Sephardi and Mizrahi and Communities
in the UK
Jews have lived in the Middle East, North Africa and Iran since ancient times. When the Sephardi (Hebrew word for ‘Spanish’) Jews of Spain and Portugal were expelled in the 15th century, many were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire. These Sephardi Jews joined the local Jewish communities and put down roots in the region. Jews in the Middle East and North Africa were often referred to as Sephardi Jews, as they broadly followed customs and traditions of Sephardi Judaism. This terminology has gradually changed, and Jews from the region are now more commonly referred to as Mizrahi (the Hebrew word for ‘Eastern’).
The term Mizrahi can be used to describe Jews from all over the Middle East and North Africa, as well as those from Iran, and Bukharan Jews from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. It also includes members of these communities who moved to India and other countries in the far east in the 19th century. However, not all Jews from these areas describe themselves as Mizrahi. Those with Spanish and Portuguese ancestry refer to themselves as Sephardi, as do many others who prefer the broader term.
Jews in the Middle East, North Africa, and Iran spoke a wide range of languages, including Arabic, Persian, various dialects of Judeo-Arabic, English, French, Italian, Ladino and even Aramaic.
In the mid-20th century, there were at least 850,000 Jews living in these regions. The vast majority of these Jews left in the latter half of the 20th century. After leaving their home countries, many emigrated to Israel.
The demographics of our interviewees reflects the wider impact of European colonial rule. As Jews left their home countries due to dispossession and expulsion, or to escape worsening political and economic climates, the countries they chose to go to reflect old colonial lines. While those who left Egypt, Iraq, Sudan and India largely chose to head for England, those from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Lebanon headed for France. This of course, is only those who had the economic means to choose. Our archive also reflects secondary migration patterns. For example, a number of our interviewees first lived in Israel or France as refugees, and then later chose to relocate to the UK.
There are roughly 300,000 Jews living in the UK (primarily living in London and Manchester), and it is estimated that less than 10% are Sephardi or Mizrahi. On their arrival to the UK, many Jews from the Middle East chose to join the S&P Synagogue. Other chose to join more local Ashkenazi synagogues and faced a steep cultural and linguistic learning curve. Others still, chose to form new synagogues, and there are more than thirty independent synagogues in London alone, each practicing Judaism in accordance to the customs and traditions of various Sephardi/Mizrahi communities. In addition to this, young Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in the UK have been active in establishing grass-root communities where they can simultaneously celebrate their heritage and practice Judaism in a way that is meaningful to them.
Members of these communities greatly impacted British Jewish life, revitalising the S&P Community both in terms of membership and through philanthropic works. They have also made their mark beyond the Jewish community, amongst our interviewees are celebrated chemists, doctors, teachers, artists, authors, musicians, politicians, professors, architects and designers.
Despite this, the story of Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewry is underrepresented in the Anglo-Jewish story. Young Jews, whose parents or grandparents were born in the Middle East, North Africa and Iran have been the impetus behind recent pushes to include Sephardi/Mizrahi Judaism, culture and history into all aspects of Anglo-Jewry.
The Sephardi Voices UK Exhibition at the Jewish Museum, London: 2017
Watch our event on the lives of our interviewees in Britain here.