Friday, April 10, 2020

Jews, Muslims and the 'original grudge' theory

Born in Marrakesh, Daniel Sibony brings his background as a psychoanalyst to the question of Jewish-Muslim relations over 13 centuries. He should be commended for swimming against a tide of denial, Lyn Julius writes in JNS News:

Daniel Sibony

In 2013, Princeton published  the first encyclopaedia  on the history of relations between Jews and Muslims, edited by Abdelwahab Meddeb and Benjamin Stora,  from the birth of Islam to  the present day. It is a glossy coffee table book, featuring more than 150 articles by an international team of leading experts'. Its stated objective was 'greater historical understanding and a more informed dialogue between Jews and Muslims.'

One man was not impressed. Daniel Sibony is a French  psycho-analyst and philosopher, and the author of no less than 26 books, most, sadly, not available in English.  Sibony believed that achieving 'greater understanding' and promoting 'dialogue' meant idealising  the true nature of Jewish-Muslim relations during 13 centuries of 'coexistence'. He set out his response to Meddeb and Stora in a book called  Un certain vivre-ensemble: musulmans et juifs dans le monde arabe.'

The book's message may be summed up as follows: "Tell me whom you despise, and I'll tell you who you are.'"

Sibony argues that the Muslim bears the non-Muslim Other an ' original grudge'.  The grudge has coloured Muslim relations with the Jews living amongst them since the Koran was written in the 7th century. The 'grudge' has helped define Muslim identity, he claims.

Going  back to Muhammed's encounter with the Jewish tribes of Arabia, the grudge consists of resentment against the Jews for 'betraying' Muhammed by refusing to follow his new religion. And there is the lingering resentment that the Jews were first out with their Holy Book.

The Jew is cursed by his primordial failure to convert. In fact the very term 'Jew'  - with its associations of uncleanliness and femiminity - was an insult in Morocco. He is condemned to inferior dhimmi status, a system of humiliating handicaps and strictures. He was banned from reading the Koran in case he might criticise it.To argue that the colonial era in Arab lands marked a divorce between Jews and Arabs assumes that there was a marriage in the first place.

Non-Muslims kept the Islamic world afloat through payment of the jizya tax. The ruler levied this tax in order to protect the Jews. But protect them from whom? A hostile populace which had assimiliated the lessons of the Koran and the 'original grudge'.

Living  in the Marrakesh medina in Morocco until he left for France aged 13, Sibony knew the power of the mob. Riots would erupt around the time of the Jewish festivals, to the extent that one Jewish mother preparing her daughter's wedding sought reassurance from a neighbour that his co-religionists were not planning to disrupt the festivities. The ruler could turn the screw on his Jews when he needed them to pay heavier taxes, while threatening to unleash popular violence on them. Today's jihadists, Sibony considers, are mobsters in modern clothing.

The Stora-Meddeb encyclopaedia vaunts the cross-cultural Golden Age in Spain as evidence that Jews and Muslims could coexist in harmony. But Sibony says that culture could exist and flourish side-by-side with a culture of humiliation: even a slave can enjoy a good night's sleep when he takes off his leg-irons. The Encyclopedia, he argues,  emphasises the positive exception to the rule.

But there are plenty of Jews from Morocco willing to testify to the good relations between Jews and Muslims. One reason was that the mob never penetrated the richer quarters, protected by the police - their Jewish residents were insulated from trouble.

Sibony claims that Jews did not want to dwell on the negative: they were too busy living life to the full - a life filled with music, poetry, ritual and faith. Besides, their childhoods were marked by the hope that they would soon be leaving. There were times when Muslims too forgot their 'grudge' -  but it was always there in the background, like a radio whose volume knob had been turned down. The ultimate proof that all was not well between the two communities is the massive exodus of Jews from Arab lands.

Sibony's thesis may be criticised for putting too much emphasis on a dhimmi status abrogated by the colonial era, and for ignoring the influence of European and Nazi antisemitism in the Arab world. But in Morocco, the colonial period was shorter than most, and Sibony still remembers seeing Jews wearing the discriminatory black djellaba in his native Marrakesh. He should be commended for boldly swimming against a tide of denial and distortion.

Read article in full

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Kuwait's Ramadan show focuses on its long-gone Jews

As has become customary at Ramadan, Arab countries  broadcast soap operas to a captive TV audience. This year, Kuwait's offering, Umm Haroun,  is focusing on its erstwhile Jewish community. One might expect a sympathetic, even nostalgic portrayal, in keeping with the trend set by the Egyptian  series Haret al Yahood. 

Jenny, an Iraqi Jew sharing Mizrahi history, summarises the achievements of the Jews of Kuwait, which included establishing the first ice and  sugar factories, on her Twitter feed: 

With its new TV show, Umm Haroun, Kuwait is shedding light on its long-gone Jewish community. Thanks to its location, Kuwait was home to many Jews from Iraq, Persia and even India who escaped their former countries to start anew.

Kuwait was a staging post on the route to India

 The majority of Jews in Kuwait came from Southern Iraq around 1776 when Persian ruler, Sadeq Khan Zand, captured Basra. Jews settled and excelled in trade between Baghdad and India. Jews belonged to the middle class and participated in the development of the country.

Jews mostly lived in Sharq district, Kuwait’s oldest neighborhood. The majority of shops were owned by Jews so that Sharq district was once called “firij al yahud” (the Jewish neighborhood in Gulf Arabic) . The Jewish cemetery is still located in this neighborhood. There was a synagogue in Sharq and Jews had their Sefer Torah. There is no evidence of Jewish schools. Most likely, Jewish kids studied at the “American Missionary school” among Christian and Muslim children.

Many Jews went back to Iraq in 1921 when King Faisal came to rule. The King was very trusting of Jews, in and outside of Iraq ! He even appointed Sassoon Eskell as Minister of Finance.

The Jewish contribution in Kuwait was mostly in business. Saleh Mahlab owned the first ice factory of Kuwait and sold it in 1912 while moving to Iraq. His son, Edward Saleh Mahlab (photo), moved back to Kuwait with his family and maintained close ties with the Al Subah ruling family.

Edward Saleh Mahlab: moved back to Kuwait from Iraq

Eliyahu Al Kuwaiti created the “Eliyahu sugar company” in the 1920’s . He traded sugar and tea with his friend Eliyahu Ibrahim, another Kuwaiti Jew. They both moved to Basra, Iraq, in 1932 and continued their business. They also worked with a Muslim lawyer named Mohamed Ahmed.

Other notable Jewish families contributed to the economy of the country. The Yehezkel family held the franchise to supply electricity to Kuwait for 35 years during the time of the late sheikh Ahmad Al-Jaber. Several Jewish families from Khuzestan had shipping companies.

Musicians Saleh and Daoud Al-Kuwaiti were born in Kuwait in the early 1910’s. They studied music with Khaled al Bakar. Their first hit “walla ajabni jamalech” (by G od I admire your beauty), was composed in their early teens.

In 1914, there were 83 to 100 Jewish families in Kuwait. Most of them had left by 1920. In 1947, the Emir of Kuwait issued a decision to evacuate all Jews from Kuwait. In 1951, Iraqi authorities plotted to dump about 50,000 Iraqi Jews in Kuwait. Today, there are no Jews in Kuwait.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Passover: Celebrate an Iraqi-style seder

The festival of Passover (Pesah) begins tonight with the seder, a ceremonial meal to recall the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. This year will be different from previous years as, for many, the festival will be marked in isolation, as the corona virus pandemic rages. Here is the seder, Iraqi-style, with Rabbi Hagay Batzri. (With thanks: Victor, Lily)


 Part 1 is 20 mins long. For Part 2, click here (20 mins) For Part 3, click here (15 mins)


Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Rachel Muyal z"l, a guest at the King of Morocco's seder

Morocco's only female Jewish public intellectual, Rachel Muyal,  died in January 2020.  Writing in Tablet, Vanessa Paloma Elbaz recalls the life and times of this remarkable woman from Tangiers, and how a year ago she was invited by the king to his Passover seder.

Rachel Muyal in the Nahon synagogue, Tangiers

Rachel embodied the tightrope balance that public-facing Jews master in the Muslim world, maintaining her “Tangerine” Judaism of being open to the world, while nurturing her identity as a Jew and a professional woman.

Her job as manager of the Librairie des Colonnes made her the de facto gatekeeper for the American counterculture writer Paul Bowles. Her living room hosted Bowles, Jean Genet, Mohamed Choukri and Tahar Ben Jelloun.

She was the public face of a moment in history that is rapidly escaping the lived experience of younger generations of Moroccans. During the last years of her life, Rachel often mentioned her desire to write a book about the Jews of Tangier and the city’s openness. She often repeated, we lived juntos pero no revueltos, together but not mixed—as in not intermarried.

And she once confided to me, “As a divorced woman, I had many proposals from all sorts of men, and very powerful ones at that. I had to become very creative in finding ways to say no.” Her life was in some ways reminiscent of the Judeo-Spanish song “El Romance de Sol” that was sung in her home on Passover by the rabbi’s wife when they came for lunch. The song tells the story of the beautiful Jewish virgin martyr from Tangier, Sol Hachuel, or Solika, a poor and pious adolescent who preferred death as an accused apostate over conversion to Islam and marrying the sultan. Jewish women in northern Morocco have been singing this song since the 1940s to teach the younger generations not to succumb to assimilation or intermarriage. The main line that is seared into everyone’s memory says I was born a Jew and will die a Jew.

 In the last years of her life, Rachel finally did write her memoirs. On the first day of Passover 2019 she launched La mémoire d’une Tangeroise to a standing room-only crowd during the International Book Fair in Tangier. As she was signing books, the palace’s secretary came over and told her to be ready at 7:30 in front of her house for a car to come and pick her up. She declined, claiming exhaustion, but was reminded that no was not an acceptable answer for the royal family.

 She told me, “I am an expert in pushing food that I can’t eat around my plate, so I wasn’t too worried about going to the palace the night of the second Seder, I wouldn’t eat what was forbidden.”What transpired that night in the Royal Palace of Tangier with four Moroccan Jews and four Muslims of the Alaouite dynasty sheds light on the inner core of Moroccan Judeo-Muslim relations. As the guests were seated at the table, Rachel saw to her surprise that each setting had a Passover Hagaddah by its side. Waiters strode in carrying covered silver platters over their heads. When they uncovered them, the full Seder plate was revealed, karpas, maror, haroset, matzo, everything!” she told me. “We did the full Seder, we did not skip a word, we sang the bibilu, ha lahma anya and did all the plagues, nothing was skipped over.

"I couldn’t believe it. I guess the royal family wants to connect to our glorious moments. And as I was sitting there, I could see the phantoms of the previous sultans walking by. I could see Moulay Abdelaziz, who reigned from 1894–1908 and died in 1943 in Tangier. His grandson was sitting with us at the table that night. I kept on thinking, ‘we are doing Passover, our Jewish moment of royalty, sitting at a true royal table, a table of kings.’ In Tangier we Jews call our children ‘my king’ because we consider all our descendants to be royalty.”

Read article in full

Monday, April 06, 2020

Another Moroccan-Jewish artiste dies

Update: 11 Moroccan Jews have died of the corona virus, including three members of the Peretz family.(Times of Israel)

 Another Jewish music artiste has died from coronavirus, bringing the total of number of deaths in  Morocco to 76. Singer Michel Abikzer from Kinor David Maroc, passed away in Casablanca.

Fellow singer Vanessa Paloma writes: 'A sweet and generous man who, when he saw me, was always wanting to speak in Haketia and remember his mother's proverbs and songs. Deepest condolences to his wife and children and to all his friends.'

Popular musician Botbol is fourth Moroccan Jew to die of coronavirus

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Try a different Haroset recipe for Pesah

As Passover (Pesah) approaches, thoughts turn to preparing the Seder plate, whose ingredients symbolise different stages in the liberation of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Central is Haroset, which symbolises the mortar used by the Israelites as slaves (some communities even mix brick dust with their Haroset). Here are some recipes From The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden (via 

The seder plate

  Ashkenazi Haroset
On the Passover seder plate, haroset symbolizes the mortar used by slaves in Egypt. These are the classic Eastern European ingredients. Only the proportions vary.
 2 medium-sized tart apples 1/2 cup (50 g) walnuts, chopped, 1/2 – 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 – 3 tablespoons sweet red wine, 1 tablespoon sugar or honey or to taste.   Peel, core, and finely chop or grate the apples. Mix with the rest of the ingredients

  Haroset from Turkey
2 sweet apples weighing 1/2 lb (250 g), peeled and cut into small pieces 1/2 lb (250 g),dates, pitted 1 cup (150 g) raisins, Juice and grated zest of 1 orange, 1 cup (250 ml) sweet red Passover wine, 2 – 4 tablespoons sugar or to taste (optional) 2 oz (60 g) walnuts, coarsely chopped

 Put all the ingredients except the sugar and the walnuts together in a saucepan and cook on very low heat until the mixture is soft and mushy and the liquid is reduced, stirring occasionally. Add sugar to taste. The amount will depend on the sweetness of the other ingredients. Blend to a paste in the food processor. Pour into a bowl and sprinkle with walnuts.

  Haroset from Egypt
1/2 lb (250 g) pitted dates, chopped 1/2 lb (250 g) large yellow raisins or sultanas, 1/2 cup (125 ml) sweet red Passover wine, 1/2 cup (60 g) walnuts coarsely chopped.  Put the dates and sultanas with the wine in a pan. Add just a little water to cover. Cook on very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the dates fall apart into a mush. Cook until it thickens to a soft paste. Pour into a bowl and sprinkle with walnuts.

  Haroset from Morocco

 1 lb (500 g) dates, pitted and chopped, 1-1/2 cups sweet red Passover wine, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 cup (125 g) walnuts, coarsely chopped.   Put the dates into a pan with the wine, cinnamon, and cloves and simmer, stirring occasionally, until you have a soft paste. Put through the food processor if you want a smoother texture. Let it cool and stir in the walnuts.

 Libyan version is flavored with ground ginger, nutmeg, and cloves — 1/4 teaspoon of each.

NB Iraqi Haroset consists of date syrup (silan) mixed with crushed walnuts

Syrian Haroset: recipe at the base of this article (thank you Gina)

Past posts about Passover

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Sefrou: Morocco's Little Jerusalem, crossroads of trade and culture

The southern Moroccan town of Sefrou, 30 km from Fez,  was once so predominantly Jewish that it was called 'Little Jerusalem'. This Eurasian Review article by Mohamed Chtatou gives a potted history of the community, its prominent families and holy sites. But it begs the question: If Sefrou was paradise on earth for its Jews, why did the last Jewish family leave in 1985? (with thanks: Lily)

Despite its small size, Sefrou contributed enormously to Jewish culture in Morocco. The rabbis who were there were famous all over the country and even beyond Moroccan borders.

Many rabbis settled there and taught, and their works concerned all the domains : the laws, the sacred texts, the Cabal, the songs and the praises, the moral etc. The influence and the importance of this city within Moroccan Judaism, made it central and that is one of the many reasons for which it was commonly called “Little Jerusalem.”

 In the image of plural Morocco with its cities where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed shoulders and coexisted in total peace, the city of Sefrou had hosted for centuries a community of Moroccans of Jewish faith. It was made up of Amazigh/Berber-speaking locals, Tafilat natives, Arabic-speaking Jews of Fassi origin (from Fez) and even descendants of the Spanish exiles of 1492, the megorashim.

This is the case of the El Baz family. For many generations, the Rabbi occupied a very important place in the life of the Jewish community. His extensive knowledge and scholarship directed him both in law, in his life style, and attitudes to adopt. He became adviser for personal problems, but also judge in conflicts between members of the community and practised highly-recommended mediation between Jews as well Muslims and Jews or just Muslims. He, thus, helped reconciling between men, between a man and his wife, and even materially supported those in need. He was considered a sage of the city by all its inhabitants.

 The Mamane family belonged to families linked to the expulsion of Jews from Spain, as well, the majority of whom are concentrated in Marrakech, Meknes, Fez and Sefrou. The older generations considered the family Ben Mamane as descendant of the “Great Eagle”, the guide of all Israel that descended from King David. Formerly, the members of this family were named Ben Maïmoni, then the name contracted in Ben Mamane, and it is only recently, that the word “Ben” disappeared, and they answered to the name of Mamane. This evolution is indeed confirmed by the testimonies of the oldest inhabitants of Safed and Tiberias, such as Rabbi Shlomo Ohana emissary of Israel in Morocco, sometime in the past.

Read article in full

The remnant Jewish community of  Sefrou in 1972 by Professor Norman Stillman

Morocco rediscovers its Jewish past and lures visitors of all faiths (Haaretz) 

Arrests of Jews in southern towns throw Jewish population into a panic (JTA)

Jews contributed massively to Moroccan culture

Friday, April 03, 2020

Egyptian Jews mark a different kind of Seder

Seder el-Tawhid ceremony at the Ahaba ve Ahva congregation in the US in 2010. Video here

Two weeks before Passover, Egyptian Jews hold an 800-year old special ceremony involving singing psalms and special readings. Candles are also lit to honour the community's ancestors and scholars.

From an account written in 1908 by Rabbi Refael Aharon Ben Shimon (Via Historical Society of Jews from Egypt):

"There is an ancient custom here in Egypt that on the night of Rosh Hodesh Nissan they make in the synagogue with lots of people and great pomp Seder El-Tawhid. It is an order of learning that includes the reading of Qorban Pesah from Perashat Hahodesh Hazeh Lakhem (Exodus 12 1-20) which pertains to Rosh Hodesh Nissan and its sanctity and stature, and a song for the sanctification of the month, and the great praise (Psalms 136), and other songs in honor of the Torah and the status of Yisrael who learn it. After reading all of the above with nice tunes and pleasing voices the Hazan stands up and opens up in a very clear and sweet voice and says Seder Hayihoud (Hebrew translation of El-Tawhid) in literary Arabic which is the story of the greatness of the Creator, His uniqueness, His wonders, and the great acts of kindness He has done with His people. This is done in the most wonderful language which stirs the heart and stumps the imagination with the most powerful and amazing of words and ideas about the awesome and unique Creator.

At the end of the Yihoud, the Hazan says a prayer in Arabic."

From the website of Ahaba ve Ahva, a congregation of Egyptian Jews in Brooklyn, USA:
The Seder is a religious ceremony in which special pesukim, piyutim, and prayers are recited. The liturgy relates to the themes of Rosh Hodesh Nisan, and is sung with beautiful melodies which elicit great joy and uplift the spirit. There is an oral tradition that this custom is over 800 years old, since the time of Rabenu Abraham the son of the Rambam. As well, a candle lighting ceremony takes place in which candles are lit to honor and commemorate our holy ancestors. We begin with our holy forefathers, then our prophets, followed by various great Talmudic scholars, culminating with the commemoration of the great Hachamim who served the Jews of Egypt throughout the years.

Read article in full

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Senior rabbis dismiss ruling allowing Passover by ZOOM

Israel's senior rabbis declared that it was not allowed to bring isolated family members together via video conferencing for the Passover seder, the Times of Israel reports.
The Chief Rabbinate on Tuesday issued guidelines for Passover in the age of coronavirus, saying it was not permitted to hold the traditional Seder by videoconference and dismissing a previous ruling by several rabbis who said it was allowed.

Ashkenazi chief rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in a photo taken  in 2015

 In what may have been one of the boldest rulings issued on technology in recent years, 14 Sephardic Orthodox rabbis in Israel last week declared that families may conduct their shared Seder over videoconference, despite Orthodox religious law normally banning the use of electronic devices on Shabbat and festivals.

Read article in full

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Popular musician Botbol is fourth Moroccan Jew to die of coronavirus

The death has been announced today from coronavirus (1 April 2020) of Marcello Botbol (Abitbol), a popular and well-loved gharnati singer and violin-player living in Tangier.

Marcello Botbol z"l. To hear a sample of his music click here

The Moroccan media had published news of his death on 25 March, but friends denounced it as 'fake news'. The musician was then still alive in intensive care in a hospital in Paris.

Marcello Botbol was the brother of the famous singer Haim Botbol. He appeared in several films, notably The Midnight Orchestra by Jerome Olivier Cohen.

Born in Fez, Marcello was born into a musical family. His father was the famous Jacob Botbol.

Marcello Botbol,75, is the fourth Moroccan Jew to have died of coronavirus. The others were the philanthropist and businessman Ari Peretz, 58, his mother Simone Peretz, 75 and Meir Michel Tordjman, 62. As of 31 March, Morocco recorded 37 coronavirus deaths and 638 cases.

Turkish antisemites: 'Coronavirus manufactured and spread by Jews'

The libel that the Jews manufactured and spread the coronavirus throughout the world is  being disseminated in Turkey. Zionists, antisemties claim,  are using it to kill and cause suffering.  Burak Bekdil explains in BESA magazine:

Turkish social media is of course a rich source of “scientific” interpretations of the coronavirus crisis, many of them larded with predictable self-aggrandizement, paranoia, and antisemitism:

 • “Thanks to the power we inherited from our (Ottoman) ancestors we will kill all viruses and infidels.”
• “We will defeat the virus as we will defeat the entire world.”
• “Jews manufactured and spread the virus to end western civilization.”
 • “We will annihilate the global masters behind the virus.”
• “The virus is only a minor part of a bigger game that targets Turkey.”
• “The virus was created to overthrow Erdoğan, leader of the umma.”
 • “The Islamic army will defeat the infidel virus.”

Viruses change, but Islamist rhetoric does not. Yeniden Refah, a small Islamist party, said: “Though we do not have certain evidence, this virus serves Zionism’s goals of decreasing the number of people and preventing it from increasing, and important research expresses this. Zionism is a five-thousand-year-old bacteria that has caused the suffering of people.”

Read article in full

'The Jews are to blame for coronavirus'

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

How Baghdad plague led to Sephardi cultural revival

In these coronavirus days, Point of No Return is moved to reflect on the impact of epidemics through the ages. Quite a few affected the Middle East, and no doubt devastated the local Jewish communities. But the plague of 1743 brought an influx to Baghdad of 50 Sephardi families from Aleppo, led by Rabbi Sadka Hussein, born in 1699. Although he and his sons Nissim and Yacoub were to die in the plague of 1772 -3*, he exerted a significant Sephardi influence on Jewish cultural life in Baghdad.

 According to Wikipedia:

In 1743 there was a plague in which many of the Jews of Baghdad, including all the rabbis, died. The remaining Baghdad community asked the community of Aleppo to send them a new Chief Rabbi, leading to the appointment of Rabbi Sadka Bekhor Hussein.[26]

 Culturally, it would prove a decisive moment when Chief Rabbi Shmuel Laniyado of Aleppo picked his protegé for Baghdad. It is said he was accompanied by fifty Sephardic families from Aleppo.[27]
Many of them were Rabbis who were to sit on the Beth Din of Baghdad and Basra.[27]

 This led to an assimilation of Iraqi Judaism to the general Sephardic mode of observance. Jewish culture revived, with communal leaders as Solomon Ma’tuk being renown for his work as an astronomer, library and piyyutim.[28]

The Ottoman empire in 1774

This brought the leading Jewish families of Baghdad, and with it, their Jewish practice into the network of Sephardic scribes and later printing presses established in Aleppo, Livorno and Salonica. Surviving records of the contents of the library of Solomon Ma’tuk shows a great number of books purchased from Sephardic scribes and some even originally from Spain.[29]

Further driving this process was the high esteem in which Rabbi Sadka Bekhor Hussein was held as a halakhic authority.[27] This saw him accepted as a halakhic authority by the Jews of Persia, Kurdistan and the fledgling Baghdadi trading outposts being established in India.[27]

 Sephardic Rabbis and their rulings and practices were held in higher esteem. The historian Zvi Yehuda says the period saw the wheels turn in the relationship between the Babylonian Jewish communities and those of Iraq and Persia: “Before the 18th century, the Baghdadi Community needed the support of those communities; now the Baghdadi Community influenced them.”[24]

 The 18th century saw the Jewish community of Aleppo exert a significant influence over the Jewish communities of Baghdad and Basra not only culturally but economically.[27] Syrian Jewish families establishing themselves in Iraq were often formerly Spanish Sephardic families from Aleppo. These were typically high-class families such as the Belilios family who were frustrated with the dimming prospects of Aleppo and attracted to Baghdad and Basra's booming trade with India.

This process saw the leading Jewish families of Baghdad, Basra and Aleppo grow to be heavily interlinked through marriages, religious life, partnership and trade in the 18th century.[27]

 As this process of cultural assimilation saw the Jews of Baghdad come to more closely resemble the Jews of Aleppo, economic decline in Syria, Kurdistan and Persia worsened. The 18th century saw a growing number of Jews leave from there to Baghdad, Basra or the Baghdadi-led outposts being established in the Far East.[27]

The still small and reemerging Jewish community of Baghdad became a migration destination with Jewish families settling in Baghdad from Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, Ana and Basra. A key driver of this was decline of the old caravan route running between these cities.[27]

There was also migration from the communities of Palestine, the villages of Kurdistan, and it is said that a handful of Jews settled in Baghdad from Germany.[27] By the early 19th century, Baghdad had been reestablished as a leading Jewish center in the Middle East. There were over 6,000 Jews in city, two synagogues and strong community institutions.[27]

 This was not a golden age, however. Over time, the centralized Turkish control over the region deteriorated and the situation of the Jews worsened, but the population continued to grow very rapidly. An example of this deterioration is the persecution of Dawud Pasha, which began in 1814 and lasted until 1831. Many leaders of the Jewish community, such as Solomon Ma’tuk, were forced to flee. One of the foremost leaders of the community, David Sassoon, was forced to flee first to Busher and then to India.[30]

*This outbreak is  recorded as being one of the most severe, killing an estimated two million people in Persia (Iran) and Persian-controlled lands to the west, including 250,000 in the city of Basra alone. 

Postcript: the Iraqi Jewish Archive, now in the US, has a treasure trove of original manuscripts by Rabbi Sadka Hussein that have never been published. There are enough manuscripts of sermons and novellae to publish three volumes,  and manuscripts on Jewish law to publish a fourth volume. The Sephardic Heritage Museum is currently having them printed.

Maimonides on Jewish humiliation under Muslim rule

We should not idealise Jewish life under the Muslims, which in some cases, was just as bad as life in Christian lands, writes Eli Kavon in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Michelle) :

Maimonides: Jews bear burden of humiliation

Judaism and the Islamic world, “God has entangled us with this people, the nation of Ishmael, who treat us so prejudicially and who legislate our harm and hatred…. No nation has ever arisen more harmful than they, nor has anyone done more to humiliate us, degrade us, and consolidate hatred against us.”

The myth that historians have propagated is that Jewish life under the Muslims was safer and more successful than the life of Jews in Christendom. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in this proposition; “Golden Ages” in Baghdad, Andalusia, and the Ottoman Empire highlight periods of tolerance and the powerful status of court Jews.

Read article in full

Monday, March 30, 2020

Pillar of Casablanca community dies of coronavirus

With thanks: Vanessa

Coronavirus  has claimed the life of a pillar of Jewish life  in Casablanca - Meir Michel Tordjman. An entry by a wellwisher on his Facebook page on 25 March records that he had been ill.

Born and bred in Casablanca, Tordjman, 62,  was open-minded enough to make available the Benarroch synagogue, built in1912 and famous for its acoustics, for concerts. One such concert  in 2013 was  the first public concert in a working synagogue in Casablanca,  and was arranged as as a goodbye gift to US Ambassador Sam Kaplan and his wife Sylvia.

The Tordjman family are responsible for maintaining the Benarroch synagogue, which is in the centre of town and popular for Barmitzvahs and other communal occasions. Casablanca has about 2,000 Jews.

Casablanca has the highest number of cases of the virus in Morocco, with 133 cases on 29 March. There have been 24 deaths in the country.

Meir Michel Tordjman z"l

Some other Jews lost to coronavirus

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Gaza in a bygone age of Jewish-Arab cooperation

Fascinating piece by Nadav Shagrai in Israel Hayom exploring Gaza's unknown Jewish history, before the strip became associated with religious extremism:

The old town of Gaza before 1963

Who would believe that only 110 years ago, then Chief Rabbi of Gaza Nissim Binyamin Ohana, and then mufti of Gaza Sheikh Abdullah al-Alami, co-authored a book?

 "In Gaza," Ohana wrote in one of his essays, "I wrote a book, Know What the Heretic Will Say in Response with the mufti of Gaza, Sheikh Abdullah, who would visit my home twice a week because he wanted to know the exact meaning of the verses copied from the Old Testament into the New Testament by the apostles."

 Ohana also wrote that he initiated the construction of a mikveh (ritual bath) for women in the city, as well as a project to purchase ground for a Jewish cemetery after he saw how the dead of Gaza were transported to Hebron for burial on the backs of donkeys.

 The children of Gaza – Jews and Arabs – liked to wear daggers embellished with locally produced beads. On Muslim holidays, Avraham Elkayam would take part in horseback and wrestling competitions. "We purposely lost to the Bedouin, lest they be offended," the Jews of Gaza would later recall.

 In September 1910, the newsletter "HaPoel HaTzair" reported that "relations between Arabs and Jews are very good, and no Jew has ever suffered in Gaza for being a Jew."In 1914, Zvi Hirschfeld, the founder of the Ruhama moshava in the western Negev, wrote in his diary that "On Tu BiShvat the children from the Gaza school had an excursion on our land and planted trees and ate the fruits of the land and celebrated the New Year for trees in a befitting manner, with songs and poetry."

Read article in full

More about Jewish Gaza

Friday, March 27, 2020

How a Canadian musicologist helped rescue 3,000 Syrian Jews

This is the story of Judy Feld Carr, a Canadian musicologist, who played an important part in the rescue of Syrian Jews, held hostage by the regime until the 1990s. Article in the Jerusalem Post magazine: 

Judy became involved in saving Syrian Jews from 1975

Judy came across an article from The Jerusalem Post that reported on the tragic deaths of 12 Syrian Jewish men, who ran across a minefield while attempting to flee the country to Turkey.

Judy was struck by the fact that the Syrian guards callously stood by and watched them die, one by one.

 “I was a musicologist, I didn’t know anything about Syria,” says Judy. “But something inside of me wanted to learn more and raise awareness.”

 Judy and Rubin approached the Israeli Consulate to see what they could do, where the consul instructed: “schrei gevalt” (Yiddish for “yell a lot”).

 Since independence, Syria’s estimated 40,000 Jews were subject to some of the worst forms of violence and discrimination imaginable. Unlike other Arab states,Syrian Jews were not officially expelled from the country.

 That did not stop the government from torturing and murdering anyone attempting to flee, while holding their families hostage. Sporadic riots killed dozens of Jews and destroyed hundreds of homes, shops and synagogues. The community itself was under heavy surveillance by the Mukhabarat (Syria’s secret police) and Jews could not travel more than three km from their neighborhoods without a permit.

 In 1975, Syrian president Hafez Assad explained why he refused to let the country’s Jews leave. “I cannot let them go,” he says, “because if I let them go how can I stop the Soviet Union sending its Jews to Israel, where they will strengthen my enemy?” Judy explained, given the narrow streets and where Jews were physically located, they were being leveraged as hostages against Israel.

Read article in full

More about Judy Feld Carr

Thursday, March 26, 2020

As corona hits Libya, Jews tell ex-countrymen: 'stay at home'

A video message  in Arabic produced by Libyan Jews outside Libya urges their ex-countrymen to stay at home, as the country records its first case of the corona virus. The irony is that these Jews were forced out of their homes in Libya. The New Arab reports:

Libyan Jews living abroad recorded themselves expressing support to Libyans in a Facebook video  amid the corona virus global pandemic. "A loving message from Libyan Jews in the diaspora to their Libyan brothers inside beloved Libya," reads the introductory message to the Arabic-language video.

The men featured in the video, some speaking with Libyan accents and dialects, urged Libyans to stay in their homes, as the North African country records its first case of the coronavirus.

"I have a request for the Libyan people: please, please stay at home," said Benghazi-born Simon Bedussa, 68, from Italy. "Because we love you. Okay?"

Read article in full

The man bringing Jews back to Libya (OZY)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Sephardi rabbis approve Passover seder by ZOOM

In a demonstration of how the Sephardi interpretation of halacha (religious law ) can often be more practical than that of Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis,  fourteen Sephardi rabbis passed a ruling that the Passover seder can be held this year via video conference to allow elderly  relatives isolated from their families to celebrate together. The Times of Israel reports:

A family seder (Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

The rabbis argued that there is a precedent, given that Shabbat laws can be put aside to give medical treatment even when patients are not in a life-threatening situation.

“Just as it is permissible for a non-critical patient to receive treatment on Shabbat in order to cure him of illness, such is the case here,” the rabbis wrote, giving the okay for the retelling of the Exodus story via Zoom or other videoconference software.

They were responding to a question they had received about the use of Zoom on Seder night to connect elderly relatives to their families in “a time of emergency,” and stressed it was a one-off dispensation granted in view of the extreme current circumstances.

 The rabbis outlined three potential problems with using the software to observe the festival custom: turning on an electrical device during a holiday; committing a “secular act” during the holiday, which could cheapen its value; and the fear that the practice would continue in the future, when it was no longer necessary.

The rabbis addressed the problems by referring to previous rulings by Sephardic and North African religious authorities that allowed using electrical devices on similar occasions, and by specifying that the devices needed to be turned on before the start of the holiday and left on throughout. They made clear that during the present crisis, using the software helped fulfill a mitzvah (commandment) for families to celebrate the festival together.

 The ruling said that the allowance would address “the need to alleviate sadness from elders and the needy.” The rabbis emphasized that “it’s clear to everyone that the ruling is for a time of emergency only,” and that young peoples’ connections to their grandparents are an essential part of many Seders.

While lenient religious rulings in Israel are often backed by rabbis from the liberal wing of Orthodoxy, this statement appears to be backed by more mainstream figures, although none are Ashkenazi. They include Eliyahu Abergel, head of Jerusalem’s rabbinical court, local rabbis such as Kiryat Gat’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Ben Hamo, and yeshiva rabbis such as Eyal Vered of Jerusalem’s Machon Meir institution.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau on Wednesday morning criticized the ruling, branding it “irresponsible, beyond ridiculous.”

Read article in full

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Coronavirus: warning to broad bean allergy sufferers

 Amid talk in the media that  an anti-malarial drug may be used to treat people with coronavirus, a warning has been sounded that people from the Middle East should exercise caution.

David Basson, chairman of Academics from Iraq in Israel, said that people with coronavirus who may suffer from the fava (broad bean) allergy should tell their doctor before being prescribed the drug hydroxychloroquine.

Millions around the world suffer from an allergy to broad beans. It is common among Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and Armenians. The allergy is common among Jews from Morocco. Kurdistan and Iraq. To a lesser extent it affects Yemenite, Iranian and Georgian Jews.

The allergy is caused by a genetic defect where the person lacks the enzyme G6PD. Quinine-based drugs such as chloroquine, commonly prescribed against malaria,  may cause hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells leading to severe anaemia). Little data is available on the effect of the derivative hydroxychloroquine on those with G6PD deficiency.

There is a positive side to this allergy -  statistics support the fact that broad bean allergy sufferers are better protected against malaria.

When it comes to the treatment of  coronavirus, Mr Basson adds: 'This drug may be safe and necessary, but just be aware."

Monday, March 23, 2020

Indian Jew attacked for 'spreading corona virus'

While the coronavirus crisis has for many brought about a sense of solidarity in adversity, there have been distressing instances of racism in Israel, such as the odd attack against Asian Jews. +972 magazine *reports:
Bnei Menashe women in Israel

Last Saturday, Am Shalem Singson, a 28-year-old yeshiva student, was walking toward downtown Tiberias with some friends when two Israeli men scrunched up their nose and called them “corona, corona.”

Singson told them that he wasn’t even from China, but India — he and his friends are Bnei Menashe, a community of Indian Jews, several thousand of whom live in Israel. But the men, angry at being questioned, first shoved, then repeatedly kicked him. Singson had to undergo surgery for severe injuries to his chest and lungs.

 Singson, who is still recovering in the hospital, believes that the novel coronavirus pandemic has become a catalyst for racists to escalate their bigotry. “They don’t want to live with us, they just want to fight,” he says. “They take advantage [of the situation] using coronavirus…and it’s not just me, many people face this.”

Read article in full

The story was also reported in the Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post

Sunday, March 22, 2020

My trip to Egypt for the re-dedication of the Alexandria synagogue

The re-dedication of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria was attended by almost two hundred Jews, mostly Egyptian-born or their descendants. Michelle Baruch wrote up her impressions of her trip for the Jerusalem Post. One of the highlights was her visit to the Jewish cemeteries. (With thanks: Vivi)

THE WRITER (second from the left) at the ancient pyramids of Saqqara. (photo credit: (DAVID FIALKOFF)

Michelle Baruch at the pyramids of Saqqara (Photo: David Flatioff)

The most moving day of our eight-day trip to Egypt was Friday, February 14, the visit to the two Jewish cemeteries of Alexandria, which are known as Chatby and Mazarita, and the rededication of the Nebi Daniel synagogue. On that Friday morning, buses and minivans shuttled all the visiting delegations to the two main Jewish cemeteries of Alexandria. An Arab family that lives in the Chatby cemetery, along with a team of other people, had worked relentlessly cleaning up the cemetery over the couple of weeks prior to our visit. Some 40 tons of garbage were removed from both of the Jewish cemeteries in Alexandria. This was also made possible by donations and financial assistance totaling $30,000 by members of the Egyptian Jewish community worldwide.

 After the rubbish was cleared, the extent of the damage became apparent. Many graves are no longer recognizable; either they were smashed or marble was stolen so there are no names on the graves. Fortunately, Al Zahraa Adel Awed, a kind Egyptian tour guide, had volunteered to search the Alexandria Jewish cemeteries for the names that people emailed in before the delegations arrived. Al Zahraa, can be contacted through her email:

She managed to locate one of my relatives, my mother’s father, Isaac Acker, who had passed away when my mom was only 15. It was moving for my mother, now 75, to find her father’s grave and light a candle and say kaddish there for him. More than 60 years had passed by without her having this opportunity.

 The following week we had a short visit to the Bassatine, the Jewish cemetery of Cairo, which is in even worse condition than Alexandria’s. Apparently the cemetery was being used as a garbage dump, and it took several hundred garbage trucks to clear out all the rubbish that had accumulated there over the last few decades. The Bassatine Cemetery is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world, after the Mount of Olives. Only 1,200 graves remain there with partial names, which is only 25% of the original amount. Several years ago, the cemetery was mapped and names can be searched online at: Additional info can also be obtained by emailing: 

Read article in full

Sisi authorises clean-up of Bassatine cemetery

Project to restore overgrown Jewish cemeteries is launched

Friday, March 20, 2020

Remembering Solaiman Haiim, Farsi dictonary pioneer

The author of what is widely considered the best English-Farsi dictionary yet produced died 50 years ago. Iranian Jews still revere the memory of Solaiman Haiim, while the Iranian regime has erased his legacy. Karmel Melamed writes in JNS News: 

As most Americans focused on Super Bowl Sunday last month, nearly 600 Iranian Jews gathered at the West Hollywood Temple Beth El to mark 50 years since the death of Solaiman Haiim, one of their community’s greatest scholars.

The name Haiim may not mean much to Americans or even most American Jews, but in Iran he was a legend, respected by Jews and non-Jews alike for creating the first English to Farsi and Farsi to English dictionaries. At the start of the 20th century, when Iran was modernizing and many Iranians were gaining higher education overseas, Haiim’s comprehensive two-volume dictionary was an invaluable resource, helping hundreds of thousands of students overcome the language barrier.

Solaiman Haiim: legacy erased by the regime

 While Haiim is still remembered and honored in Iranian Jewish circles, however, the Iranian regime has done everything in its power to erase his legacy. Haiim’s life story is something that must be kept alive for the new generation of Iranians.

 Haiim was born in 1887 in the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in Tehran to a religious Jewish family. His early education was in the maktab, or a grade school, but he later attended the Etehad High School in Tehran, established by the French Jewish non-profit organization “Alliance Israélite Universelle.”

The Alliance was created in 1860 by affluent Jewish philanthropists in Europe to provide a Western education to Jews living in Muslim lands. It was not until 1898 that the Alliance was permitted by the Iranian Qajar dynasty to establish their schools in Iran. Indeed, Haiim was one of the first beneficiaries of the Alliance school in Tehran, later enrolling himself in the American College of Tehran to complete his education and learn English. After graduating from the college in 1915, Haiim became a full-time teacher at the college and single-handedly began work on an English-Farsi dictionary.

His first, smaller dictionary received praise from students and scholars, but beginning in the 1920s, it became obvious there was a need for a more comprehensive work due to Western governments’ business and diplomatic activities in the country. Haiim worked nearly 18 continuous hours per day to complete this more comprehensive English to Farsi dictionary, finally completing it in 1929. It was published in two expansive volumes.

Read article in full

Dictionaries of Judeo-Arabic

Thursday, March 19, 2020

How education evolved for Jews in Beirut

In April 1856, the Austrian-Jewish writer Ludwig Auguste Frankl stayed in the old Jewish quarter of Beirut. He describes seeing a small room in  the  synagogue where 70 students were learning to read and write Hebrew and study the Bible. The rabbi was Aaron Yedid-Levy.

According to Nagi Georges Zeidan, a Lebanese researcher with a special interest in the Jewish community, this institution was the forerunner of the Talmud Torah school in Beirut. In 1922,
the Jewish newspaper of Lebanon announced that  the Talmud Torah school in Beirut  had celebrated its 42th anniversary.
When the school was founded in 1880, it was only attended by boys. It was located on Philip El Khazen Street,  later known as Wadi Abu Jamil. A letter in Hebrew (left) dated 12 July 1920  was sent from the Torah Mizrahi in Beirut to notify the Central Committee in  Jerusalem of the school's change of name.

According to Zeidan, the Maghen Avraham synagogue was built on the site of the school which was moved to the rear of the building and renamed Selim Tarrab school.

The Maghen Avraham synagogue prior to its restoration

A classroom in the Selim Tarrab school, 1960s (courtesy Charles Khodri)

The Selim Tarrab school acted as a primary feeder school for the Alliance Israélite Universelle*.  It took in mostly needy children and was the second largest Jewish school in Lebanon. The school's director until 1970 was Joseph Khodri. The Selim Tarrab school was closed in that year and demolished in 2003. Khodri went on to become deputy head at the Alliance Israelite until he left for Mexico in 1974. The Alliance school closed a year or two later.

Joseph Khodri, director of the Selim Tarrab school until 1970 (Courtesy Charles Khodri)

*A second high school called the Ecole Commerciale, taught practical skills  such as shorthand typing, to less academic pupils

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

'The Jews are to blame for the coronavirus''

It did not take long for people in Muslim countries to blame the Jews for the coronavirus. Indeed, it  is  one of the oldest libels in the history of antisemitism: Jews are responsible for spreading the plague.  Here is its latest iteration, in Turkey and among Islamists. In Iran, a Zionist American conspiracy is being blamed.  

Tourists strolling in Istanbul

According to the Jerusalem Post, the coronavirus is a Zionist plot spread by Jews to decrease the world population, some members of Turkey's press and public have said, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

 MEMRI, which specializes in translating Middle Eastern media into English, has uncovered a number of incidences of Turks blaming the coronavirus epidemic on Jews and Zionism.

 In a video posted to Twitter on March 13 by IMChaber24, a minibus driver and his passengers can be heard engaging in antisemitic conspiracy theories. The driver claims that all outbreaks, from AIDS to Ebola were created by pharmaceutical companies, before asking: "And to whom do the companies belong?" A passenger suggests "the rich," but the driver immediately counters with "the Jews."

 A fellow passenger then opines: "[The Jews] will do anything to end the lineage of the Turks," to which another adds: "Not only Turks, sister, they will do anything to bring the world to its knees."

  Read article in full

  The Algemeiner reports: 

When initial reports about the virus came out of China, Salafists in Egypt, Morocco, and elsewhere dubbed it a “Soldier of God” targeting those infidels who work against him.

“The power of God strikes upon China, Communism and Buddhism: Crowded Hospitals. China declared war on Islam and Muslims and persecuted our brothers Uyghurs,” Abdul Razzak al-Mahdi, a Syrian Salafist, tweeted on Jan. 20.

“God gave them a soldier (virus). And many of God’s soldiers said, Glory be to Him … O God, increase their suffering and affliction until they stop fighting your religion and worshipers.” An Egyptian cleric celebrated that the “power of God strikes upon the Buddhist communist China. China launched a war against our Muslim Uyghur brothers and God sent his soldier [coronavirus]. God is not unjust to his worshipers.”

Videos of Islamist clerics praying for the demise of Chinese communists were common. “After China isolated more than 5 million Muslims,” one wrote on January 25, “the whole world is isolating China because of the outbreak of the coronavirus among Chinese in fear of contamination.”

The tenor of Islamist comments changed after the outbreak spread into other countries, particularly Iran. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Major General Hossein Salami suggested that the coronavirus might be a biological weapon developed by the United States against China and Iran. Iran now is suffering one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, with a reported 853 people killed by the illness as of Monday. The actual number could be dramatically higher. Its victims include high-ranking government officials and senior clerics.

Read article in full

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Cairo-born Jewish leader dies in Italy of coronavirus

Michele Sciama, a former secretary-general of the Jewish Community of Milan,  has died of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Born in Cairo in 1941, he was a driving force behind the Edoth project, which aimed to collect oral testimony from Jews born in  Arab and Muslim countries. Article in Moked:

Micky Sciama

 Sciama, known to his friends and family as Micky, was 79 when he died Monday morning. He is survived by his wife, Viviane, and two daughters, Dalia and Stefania, the Italian-Jewish Moked news site wrote in an obituary. He was particularly close to the family and that of the Egyptian Jewish community.

Life had led him to study in London, where he had graduated in engineering, and subsequently in Milan, where for decades he had been first company manager and then, from 1993 to 2007, secretary general of the Jewish Community.

 After his professional experience he had made his skills and enthusiasm available to Milanese Judaism and the CDEC Foundation. An overwhelming force, a fire that animated him and that forced those around him to share his planning. Micky was one of the main animators of the Edoth (community) project, which is responsible for collecting the testimonies of Jews forced after the Second World War to abandon the Mediterranean communities, from Syria to Lebanon, from Libya to Iran and precisely to Egypt.

He had promoted it and through numerous interviews with Egyptian Jews and their testimony, which enriches the CDEC collection,  it would have been impossible without the indispensable role played by Micky Sciama.

Read article in full

Monday, March 16, 2020

London rabbi contracted virus 'before Morocco visit'

The Council of Jewish Communities in Morocco is claiming that a  London rabbi who has shown symptoms  of the coronavirus after a four-day visit to Morocco contracted the virus before he arrived in the country. This article in Yabiladi is desperate to show that Morocco does not have a problem with the virus. A health crisis would be disastrous for the country's tourist industry. Morocco has reported 17 cases of Covid-19 and one death. (with thanks: Michelle)

St Johns Wood synagogue, London

London’s St John’s Wood Synagogue rabbi Yoni Golker contracted coronavirus before traveling to Morocco earlier this month, the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco said in a communiqué sent Sunday to Yabiladi. 

 The rabbi 'went for a four-day trip to Morocco (between March 2 and 5,' the same communiqué read, adding that 'the Federation of Synagogues Ohr Yisrael in the UK has confirmed that Yoni Golker 'has been contaminated by one of the old members of his congregation before his Morocco trip'.

 'The few members of the community that the British rabbi has briefly met are feeling well and have not shown any symptoms,' the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco concluded.

 The British rabbi has said that he 'had mild symptoms and is feeling better than when they first appeared last week'. He is currently 'in quarantine isolation in London.'

Read article in full

BBC Arabic downplays Egyptian antisemitism

In this profile of two young Australian Jews 'returning' to Egypt for the re-opening of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria,  BBC Arabic seems to have taken on the role of promoting Egypt's tourism industry. In a trend noted here and here, it misleads on the ethnic cleansing of Jews whose numbers have reduced from 80 -100,000 to fewer than 10, and vaguely blames 'wars and politics'.  In fact,  Egyptian Jews were victims of state-sanctioned antisemitism. (With thanks: Tarek)

Egypt is now witnessing what may appear in the eyes of some to a change in the nature of the relationship between the Jews and Egypt, in which tens of thousands of them lived in the first half of the twentieth century before politics and wars interfered and spoiled their lives.

Alex and Jack March, following in the footsteps of their grandfather

This change prompted the numbers of Egyptian Jews who left nearly 70 years ago and their families to return - albeit at least to visit - the motherland.

Among them are descendants of Egyptian Jews visiting Egypt for the first time. The two Australian brothers, Alex and Jack, went to Egypt for the first time early this year to visit the home of their Egyptian Jewish grandfather, Nissim March, whose family left the country and left after the flare-up of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 and none of them ever returned since then.

 The March brothers say that they have long heard about Egypt and about Alexandria, in which their grandfather founded a house whose name is still engraved on it until now. Therefore, the visit was postponed until the opening of the "Eliyahu Hanabi" temple on Prophet Daniel Street in central Alexandria after the restoration.

Read article in full (Arabic)

Sunday, March 15, 2020

At least two Jews have died in Iran from coronavirus

One of the worst outbreaks of the corona virus has occurred in Iran.  Unconfirmed reports say at least 15 members of the ruling Islamic regime have died. Now the virus is taking its toll on the 8,000-member Jewish community, The Jerusalem Post reports: 

Some of the members of the ruling regime said to have died from coronavirus (Photo montage: K Melamed)

Two members of the Jewish community in Iran died after contracting coronavirus, a source within the Jewish community told Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) newspaper "Yated Neaman", Walla reported on Friday.

These are the first two deaths in Iran's Jewish community that were officially reported since the virus first broke out in the Islamic Republic. According to the source, "it remains unclear whether it will be possible to bring [the two] to a proper Jewish burial."

Read article in full

Saturday, March 14, 2020

How a Beirut institution went from welcoming to banning Jews

Nowadays, the American University of Beirut bans Jewish students; historically, it welcomed them. (Indeed, some alumni would go on to prominent posts in the state of Israel.) Tamara Berens in Mosaic explains how the school, started by an American missionary,  became the crucible of Arab nationalism, itself founded by Arab Christians, and Palestine its signature cause.

At its height in the early 20th century, Jews made up 12 percent of the student population—no small feat in an era when Jews faced restrictive quotas at major universities in America and Europe.
In those days, AUB’s Jewish students made up a vibrant and diverse community, drawn variously from recent Ashkenazi immigrants to the yishuv in Palestine, Iraqi Jews, the mixed Jewish community of Beirut itself, and elsewhere. And Jewish life at AUB was comfortable. Thanks to the availability of kosher food, the proximity to Palestine, and such extras as Hebrew-language instruction courtesy of the campus Jewish club, students were able to maintain their specific identity while benefiting from an excellent liberal-arts education. Jewish graduates of AUB would go on to hold prominent positions in public life, including eventually in the state of Israel.
What kind of school was AUB, and how did it come about? Its origins, in fact, lay outside of the Levant: in the United States, and in the dreams of a Christian missionary.
In 1855, the young Daniel Bliss sailed from Boston to the Ottoman province of Syria. As a student at Amherst College, he had been inspired by the religious dynamism of antebellum America. The Second Great Awakening was bringing thousands of “witnesses” to evangelical meetings centered on the theme of humanitarian service. One sermon in particular, by the Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins, struck the young man with its emphasis on Christian love as the cure for “poverty, injustice, and oppression.” To him, this was God’s mission not just for America but for the whole world—and he would be its agent. In his Amherst commencement address in 1852, he foresaw “no finality this side of the gates of the New Jerusalem” until liberty broke out “like day” across the world.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Latest photos: Ezekiel's tomb enclosed by latticework structure

With thanks: Kobi Arami at  Jews of Iraq (Jews of Babylon)

The decoration in the burial chamber of  the shrine of Ezekiel is intact at al-Kifl, Iraq. But the  tomb of Ezekiel itself is being enclosed in a large wooden structure.

Contrary to reports, photos taken one month ago show that the  Hebrew inscriptions  and original floral decoration have not been removed. However, a large latticework structure will prevent pilgrims from approaching or touching the tomb itself. The photos show an imam directing a group of workmen to erect the structure.

All photos courtesy Jews of Iraq (Jews of Babylon)

Within the last ten years, the shrine was transformed into a Shi'a mosque which dwarfs the original site, owned by the Daniel family. The shrine at the centre is said to be that of Dhu al-Kifl, a minor prophet  mentioned in the Koran, but wall hangings emphasise the Imam Ali, the most important figure in Shi'a Islam.

Before the flight of the Jews of Iraq in the 1950s, the shrine of Ezekiel was the most popular of Jewish holy sites, drawing some 5,000 pilgrims for the festival of Shavu'oth. The ministry of heritage and tourism wanted to restore the original character of the site in order to attract tourists. However, the Wakf, with funding from Iran, prevailed and undertook the major redevelopment of the site.

More about the shrine of Ezekiel

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Yemenite exhibition opens in Jerusalem

A new exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum on Yemenite Jews and their relations with the land of Israel has opened. Report by Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am in the Times of Israel:  

Over time, Jews living at Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea learned to produce rare cosmetics from the balsam tree that were coveted by wealthy Europeans. A small jug whose resin is thought to be from the balsam tree, dating back nearly 2,000 years and discovered near the Dead Sea, is on display at the exhibit. Museum visitors are invited to get a whiff for themselves of balsam, frankincense and myrrh.

Potsherds from the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, engraved with South Arabic writing, were discovered at several sites in Judah, evidence of commercial connections between the two countries. One shard on display is even inscribed with the word KHN which could possibly relate to the word Kohen — or priest, in Hebrew. Other artifacts at the exhibit include several Yemenite funerary steles, stone monuments to mark a grave. Engraved on the face of one that dates back to the fifth century BCE is the word Abd, the name of the deceased.

 An alabaster funerary stele depicts a woman whose right hand is raised in a gesture of prayer, and whose left holds a sheaf of wheat. A third, made of limestone, is a statuette of a woman’s head, with an inscription mentioning both her name and that of her father.

On the wall, a photo by Naftali Hilger showing a Yemenite Jew reading a book upside down

The exhibit’s statuette of twin alabaster camels dates back to the first century BCE. According to Yehuda Kaplan, our guide and one of the curators of the exhibit, the fact that they were given names points to the standing of camels as integral to the Spice Trail. Resin from the spices was so highly valued that in 26 BCE, Roman emperor Augustus tried to capture South Arabia and wrest control of the spices from its rulers. To that end, he sent an army of 10,000 soldiers, 500 Jews drafted by King Herod, and a thousand Nabateans — locals who served as middlemen in the spice trade — to help in the conquest. The Nabateans led the Roman army in circles until they ran out of food and water, and were forced to give up the attempt.

 The fact that Judean soldiers accompanied the Roman army into South Arabia is the first indication we have of Jews in Yemen. Whether they remained or not is uncertain. But we do know that during the first centuries of the common era, when the Kingdom of Himyar controlled the land, Yemenite Jews did well for themselves. They even had a strong influence on the country’s rulers, for around the year 375 the royal family adopted Judaism, and so did many of their subjects. They called their god the Merciful, and sometimes, the Lord of the Jews. Yemenite Jews often expressed a longing for their homeland — and quite a few asked to be buried in the land of Israel. One burial cave in Beit Shearim in the Lower Galilee, dating back to around 250 BCE refers to “the Jews of Himyar,” and a funerary stele found southeast of the Dead Sea (today part of Jordan) notes that the deceased died in the land of the Himyarites.

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