Jewish community activist Jordan Elgrably speaks to students

Danielle Directo

Levantine Cultural Center co-founder and director Jordan Elgrably spoke to humanities and history students last Tuesday about the struggle that Middle Eastern Jews endure finding their identities, along with the discrimination Jews face within their own communities.

Elgrably, who was invited to speak on campus by humanities professor Paula Daccarett, drew on examples from his own life as well as the experiences of friends and family, and told stories about how Jews today can be traced back to their ancestors who moved throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Elgrably recounted the family history of his friend, writer Yitzhak Gormezano, whose family moved to Egypt when he was 10. After looking into his genealogy, Gormezano found that his ancestors originated from Germany and later moved to Sweden, Elgrably said. They left Sweden for Turkey to rejoin other family members and then moved to Alexandria, Egypt a hundred years later. When the people in Alexandria asked Gormezano’s grandmother if she was Egyptian, she replied that she was Turkish, Elgrably said.

Jews today find difficulty in determining their ancestry because of families like Gormezanos who routinely wandered, Elgrably said. Often, they had to trace “back into the Diaspora to find their Israeli identity.”

Elgrably said Gormezano had asked him, “Do you see the method in this madness? In Spain they called us Germans, in Sweden we were Spanish, in Turkey (we were) Swedes, in Egypt, (we were) Turkanos and in Israel (we were) Egyptian. If that’s not typical Jewish identity, then what is?”

Linda Haido, a history graduate student, said the discussion taught her about the discrimination within the Jewish community.

“I learned a lot, I thought (Elgrably) was very interesting,” she said. “There were a couple things that I hadn’t even really thought about, to be honest.”

Elgrably also told students that the belief of historical rivalry between Jews and Muslims was inaccurate, and that instead, both religions had lived alongside each other peacefully.

“The concept that Arabs and Jews have always hated each other?is really misleading,” Elgrably said. From the time of the Crusades up until the end of World War II, about 10 million Jews are estimated to have been killed in Christian Europe, he said. In the same 1,000 year period in the Arab world, only 5,000 Jews had been killed, he said.

Daccarett also spoke about the coexistence that was a part of everyday life for Muslims and Jews, and how the two religious groups were not always enemies.

“Jews and Muslims have had a long history of fruitful relations, though not devoid of tensions, but certainly overall productive on which there was a lot of cultural symbiosis between the two,” she said. “That is something by in large that people don’t realize,” she said, partly due to the focused attention towards tensions between Israel and Palestine.

“Nationalism is a relatively new phenomenon in the Middle East,” Daccarett said, adding new forms of identities are “(emerging) under older types of identities that existed in the Ottoman Empire,” which resulted from influences such as colonialism and the Western world, and further contributed to the treatment of Jews as outsiders.

The non-profit Levantine Cultural Center aims to bring ethnic and religious communities together and promote peaceful coexistence, as well as encouraging creativity among the groups. Elgrably said the organization hopes to “help people re-imagine Levantine identity,” referring to the Levant region in the Middle East which is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea and includes modern-day countries such as Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Elgrably, who has written for the Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, The Washington Post and several other publications, told students he was “the first bookworm” in the family and discussed his French and Moroccan background. In an autobiographical story he wrote, called “Home or the Loquat Tree,” he talked about unraveling his own family history when he learned his father’s family migrated to France from Morocco.

“I was 13 years old before I realized I was the son of the immigrant who was the son of an immigrant, and from that point on I never felt quite at home in Los Angeles,” he said.