Jason Guberman, executive director of the American Sephardi Federation, spoke to participants in an October 16 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about Diarna: The Geo-Museum of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Life, a project he co-founded in 2008 to document and preserve Sephardic Jewish history.
Jews outside of the land of Israel have a 2,500 year history in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), yet thousands of Jewish heritage sites spread across the region are in danger of disappearing due to neglect and wanton acts of destruction by extremists. Because of prevailing political conditions in the region and the fact that the vast majority of Middle Eastern Jews were forced to emigrate from their ancestral lands over the last century, there is no way to ensure the physical preservation of most of these sites. So Guberman and Fran Malino, former head of Jewish Studies at Wellesley College, cofounded Diarna (Judeo-Arabic for "our homes") to preserve "the virtual memory of them."
Using digital mapping, traditional research, and field expeditions to gather photographs and oral history recordings, Diarna has documented some 3,000 Jewish heritage sites in MENA, from the ancient forts of Jewish tribes in Khaybar, Saudi Arabia, to the Chaim Pinto Synagogue in Essaouira, Morocco.
Many of the historical sites Diarna has digitally preserved are in conflict zones, such as the former Jewish village of Akre in northern Iraq and various Jewish sites in Sana'a, Yemen.
Guberman discussed the history of three key Sephardic sites on Diarna's Geo-Museum website which includes 3-D models:
- Hamadan, Iran – the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, which also includes a subterranean synagogue. The Jewish community was allowed to restore the site prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, but it has since deteriorated due to vandalism and neglect. Guberman said that when political tensions vis a vis Israel arise, the Iranian regime's Basij militia threatens the shrine. In May 2020, on a weekend of attacks on Hindu and Christian sites, the Basij committed arson against the site. There are efforts to downgrade the shrine and remove it as a protected site.
- Beirut, Lebanon – the Magen Avraham Synagogue in the Wadi Abu Jamil neighborhood near the presidential palace by the city's port, which fell into ruin during the 1975-1990 civil war. In the 2000's, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri promised to restore the synagogue. After his 2005 assassination, the restoration occurred, and fortunately the synagogue survived the recent massive explosion in Beirut.
- Tripoli, Libya – the Dar Bishi Synagogue in Hara Kabura, the old Jewish quarter in Tripoli. Prior to the 2011 civil war against the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Guberman was contacted by a journalist who traveled to Tripoli to document Jewish history in Tripoli. The journalist slipped away from her government minders and made her way to the expropriated and closed synagogue, finding it filled with rubble and debris. Although Gaddafi's people "caught up with her" and confiscated her camera, she had brought it as a decoy, having taken the photos on her smart phone. Thus, she was able to provide Diarna with extensive documentation of the Dar Bishi interior and exterior, as well as of Tripoli's Jewish quarter (now empty of Jews).
Guberman described Diarna's mission to digitally preserve all "structures of significance to the Jewish community" in MENA before they are "completely lost to history" as a race against time. "There's still a tremendous amount of work to do."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.