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Rabbi Yosef Benarroch

Yolanda Papini Pollock

Refusing Victimhood: Rabbi Yosef Benarroch and Yolanda Papini Pollock speak at B'nai Brith Canada's Virtual Commemoration of Jewish Refugee Day

by Penny Jones Square, Dec 7, 2022

B’Nai Brith Canada—The League for Human Rights and B’Nai Brith Advocacy—commemorated Jewish Refugee Day on November 30, 2022 with a virtual presentation, “Jews from Arab Countries and Iran,” a half-hour video with narration and images that encapsulated the 2500-year-old history of Jews in the Middle East followed by three first-hand refugee accounts by Rabbi Yosef Benarroch (of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia in Winnipeg), born in Tangier, Morocco; Yolanda Papini-Pollock (Winnipeg filmmaker, educator, and activist), whose mother fled persecution and expulsion from Libya; and Elham Yaghoubian (activist, author, and translator), who fled Iran after the 1999 uprising.

Nearly one million Jewish refugees were expelled from Arab lands from 1948–1972. What is most striking about their story is how they rejected victimhood, for they refused to remain stuck in the past. Instead, they chose life, building new lives in the present through the power of their hope in a future. Though their numbers are “nearly double”1 those of Arabs leaving Palestine (472 000, according to a report by the UN Mediator on Palestine2), their story has been neglected and nearly forgotten. The issue of Jewish refugees has been largely ignored because of the Jewish refugees’ choice to refuse victimhood but also because of the willingness of the newly created State of Israel to absorb 586 000 Jewish refugees into Israeli society despite the strain it put on the newly created state.3

In November 2014, the Israeli Knesset passed legislation designating November 30 Jewish Refugee Day to honour and remember the Jewish refugees from Arab lands who fled for their lives with only what they could carry, their land and possessions confiscated.4

As explained in the video, The United Nations’ signing of the Partition Plan, November 29, 1947, “seal[ed] the fate of Jews in the Arab world”: anti-Jewish riots broke out across the Middle East, property was confiscated, rights were denied, citizenship revoked. When David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, it was immediately attacked by 5 Arab countries—Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. There was no hope Jews could remain in Arab countries. Thus began the mass exodus of Jews from Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen/Aden. According to a Canadian Parliament official report, of the 856 000 Jews in the Arab world in 1948, fewer than 5000 remained in 2012. In Iran, of the 80 000 Jews living there in 1979, there are fewer than 9000 today.

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch's Account

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch emphasized the positive experience his family had living as Jews in an Arab country. He described the rich culture and wonderful relationships that existed within his birthplace in Tangier, in Spanish Morocco. He said that Jews did not feel uncomfortable living in Morocco, that there was no open antisemitism. In fact, “most Jews speak fondly of life in Morocco.” There is “this positive feeling of nostalgia” as they recall “the beauty of life there, the streets, the customs, and how they got along with their neighbours.” But what they heard was happening in other Arab countries created the overall impression that it was “just a matter of time.” Many left, believing they “might as well get out now while things are still okay.”

Rabbi Benarroch left his birthplace with his family when he was 5-years-old. His family’s arrival in Winnipeg in 1963 was also a positive experience. They lived in the north end on Alfred Avenue and attended “a classic old Winnipeg synagogue,” the Ashkenazi Shul, where everyone spoke Yiddish, or, as they called it, “Jewish.” “For them, your whole Jewish identity was tied into your language”; therefore, they were shocked to discover that his father, who had come as the shochet (“ritual slaughterer”) for the community, could not speak Yiddish. “How can you be Jewish and not speak Jewish?” However, “with time,” his father and family were accepted “very well” and became “a part of the framework and tapestry of the Jewish community of Winnipeg.” His family had a strong sense of their Jewish identity, but their Sephardic traditions were also “very strongly engrained.” Their cultural Moroccan identity was sustained by their adherence to unique traditions, melodies, and holidays. “We lived within a large Ashkenazi community, but within our little bubble, we maintained a rich set of customs, traditional music, and food of our Moroccan heritage.”

Yolanda Papini-Pollock's Account

Yolanda Papini-Pollock presented another personal first-hand perspective on the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands as she recounted the more harrowing story of her mother’s experience in Libya. Her mother was born in Holms, Libya (1929 or 1933). Papini-Pollock’s grandfather, who was the main supporter of the family, was killed during the bombing in Libya in WWII, leaving her mother and 3 sisters in the care of her grandmother, without an income or a male protector (which was necessary in this society, as she pointed out).

Her mother worked with 2 of her sisters washing clothes for soldiers while her other sister worked as a nurse. During the German occupation, Jews were shown “no mercy”; Papini-Pollock related that, “as the story goes,” German soldiers went from house to house looking for Jewish girls to rape. They came into her mother’s house to be chased away with a broom by one of her aunts (Papini-Pollock questioned the veracity of this story, doubting the Nazis could have been deterred by such means). Her mother and aunts then went into hiding with Arab neighbours. Papini-Pollock said that if the war had continued, Libyan Jews would have been entirely eliminated. That was the intention. Seven hundred Libyan Jews were killed in camps in Libya and Europe. Fortunately, the war ended and the British took over, and life was a little better until 1945 when anti-Jewish riots and pogroms broke out, especially in Tripoli. “Libyan Jews were always strong Zionists. And that added to the fear and the notion their life wasn’t going to last.” The riots after 1945, followed by others in 1948 and 1967, forced Libyan Jews to flee their homeland.  “Today there are no Jews at all” in Libya.

Elham Yaghoubian's Account

Elham Yaghoubian, born in Tehran, Iran, was forced to leave her homeland under threat because of her involvement in the July 1999 pro-democracy movement. She moved to the US where she continued to fight on behalf of human rights and against the antisemitism and Holocaust denial of the Iranian regime, advocating for the Jewish Iranian diaspora. She began her story by “remembering the 58 children killed by the Islamic Republic in the last few days” and “the courageous Iranian people fighting the regime for their lives and their liberty.” She described Iranian Jews as one of the world’s oldest and historically most significant Jewish communities with a 2700-year-old history, claiming that, after Israel, Iran has the highest number of holy Jewish sites. She noted that Jews in Iran experienced prosperity, with religious and cultural liberty, under the Shah, who worked to create homogeneity by emphasizing a national identity among Iranians despite differences in religion, ethnicity, language, or gender. However, after the revolution, the situation for Jews changed drastically as Shia Islam became the main factor of Iran’s identity in the Islamic constitution. She reported that before the revolution (1978–79), there were 100 000 Jews in Iran, but after 1979, a wave of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment broke out, and with it, the targeting of Jews, the confiscating of their property, and even some executions, which forced Jews to leave for Europe, the US, and Israel.

Yaghoubian explained that what people are demanding today is not different from all the other movements that started with the student-led uprising in 1999, which led to arrests and torturing. She described today’s movement as “a revolution,” and a more radical one, started and led by women. “We are witnessing courageous women leading the fight who are united despite religious, ethnic, gender, and linguistic differences.” And their unity will be the key to their success, according to Yaghoubian. The regime knows this as well, she said, which is why they consistently pursue divide and conquer tactics.  Yaghoubian is confident “this regime will go.” The unity of today’s movement is what gives her faith reform is possible. “It is obvious the regime will go. Together we can make it happen.”

These stories of displaced Jews from Arab countries and Iran who refused victimhood, denied hatred its victory, and continue to create new life out of loss are a fitting commemoration of Jewish Refugee Day, honouring the necessity for remembrance and inspiring hope.

The presentation can be viewed at



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