The choice of location alone sends a strong message: the exhibition “The Jews in the East, a history of several thousand years” is visible at the “Institut du monde arabe”. Besides France, all the states of the Arab League, including the Palestinian territories, belong to this cultural center on the banks of the Seine. There you can see how Jewish communities, Jewish thought, and Jewish culture have developed over the centuries, from Andalusia to the borders of Iran and Yemen.

“All too often we look at the history of the Jews of the East from the end, thinking above all of the mass emigration in the 20th century, wars, conflicts and the unresolved Palestinian question. We want to tell this story. since the beginning, specifies the curator Benjamin Stora, historian well known in France who has done research mainly on the history of Algeria. This means: to make tangible 3000 years, their apogee, but also their horrors. culture that spans three continents.

Past Interfaith Links

The organizer of the exhibition Elodie Bouffard shows the oldest documents that can be seen here: three fragile papyrus sheets with an Aramaic text.

“They date from the 5th century BC and were found at Elefantine, an island in the Nile. A garrison composed exclusively of Jewish soldiers was stationed there. One of the documents indicates that a Jew falls in love with a slave, that she frees and marries. There were therefore interfaith marriages, because the young woman was not Jewish. ”

One of the most spectacular exhibits is a brownish discolored leaf with Hebrew writing. This is the script of Rambam, i.e. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. The Jewish religious philosopher, jurist and physician was born in Andalusia at the beginning of the 12th century, worked mainly in the region of present-day Cairo, and was considered one of the most important scholars of the Middle Ages, far beyond Judaism.

“Maimonides crossed out individual passages to improve himself, to find the right word. You can literally watch him think.”

The last who was allowed to experience a unit

According to Muslim law, Jews – like Christians – were considered “dhimmis”: they had fewer rights than Muslims, but were protected. They often lived safer in Arab countries than in Christian Europe, where they were often persecuted as so-called “murderers of God”. At the Arab Cultural Institute, splendid mosaics, objects of worship, but also wedding dresses, jewelry, books, songs and prayers bear witness to the way in which Jewish culture was able to develop in the East. Importantly, the parallels with majority Muslim culture become clear.

Benjamin Stora is himself Jewish, he was born in Algeria in 1950. He was twelve when the country gained independence and, like most Algerian Jews, his family emigrated to France.

“So I belong to the last generation who experienced these similarities. Our cooking, our reading, our art… Even the liturgy sounded the same, as if the songs of synagogues and mosques had answered each other. some young people that I meet in my research are completely unknown.

This ignorance can foster fantasies characterized exclusively by separation and hatred. We hope that the young generation will discover this shared history and that it will help us to strengthen the divisions in France. “

In order to make the points of contact audible, the Arab Cultural Institute turned to the “European Institute of Jewish Music”. This documentation center – also in Paris – has one of the most important collections in the world. You can find Shabbat chants from Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco or – as here – Tunisia.

The sound quality suggests that the liturgical song was recorded on location decades ago – in a synagogue in Tunis. Whether sacred or secular music – Jewish artists often adopted the style of their surroundings, explains the director of the institute, musicologist Hervé Roten.

“A cantor from Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria could easily sing with a muezzin. Even if their language and their lyrics differ – musically they are on the same wavelength. a cantor from Poland or tune in to Russia. “

Another example of musical proximity is this blessing, a kiddush that was sung before the Passover meal in Algeria.

Jewish historiography is political

The preview of the “Jews in the East” exhibition also attracted many journalists from Arab media, including Tahar Hani. The correspondent of an Algerian daily confirms the analysis of the French historian Benjamin Stora.

“For many Arab regimes, this story does not square with their ideology. And the Islamists, especially in Algeria, really want to erase all traces of Jewish life. Suddenly, much of our cultural history is being lost.

Israeli political scientist Denis Charbit edited the final chapter of the exhibition. He assures that nothing is overlooked in the exhibition and raises the sensitive question of why nearly a million Jews left Islamic countries in the 1950s.

“Very few were expelled. They were not put on boats or trucks. But Arab nationalism meant that the Jewish communities there saw no future for themselves and feared persecution. plus, Zionism emerged. The State of Israel said: us. “

Outside of Israel, it is estimated that only 30,000 Jews still live in the East, mainly in Turkey, Morocco and Iran. Organizers hope that the exhibition will now also be noticed in the affected regions. He himself, says Denis Charbit, will advertise drums in Israel.

“Nothing is moving at the political level. That is why it is important for culture to speak out now. It will not lead to a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians. But if it becomes clear that we are all daughters and sons. from the same country, the same cultural domain has already happened a lot. “

But his optimism seems premature. Shortly after the exhibition opened, an “Artists for Palestine” collective issued a protest letter titled: “Culture is the salt of the earth and we will not allow it to be used to normalize the earth. ‘oppression.

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