Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Halimi killer won't stand trial: 'a devastating blow'

France’s highest court on Wednesday found that the killer of a Jewish woman was not criminally responsible and could not go on trial, provoking anger from anti-racism groups who say the verdict puts Jews at risk. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre called the verdict 'a devastating blow'. The Times of Israel reports: 

 Sarah Halimi, an Orthodox Jewish woman in her sixties, died in 2017 after being pushed out of the window of her Paris flat by neighbor Kobili Traore, who shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic). The verdict by the court means Traore will not face any trial.

 In its decision Wednesday, the Court of Cassation’s Supreme Court of Appeal upheld rulings by lower tribunals that Traore cannot stand trial because he was too high on marijuana to be criminally responsible for his actions. Traore, a heavy pot smoker, has been in psychiatric care since Halimi’s death. The court said he committed the killing after succumbing to a “delirious fit” and was thus not responsible for his actions. 

  The Simon Wiesenthal Centre's Director for International Relations, Dr. Shimon Samuels, stated: 

"After a harrowing three years of courtroom debate on the criminal responsibility of a murderer,....the family has been on edge until now. This is a devastating blow!"

The voluntary act of drug consumption constitutes wrongful behaviour which excludes irresponsibility. Moreover, since the consumption of cannabis is intended to obtain a modification of the state of consciousness, Kobili Traoré must have been aware of the risks involved in this consumption. Therefore, the consumption of narcotics is an aggravating circumstance and may not at the same time constitute grounds for exemption from criminal liability."

Furthermore, the antisemitic and Jihadi remarks made by the accused before and after the murder illustrate a remnant of conscience, that the latter "voluntarily" threw the victim from her balcony, and acted with "awareness of the fact that Madame Attal-Halimi was Jewish.”

Samuels stressed that, "the Supreme Court’s decision now closes the case definitively... and instead of allowing it to be re-examined by the Appeals Court on the basis of a more solid legal standpoint, it confirms that it is possible to deny justice for a murder aggravated by its antisemitic character. Furthermore, this decision denies closure for the family and potentially creates a precedent for all hate criminals to simply claim insanity or decide to smoke, snort or inject drugs or even get drunk before committing their crimes."

The forgotten (or ignored) tragedy of Tunisian Jewry

The Nazis occupied Tunisia for six months in 1942. They even imposed the yellow star in the town of Sfax. However, the impact of Nazism on Jews in North Africa has been forgotten, if it was ever known about, Haim Saadoun tells Israel Hayom:

Yakov Saadoun and his wife Yvet, Haim Saadoun's parents

Occupying Tunisia was a response to these two military events. The goal was to place a buffer between the British forces that moved from Libya towards Tunisia and the US forces that were also moving there, but from Algeria." 

 The SS men that arrived in the North African country together with the German army were in charge of dealing with the local Jewish population, as usually happened. SS Commander Walter Rauff, who specialized in the extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe in mobile gas chambers, was in charge. Rauff and his men implemented a policy somewhat similar to that in Europe and established a Jewish community council through which they controlled the Jews. 

 "The Jewish community had to provide the Germans with at least 5,000 young men between the ages of 17-50, who were used for labor in the German army," Saadoun said. 

 "The Germans needed the workforce for various reasons, and some Jews were being held in labor camps. Some of these camps were situated at the front line of the war, and Jews there lived in tough conditions and had to do hard manual labor. 

 "There were 24 camps. We do not know how many Jews were there, but it was thousands. The Germans did not apply an exterminating policy in Tunisia. There were isolated cases of Jews being killed, but it was not systematic. Many did, however, die in the labor camps," Saadoun explained. "The 18-year-old Jews were sent to labor camps at airports that had been hit by American bombs," Saadoun's father, Yakov, wrote in his journal. 

 Jews were also sent to work at "the port and the train station. They had to do manual labor and wear a yellow badge to stand out against the French and other nationalities, like Italians, Greeks, and Maltese, etc. Many workers died as a result of their work, for they were bombed by the Americans or the Brits," he wrote. 

 "The Germans caught my father, a blond 14-year-old boy with blue eyes, [characteristics] that saved him because they thought he was not Jewish based on how he looked," Saadoun said. "My father wrote many letters that I keep, but he did not talk about the wartime a lot. I originally did not understand why it took him so long [to share his experience during the war,] but it turns out that it was very difficult for him to speak of that time. It was a kind of post-trauma." 

 "In some cities in Tunisia, Jews would walk around with yellow badges, for example, in Sfax. Their property would get confiscated by the Germans, so were Jewish buildings and valuable personal belongings, and more. That was the first time Tunisian Jews had to face such great difficulties. They never experienced anything like that before. They did not know how long it would last. It was a horrible time for them," Saadoun explained. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Moroccan Israelis demand Oujda massacre be recognised

Descendants of families murdered in the 1948 riots in the northeastern Moroccan towns of Oujda and Jerada are set to ask the Israeli government to recognize those killed in the events as victims of terror. JNS News reports:

Jewish cemetery at Oujda

 Abraham Cohen, a descendant of a family that lost 17 members to the attacks, said such a move would “correct a historic injustice that cries out to heaven.” Four Jews were killed when the riots broke out in Oujda on June 7, three weeks after Israel declared independence. They then spread to the adjacent city of Jerada. 

Rioting there took the lives of 37 Jews, among them community Rabbi Moshe Cohen. Women and young children were among those killed. Dozens were wounded. Jewish stores were looted and homes were destroyed as Muslim women encouraged the acts, according to survivors’ testimony. 

 The riots were in response to the founding of the Jewish state and the underground activities of Moroccan Jews smuggling community members to the border with Algeria. 

Located just two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the Algerian border, Ojeda was a base for smuggling Jews. In what was an open secret at the time, members of the underground would hide and smuggle Jews, raise funds and falsify identification cards, angering Muslim locals who felt a sense of solidarity with the Arab population in Palestine.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Photos show Palestinian Mufti visiting Nazi camp

Coinciding with Yom Hashoah, the Kedem Auction House in Jerusalem has published three out of six photographs in which the wartime Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem inspects a Nazi labour camp together with foreign pro-Nazi leaders and Nazi government officials. Wolgang Schwanitz, author with Barry Rubin of Nazis, Islamists and the making of the modern Middle East , has managed to identify the individuals in the photos. Read his article in The Tablet (with thanks: Paul, Lily, Laurence):


 Report on i24 News

Mile Budak was the ideologue of Croatia’s ethno-radical, anti-Semitic Ustasha party, which ran a Nazi satellite state formed in 1941.

 On the left is Dr. Fritz Grobba, a former envoy to Kabul, Baghdad, and Jidda. He was a Protestant and not a member of the Nazi Party. He had been in charge of the Middle East in the German Foreign Office since early 1942. 

 Grobba and the two Arab leaders pictured had supported the anti-British coup in Iraq, which was followed by the al-Farhud pogrom in mid-1941. In it, 179 Jews were killed and many stores looted. Masterminds like al-Kailani and al-Husseini wanted to signal, there in a 2,500-year-old community, how Arabia’s Jews should be treated.

 In the second photo (above) is the politician Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who presided over Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938 and two years later served as commissioner for the occupied Netherlands. In the process, he oversaw the deportation of 100,000 Jews to death camps and the enslavement of half a million Dutch people, half of whom were forced to go to Germany as slave laborers. 

 After the Nuremberg trials in 1946, Seyss-Inquart ended up on the gallows for his crimes against humanity. Budak shared this fate a year earlier in Zagreb, where he was hanged as a war criminal for his policy of sending Jews, Serbs, Sinti, and Roma to death camps.

 On the other hand, both Arab leaders continued their anti-Jewish and Islamist policies unimpeded after the end of the war: al-Kailani until 1965 and al-Husseini until 1974. 

Outside of Israel, Nazism had hardly been delegitimized in the Middle East, and its adherents often came to power after the war ended. The Iraqi al-Kailani staged a coup in Baghdad but failed. He was sentenced to death, then exiled to Beirut. Al-Husseini also found himself in Beirut, where he was active in the World Islamic Congress, which he founded in Jerusalem in 1931 (he opened a Berlin branch a year later). With robust backing, he rose to become the first “Global Grand Mufti.” 

A mufti is a religious and legal authority who hands down rulings on everyday issues to believers in his jurisdiction. His late half-brother Kamil was the previous grand mufti of Jerusalem. Al-Husseini received the title in 1921, and in order to preserve and expand his transregional “Mideast-Europe” legacy after 1945, he chose as his representatives Said Ramadan for Europe, in Switzerland, and Yasser Arafat in the Middle East. 

The Mufti advised Arafat in 1968 to take over the Palestine Liberation Organization (which he headed until 2004) and “to liberate Palestine,” operating out of Gaza with Fatah troops.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

We need to acknowledge the Shoah's impact outside Europe

The Holocaust did impact  the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, and it is a near certainty that they would have been targeted for extermination had the Nazis won WWII. However, argues Georgia Gilholy, the Arab states remained faithful to Nazism's legacy of violent antisemitism when they deported and dispossessed their Jewish populations after the war was over. Read her excellent Times of Israel blog (with thanks: Imre, Lily): 

Jews being marched off to labour camps in Tunisia during the Nazi occupation of 1942 (Photo: Yad Vashem)

Although it is clear that the direct occupation of German, French and Italian forces played a huge role in the atrocities against North Africa’s Jews, this does not account for the extensive attempts at collaboration between Muslim leaders and the Nazis against their alleged “common enemies” of Communism, Zionism and the West.

 Nor does it explain away the Nuremberg-worthy laws imposed on Jews after the collapse of Nazism, nor the fact that Mein Kampf remains a long-standing bestseller in Turkey, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

 Not to mention that Iraq’s pro-Nazi coup in 1941 occurred a full nine years after its independence from British adminstration. This coup culminated in the Farhud (lit. violent dispossession) pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of Iraqi Jews were murdered, beaten and sexually assaulted thousands of miles away from the theatre of Nazi occupation and war — a tragedy that Israeli activist Hen Mazzig tirelessly works to raise awareness of, but one that was never mentioned in my over two decades in the British education system.

 In failing to acknowledge the experiences of communities outside Europe and the complicity of non-western actors in the Holocaust, we fail to fully understand what was one of the most devastating and defining moments of the twentieth century, whose implications for the Jewish and non-Jewish world endure today. Although cooperation does seem to be growing in the wake of initiatives such as the Abraham Accords, the prevalence of grassroots antisemitism across the Muslim world is arguably the greatest barrier to peaceful coexistence between Israel and its neighbours. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Dubai Rabbi chants Shoah prayer in Arabic

With thanks Eli T, Niran)


A first in Dubai: Rabbi Elie Abadie, head of the Association of Gulf Jewish communities, recites a prayer for the victins of the Holocaust.

 The commemoration took place at the Museum of the Crossroads of Civilisations, Dubai. It demonstrates the newfound freedom with which Jews in the UAE flaunt their identity.

 Rabbi Abadie recited the prayer in Arabic. The Rabbi, who is also a physician, was born in Beirut and was forced to leave as a refugee. He has served  Sephardi congregations in Manhattan and was chairman of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) which advocates for the rights of MENA Jewish refugees.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Worrying rise in antisemitic attacks on Djerban Jews

 News has reached Point of No Return of a worrying spate of attacks on Jews on the island of Djerba, Tunisia, one of the last remaining functioning Jewish communities in the Arab world.

The annual pilgrimage to the Al-Ghriba synagogue on Djerba is scheduled at the end of April.

The attacks were publicised on the Facebook page Tunes et  les Assimilės Tunes but have not been widely reported in the press and media. Local sources have attempted to suppress or deny the antisemitic character of the attacks.

On 7 April, a Jewish girl aged 16 was attacked by two Muslim youths on the island's Jewish ghetto,  Hara Kbira. The youths seized her mobile phone. This was not a simply mugging, however, as the attackers attempted to suffocate and strangle the girl. She fought off her attackers 'like a lioness'. After two passers-by appeared, the youths were arrested.

The antisemitic nature of the incident was clear to Yakoub Peres, who posted a description on Facebook. However, his father-in-law Haim Bittan, chief rabbi of Tunisia, forced Peres to remove the post.

In a previous incident, a boy of ten, wearing a kippa and tsitsit was beaten up.

In an incident reminiscent of the Nazi era, a Jew was made to remove his trousers. He was tormented, spat upon and told 'to go back to his country'.  Yet the Djerba Jewish community, which today numbers around 1,000,  has existed for 2,000 years and predates the Arab invasion of Tunisia.

There was a fourth incident, but no details are available.

The Tunisian civil rights NGO Attalaki condemned the incidents as antisemitic. They have occurred in the run-up to the annual al-Ghriba pilgrimage at the end of this month.

This event was traditionally the highlight of the Djerba tourism calendar. This year, few visitors will be able to travel to Tunisia because of the pandemic.

The election of Kais Saied as President of Tunisia  is thought to have fostered a rising climate of antisemitism. The President himself has been accused of slandering Jews in an attempt to distract from the economic crisis.

Saied was elected two years ago on campaign promises that he would maintain no ties with Israel, that normalization with Israel constitutes treason, and that he would bar Israelis from visiting the country.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

In a first, Bahrain and Dubai commemorate the Shoah

For the first time, Bahrain held a Yom Hashoah commemoration in the synagogue in the capital Manama, led by Huda Nonoo, former Bahrain ambassador to the US. Both Bahrain and Dubai took part in the 'Yellow candle' project. A webinar is being held under the auspices of the Association of Gulf Jewish communities'. The Jerusalem Post reports:

A Holocaust memorial ceremony was held in the Manama synagogue, Bahrain

For the first time in history, the Jewish community in Bahrain marked Holocaust Memorial day in a virtual ceremony initiated by “The House Of Ten Commandments.” 

Only a few months after the signing of the Abraham Accords, of which Bahrain was one of the signatories, a memorable ceremony was held in a Jewish community synagogue that was recently renovated as part of an initiative by the King.

 The ceremony was led by Ambassador Houda Nono, a member of a Jewish family who previously served as Bahrain's ambassador to the United States.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

How refugees from Nazism were saved in Egypt

 Tonight is the start of Yom Hashoah,  the Holocaust Memorial Day marked by Israel and Jews around the world on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It is a fitting occasion to focus on how fugitives from Nazism found refuge in parts of the Muslim world.

Professor Ada Aharoni in her book The Woman in White: an extraordinary life documents the exploits of Thea Woolf, a German-Jewish nurse who spent working 12 years at the Jewish Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. Thea lost all family members who stayed behind in Germany.

The Jewish community of Egypt set up a Rescue Committee for Jews from the Holocaust in the 1930s and generously helped refugees with both medical care and money. Until June 1940,  a delegation from the Jewish hospital in Alexandria visited ships docking at Port Said. They were carrying Jewish refugees bound for Shanghai, one of the few destinations open to fleeing Jews. The committee obtained from the Egyptian authorities permission  to disembark the sick. 

Thea Woolf also tells the story of how the hospital took under its wing Karl, a fugitive dancer from eastern Europe whose leg had to be amputated after a serious illness. The hospital set Karl up in an alternative career running a student boarding house.

In 1939, an Egyptian policeman arrived at the Jewish hospital in Alexandria. He had been sent to ask for help by an anxious German sailor on board a ship from Hamburg carrying 13 Jews seeking a haven from persecution in a Mediterranean port. But every time the ship docked, the Nazi captain locked the Jews in their cabins.

The sailor, Thea and the hospital director, Dr Katz, concocted a plan. If an epidemic broke out on a ship, the captain was obliged to tell the health authorities and allow a doctor on board. The doctor distributed sleeping pills to the 13 Jews. All fell into a deep coma and were taken into the Jewish hospital in Alexandria; the Nazi captain had no choice but to continue on his journey without them. The Jews took two months to recover from a coma and lung infections. They asked to go to Palestine and were taken to Port Said prison.

As the British would not allow Jews entry into Palestine, Thea and her colleagues had to think of another plan.  A fishing vessel carrying the Jewish refugees was hired to sail outside Egyptian waters, escorted by the hospital team on a police boat. Back in Alexandria, Thea heard nothing for a week, until she received the secret code, 'your aunt has arrived'.  But the refugees almost never made it. Off the Jaffa coast, a British coastal patrol had intercepted the fishing vessel. The refugees piled into a cutter, and despite rough seas, managed to row ashore.

It is important to note, Ada Aharoni reminds us,  that none of the refugees from Nazism could have been saved without the assistance of the Egyptian authorities and acts of compassion by individual Egyptian Muslims like the kindly policeman. 

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Loyalty of last Yemen Jews repaid with expulsion

Rabbi Yahya Youssef went to extraordinary lengths to show loyalty to  Muslim Yemen, but was still expelled by the Houthi Islamists. Lyn Julius blogs in The Times of Israel: 

“There is no place like Yemen. Not in America, not in Israel. It’s just not the same. When the people of Yemen say, “We don’t want a single Jew here,” I will go, but until that day, Yemen is my home and that is where I will stay.” 

 Rabbi Yahya Youssef Musa Marhabi uttered those words in 2010. That fateful day came in late March 2021 for him and 12 other Jews: they were driven out by the Houthi Iranian-backed Islamists who have taken control of the north of the country and whose slogan is “Convert or die.” 

The rabbi’s departure signals the end of a 3,000-year-old community. Just six Jews remain in war-torn Yemen: an old woman, her crazed brother and three others in Amram province. (One man, Levi Salem Marhabi, is illegally in jail.) Some reports say that the last Jews agreed to leave as a condition of Levi’s release, but there is no guarantee that he will be freed. 

 The 13, from the Zindani, Habib, and Marhabi families, have arrived in Egypt where they will find no more Jews than now remain in Yemen. The group refused an offer to go to Israel by way of the port city of Aden, which is controlled by the Southern Transitional Council, supported by the United Arab Emirates. Some people are exasperated with the Yemeni Jews’ obstinacy, for it is not as if they did not have multiple opportunities to leave. 

 The group, which had already been forced out of their homes in the north of Yemen and their property stolen, would have preferred to resettle in the UAE, which has taken in three Jewish families from Yemen over the last year, but this was impossible for unspecified reasons. It is thought that some among the 13 did want to go to Israel, but “an influential member” of the group was against the idea. 

 I would wager that the “influential member” was Rabbi Yahya Youssef. He has heard reports of scantily-clad women in Israel and fears that Yemenite Jews will not be able to cling to their traditional, pious way of life.

 The scholar SD Goiten once described Yemen’s Jews as the most Arab and Jewish of Jews. Rabbi Yahya has insisted that he is Arab before he is Jewish. He has bent over backward to show his willingness to integrate into Muslim Yemen. He has tried to fight for Jews to have seats in Parliament, said that Jewish children should go to Muslim schools, and even said he believed in Muhammad as much as Moses.

 There is a name for this kind of behavior: Stockholm syndrome, or to use a word familiar to the Jewish-Muslim lexicon, dhimmi syndrome. Dhimmi describes not only the subjugated status of Jews and Christians under Islam, but a survival strategy employing flattery and appeasement.

 Beleaguered Jews in Arab or Muslim countries have long expressed their hostility to Israel and loyalty to their countries of birth. Where has it got them in the long run? A one-way ticket out of the country. There are no communities left in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Libya or Algeria. In Iraq, a Jew died recently, bringing the number down to three. 

 It is heartening that countries like the United Arab Emirates and Morocco have chosen a different path, “normalizing” with Israel and encouraging the growth of local Jewish communities. But where are the expressions of consternation, where are the protests, the petitions, the governments and NGOs calling out those Muslim countries which have ethnically cleansed their Jews? The silence is deafening. 

The last Jew of Afghanistan is leaving for Israel

The writing seemed to have been on the wall - or rather off the wall -  in 2019, when  vandals tore up Zabulon Simantov's posters. He is going  to Israel out of fear of a return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. JTA report by Gabriel Friedman:  

Zebulon Simantov says his morning prayers

(JTA) — The man who has been known as the last Jew in Afghanistan for well over a decade is leaving for Israel, fearing that the U.S. military’s promise to leave the country will leave a vacuum to be filled with radical groups such as the Taliban. 

 “I will watch on TV in Israel to find out what will happen in Afghanistan,” Zabulon Simantov told Arab News on Sunday. 

 Simantov, 61, said he will leave after this year’s High Holidays season in the fall. His wife, a Jew from Tajikistan, and their two daughters have lived in Israel since 1998. 

But Simantov has stayed in his native Afghanistan to tend to its lone synagogue, located in the capital Kabul, through decades of violence and political turmoil, including a period of Taliban rule and the country’s war with the U.S. 

 “I managed to protect the synagogue of Kabul like a lion of Jews here,” he said to Arab News. 

Monday, April 05, 2021

New Cairo museum boasts Torah scrolls among the mummies

Jews from Egypt were surprised to discover that a newly-opened museum in old Cairo boasts two Torah scrolls  in a display case,  cheek-by-jowl with antiquities from ancient Egypt and the mummies of long-dead Pharaohs. 

With much fanfare, the sarcophagi of 18 mummified Pharaohs and four ancient Egyptian queens were paraded in nitrogen capsules through the streets from Cairo's Tahrir square to their new home in the Museum of Egyptian Civilisation three miles away in Fustat, prior to its official opening on 3 April. 

 Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi attended the inauguration together with minister of Anitiquities, Khaled al-Fani. Also in attendance was Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO since 2016 and daughter of Andre Azoulay, the King of Morocco's Jewish adviser. 

The Torah scrolls on display bear the symbol of the date palm. The date palm  is typically to be found on Torah scrolls in 20th century Cairo synagogues and is richly embroidered on a red or blue velvet case. The scrolls often bear a plaque indicating the name of the donor. 

 The provenance of the two scrolls cannot be identified. They may come from a storehouse run by the Egyptian ministry of Antiquities. Alternatively, they  may have been part of a stash of Judaica seized in 2014 which the Egyptian authorities claim was being smuggled out of the country. 

 While many Egyptian Jews applaud the presence of the Torah scrolls in an Egyptian museum as evidence of centuries of Jewish presence in the country, others are upset.  Rabbi Alouf of the Ahava ve'Avda Egyptian synagogue in Brooklyn, USA sent a message to  Magda Haroun, who heads the tiny Jewish community of Cairo, stating that the public display of the Torah scrolls was a Hiloul Hakodesh - a desecration of that which is holy.

  In a letter sent to to Haroun in 2013, the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt,  chaired by Rabbi Shimon Alouf, had written that any comparison with the artefacts of ancient Egypt is false. Torah scrolls, artefacts, and prayer books can be used by living Jews and do not belong in museums, the letter argues. 

The donor who gifted the scroll to a particular synagogue in memory of a departed relative might have intended to have his or her name preserved within a living Jewish community.

A 2017 report by the International Nebi Daniel Association, which aims to preserve Jewish heritage in Egypt,  identified 19 scrolls from Cairo synagogues that could be repaired. Together with the American Jewish Committee, Nebi Daniel recommended that the 19 scrolls be given on long-term loan to Jewish communities across the world. This would give them a new lease of life and 'contribute 'to underline the tolerant image of an Egypt respectlful of all religions'. 

However, the Egyptian government considers that any Torah scroll more than 100 years old is an antiquity and part of Egypt's national heritage. This definition also extends to synagogues.

When the Nebi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria was restored  at a cost of four million dollars, minister Khaled el-Fani shocked diaspora Jews from Egypt when he announced to the media that the synagogue was now an Egyptian-Jewish heritage site similar to Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic heritage sites. Although the synagogue rang out to the prayers of Egyptian Jews at their February 2021 dedication, it is clear that this was their swansong.

Levana Zamir of the Association of Jews from Egypt in Israel says that it is preferable for Egypt's synagogues to be considered heritage sites than 'community centres' for concerts and other cultural activities. 


Audrey Azoulay walks past the case containing two Torah scrolls, accompanied by President el-Sisi and (right) Khaled al-Fani

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Morocco and Israel to celebrate first joint Mimouna

This year, hard on the heels of the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and Morocco, the Mimouna festival, which marks the end of Passover, will be extra-special in its celebration of Jewish-Muslim good neighbourliness. The Israeli and Moroccan embassies in Washington are hosting the first-ever joint Mimouna celebration in partnership with Sephardic Heritage International in Washington (SHIN-DC) and the Smithsonian Institution. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin at a Mimouna celebration in 2018 (Photo: Jerusalem Post)

The holiday of Mimouna is a tradition among many North African Jewish communities, and is especially associated with Moroccan Jewry. 

Held the day after Passover, the holiday marks the return to being able to eat leavened bread after it was forbidden throughout the weeklong holiday. “Occurring just before Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mimouna is a festival of good neighbors that encapsulates the spirit of the normalization of the Morocco-Israel relationship, as well as the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and other neighbors under the Abraham Accords,” Sephardic Heritage International director Afraim Katzir said in a statement.

 “Mimouna not only marks the end of Passover, but is inspired by the Moroccan Jewish and interfaith narratives of unity, commemoration, goodwill and neighborliness," the statement said. "During Mimouna, Jewish families would open up their homes to each other and to non-Jews, who brought the leavened foods needed for a neighborly celebration.” 

The celebration will also feature musical performances by Moroccan national and Washington resident Ismail Bouzidoune, who will play Gnawa religious music, and Moroccan-Israeli Mor Karbasi, who will play Andalusi music, on which flamenco is based. 

The ceremony will be held live over Zoom on April 5, the day Mimouna is held outside of Israel. Registry for the event is free of charge, and can be done through the SHIN-DC website.

For Mufleta recipe click here

Friday, April 02, 2021

Rabbis tend to Passover needs in 22 Muslims lands

 Passover is being openly celebrated in Bahrain and in the Gulf countries, where over 100 guests attended a seder in Dubai. Meanwhile, The Jerusalem Post reports, rabbis in the West have been tending to the religious needs of Jews in Muslim countries:

Matza production in Tehran

In Tehran, the matzah factory, which begins operating approximately three weeks before Passover begins, has been churning out several tons of machine-made matzah for the local community, overseen by Chief Rabbi of Tehran Rabbi Yehuda Gerami. There are approximately 12,000 Jews in Iran, mostly in Tehran but with communities also in Shiraz, Isfahan and beyond. In addition to the locally made matzah, some 250 kg. of “shmura matzah,” produced with greater stringency and by a more difficult process than regular matza, often used specifically on seder night, was imported into Iran from Azerbaijan. 

And the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS), an association of rabbis serving Jewish communities in 14 Muslim-majority countries, has been busy sending matzah to Jews in some of the most politically perilous places in the world, including Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Lebanon. 

In addition, the organization has sent several thousand seder boxes, including seder night essentials, to Jewish communities ahead of Passover, across the Muslim world, including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, and beyond. 

 In Uzbekistan, Rabbi Shlomo Babaev from the capital city of Tashkent, prepared 560 bottles of wine for use at the seder and over Passover, and slaughtered 120 chickens brought to him by members of the Jewish community for consumption over the holiday. 

“It is heartwarming to see how rabbis in Muslim countries are helping each other in providing logistics and assistance in transportation of matzah, to assure that every Jew is able to celebrate the holiday,” said chairman of the alliance Rabbi Mendy Chitrik. 

“This year, the rabbis at the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States have provided Matzah and Pesach amenities to 14 ARIS member countries and to individuals in eight additional Muslim countries. The assistance of our governments in assuring that we can have our Passover religious needs cannot be overestimated.

” On the Arabian peninsula, the newly established Association of Gulf Jewish Communities imported some 300 kg. of matzot for local communities in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and beyond. There are around 1,200 Jews living in the Gulf countries, the overwhelming majority of whom are expats from around the world but they also include 50 Jews in a community dating back some 140 years in Bahrain.

 The Bahraini Jewish community also produced some locally made matzah as well.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Kitniyot ban may be on the wane

For centuries, Ashkenazi Jews have observed a ban on kitniyot -  eating lentils, peas, beans, rice and other foods at  Passover. The rabbis have reasoned that they must not bee eaten because they swell in cooking, and therefore resemble bread baked with yeast. Jeremy Sharon writing in the Jerusalem Post finds that this custom, never observed by Sephardim, is on the wane in Israel:

Perhaps because of the pushback against the custom, observance of it has actually waned significantly. According to research published by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in 2019, only 53% of Ashkenazi Jews in Israel who observe kashrut abide the kitniyot ban. 

The study found that even a majority of the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist sector, of which Lior is a leader, do not refrain from eating kitniyot on Passover. 

The only sector where it is still observed in the majority, some 71%, is among the ultra-Orthodox haredim.

 Senior JPPI researcher Shmuel Rosner said at the time that, outside of the ultra-Orthodox community, the custom could die out within one or two more generations.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Expelled Yemeni Jews arrive in Cairo

Expelled by the Iranian-backed Houthis,  13 Jews of Yemen departed for Cairo, Egypt, according to the Times of Israel. This leaves just six Jews in Yemen, including the jailed  Levi Salem Marhabi. The press has speculated that the Jews consented to leave as part of a deal to free Marhabi, but there is no guarantee that he will be released. See my comment below:

The 13 Jews received an offer to go to Israel by way of the port city of Aden, which is controlled by the United Arab Emirates’ proxy in the war-torn country, the Southern Transitional Council. But they refused.

 “They reached an agreement with the Houthi leadership to go to Cairo. They wanted at first to go to the United Arab Emirates, but that proved impossible, so they went to Cairo. 

In Cairo, they have family there,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. 

 Several Yemeni Jewish families have been resettled in the Emirates in recent months. The families were given what the official termed “very good financial conditions,” including housing units.

According to the Jerusalem Post:

The three families arrived in Egypt and are considering whether to immigrate to the UAE or make aliyah to Israel, according to KAN news. Some of the family members are reportedly interested in moving to Israel, but one of the family members is reportedly opposed.

According to KAN news, six Jews remained behind in Yemen, including Marhabi who is still imprisoned, despite the Asharq Al-Awsat report that he would be released if the families left. His conditions in prison have reportedly been improved since the families agreed to leave.

My comment: The departure of the 13 Jews marks the end of the 3,000-year-old community. There are six Jews left, including the jailed Marhabi: an old woman, her crazed brother and three others in Amram province.  (It is estimated that there are also  Jewish women married to Muslims). For reasons unspecified, the thirteen were not able to move to the UAE, which took in three Jewish families from Yemen in recent months. It is highly unlikely that the Yemenite Jews would have family in Egypt, where the community consists of six elderly ladies, all widows or married to Christians or Muslims. The newcomers will not find a Jewish community in Egypt to speak of. It is likely that the 'influential  member' opposed to their aliya to Israel is Rabbi Yahya Youssef, who headed the group of Jews living in a government compound in Sana'a before the Houthis took control of the city.  Yahya unsuccessfully fought for Jewish rights in Yemen.

Rabbi Yahya Youssef

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Tobie Nathan captures mysticism of Cairo Jewish quarter

Tobie Nathan is the author of a dozen novels and numerous psychoanalytic studies. Born to a Jewish family in Cairo in 1948, Nathan had to flee his country with his family in 1957. Educated in France, Nathan is a pioneering practitioner of ethno-psychiatry: 

Alexandria is not Egypt', says Tobie Nathan. " It's next to Egypt.' 

What does Nathan mean? It is to say that Alexandria in the 20th century was home to a cosmopolitan mix of nationalities, many of them recent arrivals, drawn by the port city's thriving commercial life.

The real Egypt is to be found in Cairo, where Nathan was born. Indeed he comes from a long line of native Jews. The family house was in Haret El-Yahud, the Jewish quarter. The quarter had a gate which the Jews themselves locked in order to protect themselves. In fact the gate to the quarter (now removed) was also the gate to the large Nathan family house.

The Nathans were stateless, as were 40 percent of Jews. Only some five percent held Egyptian nationality, a privileged class with connections to the elite. 

Nathan  is the author of several books. The most recent is a novel, 'La Societé des Belles Personnes'. It is a tale of revenge based on real events. (See Akadem Interview  in  French with thanks: Viviane).

The book is the sequel to 'A Land like You'. Here is an extract from a review by Jean Naggar  for the Jewish Book Council: 

 In his latest novel, A Land Like You (short-listed for the Prix Goncourt in 2015),  Tobie Nathan has written a beautiful and immersive novel, plunging readers headlong into Egypt’s unique history and extraordinary variety of cultures. Nathan interweaves the worlds of the voluble Jews from Haret el Yahud—the Cairo Jewish Quarter — with those of the Muslims of Bab El Zuweyla, along with the complex international communities that connect and divide them. 

Propelled forward by vivid, unforgettable characters, the layers of political, historic, and mystical Egypt tumble together into a rich mosaic, encompassing a period of great change from 1918 to the 1950s. Within the crowded Haret El Yahud, Esther, an orphaned child, suffers a traumatic accident that reshapes her future. The trauma leaves Esther’s relatives, and the larger community, convinced she is possessed by alien spirits and demons.

 Beautiful, wild, and ungovernable, Esther clearly marches to the beat of her own drum. Her intimacy with unseen forces commands consternation and respect, distinguishing her in the often claustrophobic community of Jews who inhabit the twisted paths and teeming dwellings of the Haret El Yahud. For Jews and Arabs alike, religious mysticism and close contact with the spirit world imbues their daily lives with wonder and drama.

 Urged on by a multitude of anxious relatives, Esther marries at fourteen, and finds deep love and happiness with Motty, an older man, blind from birth. Sadly, the love between them produces no child in seven years of marriage. Her quest for motherhood eventually results in a son, Zohar, but she has no milk with which to feed him, so she seeks out a woman in the Muslim quarter who has recently given birth to a daugher, Masreya.

Read review in full

Monday, March 29, 2021

Saudi report: last Yemenite Jews are to be expelled (updated)

Update: The American Sephardi Federation has independently verified the report, and confirms that the Iranian-backed Houthis have indeed made refugees of 13 Yemenite Jews. There is no guarantee that Levi Salem Marhabi should be released from jail as a quid pro quo. Six other Jews remain in the country, according to the ASF.

According to a Saudi press report, the last remaining Jews in Yemen are to be expelled and are waiting for the UN refugee agency to find them a country other than Israel or the US which would grant them asylum. Last summer, a Jewish family arrived in Abu Dhabi from Amran province in Yemen and two more families followed in January 2021. The 13 Jews from three families to be expelled would have been living in a Sana'a compound, originally under government protection but at the mercy of the Iranian-backed Houthis since their takeover of the capital in 2014. The departure of the 13  is a condition for the release from jail of  Levi Salem Marhabi, following pressure from the US. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Some of the Jews living in the Sana'a compound

The last three Jewish families in Yemen were deported by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, leaving only four elderly Jews in the country, after heavy pressure by the Houthis, the London-based Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported over the weekend. 

The families, totalling 13 people, told Asharq Al-Awsat that they were now searching for a new home. The families had resisted leaving their home, but finally agreed to leave after the Houthis made their departure a condition for the release of Levi Salem Marhabi, a Jew who was captured by the Houthis about six years ago. 

 “They gave us a choice between staying in the midst of harassment and keeping Salem a prisoner or leaving and having him released,” one of the deported Jews told Asharq Al-Awsat. "History will remember us as the last of Yemeni Jews who were still clinging to their homeland until the last moment." 

 Marhabi was arrested by the Houthis for helping a Yemeni Jewish family move an old Torah scroll out of the country. Despite a court ruling that he was innocent and should be released, he was reportedly held as a bargaining chip, according to the daily. Similar reports have been denied as false in the past.

 In July of last year, Iranian-backed Houthis were said to be rounding up Yemeni Jews and pressuring them to leave, according to Egyptian reports. 

The Israeli Foreign Ministry denied the reports, as did Yemeni and international sources. 


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sing 'Ma Nishtana', Iraqi-style

With thanks: Sandra

A traditional Iraqi-Jewish seder table (photo: New York Times)

As Jewish families the world over sit down to their Passover ceremonial meal or Seder to recall the Biblical exodus, here is a rendition of MaNishtana, Why is this Night Different from all other Nights? This is the first of four questions, usually  recited by the youngest member of the family.

Here is a version familiar to Iraqi Jews. It is recited in Hebrew, and then in Judeo-Arabic. The children carry on their shoulders  a piece of matza  wrapped in a napkin: they knock at the door. The guests call out: 'Where are you coming from?'  'Mitsrayim', they reply. 'Where are you going? ''Yerushalayim' they shout.

Audiofile of Ma Nishtana

Friday, March 26, 2021

May we celebrate Passover using Zoom?

Are we permitted to celebrate Pesah using Zoom ? The question arose last year when the coronavirus pandemic broke, separating families who would otherwise have gathered around the Seder table. Fourteen rabbis from the Association of North African Sages in the land of Israel ruled that it was permissible to use Zoom in order to lessen the impact on mental and emotional health. However, a fierce backlash to the ruling came from other rabbis. Dr Arie Tepper of the American Sephardi Federation writes:

Although the ruling received a large amount of publicity, in strictly legal terms there was nothing really extraordinary about it. 

Consider the “hot-topic” issue of using electricity on Yom Tov (holidays). It’s well-known that many Moroccan Hakhamim (sages) have ruled that the use of electricity—in plainest terms, the ability to turn on and off a light —is permissible on Yom Tov, as did the first Rishon Le’Tsiyon, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the State of Israel, Hakham Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Ouziel (1880-1953). 

Most recently, the Moroccan-born Rabbi David Chelouche (1920-2016), a student of R’Ouziel’s and the Chief Rabbi of Netanya for 63 years, devoted an entire year to studying the intricacies of electricity with expert scientists and engineers. 

He then composed a forty-page ruling in which he reaffirmed that it is, indeed, permissible to use electricity on Yom Tov. Nevertheless, the new ruling was viciously attacked in rabbinic quarters. 

Some Ashkenazi rabbis rejected the ruling by attacking the scholarly credentials of the signatories without bothering to investigate the merits of their arguments, or even acknowledging that a great 20th century Gadol like Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank also ruled that using electricity on Yom Tov was permissible. 

No matter how you choose to mark the festival,  wishing our readers Hag Pesah Sameah.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Jew 'temporarily' released from jail after visiting Israel

In the islamic republic of Iran, just visiting Israel is a crime. Nourollah Shemian may have been sentenced to 10 years in prison, and he may be sent back there again after his 'temporary' release. Sickening report in The Jerusalem Post:

The notorious Evin prison

The Islamic Republic of Iran has temporarily released the 65-year-old Iranian Jew Nourollah Shemian who was imprisoned for allegedly visiting Israel, according to a Tuesday report on the Persian-language website of the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). 

“The temporary release of Nourollah Shemian as the third recently identified Jewish individual put behind bars, is not a cause for celebration. It’s an alarm and likely indication of other Jews behind bars for similar reasons. 

Pilgrimage and visiting holy sites is a part of religious practice for many religious groups around the world, but for Iranian Jews it is evidently a cause for punishment and suffering,” Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, an Iranian in exile in the US who is the founder and director of the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities, told The Jerusalem Post.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Have a Syrian Passover in Judeo-Arabic

Passover begins on 27 March 2021 when Jews sit down to a ceremonial meal called the Seder. 

The Seder celebrates the liberation of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  In many communities it is customary to recite the Haggadah in Judeo-Arabic. 

Here is a Syrian rendition of 'Echad mi yodea?' - Who knows one? in Judeo-Arabic:'Min ya'alam umin yidri? This recording was made in 2020 by Chloe Pourmorady on khamandji and Asher Shasho Levy on oudh.


 For the Hebrew and English lyrics of 'Echad mi yodea?' click here.

Hag Pesah Sameah to all those who celebrate the festival!

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Why was this Tunisian Jew stripped of his nationality ?

This is the Kafkaesque saga of a Tunisian Jew's attempt to renew his expired passport. Said Jew, let's call him Yaakov Cohen, had left his native city in the north of Tunisia some 40 years earlier for France. 

As well as holding a Tunisian passport, he held French nationality by virtue of having married a Frenchwoman.

  Unlike Iraq, where Jews were stripped of their nationality when they fled the country, or Egypt, where 40 percent of Jews were stateless anyway, Tunisia never confiscated passports from departing Jews. 
As he was intending to travel to Tunisia to set up a heritage preservation project in Tunis,  Yaakov was advised go the city hall in order to renew the passport. He handed it over and requested from the clerk a duplicate copy of his birth certificate. But the certificate came back to him with the box marked 'nationality'  blank. 

The same thing happened when he asked a clerk for copies of his parents' certificates of birth. And his grandparents'.  In every case, the box marked 'nationality' was blank.

 It was the same story at the town hall of his native city. Yaakov asked to see the clerk's superior, and was shown into a large and well-appointed office. The woman in charge went through his documents and with a snide grin said that Yaakov would need to put in a formal request to a local judge to issue a nationality certificate. 

At that point Yaakov lost his rag. He had been born in Tunisia, as were his parents and grandparents - who were buried just a few hundred feet away.  

He had to appoint a lawyer to find two witnesses who knew Yaakov's father. The lawyer thought it would be a simple matter. Four months went by. The lawyer responded to Yaakov's  enquiries by sending him suras from the Koran.

The state could only strip a Tunisian of his nationality if he was serving a foreign power or if he had committed a crime. What was the motive in Yaakov's case? Was it antisemitism? Expulsion by stealth?

Yaakov has three theories. The first is that the authorities feared  the real reason for Yaakov's preservation project might be to recover seized Jewish property. (This is said to be the reason why the authorities in Egypt do not allow Jews to access their communal records).

In Tunisia, Yaakov had heard of similar cases to his own, but lacked firm evidence. An order may have  gone out not to re-issue passports to Jews who might want their abandoned property back. 

The final explanation could be that when the authorities made the transition from paper to computer records, those who had not renewed their documents for years simply had their nationality omitted.

The question is, did this also happen to Tunisian Muslims who had long ago left the motherland?

Monday, March 22, 2021

Jews vanish from Iraq, but still have no closure

The compassion and loyalty displayed  by Iraqi Jews like  the surgeon Dhafer Eliyahu, who died last week, have been repaid with a series of injustices. Lyn Julius writes in JNS News:

Dhafer Fouad Eliyahu:'healer of the poor'

The oldest Jewish Diaspora in the world, that of Iraq, edged closer to extinction on March 15, with the death of 61-year-old Dhafer Fouad Eliyahu—an orthopedic surgeon at al-Wasiti Hospital in Baghdad. 

A plethora of tributes to the “last Jewish doctor” appeared on Iraqi social media upon the announcement that Eliyahu had passed away after suffering a stroke. 

 Known as the “healer of the poor,” he ran a private clinic but treated those who could not afford medical care for free. His mother was among the first female doctors in Iraq. She had her own private clinic in Baghdad in the 1950s. In spite of intensifying persecution, her family stayed behind. Eliyahu, too, stayed on to serve his Iraqi compatriots when “tens of thousands” had left. He had sacrificed his personal life to remain in a country where there were no Jewish girls left to marry. 

Before their mass exodus in 1950-51, Jews contributed beyond their numbers to modernity in 20th-century Iraq. Jews comprised 40 percent of the medical profession. When the Royal Medical College opened in 1927, seven out of 21 students were Jews. In 1932, only 12 graduated, though all seven Jews stayed the course. 

 One of the most eminent graduates was Dr. Jack Aboudi Shabi, who specialized in neurology and psychiatry. Shabi practiced in his first-floor clinic in Baghdad. So identified with mental illness was he that the expression “send him to the first floor” became a byword for “this person is crazy.” 

 Another Jewish doctor known for his compassion and loyalty to his patients was Dr. David Gabbay from the city of Amara. In spite of his popularity and good works, Gabbay was jailed and tortured by dictator Saddam Hussein in 1969. Eventually, he fled Iraq on foot and resettled in London. 

Eliyahu’s death leaves just three Jews still living in Iraq. With his passing, a question mark hangs over the issue of who will manage the community’s assets and maintain cemeteries and synagogues. Jewish affairs were administered by Marcelle Azra, who died in her 90s this past September. 

 The origins of the community go back to the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Rabbis at the pre-Islamic academies of Sura and Pumbedita wrote the Babylonian Talmud, the most authoritative source of Jewish law.

 In 1948, the community numbered 150,000 Jews and a quarter of the population of Baghdad was Jewish. They were seen as a fifth column after the establishment of Israel and suffered extortion, execution and a series of discriminatory laws.

 The vast majority fled to Israel in 1950-1. They were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship and much of their property was frozen without compensation. 

 The most recent bone of contention has been the so-called Iraqi-Jewish archive. The U.S. administration has pledged to return to Baghdad this random collection of Jewish books, correspondence and school reports, which was seized from the community by the Iraqi regime but shipped in 2003 to the United States for restoration. 

 Iraqi Jews have been fighting to keep this last vestige of their former lives, arguing that their memorabilia are of no interest or value to the rest of the Iraqi people. 

While Iraqis themselves are increasingly acknowledging the selfless loyalty of Jews like Eliyahu, the return of the archive to Iraq would rub salt in the wound, adding yet another injustice to a very long list.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The mystery behind a Moroccan wedding photo

This is the story of how one Jew living in Paris came face to face with an unexpected evocation of her Moroccan past. Photos collected by Hannah Assouline are now on display at the Jewish Museum in Paris, but  one photo stands out.  See Academ video here of an interview with Hannah (with thanks: Vera):

Shoeless in Tinghir

It was in 1985 that  Hannah Assouline, herself a photographer,  was introduced to the photographer Jean Besancenot. He lived in straitened means in a tawdry Paris apartment. Between 1934 and 1937, Besancenot went on assignment to photograph the inhabitants of the Atlas mountains in Morocco. Most of his Jewish portraits were  of women, and although poor, they wore the traditional dress reserved for festive occasions, weighed down with jewellery.

Besancenot immediately identified Hannah as a Jew, and could even tell which part of Morocco her family came from. They were dirt-poor and came from Tinghir, in the Berber Atlas mountains, where time had stood still for hundreds of years. Hannah was the daughter of a rabbi and the great niece of the famous rabbi Baba Salé, whose tomb has become a place of pilgrimage. 

Sifting through piles of Besancenot's old photographs, Hannah came across a young bride and groom in their wedding costumes. The groom had a pained, even miserable expression. He was barefoot.

Hannah was struck by the boy's remarkable resemblance to her nephew. She bought the photo and presented it to her parents. Her father exclaimed in Arabic,'That's me!' The bride was his cousin Leila Sarah.

Was it really his wedding photo  - and how come did Besancenot choose to photograph him?

Jean Besancenot had actually asked to have a wedding couple pose for him, but the custom in that part of the world  was for girls to be betrothed at a very young age to much older men. 

Bensancenot would have none of this - and called for a much younger groom. That's how Hanna's father was dragged out of a nearby yeshiva to pose for the camera. In fact it all happened so fast that the young man did not have time to put his babooj (slippers) on.

The reason for his pained expression was his embarrassment. A few months before he died, he asked   Hannah: with all the modern technology nowadays, can't you photoshop a pair of shoes for me?"

Photographs by Jean Besancenot, 1934 -7, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris, until 18 April 2021.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Ethnic Studies schools curriculum passes unanimously

After three years of wrangling, California’s State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the third draft of a controversial model curriculum in ethnic studies for high schools, the first of its kind in the country. The vote represents a triumph for JIMENA, which worked hard to get Mizrahi Jews included in the curriculum; the American  Sephardi Federation, however, has raised objections. The curriculum is not mandatory in schools, but will serve as a model not just in California, but in other states and even in Europe. The Jewish News of Northern California reports: 

The 11-0 vote came five years after the legislature first approved a bill requiring a different state body, the Instructional Quality Commission, to develop the draft, and more than 18 months after the initial version roiled the Jewish community for its exclusion of lessons on Jewish Americans and its harsh critiques of Israel. 

The virtual public meeting Thursday included an acrimonious public comment period that lasted more than three hours. Many of the arguments made over the last year and a half — in the op-ed pages of local and national newspapers and in previous public meetings — were reiterated. 

Some read from scripts prepared by activist groups. The public comments focused on whether the curriculum inappropriately carried a left-wing ideology into the classroom or whether, conversely, it had been “watered down” by conservative forces; whether Palestine and Palestinians belonged in the curriculum, or whether a critique of Israel risked demonizing Jews; whether the model focused too much on race or “critical race theory” in a way that would divide students rather than unite them; whether it was sufficiently anti-colonial or too much so; and whether, broadly speaking, it was appropriate for high schoolers. 

Accusations against Jewish groups flew through the virtual space, with many claiming the curriculum had been “hijacked” or “whitewashed” by Zionist organizations and so-called “right-wing groups.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center made this statement: " The Simon Wiesenthal Center, like the majority of Jewish community leaders and organizations, is encouraged that the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum released today does not include any content that is, or can be perceived as, anti-Semitic or anti-Israel,” said Rabbi Meyer H. May, the Center’s Executive Director. “While we remain concerned regarding some of the finer details of the curriculum, the consensus in the Jewish community is that the curriculum addresses the most critical concerns raised by our community.”

The American Sephardi Federation  has criticised the curriculum in the grounds that it commits the 3 Ds: Divides the Jewish people into conflicting identities; Defines Jews by the hateful beliefs and behaviours of others; Denies Jewish agency and achievement, especially in America.The ASF has also charged that the curriculum only includes a partial IHRA definition of antisemitism. 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

A musical record of North African Jewish history

A professor of Jewish history at McGill university in Montreal, Chris Silver has become a leading collector of the work of North African Jewish musicians. These musicians openly identified as Jews, and the synagogue and Shabbat table generated a musical style that non-Jewish artists wanted to emulate. Interesting  JTA feature:

Chris Silver with a shellac record of North African Jewish music

Silver, who is Jewish but grew up in Los Angeles without a strong sense of Jewish identity, went to college at the University of California, Berkeley. There he learned about the history of Jewish North Africa.

After graduating and before he became a collector of records, Silver was traveling in Morocco and contemplating a career in academia. At first, he was most interested in what happened to the musical stars of North Africa after they had left and moved to countries where Arabic was not the dominant language. In one famous example, singer Zohra El Fassia, a cultural icon in Morocco, moved to Israel and was quickly relegated to a remote, dusty corner of the country, with few opportunities to perform, as memorialized in a 1976 poem by Erez Bitton. 

 With time, Silver grew more curious to learn about the earlier period, the heyday of these artists. And he wondered if there was a richer history to be discovered beyond archival documents of conventional historical research. The musical record provided what he was looking for. 

Each album usually indicated not only the name of the performer but sometimes also the composer and lyricist. The name of the record label and the place of pressing were important details. The lyrics and melodies encoded on the shellac told him many stories. 

 “Here we have a history of North African Jews in their own words in Arabic through the music, which is traditional and popular and everything in between,” Silver said. 

He learned to listen for things like shoutouts naming members of the orchestra, or sudden interludes with a musician offering their personal story. 

He encountered the cultural seepage of American influences, as evident, for example, in Arabic renditions of the classic “Yes, Sir! That’s my Baby.” 

 Or, take the music that Tunisian Jewish star Habiba Msika recorded in the late 1920s in Berlin. Faraway from French protectorate authorities, she incorporated subversive messages about her homeland.

“On those records, if you listen to them until the end, she’ll shout out something like ‘Long live Egypt’ or ‘Long live the Independent Levant.’ And then the orchestra erupts into applause,” Silver said. 

Msika’s daring artistic production and lifestyle earned widespread attention, including from Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel, and tragically, from a murderous former romantic partner, who set fire to her apartment, killing her at age 27. 

Famous and universally adored, the particular Jewishness of these musicians was not a secret. They openly identified themselves as Jews, and even if not, their dialects and accents gave them away. The first training ground for many Jewish artists was the Shabbat table and the synagogue, which generated a musical style that many non-Jews wanted to emulate, according to Silver.

 “There are many stories of Muslim musicians who would position themselves outside of the synagogue on Saturday mornings to learn a new or different melody,” he said.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Online Haggadah illustrates Jewish diversity in pictures

A new Haggadah for Passover illustrating the diversity  of the Jewish people in pictures has been produced by acclaimed, award-winning photographer Zion Ozeri, himself of Yemenite heritage, together with Sara Wolkenfeld and Josh Feinberg. The Haggadah follows the traditional sequence of the Seder, the Passover meal, but includes a section on Judeo-Arabic. Article in Jewish Journal of LA:

Yemenite Jewish children, 1992, captured by photographer Zion Ozeri

Renowned Jewish photographer Zion Ozeri is no stranger to creating meaningful Haggadot. His award-winning photographs, which capture the world around him, have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Jerusalem Report, Moment and The Economist, to name a few publications. After reviewing his pieces, Ozeri decided to create a virtual interactive Haggadah that highlights the diversity of Jews, just in time for a second pandemic Passover. 

 Ozeri, along with Sara Wolkenfeld and Josh Feinberg, curated “Pictures Tell: A Passover Haggadah,” a Haggadah that is completely virtual (can be utilized at home or in a classroom) and celebrates the traditions and cultural experiences of the Jewish Diaspora. Ozeri told the Journal that a major goal of “Pictures Tell” is using imagery to tell the story of the Jewish people.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Another Jew dies in Iraq, leaving three

And then there were three.

 The oldest Jewish diaspora in the world - the community of Iraq - edged closer to extinction as the death following a stroke was announced yesterday of Thafer Fouad Eliyahu, 61. Eliyahu was an orthopaedic surgeon at the Wasiti hospital in Baghdad. His death leaves just three Jews still living in Iraq.

Thafer Eliyahu, know as the 'doctor of the poor'

The origins of the community go back to the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem  in 586 BCE.  Rabbis at the pre-Islamic academies of Sura and Pumbedita wrote the Babylonian Talmud, the most authoritative Biblical commentary in Judaism.

With the death of Eliyahu, a question also hovers over who would manage the community's assets, which were handled by ('Sitt')  Marcelle Azra. Sitt Marcelle died in her nineties in September 2020.  Jewish property was frozen when their owners left but rents continued to be paid by some tenants and were collected by Sitt Marcelle.

In 1948, the community numbered 150,000 Jews and a quarter of the population of Baghdad was Jewish. The vast majority emigrated to Israel in 1950-51.

King Faisal of Iraq visiting the Great Synagogue in Baghdad in the 1920s. The synagogue no longer exists.