totally beholden to a Hasbara agenda. The different donors came up every day in conversations with my boss, the Director – Sarah Levin. JIMENA was founded in partnership with the JCRC, and they get funding from JCRC, the Jewish Federations, and the same main donors of the Jewish community in the Bay Area. If you look at the board of the Jewish Federations, those who make the decisions on grants JIMENA applies for, or the people who run the JCRC, they’re mostly Ashkenazi. Promoting the diversity of Jewish communities is not the first priority of these organizations: they mainly want to create a new angle for Hasbara and promote Israel. My job as communications director was to write materials that would make people donate money to JIMENA. So I would write something and it would get changed completely, to fit what Sarah thought that the mostly Ashkenazi donors would want to see.
If anything sounded negative about Israel, I couldn’t use that information. For example, there was a Moroccan Jewish guy that we interviewed, and he said his family brought certain documents to Israel and Israeli government officials kept them when they arrived and never returned them. When Syrian Jews came to Israel they bought certain relics such as the Aleppo Codex and the Israeli government didn’t preserve them, they got destroyed. Sarah told me to delete that from the video interviews.
There was a review of a film on the Jews of Egypt from an Egyptian website, and it was positive towards Egyptian Jews but anti-Zionist: it said people should be supportive of the last Egyptian Jews and be appreciative that they haven’t left for Israel. I put it on the Facebook page and Sarah immediately told me to take it down, because our donors would be unhappy that we posted something anti-Zionist. On the other hand, almost every story had to have some link to Israel. In the JIMENA Blogs, unless Israel had something to do with the story I would prefer not to mention anything, but Sarah wanted to include people’s positive comments about Israel. That would get thrown in. We had a common formula in almost all the organization’s communications of Jews in majority Muslim countries being persecuted by Muslims and having to flee for Israel, and that is why Israel has a right to exist as a “Jewish State”.
Were there any other problems in the way they presented the history?
Whenever Jews were persecuted, Sarah wanted to emphasize that the problem was Muslims, whereas I believe that the reason that Jews left Arab countries were greater problems of colonialism and post-colonialism… since Jews were closer to the colonial rulers in a lot of these countries during the colonial era, they often lived with privileges such as higher education and income. Often colonial rulers were more likely to grant citizenship of the colonizing country at a higher percentage rate for Jews than the religious majority in the countries they colonized. After the European colonizers left, Jews left with them because they felt they would be better off living in places with a much higher standard of living. There was also the trend of Pan-Arabism and pan-Arab nationalism, a reactionary movement to colonialism that left Jews out of their own countries. JIMENA didn’t want to focus on all the reasons Jews left Muslim countries, they just wanted to focus on how Israel was great and was the solution to Jewish persecution in these countries.
Also, one of the main points of JIMENA tries to make is that there was a population exchange and that there were just as many Jewish refugees from Arab countries as Palestinian refugees; Jewish refugees were just resettled in Israel. Therefore, Palestinians who left Israel as refugees have no claim to the places they fled. I think that notion is absurd and racist. On the JIMENA website there’s a whole section about the Jerusalem Mufti. I don’t think you can tie whatever persecution Jews experienced in Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Turkey, Morocco, etc. to the Jerusalem Mufti. But I had to help edit it on the website even though I doubted the veracity of the content. In addition, we also had to upload claim cards to the website so that people would fill them out. (http://www.jimena.org/redress-registration/)
What are these claims cards?
They want Jews from Arab countries to write down and disclose to the Israeli government what the properties were that they lost. It is in order for the Israeli government to claim that, against any Palestinian claims. But as long as I was there, for ten months, I didn’t know anybody who printed out and sent in a claims card. Because the notion is absurd – to go to the Israeli government and give whatever property you lost to the Israeli government to use as a bargaining chip with the Palestinians. Why wouldn’t you go to the government where you lost your property? I think it is awful to blame Palestinians to what happened Jews from Arabic speaking countries, it’s racism – because a Jew from Morocco or Algeria who left had nothing to do with Palestinians.
Do you remember any other incidents from this period?
I wrote a timeline of historical events for the Tunisian Jewish community, and I said that the Holocaust happened not just in Europe but in Tunisia too. But Sarah told me I couldn’t compare what happened in Europe to the suffering of Jews in North Africa. I was very upset about that, because I spent a lot of time in La Goulette, and they have a house for the elderly, and almost all the people there had Holocaust experiences: they remember the day when the Nazis occupied their country in May of 1943. They all experienced horrible treatment. Men were forced into slave labor. When I was in Tunisia I interviewed Roger Bismuth, the current president of the Jewish community. He was fourteen or fifteen years old when the Nazis came and he had to do hard labor building the port of La Goulette for the Nazis. In the Jewish cemetery in Tunis there is a monument to the 161 Tunisian Jews who were in France who were taken to concentration camps and killed by the Nazis. Israel’s former foreign minister’s family was hidden by fellow Tunisians in Gabes during the six months of the Nazi occupation before Silvan Shalom was born. I had a big argument with Sarah about that.
What about other members of JIMENA? Did you have contact with them?
I talked to Gina Waldman, the founder, and she would say that the reason why we’re able to raise the money that we’re able to raise and have the organization that we have is because of the hasbara angle of our organization. I talked to board members. There was one woman who was completely Ashkenazi who had been involved with StandWithUs. I had to organize a speaking appointment in some synagogues for one Moroccan guy who gave a hardline pro-Israel talk, which had little to do with the experiences of Jews in Morocco.
Did you have any contact with Israeli representatives?
The decisions they make in Israel advocacy come from working in concert with the Israeli government. They have a partnership with the Israeli ministry that deals with Hasbara. They wanted me to promote a video by Danny Ayalon which is very racist and depicts Arabs poorly (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_3A6_qSBBQ) I also had to go to a conference on Jews in Arab countries in Jerusalem. What Israeli government officials were saying there was JIMENA’s line. Israeli officials and Israel advocates want Jews’ religion to define their national identity. But what I learned when I was in Tunisia was that Tunisian Jews define themselves as Tunisians. They are no different from American Jews who are 100% American. The Tunisian government regularly helps the Jewish community. So I disagree with this underlying premise the Israeli government makes that Jews from Arab countries belong in Israel and I think it’s very dangerous for those Jewish communities, to tie them to the Jewish state.
What made you leave your job?
It got to the point where I felt this organization isn’t what they’re saying it is. They’re using the Mizrachi experience to mask pro-Israel advocacy. The point of the organization is really not to advocate for Jews from Arab countries.
I’ll give you another example: There was an archive of Iraqi Jewish material that Saddam Hussein held in a police warehouse in Baghdad, and when the U.S. forces invaded, they had partly destroyed the archive, and to restore it they took it to the National Archives here in Washington, D.C. The US Department of Defense signed an agreement with the Iraqi government because the materials were the property of the Iraqi government, and the agreement said after the National Archives did restoration work with the documents they would be returned to Iraq. The Iraqi government wanted to keep the archive of Jewish life in Iraq, because Jews had lived there for thousands of years and the documents are part of that country’s vibrant history.
JIMENA together with another group called Justice for Jews from Arab countries wanted the U.S. government to keep the archive, without the Iraqi government’s permission. I was arguing that this is a war crime, because under international law an invading country is not allowed to keep the spoils of war.
But Justice for Jews from Arab Countries had already made the decision to go to court and fight to keep part of the archive in the U.S. They were also coordinating with the Israeli government about legal strategies to bring parts of the archive to Israel, and that is when I was sure my work with JIMENA would not last much longer..
I said I’m going to have nothing to do with getting PR quotes in the press to advocate for a war crime. (Like this one here from Sarah Levin: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/the-iraqi-jewish-archive-should-the-us-send-it-back/2013/12/10/badfab84-61df-11e3-a7b4-4a75ebc432ab_story.html) You really have to return the archive to Iraq and it doesn’t matter how many Jews live there or how the Iraqi government got the documents from the Jewish community. The US Government has a much lower claim to the documents than the Iraqi government does. I’ve been to the British Museum and many places in the West where you see stolen artifacts sitting there for hundreds of years and not going back. It is upsetting. I was particularly upset that they dared to want some of the archives to end up in Israel, because we had just done a program on the Aleppo Codex, and the way the Israeli government neglected and destroyed a lot of it. I was not going to advocate for the US government to keep the Iraqi government’s archive so in late July of 2013 we reached an agreement to end my work with JIMENA. I don’t believe in pillaging spoils of war, but JIMENA does. That was a big difference between us.
What would be your advice for Mizrachim who would consider joining this organization?
If you want to do Israel advocacy, JIMENA is an organization for you, but not if you want to advocate for Mizrachim and Mizrachi communities. There still isn’t an organization in America for Mizrachim that is independent of Israel advocacy. I don’t want to advocate for the positions the Israeli government is taking. I think this Israeli government in particular is one of the most recklessly irresponsible groups to ever govern the country. The Israeli government isn’t working towards a just and equitable solution and I don’t want to blame Palestinians for the lack of peace and create obstacles for the peace process that the American government has totally given up on due to a reluctance of working with this Israeli government.
Lastly, the experience of working with an organization like JIMENA is an exercise in trustworthiness of getting your information. As a former communications director for the organization, I would not trust anything the organization says.
Reached for a comment, JIMENA gave Jewschool this statement, published here in full:
“We are saddened to see that Mr. Shirayanagi, who worked with JIMENA for a very short time over two years ago, chooses to express his personal disappointments by deflecting from the true mission of JIMENA. We invite you to visit our websites (www.jimena.org) and view our Oral History collections which tell a diversity of Middle Eastern and North African stories in the first person. You will find by looking through our extensive online content that Mr. Shirayanagi’s comments are incorrect.Regarding criticism of Arab countries, it is true that just like the victims of the Holocaust have every right to criticize the Nazi regime for what they did to the Jews, so to do Jews from Arab countries reserve the same right to condemn the Arab countries which were responsible for confiscated their assets, arbitrarily arrests and final expulsion from their native countries. These Jewish communities lived and sometimes thrived in the Middle East and North Africa for over two millennia.JIMENA doesn’t blame Palestinians for the loss of their homes and for their expulsion, we blame Arab leaders who, by declaring war against Israel created not only the Palestinian refugees but Jewish refugees as well. These Arab leaders called for the expulsion of the Jews living in their own countries, knowing full well that these communities had nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflicts.Was the Tunisian and North African Holocaust history downplayed? Yes. The Fascist and Vichy governments, supported and implemented Nazi racial laws and operated dozens of labor camps throughout North Africa and JIMENA remains committed to raising awareness to this little known chapter of Holocaust history.”