What We Left Behind
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What We Left Behind

Lesson Summary:

Based on the documentary, What We Left Behind, this interdisciplinary lesson/unit focuses on the discovery of thousands of Jewish religious artifacts, communal documents, student records, and correspondence found in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in 2003 by American soldiers. After years of restoration in the USA, many were too damaged and were prepared for burial. What We Left Behind chronicles the final journey of forty-nine Torah scrolls and other sacred texts, framed in the turbulent history of the Iraqi Jewish people.

The lesson can be used in a variety of ways: as a stand-alone guide to the documentary; as a curriculum supplement to help students understand the Sephardi/Mizrahi* experience; as a resource to be used to commemorate Sephardi Memorial Day, made law by the Israeli Knesset, and marked annually on November 30th.

* Jews from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen (Eden), Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran (post 1979), in the context of anti-Israel policies that followed the establishment of the State of Israel. It does not include the Sephardi communities of central Asia (e.g., Azerbaijan), Europe (e.g., Greece and the Balkans), and Turkey.

Enduring Understandings:

After viewing the documentary, What We Left Behind, and by engaging in discussions and project based learning activities, students will explore the following themes and demonstrate a deeper awareness and understanding of the history, challenges, and contributions of the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews displaced from North Africa and the Middle East after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

  • The World That Was:  Explore the life of Jewish people living in Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East before the establishment of the State of Israel (1948). Discover the rich culture of these Jewish communities and their contributions to all fields of endeavor. 
  • Memory: The history of the Jewish people is not complete if we fail to remember the Sephardi/MIzrahi Jews and their exile from the lands that for centuries they called home. 
  • Tradition:   Sephardi/Mizrahi traditions impact aspects of Jewish life today in Israel and the Diaspora. 
  • Preserving the Past: The Sephardi/Mizrahi have been challenged by exile to retain their identity, yet have preserved the past for future generations. 
  • Sephardi Voices: After the exile of the Sephardi/Mizrahi from North Africa and the Middle East post the establishment of the State of Israel (1948), refugees settled in areas around the world. Facing many challenges, they continue to make significant contributions to the world.

Be Inspired:The ideas included are offered as starting points as you and your students explore, discover and live the lessons. Be sure to elicit and encourage student and parent participation, consistently reinforcing the value being addressed. Allow lessons to authentically develop and change based on engagement and interests.

Lesson Plan Components

For the educatorJewish Thought, Text, and Traditionsmore

(Prepared by Dr. Henry Green, University of Miami, Department of Religious Studies)

Jews have resided in North Africa and the Middle East in substantial numbers, reflecting a presence 500 hundred earlier than Christianity and 1,300 hundred years earlier than Islam, the Abrahamic religions. Until 1492, the majority of world Jewry, the Sephardi lived in these geographical areas. With the advent of the United Nations’ Resolution 181, passed in November 1947, to establish a state of the Jews, the population of Sephardi in Arab countries has become almost invisible, reduced from nearly one million in 1948 to less than 25,000 today. Approximately 50% of those displaced, or their descendants, live in Israel.

Who are the ancestors of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews?
The Babylonian (Iraqi) patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel and many of the rabbis of the Talmud (Iraq) originated from the area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Who are the Sephardi Jews from Islamic lands pre 1492?
Many rabbis, scholars and statesmen were born and lived in Islamic states from the Atlantic Ocean to India pre 1492. Sa’adia Gaon (10th century) was born in Egypt and lived in Iraq. A towering theologian he also authored numerous piyyutim (religious hymns). Yehuda Halevi (10th-11th centuries) was born in Spain, became a physician and is viewed by many as the greatest Jewish poet pre the exile of Jews from Spain in 1492. Rabbi Isaac of Fez (11th century) was born in Morocco and was the first to produce a “Code” of Jewish law, a summary of the Talmud. Samuel Ibn Nagrela (11th century) was born in Spain and served as the royal vizier (chief executive officer) to King Habus of Grenada. Maimonides (12th century) was born in Spain and migrated first to Morocco, then Palestine and finally Egypt where he served as the physician to the royal vizier Al-Fadil as well as the leader of the Egyptian Jewish community and wrote numerous works and responsa still viewed as foundational to Judaism. Benjamin of Tudela (12th century), born in Spain, was an itinerant traveler that preceded Marco Polo. He visited Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Persia (Iran), and North Africa reporting on what he saw and, in particular, the Jewish communities. And Moses de Leon (13th century), born in Spain and viewed as the author or editor of the Zohar (Jewish mysticism), are just a few among the many prominent Sephardi.

What is the Evidence?
Archaeology, papyrus (ancient paper), sociology and numismatic (coins) data trace more than 3,000 years of recorded Jewish history in the Middle East and North Africa and a Jewish presence in Islamic countries for more than a millennia.

Geography, Community and Demography pre the Enlightenment (1700)
Jews lived from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east. Although living in disparate parts of the Islamic world, on the broad issues of Jewish law (Halacha) and customs (mishpat), community organization and common cultural patterns such as religious rituals, they had much in common in spite of diverse local traditions. They often shared elements of a language (e.g., Arabic), folk culture and ethos and took pride in their Sephardi Jewish identity. From their midst, came the epicenter of secular, religious and intellectual leadership of Jewish civilization. In 1400, the overwhelming majority of world Jewry lived in the Islamic world. However, under Islamic rule, Jews and Christians were considered second-class subjects, Dhimmis (“protected People”). Dhimmis were “people of the Book” and were granted special, but unequal status under Islam. Tolerance meant that they had to pay special taxes and were restricted legally and judicially. Tolerant and intolerant rulers came and went; and so did the quality of living of the Sephardi Jew.

Life under Colonialism---1800s to World War Two:
In many of the Islamic countries where Jews lived, European colonization changed the status of the Jews. Italians (Libya), the British (Aden/Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt) and the French (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria) provided “foreign” protection and often accorded European rights, entitlements and opportunities to the Sephardi-Persian-Babylonian Jews, as well as smaller sectarian forms of Judaism. In Algeria, for example, Jews became full French citizens. Jewish schools were prevalent and became a catalyst to transform community structures in territories controlled by western colonial powers. In due course, similar to European Jewish communities in London, Paris and Berlin, synagogues, welfare institutions, cemeteries, fraternal clubs, kosher restaurants, youth camps, etc. welcomed modernity and civil rights.

Life Under Nazism:
Hitler’s rise to power had tragic consequences for Jews in most Islamic countries across North Africa and the Middle East. Anti-Jewish policies became the norm. Algerian Jewry was disenfranchised; a German army occupied Tunisia; an Italian army seized Libya. Shortly thereafter, plans to erect labor camps were begun in Tunisia and Libya; and transportation of the Sephardi to European death camps was launched. Nazi discriminatory laws were introduced: confiscation of property, fines, taking of hostages, and anti-Semitic riots erupted in many countries. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was exiled to Baghdad in 1939 and sought Nazi license to exterminate Jews in Arab countries as well as Palestine. In Baghdad, Iraq in 1941, under the pro-Nazi government headed by Rashid Ali (al-Gaylani) and the support of al-Husseini, a pogrom erupted, the Farhud (Kurdish word for “forced dispossession”), and left hundreds of Iraqi Jews dead or wounded. Igniting during the festival of Shavuot (June 1st and 2nd), Iraqi survivors living in Israel today are claiming compensation and state benefits under Israel’s Disabled Victims of Nazi persecution. According to the scholar, Edwin Black, “the original plans for anti-Jewish action of June 1st were intended to mimic Nazi extermination campaigns in Europe”.

Life Post-Nazism and Under Independent Islamic and Arab rulers:
In the period post-World War Two, new nation states arose in North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf region. Anti-colonial demonstrations and the fruition of forceful independence movements led to the deterioration of the civil rights of minorities. This was compounded for Jews because of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Arab countries declared war on Israel (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan). State-legislated discrimination and repressive measures made life for Jews in Arab countries increasingly untenable. For some Arab states, the legacy of Nazism endured. For example, the Arab League drafted many discriminatory laws reminiscent of the Nuremberg laws in Germany under Nazism. The Sephardi/Mizrahi became political hostages of the Arab-Israeli struggle. In numerous countries Sephardi were stripped of citizenship, forced out of the labor market, assets frozen and Jewish religious and communal life restricted. In Iraq, identifying with Zionism became a capital crime with policies of dispossession and strategies for expulsion.

In 1948 when Israel was founded, it is estimated that approximately one million Jews lived in the Middle East (including Palestine) and North Africa, 10% of world Jewry. One generation later, less than 20% remained in this geographical region (excluding Israel). Approximately 50% had migrated to Israel, 25% to France (mostly from the French colonies in North Africa), 12% to the United States and the rest to other areas of the world (such as Canada, England, and Argentina). With the ascent of the Ayatollah and Iranian Islamic (Shia) fundamentalism in 1979, the majority of Jews that have lived there for centuries have left, mostly to the United States. Today less than 25,000 reside in Arab countries. Forced migration often meant communal and individual self-liquidation. In Iraq, a Jewish community of 150,000 in 1948, will soon be without a Jewish presence; 5 Jews endure, all elderly Human Rights and the Sephardi:

The Jews who were displaced from Arab countries are refugees as defined by the United Nations.

“A refugee is a person owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reason of race, religion, nationality, and membership of a particular social group, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country” (1951 UN Convention on Status of Refugees)
Failure to recognize the rights of Jews exiled from Arab lands in North Africa and the Middle East is an important marker in Israel’s decision to decree by law an annual memorial commemoration day for the Sephardi.

Additional insights from Dr. Green and Israel Consular General Lior Haiat: Miami Harold Article, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews a Forgotten part of the Refugee Equation

Jewish every dayIncorporate Jewish Valuesmore

Materials and resourcesmore


Survey: Student copies of “Give Us a Memory”

Documentary: What We Left Behind (password- sephardi)
© 2014 Sephardi Voices Running Time: 6:38 minutes
For information contact Dr. Henry Green, International Director
3273 Allamanda Street, Miami 33133
[email protected]

Chart of Displacement of Jews from Arab Countries 1948-2012
Map of North Africa and the Middle-East  
Image and Task Cards
Visual Thinking Strategies Procedure


In Preparation for Documentary and Lesson:
Distribute the “Give Us a Memory” survey through schools, synagogues and local Jewish agencies. This information will be invaluable as students learn about the “World that Was” and the “World that Is,” through the lens of Sephardi/Mizrahi families who were displaced from the North Africa and the Middle East , post - World War II.

Introducing the Documentary and Lesson:
1. What do students know about the expulsion of the Sephardi/Mizrahi from Arabic speaking lands after the founding of the State of Israel? Create a K-W-L graphic organizer on the board or on a large piece of butcher paper to list what students “know” and “want to know.” Alternately, students can create and keep their own K-W-L charts. As they discover answers to their questions, have them fill in the “L” portion, “What I Learned.” Finally, at the end of the lesson(s), what questions do they still have? Provide resources to facilitate further research and discovery.

1. Introduce the title of the documentary, What We Left Behind. Ask students to make predictions concerning the focus.

2. Give a brief summary of the film and provide background information concerning the history and fate of the Jewish communities in countries from North Africa and the Middle East after Israel became a nation in 1948. [See “For the Educator” section]

To provide additional context, provide individual or groups of students with a copy of a map . Have students locate the following countries from North Africa and the Middle East: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Lebanon. Where are they located in terms of neighboring countries, bodies of water, etc.?

On small pieces of paper, ask each student to put the names of those countries to which they traced their family’s emigration to America. Affix these papers to the appropriate locations on a world map. Involve all students in this activity; those from the countries listed in North Africa and the Middle East as well as those throughout the world.

Viewing the Documentary, What We Left Behind:

As students view the documentary, have them keep a journal to write down specific images that touched them in some way. Once the documentary is over, give them the opportunity to select one of the images and write a brief explanation of the image, why it was selected, and share with others in the class.

After the Documentary

1.  Reflections: Discuss the following, as well as thoughts and questions posed by students. These questions can also be used as journal prompts that students can share and discuss.

  • After watching the film, reflect upon the earlier discussion of the significance of the title, What We Left Behind. How have perceptions changed?
  • Thousands of Jewish artifacts, literature including sacred texts, and rabbinical sermons dating back to the 16th century, were confiscated and kept for almost 30 years in Saddam Hussein’s Intelligence Headquarters in Baghdad. Why were these artifacts confiscated? 
  • Why do you think so little is known or discussed concerning the fate of the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews between 1948 and today in the Jewish community in the Diaspora?
  • Why was it so important for the Jewish community originally from Iraq to bury the sacred texts which were discovered in May, 2003, in Iraq?
  • What images, feelings, and mood did the documentary create? What specific scene was most memorable, why? 
  • Discuss the following quote in terms of the documentary:
For in the end, it is all about memory,
its sources and its magnitude,
and, of course, its consequences.” 
Eli Wiesel

2. Through their Eyes : An Oral History
The most powerful tool we have in a study of the past is first-person testimony.
Survivors and their families provide a rich and authentic experience and bring history to life. Arrange to have a speaker visit your classroom whose family lived in an Arabic speaking country and was displaced after 1948. If it is not possible to arrange for a speaker, you may wish to visit the following site which includes links to oral video histories and written narratives: www.sephardivoices.org.uk
  • Ask students to design interview questions which will help them better understand “The World that Was,” the significance of the year 1948 in terms of Jewish life in their native country, the challenges of starting over in a new country, Jewish artifacts they brought with them after leaving their homes, traditions they continue to follow, etc.
  • Ask your guest to bring in any artifacts and photographs they would like to share that reflect life before their family was expelled. 
  • If possible, video tape the interview and begin your classroom/school Oral History Library. 

3. Taking a Closer Look: Exploring Images

• Involve students in the “Visual Thinking Strategies” (VTS) method by having them carefully examine and discuss the image from What We Left Behind, frame: 22. Do not give them any additional information; simply have them respond to the following three questions and encourage depths of thought:
o “What’s going on?”
o “What makes you think this?”
o “What more can we discover?”
For more information: Visual Thinking Strategy Implementation or http://vtshome.org

 4. Image Task Cards: Remembering and Celebrating Sephardi Voices
  • Share the images on each of the five Image Task Cards.
  • Divide students into Cooperative Learning Groups. Have each group select one of the image task cards. Have a group “leader” facilitate a discussion using VTS. As students study each image, what do they discover? Have them write about one or two of the most interesting findings. Share with the entire class.
  • Explain the various “tasks” and allow sufficient time for each group to work cooperatively to complete the “tasks” on the reverse of their cards. (Note: You may wish to suggest to students that during their research they use websites and articles listed under “Home and Community Connections" section below. 
  • Allow time for groups to share their findings and fill in the class K-W-L chart.

5. The Museum of Sephardi Voices:
Ultimately, the “products” developed based on “Image Task Cards,” completed by each group, will generate oral histories, stories, photos, artifacts etc. Students and teachers can explore how these can be combined to create “The Museum of Sephardi Voices,” for their class, the school, or the larger community. The museum can be a “traveling” exhibit, or one that can be housed in a more permanent common area, or created digitally.


Explore, Discover, and More Extension and Reinforcement Activitiesmore

  • The burial of the Jewish artifacts found in Baghdad in 2003, is only the beginning of the story. Today there is an ongoing debate as to whether or not these artifacts will be returned to Iraq. Iraq claims that the artifacts belong to Iraq pursuant to the agreement they signed with the USA government. According to Irwin Cutler, the former Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada, “…The archives represent the heritage and patrimony of the historic Jewish community that was displaced from Iraq and not something that belong to the Iraqi government.” What more can students discover concerning the points of view given on both sides of the debate? Have them research and discuss. 
  • One important “take-away” from the documentary is the importance of memory and the transmission of tradition. What can students do to insure that their “story” and that of their families are remembered? Encourage them to start working on this now!!! Periodically, have them share their progress. 
  • Not all refugees have the same experiences. Many find themselves in need of community support and aid. Encourage students to research some specific needs of their Sephardi/Mizrahi neighbors. (Information can be provided by local synagogues, Federation partner agencies, etc.) Have students determine ways in which they can collectively or independently help meet one or more of these needs and encourage them to do this as part of their “Mitzvah” projects, “Mitzvah Day” projects, or “Mitzvah Everyday” projects! 
  • Sadly, the world does little to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. With students, discuss our responsibilities as Jews to ensure that other religions, cultural groups, etc. are protected from persecution. What can each of us do?

Music Connectionsmore

Evidence of Learningmore

  • Through discussions, writing, and projects, students will demonstrate an understanding of the history of the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews and the significance of a rich culture that has impacted Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora. 
  • Students will be able to identify the countries in Africa and the Middle East from which the Sephardi/Mizrahi were exiled. 
  • Students will be able to explain the impact of the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, on the lives of the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews. 
  • Students express sensitivity and respect for the traditions and values that have been passed from generation to generation and determine ways in which they can address the challenges of retaining identity.


www.sephardivoices.org.uk The mission of Sephardi Voices, a non-political non-profit organization, is to create a global digitized audio-visual archive of the life-stories, photographs and documents of Jews displaced from North Africa and the Middle East post-World War Two; and to produce educational outputs – curricula, multimedia, films, exhibits, articles, books, symposia, on-line resources—to chronicle the history and culture of Sephardi Jewry.

www.jewishrefugees.blogspot.com Comprehensive website with extensive bibliography and links to additional websites on the history of the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.

HARIF is a UK association representing Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, and dedicated to promoting their history, culture and heritage. It is an advocacy organization.

Jewish Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) is dedicated to educating the public about the million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. It is an advocacy organization.

Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC)
conducts public education programs that provide historical perspective of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. It is an advocacy organization.

Shlomo Barer, The Magic Carpet, Harper, New York, 1952.

Articles :

Torah Scrolls from Iraq buried in New York

Schwartz, Adi. The Jewish Forward, “The Inconvenient Truth About Jews From Arab Lands: They Were Expelled.” June, 01, 2014. 

Lesson Contributors

Dr. Anita Meinbach, Clinical Associate Professor, School of Education and Human Development, University of Miami

Dr. Henry Green, Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Miami