Friday, July 03, 2020

BBC watchdog rejects complaints on refugees

Last Monday was not a happy day for Elisha Manasseh.  He had had a third complaint rejected by OFCOM, which adjudicates on complaints to the BBC.

He first complained to the BBC in 2018, claiming that its reporting on the MENA constantly refers to Palestinian refugees, while ignoring Jewish refugees.

"I have now been through the whole system with the BBC,"  he says.

Manasseh  argued that the BBC had breached its own guidelines on accuracy and impartiality when it failed to mention Jews displaced from Arab countries in a background 'explainer' to the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2019, held in Tel Aviv.

The BBC retorted that  'impartiality' did not mean that every reference to one side had to be matched with a reference to the other side. For example, a reference to Israel's security concerns needed not be matched by a reference to Hamas security concerns.  They claimed that Jewish refugees arising out of the' Arab/Israeli conflict' were 'irrelevant' to the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Finally, they said, the Oslo Accords allegedly addressed Palestinian refugees but makes no mention of Jewish refugees.

In fact this statement  is incorrect, as the Oslo Accords deferred such difficult topics as borders, Jerusalem and refugees to be discussed as final status issues. The Clinton Parameters of 2000 did mention Jewish refugees. The BBC does mention the Palestinian 'right of return' - a euphemism for the destruction of Israel by overwhelming the country with thousands of returnees. It is essential to the audience's understanding to explain this point, but the explanation is never given.

The BBC's position confuses claims with facts. Both sets of refugees - Jewish and Arab - arose out of the same conflict and both should be mentioned in the context.
Some 90 percent of the Jews of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen fled to Israel within three years of 1948. Some 90 percent of Jews fled Arab countries in the 15 years since 1948 (and many more of those would have left earlier, but were officially banned from leaving ), making this one the most dramatic examples of ethnic cleansing in the 20th century.

  There was an exchange of refugee populations between Israel and the Arab world. The BBC regularly mentions the exchange between India and Pakistan and gives equal weight to both parties.

A radio programme with the historian Simon Schama marking Israel's 70th anniversary did mention Jewish refugees, but the Jewish side deserves equal time, not a solitary mention on a single programme.

It appears that a lone complainant will  remain a voice in the wilderness unless the Jewish refugee issue is consistently and loudly raised by  the Jewish establishment and Israeli spokespersons.

Will Elisha Manasseh now give up complaining?

"What I will be doing is just carrying on, waiting for the next time they mention the subject, and there will be a next time, I will start all over again," he declares, undaunted.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

The US-born daughter of Mashadi Jews tells her story

Esther Amini is the American-born daughter of parents who had fled Mashad, Iran, where the Jewish community lived as secret Jews after a 19th century forced conversion. In Concealed she tells the story of being caught between these two worlds: the dutiful daughter of tradition-bound parents who hungers for more self-determination than tradition allows. Here is an extract from an interview with Esther  in the Jewish Week.

“The story of the Mashhadi Jews, who lived like Marranos or crypto-Jews, has never been told before in a first-hand or second-hand account,” Amini tells The Jewish Week. The women, who were not educated, were not writing diaries. The men weren’t putting their feelings into journals. There are written histories, but no memoirs or autobiographies or private accounts of what life felt like.”

 Amini was able to learn of her family’s past from her late mother, who “was a big talker and would tell stories again and again.” Her father, in contrast, was withdrawn and did not speak about his past or about most things. She felt like she was the bridge between their history and the present, and felt a sense of responsibility to tell their stories.

 Her father, Fatulla Aminoff, who came from long line of landowners, merchants and traders, grew up in a home where speech was prohibited. His father disowned him when, as a young man, he came back from a boarding school for wealthy Jewish boys in England and then broke all ties when Fatulla married Amini’s mother, Hana Levi — she was 14 and he was 34 — when he was supposed to marry his first cousin, as was tradition. The age differences of Amini’s parents was customary; her grandmother married at 9.

 Her mother’s mother, named Esther, died in childbirth, and her father died when she was 2. Hana was raised by a kind stepmother, but felt betrayed when she learned from someone in the community that she wasn’t her birth mother. Amini says that for her mother, “time froze then, she couldn’t get beyond that.” She lived in mourning for her mother.

Read article in full

Esther Amini's website

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Chabad sets up rival community in Dubai

Do the 1,500 Jews of Dubai need two synagogues? A Chabad rabbi's attempt to set up a rival community  so soon afterJews have come out of the woodwork has raised official eyebrows and caused unease.  The Times of Israel reports: 

It’s a story as old as Jewish history itself. A community establishes itself, and inevitably splits into the synagogue you go to and the one you don’t, as the old joke goes.

 Only this time it’s in Dubai, where a young rabbi from the Chabad Lubavitch movement is facing a backlash and an official reprimand, after a concerted public relations campaign introducing his new congregation in recent weeks persistently neglected to acknowledge the existence of the city’s established but media-shy Jewish community.
Rabbi Levi Duchman (Photo: Levi Teitelbaum)

 It could have been the feel-good story of the summer: the small but vibrant Jewish community of the United Arab Emirates coming out of the woodwork, opening social media accounts and giving interviews about Jewish life in the Gulf.

But local authorities last week ordered the people behind this particular community — a small group that splintered off from the city’s existing congregation — to “immediately” suspend their social media accounts, The Times of Israel has learned.

 Rather than do so, however, the maverick group, led by enterprising Chabad rabbi Levi Duchman and his businessman associate Solly Wolf, has merely changed the name, description and profile photos of its Twitter account, which for several weeks created the impression they were the country’s officially recognized Jewish community.

Read article in full

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The 1945 Tripoli massacre that never was

A historian has questioned whether a massacre of up to 14 Jews in the Lebanese town of Tripoli actually took place in 1945.

History books have long recorded that a massacre took place in Tripoli, Lebanon ( aka Tripoli de Syrie)  on 9 November 1945. Twelve to 14 Jews were allegedly killed. The authoritative history of the Jews of Lebanon published in 2001 by a professor at the London School of Economics, Kirsten E. Schulze, cites the massacre. So does the Encyclopaedia of the Jews in the Islamic World, published in 2010.

But no newspapers of the time  - the Palestine Post,  the Lebanese and international press - report such a massacre.

The Lebanese- Jewish newspaper Al- Alam carred a report of the massacre in Tripoli, Libya in November 1945. It made no mention of a massacre in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Historian of Lebanese Jewry Nagi Georges Zeidan believes that the misconception, recycled in published works,   arose out of confusion with a massacre that occurred in Tripoli, Libya ( aka Tripoli de Libye) between 5 and 7 November 1945. Some 130 Libyan Jews were murdered in that episode. A Jewish source told Zeidan that he had not heard of a massacre in Lebanon and  that relations between Jews and non-Jews in the country only began to deteriorate at the time of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

The synagogue in Tripoli, Lebanon, now a dry cleaner's.

Nagi Zeidan says that  there is no evidence of a mass burial, nor is such a massacre commemorated by the Jewish community.

According to Zeidan, there were 84 Jews in Tripoli, Lebanon in 1930. The census of 1932 puts their number at 25. Zeidan lists eight households from the town. The family of Ibrahim Cohen had moved to Beirut.  Isaac, son of Simon Ninigan, had no children. The only daughter of rabbi Chehadeh moved to Sidon. Selim, son of Jacob Srour,  died in 1951 and is buried in Beirut. The Mizrahi family emigrated first to Israel then to the US. Youssef, son of Chehadeh Mizrahi, died in October 1945, three weeks before the massacre, and is buried in Beirut. He had no offspring. There was another surviving son, Mourad.

Nagi Georges Zeidan, who is  Lebanese Christian,  first began researching the history of the Jews of Lebanon 25 years ago. He is about to publish a book in France this summer 2020, Les juifs du Liban d'Abraham à nos jours et leur tragique disparition  For details and to donate towards  publishing costs, click here.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Liberal fought for Jewish citizens' rights in Iraq

This interesting piece by Raad Yahya Qasim, an academic based in Brazil, profiles his father Yahya, editor of the newspaper Al Sha'b until 1958. Yahya typified a breed of liberal Iraqi who worked with, and was sympathetic to, the increasingly oppressed Jews of Iraq. However, it is not clear how his work as a lawyer helped mitigate the 1951 Denationalisation Law, which froze the property of Jews departing Iraq, and remains on the statute book to this day. (With thanks to all those who flagged up this article).

Yahya Qassim at the editor's desk of Al Sha'b

Returning to the core of my story—Al-Sha’b (the people in Arabic) was launched in 1945 by Yahya Qassim with the aim of using the editorials he penned to advocate daily and emphatically for a pluralist, democratic Iraq, where citizens—whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or of any other set of personal faiths and beliefs—are considered fully equal under the rule of law. In less than a year, Al-Sha’b rose to become the leading newspaper in Iraq in terms of its circulation, its liberal editorial policy, and its independence from any political party or group. True to Qassim’s pluralist principles, there were several Jewish professionals working at Al-Sha’b alongside Muslims and Christians, both as journalists and in administrative positions.

 In 1946, with Al-Sha’b in its second year of publication, the political atmosphere in Iraq started to grow increasingly tense in view of the expected creation of the State of Israel. Iraqi public opinion was roughly divided into three views on this matter: The first view was that of Iraqi political parties and newspapers pushing the Arab nationalist approach of considering Iraqi Jewry and Zionism as one and the same and exhibiting outright hostility toward the Jewish community in Iraq. The second view, predominant in the ruling establishment, looked at the question through a somewhat more moderate and pragmatic lens, taking into account the pressure exerted by some other Arab governments, particularly Syria’s, to follow a hard-line policy toward Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel.

 The third view was that of a minority, in which Yahya Qassim was a leading example. This view was embodied in Qassim’s daily editorials in Al-Sha’b, arguing that Iraqi Jews were—both de jure and de facto—fully equal to other Iraqi citizens, and that the creation of the State of Israel was a separate and distinct question of Iraqi governmental foreign policy. Furthermore, Qassim argued that sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinian Arabs in no way conflicted with the recognition of the full rights of Jews as Iraqi citizens.

  Read article in full

The author pays tribute to New Babylonians by Orit Bashkin, which mentions his father Yahya Qasim on page 215:

"Al-Sha'b, a paper edited by Yahya Qasim, critiqued Zionism, yet made the distinction between Zionism and Judaism. Qasim was close to Hesqel Shemtov, acted as the lawyer of the community, and negotiated many of the deals regarding the Denationalisation Law. Menashe Somekh came to work for Al Sha'b and quickly became one of Al-Sha'b's leading workers. .. In a story about a discussion in the British House of Lords concerning the sufferings of the Palestinian refugees, Al Sha'b published an article about a prominent Jewish author who sought to alleviate their misery...The article suggested that a Jew, despite his religion, could sympathise with the plight of the Palestinians since ethics and compassion, and not religion, were what determined how one responded to the refugee problem.....Unlike the right, which urged jews to leave Iraq as soon as possible,  Al Sha'b implied that leaving for Israel would not solve their problems."

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Jews of Mosul escaped intimidation and injustice

In tribute to Ezra Laniado,  the author of one of the few books about the Jews of Mosul, Dena Attar in The Jewish Chronicle recalls the suffering of this small community in the north of Iraq. The period before their mass flight to Israel was replete with threats, extortion and anti-Jewish agitation.

Mosul, Iraq’s second city, was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. Jews were conscripted into the Ottoman army from 1908 and many did go to fight, with about 100 joining the “matches” battalion, nicknamed when they had to hold up matches to find their way to the frontline at night.

 Many other Jews from Mosul, like my grandfather, escaped conscription and probable death by going into hiding in local Kurdish villages or in cellars, aided by the community who stalled Ottoman officials searching for them. One story even told of a father retrieving his conscripted son from the Syrian city of Homs as the Ottoman army was in such chaos nobody could stop him.

 The war brought extreme suffering, especially during the famine of 1916-17 when the army seized all of Mosul’s food supplies. Two rabbis, Hakham Yahya Hamo and Hakham Eliyahu Barzani, who both sold spices, perfumes and herbal medicines, raised money to feed the starving population. One man who sold his home and entire possessions to feed his family but was still destitute went to “Babylon” (Baghdad) to plead with Rabbi Dangoor to help famine-stricken “Assyria” , lamenting “there is no pity and there is no mercy and hunger is outside every door.”

Haham Yahya Hamo, Dena Attar's great uncle: raised money to feed starving Jews in 1917

 The British were welcomed to begin with as one of the first things they did was reopen the grain barns, but nationalist feeling in the 1930s following Iraq’s independence was fiercely anti-British and becoming influenced by antisemitism. In April 1939 when the young king died in a car accident but was rumoured to have been assassinated, a crowd gathered in Mosul to attack the Jewish quarter. The rioters were diverted at the last moment, storming the British consulate instead and murdering the consul George Monck-Mason.

 Two years later during Rashid Ali al-Gailani’s pro-German regime the Jewish community was again terrorised with threats and absurd spying allegations. Many Jews were searched, imprisoned and tortured. The military governor Kassem Maksoud summoned 14 community leaders and attempted to extort a huge sum from them in gold coins, beyond what they could possibly raise. Eyewitnesses recalled that he was unable to look them in the eye when he claimed this was to guarantee their loyalty.

 One informant recalled the day news of the June 1941 Farhud in Baghdad — in which hundreds were robbed and killed — was intercepted by Habib Salah Shaoul, a Jewish telegram worker in the post office. Shaoul decided at the risk of his job to shelve the telegram and warn the community rather than passing it on. That delay gave the Mosul community a chance to prepare and defend themselves, averting an attack.

 There were a few years when conditions in Mosul improved but in the late 1940s Jews from nearby Kurdish villages began leaving after numerous threats and murders, and anti-Jewish agitation intensified at all levels. The old system of Kurdish Jews relying on local chieftains for their livelihoods and protection was breaking down.

 Mosul’s one Jewish MP, Sasson Tsemach, had made a point of cultivating good relationships with Christian religious leaders. In 1946 he interceded in customary informal style with a Christian patriarch to get justice when a large number of Jewish pilgrims travelling to the tomb of Prophet Nahum in the Kurdish Christian village of al-Qosh were attacked and robbed. Tsemach was only partially successful as local people threatened reprisals when the perpetrators were identified and arrested. The community had little recourse to justice when police and army officers in Mosul harassed them, raiding homes on flimsy evidence and jailing anyone they alleged was a Zionist agent.

The community was forced to pay bribes to get prisoners released. Mail between Iraq and Palestine was legal before 1948 but possession of mail from Palestine, and later from Israel, became a crime. As letters took time to arrive, emigrants from Mosul and Kurdistan had already written asking after friends and family. When such letters were intercepted, houses would be searched and people arrested and interrogated.

 Shoshana Arbili, who eventually became a member of the Knesset, wrote from Israel to Raful Chai Hamo asking after his sisters and her friends. One of them, a child named Lillian mentioned in her letter, was detained and questioned for hours in the police station. Once it seemed they had no future in Iraq, Mosul’s Jews endured a long wait for transport and permission to leave.

 Entire Kurdish Jewish communities driven from their villages were stuck in transit in the city for a year, housed in school and synagogue halls. When they ran out of food, and fuel Ezra Laniado and his friends raised funds to support them. Mosul’s Jewish population was a tenth the size of Baghdad’s, less wealthy and less influential, but their loss of homes, businesses, property and culture was as traumatic and perhaps even more complete.

Read article in full

Friday, June 26, 2020

Far-left magazine makes allegations of 'Mizrahi-washing'

It was bound to happen: the Israeli far left, through its mouthpiece at +972 magazine, is making accusations of 'Mizrahi-washing'.

An article by Lihi Yona, who is a student at Columbia university in New York, comes as 'push-back' against the writings of  Hen Mazzig and Nave Dromi.  Yona claims they are 'hasbara-niks'  in the service of Israel, working to make the Jewish state look better than it deserves. According to Yona, Israel indulges in 'Mizrahi-washing'.  That is to say it  exploits Mizrahim as it does gays through  'pinkwashing':Israel  allegedly promotes its tolerance and protection of lesbians and gays only in order to obscure its 'oppressive' treatment of Palestinians.

Hen Mazzig: accused of being a 'hasbara-nik'

Yona admits that it is good to recognise the existence of Mizrahi Jews, but only if they can be portrayed as victims of 'white' European Jews. Thus she lumps together examples of Israeli police or army brutality against Mizrahim, Ethiopians and Palestinians, without spelling out the particular circumstances leading to each death. And why not add instances of historic discrimination  into the mix - when Israel 'dumped' Mizrahim into tent camps and 'kidnapped' Yemenite children?

Dromi's op-ed in Newsweek criticises Palestinian activists and their fellow-travellers for hijacking the Black Lives Matter campaign in order to to draw parallels with 'privileged  white' Israelis' oppression of 'black' Palestinians.

In fact Dromi turns current misconceptions, straightjacketing people into facile categories of identity politics, on their head: Mizrahim see Arab and Muslim privilege in a similar way to how a person of colour might see a white person in the US. In his work Mazzig, too, evokes the Arab antisemitism experienced by his Tunisian and Iraqi family before they moved to Israel.

Yona concedes that both Dromi and Mazzig are correct - Mizrahim suffered violence and displacement. But they are 'fixated on the past' and 'deny the power Israel possesses with  regard to Palestinians'. These are perpetual victims, and  never have any agency in the oppression of Jews.The pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, terrorism and Hamas missiles simply do not exist in Yona's 'woke' narrative.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Tablet tribute to Memmi - a complex intellectual giant

Albert Memmi, who died in May 2020 aged  99, was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century - although probably one of the most underrated. Now that he is dead, his true worth may perhaps be truly appreciated.  In-depth account of Albert Memmi's work in Tablet magazine by Jonathan Judaken.

Memmi in 1988 (Photo: Getty iimages)

Unlike postcolonial theorists who have tended to treat Zionism as allied with colonialism, Memmi made a compelling case for aligning Zionism with anti-colonial nationalism, rather than empire. This was initially undertaken in a period when Israel was broadly understood by the left as a decolonizing, socialist, humanist undertaking. Nurtured on the Jewish traditions of Tunis, Memmi came of age as a socialist Zionist in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, and he believed that Zionism articulates the national liberation struggle of the Jewish people. Just as he argued for other postcolonial states, he maintains that the State of Israel is necessary to liberating Jews from millennia of degradation and humiliation.

 Memmi was always a steadfast secularist, skeptical about many aspects of Judaism. He understood the Bible, the Talmud, and Kabbalah as “monuments of world literature,” that contain, “an inexhaustible reservoir of themes, designs and symbols” but they become desiccated when they are treated as sacred texts. These views would emerge with clarity in his two masterworks on Jews in the 1960s, Portrait of a Jew (1962) and The Liberation of the Jew (1966).

 Following the Six-Day War, Memmi continued to compose essays on the Arab-Israeli conflict, gathered in his collection, Jews and Arabs (1974). Published in the hostile year between the bitterly fought Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the U.N. declaration that Zionism is a form of racism in 1975, the book was dedicated to both his Jewish and Arab “brothers/so that we can all/be free men at last.” Memmi clearly hoped the light he cast on relations between Jews and Arabs would bring them closer, despite the growing antagonism and polarization created by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

He wrote the book as a self-described “Arab Jew” and a left-wing Zionist, distilling his position on the conflict. In his essay, “What Is an Arab Jew,” Memmi explains that most Jews in Arab lands were culturally Arabs: in their language, clothing, cooking, music, and daily habits. But a peaceful and unproblematic coexistence between Jews and Muslims is a myth, he insists—a narrative fostered mostly by Arab propagandists and European leftists. He also suggested that the myth of peaceful coexistence appealed to Israelis hopeful of a utopian coexistence in Israel and the nostalgic viewpoint of Jews from North Africa looking back on the places where they grew up.

 Even Western Jewish historians who compare the experience of Jews in Russia less favorably to the experience of Jews in the Maghreb reinforce the legend, according to Memmi. The relationship between Jews and Arabs was fragile, and occasionally erupted into overt hostility or violence.The myth of peace before the rise of Zionism has its double in the role played by “Israel” within pan-Arabism, he argues. In “The Arab Nation and the Israeli Thorn,” Memmi explains how Arab states constituted “Israel” as the evil Other in order to create Arab unity.

 In the face of their divergent social structures and internal challenges, “Israel” enables Arab regimes to symbolically coalesce around an enemy. It provides coherence, but at an exorbitant cost—“for this policy of waging war exhausts their economies’ possibilities in advance, [and] impedes all efforts at democratization.”

Who is an Arab Jew?

More about Albert Memmi

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Ambassador compiles index of Damascus names

A former Israeli ambassador, Jacob Rosen, has been working hard to compile an index of surnames of Jewish families from Damascus. Report in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Alan)

 Rosen, who is fluent in several languages, including Arabic, wrote that, "like many other Jewish communities in the Levant, the Jewish community of Damascus dwindled from a thriving community with 12,000 members in 1943 until only a handful remained by 2010. Its members largely left for Mandatory Palestine and later to the State of Israel, the USA or Latin America, where they established thriving new communities founded on a rich heritage."

The Jerusalem Post on Saturday that his index of Jewish surnames from Damascus is the "basis for further research," adding that "I worked on [the index] for about 8 months — every day for 3 or 4 hours." The genealogical work is taxing, said Rosen, noting that "your eyes become tired after 3 or 4 hours" and you "need clear a mind" to decipher the various spellings.

Rosen sounded the alarm bells about the need for more knowledge about Syria's Jewish communities and those across the Levant.

"In ten years there will be no one around to ask," he said.

Read article in full

A list of names by Sarina Roffé

Sephardic Jewish names by Jeff Malka

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Jewish craftsman left his mark around Damascus

With thanks: Jenny K

The massive contribution of Jewish craftsmen to art and handicrafts in the Arab world must not be forgotten.  Maurice Nseiri is a Syrian Jewish craftsman born in Damascus, 1945. He studied metalwork with his father, and owned a popular shop called “Omayad Bazar”.The Omayad Bazar is now permanently closed but Maurice‘s designs can still be found all around Damascus : in synagogues, at the Sheraton hotel, at the Sham Palace and many other places. Admired by arts enthusiasts his most famous creation is the front brass gates of the Syrian Presidential Palace. Here is an extract from a Hadassah magazine profile published  in 2016.

An example of Nseiri's work on display at the Brooklyn Jewish Children's  Museum in 2015

When artist Maurice Nseiri fled his native Syria in 1992, part of the mass exodus of most of the country’s remaining Jewish community, he took with him whatever he could of his handcrafted metalwork. That meant that only several dozen of his smaller creations—samovars, ornamental boxes and platters, fanciful birds, vases and bowls—eventually came with him out of the thousands of pieces created in his workshop.

The Damascus-born metal artist, 72, may be the last Jewish practitioner of a centuries-old artistic heritage. Handed down father to son in the 2,500-year-old Syrian Jewish community, the art of inlaying metals into one another—known as damascene—to create ornamental objects was taught to Nseiri by his father, Tzion Nseiri. Maurice Nseiri is considered a master.

 For over 30 years, Nseiri’s workshop, called the Omayad Bazaar and located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Damascus, produced furniture and ceremonial keepsakes for prominent individuals and landmarks in Syria. Nseiri’s pieces have adorned mosques and synagogues, royal palaces and celebrity homes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. He designed the gates, floor and platform for the Al-Franj Synagogue in the Old City, and the grand gates of the Syrian Presidential Palace, also in Damascus.

Read article in full

Monday, June 22, 2020

So you think you know the Israelis?

Researcher David Collier busts the myth that Israelis are all from Europe.  Tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of Israelis have their roots in Arab or Muslim countries. Over a million Israelis are Arab. Here are a couple of examples from his collection of Israeli faces on Facebook:

Menashe Amir 

Menashe Amir was born in Tehran, Iran in 1940 in the ancient Jewish quarter. He left Iran for Israel in 1959. Amir broadcasts in Persian on Israel Radio International. Amir is one of over 130,000 Israelis of Iranian descent.

 Ninet Tayeb 

 Ninet Tayeb’s father was from Tunisia. Her mother Moroccan/ Algerian. Her parents arrived in Israel separately, both fleeing persecution. Nina is a successful musician, singer-songwriter, composer, DJ, model and actress. There are 10,000s of Israelis who can claim Tunisian descent.

See Facebook post

Sunday, June 21, 2020

On World Refugee Day, recalling the airlift from Iraq

In honour of World Refugee Day (20 June), Point of No Return  recalls the 850,00 refugees  forced to flee Arab countries. It is 70 years since the first flights  carrying 175 Jews took off from Baghdad, Iraq, for Israel via Cyprus (The Iraqis needed an alibi they could present to other Arab countries). Sone 120,000 Jews would be airlifted from Iraq over the next year, most leaving their property behind. Here is an extract of Generations of Fighters, 1897 - 1967 by Aviezer Golan.

Iraqi Jews being transported on 'Operation Ezra and Nehemiah'

'Operation Ezra And Nehemiah' began on Friday, May nineteenth, 1950. Two Constellations landed at the airport. Their upholstered seats had been replaced  with wooden benches, and about 120 Jews were crowded into each plane. They were confused and humiliated, because on arrival at the airport they had been surrounded by police, who conducted a painstaking search of all their luggage. Some of the passengers were even ordered to undress, to be sure that they were not concealing on their bodies money or jewellery above the permitted amount. When the engines  were roaring, they did not know whether  to feel sorrow at leaving the land of their birth, or to rejoice at ridding themselves of its troubles; and they wondered what awaited them at the end of their journey.

In the airport terminal, behind a barrier, waited a group of relatives who had come to say their goodbyes to those leaving.Among them were two activities from the Aliyah committee, Yitzhak Sofer and Yehezkel Ezra. They watched the embarrassing and coarse searches the police conducted of those leaving and were worried. Did this complete the mistreatment by the authorities or was it just the beginning? Would the planes be allowed to take off?

The signal was given by the control tower. The first plane accelerated down the runway, its wheels left the ground, it circled once, then it turned to the west.

(...) Operation Ezra and Nehemiah was continuing at full intensity, and the report spread among the Jews that those leaving were really going to Israel, and that the registration was not a trap by the hostile government. The registration for aliyah expanded beyond all expectations and predictions. The 30,000 mentioned by the government representatives in the negotiations with Mr Armstrong
( Israeli emissary Shlomo Hillel -ed) had already departed, but the number of those registered for aliyah had been swollen by a further 30,000. Now non-Zionists and those who initially had had no intention of emigrating to Israel also began to register. Seeing their neighbours' houses and all the Jewish streets emptying o their inhabitnts, they had no wish to be left behind.

On World Refugee Day, Jews expelled from Arab states are also entitled to justice 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Muslim thinkers must dismantle theological antisemitism

If we are to enhance prospects for peace in the Middle East, Muslim thinkers should begin challenging a pejorative and radical 'theology of the Jews', which has contaminated discourse in the Arab world. These two bold articles were written by Hassan Mneimeh and published in the Fikra Forum in September 2019. (with thanks: Lily)

In the course of the past century, a troubling development has asserted itself in Islamic thought. Whether in scholarly religious texts or in popular presentations, a new Islamic “theology of the Jews” has coalesced into a thorough demonization of both historical and contemporary ‘Jews.’ In this evolving and radicalizing theological outlook, “the Jews” are presented as a unitary, undifferentiated collective. This collective is portrayed not only as political foes or religious rivals, but as the quintessential nemesis—with the corresponding struggle shaping the course of history and fulfilling prophecy.

Photo: Fikra Forum

 While the universe of Islamic thought is wide, encompassing diverse trends and displaying multiple, often conflicting, expressions on any given subject, the problematic aspect of the new pejorative “theology of the Jews” is that it has been virtually unchallenged. Islamic portrayals and assessments of “the Jews” are almost invariably negative. In the rare instances where an ‘excess’ is noted—such as among the few intellectuals that reject the authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—the rationale for qualifying this negative portrayal is that such excesses obfuscate the ‘real’ grounds for criticism. With scant attempts to see Jewish history and society as complicated and diverse, the trend toward enmity has also assimilated and appropriated Western antisemitism while leveraging anti-Zionism as a baseline and an entry point.

 It is true that some distinction is occasionally (and defensively) made between the categories of Zionist, Israeli, and Jewish in sophisticated intellectual circles in the Arab world. Statements on this point stress that the enmity is not with the Jews as a religious group, and that a settlement for peace should ultimately be achieved with the Israelis as a national community. These intellectuals insist that the enemy is instead the Zionists, whose expansionist ideology denies Palestinian national rights and espouses racist convictions while branding any attempts to criticize Israeli politics or Zionism itself as “anti-semitic".

 Yet when contrasted with the broader and deeply seated demonization of the Jews that also exists in the Arab world, these statements seem to oscillate between wishful denial and intellectual dishonesty. Anti-Jewish rhetoric is the overwhelming norm in Arab cultural, political, and popular discourse. The distinction between “Jewish,” “Israeli,” and “Zionist” is seldom made in either popular or elite discourse and, if mentioned at all, is often added as an after-thought. Even the few instances of a tacit willingness to align with Israel, such as in the pursuit of a anti-Iranian coalition, are partially motivated by an assumption that “the Jews” hold disproportionate influence and power that can be leveraged.

 Not unlike some Western contexts, there seems to be a fine line in these cases between philo-Jewish and anti-Jewish sentiments. The roots of this discourse must be understood as feeding both into and from a new but expanding Islamic “theology of the Jews.” As such, the pursuit of any meaningful resolution for the Middle East conflict will be hampered, if not outright denied, without a genuine effort on the part of Muslim intellectuals to address and dismantle this newly dominant radical theology.

Read article in full (Part 1)

Read Part 2

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Why am I afraid to call myself the grandson of a survivor?

Hen Mazzig was invited to address a commemorative ceremony on the 79th anniversary of the Farhud - the Nazi-inspired pogrom of 1941 -  by the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel. He is heart-broken that his Ashkenazi friends don't know he is as much a grandchild of  survivors of Nazi persecution as they are. Read his column in the Jewish Journal: 

Hen Mazzig speaking at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage center at this year's commemoration of the Farhud massacre

For this year’s ceremony, the group invited me to speak. When they introduced me, they referred to me as a grandchild of a survivor. Being “grandchild of a survivor” is a title many of my friends in Israel have − all of them Ashkenazi Jews whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. However, I’ve never been included in that group.

It didn’t matter that my relatives, too, had survived the Nazis. My Tunisian father’s grandparents were sent to a forced labor camp of the Vichy regime during the Holocaust. They were due to be shipped to death camps in Europe. My Iraqi grandparents also were victimized by the Third Reich; they survived the Farhud, which was incited by Nazi supporters in the regime.

 But the truth is, that while I know the history of pain my Ashkenazi friends’ grandparents endured, they don’t know mine. While I know the names of the death camps and the horrific violence that happened to the Jews in Europe, my friends don’t even know what the Farhud was.

 It breaks my heart. It should break every Jewish person’s heart. I am not sure if there’s an intentional agenda behind erasing the Mizrahi Jewish community’s history from international academia and public discourse.

 Our exclusion does not feel deliberate on most days. But when we point out our absence from the conversation and are shamed as “divisive,” it’s hard not to see this erasure as an act of malice. As a grandson of a survivor, I have a responsibility to keep trying to get the world to bear witness, just as I have to the many Ashkenazi Jews who were slaughtered in the Holocaust.

Read article in full

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Esther Webman, scholar of Arab antisemitism, has died

The sudden death of Dr Esther Webman has been announced in Tel Aviv.

Egyptian-born Dr. Esther Webman was a senior research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism in Tel Aviv University.  She was the Principal Investigator for the Program for the Study of Jews in the Middle East and the author, with Meir Litvak, of From Empathy to Denial: Arab responses to the Holocaust.

  David Hirsh, lecturer in sociology at Goldsmith's College, writes: 

 "Esti was a friend, and a scholar of antisemitism. She was a core colleague in the European Sociological Association Research Network 31 on Ethnic Relations, Racism and Antisemitism, and had given papers at a number of its meetings and conferences over the years.

Esti was a Tel Avivian and an Israeli. She had been born in Egypt and was fluent in Arabic. She was driven out of Egypt with her family, when she was a child, because she was Jewish. Her work focused on antisemitism in 'the Arab World' and Islamist antisemitism. She wrote, with Meir Litvak, 'From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust' as well as many other articles and papers on related topics.

 She worked at the Kantor Centre at Tel Aviv University. In 1968, in the period following the Six Day War, Esti was the highest ranking woman in Israel intelligence, she told me. She was a pioneer, a glass-ceiling breaker of great courage."

Why Memmi matters: Fathom tribute by Susie Linfield

In-depth exploration by Susie Linfield in Fathom of the ideas of Albert Memmi, who died on 22 May 2020 aged 99. As someone whose experience as a Jew in an Arab country made him a Zionist, yet remaining true to his anti-colonialist principles, Memmi emerges as a model for the progressive Left today.

 Much has been made of Memmi’s insistence on his multiple ethnic, or national, identities. He was simultaneously Jewish, Arab, and French: ‘I do not think I have ever failed this triple agenda.’ (His political identities were also multiple and, he insisted, not in contradiction: He was a Zionist, an anti-colonialist, a supporter of Third World revolutions, a secularist, a socialist, a nationalist, a universalist.) But these national identities were not just an easy form of multiculturalism, as might be imagined today. In fact, they weren’t easy at all, and they existed in a constant dialectic: ‘All of my work has been in sum an inventory of my attachments; all of my work has been … a constant revolt against my attachments.’ Like the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf, who insisted that ‘every individual is a meeting ground for many different allegiances,’ Memmi understood that multiple identities are not a form of personal expression but an existential necessity. Singular identities, reductionist identities, truncated identities: all set us on the deadly road to fundamentalism. ‘It is possible to be Jewish, Tunisian, and French all at once,’ Memmi wrote. ‘In any case this type of thing is necessary if we wish to stop killing each other. If people finally accepted being this and that, and not this or that, admitting at the same time that others can be both this and that, and are not obligated to be only this or only that, so many tragedies would be prevented! This would mean that we had finally learned to live together.’ In his last book, Memmi insisted that, in a globalised world, living together was now a pragmatic imperative. ‘We must convince ourselves of our solidarity. In the world that is being constructed day by day, no one can go it alone. Solidarity is not only a philosophical and moral concept, it is a practical necessity.’

Memmi opposed all forms of abstraction and sentimentality (the former is, in fact, an expression of the latter). Though a humanist, he well understood that the concept could be a shield behind which the dominators could hide and, thereby, preserve their power. Racism and colonialism were structural – and therefore require structural abolition; Memmi criticised the ‘indignation of sentimental anti-racism, which achieves as little as it costs.’ (I write this as tens of thousands of anti-racism protestors fill my country’s streets.) The comforts of humanism could too easily create a sense of false unity, or an ersatz equality: ‘Humanism, yes, but humanism after the liberation and not this fake humanism, a one-way street where I must consider all men as saints in a humanity in which I still have no place.’   Memmi was suspicious of the siren song of ‘universalist messianism’ – the temptation ‘to deny to the utmost all singularities, all those accursed differences which stand in the way of communion between men’ – which he saw as particularly alluring for Jewish intellectuals. ‘Universal man and universal culture are after all made up of particular men and particular cultures.’ At the same time, although he firmly believed in the necessity of national political formations – and, therefore, of Zionism – he was suspicious of the ways in which they could morph into tribalism, ethnocentrism or, in the current parlance, identity politics: ‘The excesses and errors of singularity must also be denounced.’ He worried that ‘a new singularity’ might ‘erect itself as a universal’ – the very essence of identity politics, which privileges certain identities (and their sufferings) as moral absolutes. Once again, then: the dialectic.

Learning through experience, rather than trying to force experience into ideology, was a key to Memmi’s ethos. From the Tunisian revolution – which he enthusiastically supported, and never disowned – he learned to be neither a populist nor a vanguardist. In Tunisia, working-class Jews – ghetto Jews – clearly intuited that a free Tunisia would not be a secular republic, and would make no place for them; it was the Jewish intellectuals who deluded themselves on this question. This experience humbled Memmi, and it rooted him deeply in the reality principle. Decades later, it was the reality principle that enabled Memmi to see – far before many other analysts – why the Arab Spring rebellions would fail. In February, 2011, just a month after the fall of Tunisia’s dictator and when the ‘Spring’ was in full swing elsewhere, Memmi presciently wrote: ‘What is very positive is that the Muslim Arab intellectuals can now express themselves, but the basic problem remains intact: corruption, tyranny, and above all the impossibility up to now of separating religion from politics. As long as the Muslim Arab world has not made this separation, I am afraid that things will not change very deeply.’

More humility: Memmi admitted that he had often bet on the wrong horse, and he was willing to interrogate himself on the most painful subjects. ‘Am I a traitor?’ he asked in a 1962 article that explored the relationship of North African Jews to their Arab compatriots. Memmi’s answer was, essentially, ‘yes.’ For Arab Jews, it was Europe, rather than their native countries, that represented freedom and modernity: ‘The Arabic culture and language, the Oriental customs … These were the past, a past of historical gloom, of fear, and of economic and cultural poverty.’ But his greatest humility lay in his resistance to dogma (and dogma is, in the end, a form of arrogance). In a 1996 interview, Memmi discussed how, as he travelled and gave talks, ‘They ask me the same question: are the things I wrote still valuable? And I tell them, roughly, yes. But be careful.’ He quickly explained, ‘You can’t apply a schema, as the Marxists believed. The result is the gulag.’

Read article in full

New York Times runs obituary for Albert Memmi

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Point of No Return's part in a small victory for truthful translation

The late, great scholar of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, once quoted a French wit who likened translations to wives  - 'some are beautiful, some are faithful, few are both'. An Italian phrase, he added, summed it up: 'Traduttore traditore - translator, traitor.'

A German Islamicist and scholar of Arabic, Frieddhelm Hoffmann, would probably concur. He was aghast to discover the tendentious and manipulative translations which characterize Mouez Khalfaoui's and Islam Dayeh's rendering of the respected Princeton professor Mark R. Cohen's book "Under Crescent and Cross. The Jews in the Middle Ages" into Arabic.

Professor Mark R Cohen: mistranslated

Clearly, mistranslations and misrepresentations can lead to disastrous decisions and policy, based on misconceptions.

When Mr Hoffmann tried to get an essay exposing the mistranslations published, however, he found that no editor was willing to publish it.

Enter Point of No Return to the rescue. We were happy to publish a synopsis of Mr Hoffmann's exposé, linking to the more detailed essay.

We are glad to report that the story has a happy ending. Several German academic libraries now catalogue Mr Hoffmann's document, linking to its source, Point of No Return.

Although Mr Hoffmann says that his negative publishing experiences outweigh the positive, this was a small victory for truth. Let's hope that there are more in the future.

Fighting revisionism - and this blog's part in it

Monday, June 15, 2020

New York Times runs obituary for Albert Memmi

High-profile obituary by Sam Roberts in the New York Times of Albert Memmi, the Tunis-born writer and philosopher who died in May 2020 aged 99. But this tribute is marred by the expression 'Jewish Arab' in the title, a description which Memmi never used. 

“I am a Tunisian, but of French culture,” he wrote in “The Pillar of Salt.” “I am Tunisian, but Jewish, which means that I am politically and socially an outcast. I speak the language of the country with a particular accent and emotionally I have nothing in common with Muslims. I am a Jew who has broken with the Jewish religion and the ghetto, is ignorant of Jewish culture and detests the middle class.

 “I am poor,” he went on, “but desperately anxious not to be poor, and at the same time, I refuse to take the necessary steps to avoid poverty, a native in a colonial country, a Jew in an anti‐Semitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe.”

 Reviewing “The Scorpion” for The New York Times, Richard Locke described Mr. Memmi’s earlier novels as memoirs “recorded with a cleareyed sensitivity, a modest candor and remarkable strength.” He compared Mr. Memmi to “a Tunisian Balzac graced with Hemingway’s radical simplicity and sadness.” “But ultimately,” Mr. Locke wrote, “it is Memmi’s heart, not his skill, that moves you: the sights and sounds of Tunis, the childhood memories, the brothers’ sympathetic and contrasting voices, their all-too-human feelings, have a resonance that reawakens for a while the ghost of European humanism.”

 Albert Memmi was born in Tunis on Dec. 15, 1920, one of 13 children of Fraj Memmi, a Tunisian-Italian Jewish saddle maker, and Maira Sarfati, who was of Jewish and Berber heritage. After starting Hebrew school when he was 4, he graduated from the prestigious Lycée Carnot de Tunis in 1939. When France’s collaborationist Vichy regime imposed anti-Semitic laws during World War II, he was expelled from the University of Algiers, where he was studying philosophy, and sent to a labor camp in eastern Tunisia.

 When the war ended, Mr. Memmi resumed his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and married Marie-Germaine Dubach, a French Catholic. They had three children. The family returned to Tunis in 1951, and he taught high school there, but they left after independence was proclaimed in 1956. There was no immediate word on his survivors.

 Mr. Memmi became a professor at the Sorbonne and received a doctorate there in 1970. In 1975 he was named a director of the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences. Among his other books were the two-part “Portrait of a Jew” (published in 1962 and 1966) and “Dominated Man” (1968). On Middle East policy, he described himself as a left-wing Zionist, favoring a separate Palestinian homeland while viewing Zionism as a form of anti-colonialism, because, he said, the Jew “has to fight for his national liberation and create a nation for himself.”

 In The Jewish Review of Books, Daniel Gordon wrote in 2018 that Mr. Memmi “has combined, perhaps more than any other writer since World War II, the compassion needed to articulate the suffering of oppressed groups with the forthrightness needed to censure them for their own acts of oppression.” Mr. Memmi said of his writings: “All of my work has been in sum an inventory of my attachments; all of my work has been, it should be understood, a constant revolt against my attachments.” “I was a sort of half-breed of colonization,” he once said, “understanding everyone because I belonged completely to no one.”

Read article in full

Independent obituary

Forward obituary

Saturday, June 13, 2020

'Blacks' were also oppressors of Africans and Jews

 Black Lives Matter protests in the West have called for symbols of white colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave to be torn down. Ex-pupils from a Jewish school in London have petitioned for a 'decolonisation ' of the curriculum. Lyn Julius in Jewish News warns that we should not fall for simplistic categories of 'white' bad, 'black' good: 

Protesters removing the statue of slave trader Edward Colston before dumping it in Bristol harbour

Black people are generally being seen as victims of white people. Third World people are seen as victims of white colonials. Where do Jews fit in? There is a dangerous trend afoot to shoehorn Jews in to the white colonial category. Added to the classic antisemitic trope of Jewish power and world domination, Jews then become portrayed as oppressors of black or coloured people. It is a short step to extending the analogy to Israel: a ‘white’ colonial state oppressing ‘black’ Palestinians.

 This tendency is worrying for two reasons. One is that Jews in Europe were also victims of oppression – until recently Jews suffered from systemic bans and quotas. The other reason is that recent waves of Jewish refugees into Britain from the Arab and Muslim world testify to the oppression of (coloured or ) black people by other black people.

 It is a fact that Jews were only one notch above slaves in a systemic Muslim structure of racism branding non-Muslims as dhimmis. Ironically it was western colonialism which ‘liberated’ these Jews from their subjugated status.

 The late Albert Memmi got it right. He was a Tunisian Jewish writer and philosopher who supported the anti-colonial movement for independence agains the French. But surveying the dismal failure of postcolonial states to respect the rights of minorities, and witnessing the flight of his fellow Jews from Arab countries, Memmi also acknowledged that ‘black’ people could be oppressors. As a result he was a fervent supporter of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.

Read article in full

  In this 2016 Times of Israel article, Micha Danzig points out the 'real intersectionality' - European and Arab oppression of Jews and Africans: 

European colonization and oppression of Jews began with the Greeks, who tried to “Hellenize” those “stiff necked” Jews who had the temerity to reject the idea of becoming second-class Hellenists and wished to stick with their supposedly primitive, native ways. It was followed by the Romans, with their colonization of Judea; and ultimately by the Roman massacres and expulsions of millions of Jews from their native land, many of whom were taken to Europe in chains as slaves. What followed, of course, was nearly 2,000 years of institutional racism (including religious apartheid laws), oppression and massacres of Jews in Europe.

A eunuch guarding a harem in Tunisia

 Arab colonization and oppression of Jews began a little later. In 641 C.E., the Caliph Umar decreed that Jews should be removed from all but the southern and eastern fringes of Arabia.[v] Can anyone say “ethnic cleansing”? As for the Levant, the Arab conquest and colonization began in earnest in 634 C.E. with Jerusalem falling to the Arabs and Caliph Umar in 637 C.E. What followed for Jews under Arab (and Ottoman) colonization, including in the Jews’ indigenous homeland and holiest city, was 1400 years of institutional racism (with numerous religious apartheid laws, just like in Europe), such as the first decree in 850 C.E. that Jews had to wear a yellow badge identifying them as “inferior,” which led to the systematic oppression and massacres of Jews (for more on the oppression and massacres of Jews in Arab conquered lands – see,

Arab Colonization and Oppression of Africa and Africans : While it is acceptable and popular to bash the European nations for all of their oppressive and brutal conduct as racist, colonialists (which the Europeans certainly deserve); for some reason Arab colonialism, racism and oppression of non-Arabs largely gets a pass.

Read article in full

More about the Arab/Muslim slave trade 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Heritage NGO rejects Jewish offer to buy Egyptian Torah scrolls

Nebi Daniel, a group of Egyptian Jews living in France, the UK, Switzerland, Australia and the USA, has had its offer to  buy a number of Torah scrolls still in Egypt rejected.

The Egyptian government has forbidden Torah scrolls more than 100 years old to leave the country as they are classified as antiquities. But just under half of the Torah scrolls in Cairo out of the total identified by Nebi Daniel are less than 100 years old, and are worth repairing for further use. There are 140 Torah scrolls in the whole of Egypt.

The offer to buy the scrolls was made to  the Drop of Milk, a NGO resurrected in 2016. The Drop of Milk was  originally  set up to care for poor and orphaned Jewish children. Its articles of association were modified to include safegarding Egypt's Jewish heritage.

Two Torah scrolls discovered by the Egyptian authorities after they foiled an alleged smuggling operation

The Drop of Milk has long complained of lack of funds to preserve the Bassatine cemetery in Cairo,  although the restoration of the three cemeteries in Alexandria was largely funded by Jews outside the country.

The sale of the scrolls would be  a 'win-win situation', says Yves Fedida of the Nebi Daniel association.

But the offer seems to have been rejected after the Drop of Milk consulted with Magda Haroun, head of the tiny Cairo Jewish community of less than five people.

Nebi Daniel has also suggested that the community raise funds by selling two schools -  one in Abbaseya and another in the centre of Cairo - and a building in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. The suggestion seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

For 17 years Nebi Daniel has been campaigning without success for a copy of  the Jewish community's registers of births, marriages and deaths. The registers were handed over to the government by Magda Haroun in 2016 and are now housed in the national archives.

A Zoom meeting on 10 June 2020 about the February trip made by 180 Jews for the re-dedication of the Nebi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria featured (1 hour in) a discussion on the future of Egypt's Jewish heritage. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Abducted Lebanese Jewish leader was a poet and translator

Before he was murdered in 1971, Albert Elia, a Lebanese Jewish leader, had translated a well-known, deeply personal Piyyut (Jewish liturgical poem) sung on Yom Kippur. The translation of Lekha Eli Teshukati in  rhyming verse, testifies to the fact that the translator was a poet in his own right. Charles Khodri writes:

On the first page of his translation, Elia wrote a dedication to his late brother, Raffoul Ben Abdalla Elia.

The piyyut opens the Yom Kippur prayers in Sephardi communities. Although some scholars through the ages have claimed that this text may have been written by Rabbi Yehuda Ha Levi, most agree that it was crafted by the pen of Rabbi Ibn Ezra.

The Arabic version of the piyyut translated by Albert Elia

On the first page Albert Elia indicates that it was originally written by Yehuda Ha Levi. Someone added by hand that it was written by Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra. 

Albert Elia writes that he dedicates this translation to his late brother Raffoul Ben Abdallah Elia who was very fond of this piyyut as he continued to sing it even after the holidays. . Albert Elia   also says that he  translated it so that the Beirut community could enjoy reading it and understanding it. 

A modern interpretation of the piyyut by Israeli performer Ishai Ribo

In The Tightrope Walkers, Gabrielle Elia, Albert Elia's daughter, writes:  

Albert Elia was the executive secretary of the Jewish community in Beirut. He was responsible for the welfare of all Lebanese Jews. He took on the project of helping Syrian Jewish refugee to acquire official papers allowing them to leave Lebanon. He was successful thanks to his diplomatic skills and friendly relations with the Lebanese authorities. 

He was first arrested in 1961, then released one year later. But  this did not diminish his courage and perseverance in helping the Jews  who were escaping Syria, leaving behind properties and family and stripped from their nationality. 

In September 1971 he was abducted at by Syrian secret agents operating in Lebanon. He was on his way to his office, on the ground floor of the synagogue.

The Jewish community council tried all means to get him released,  even asking foreign governments for help. They failed to save him from his Syrian abductors. 

He was never heard of again. It is assumed  that he was tortured and died at the hands of his tormentors. He was 68 years old.

He was a martyr for the cause  of saving Syrian  Jews and helping them to emigrate out of the Middle East. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

70 years since Beirut Alliance school bombed

With thanks: Ariel

In January 1950, the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Beirut was bombed. Two died when the roof collapsed - the headmistress Esther Penso and a member of the house staff.

At first it was announced that the school had collapsed as a result of a violent storm. A military expert quoted in L'Orient confirmed that the cause of the damage was the bombing. In Paris  AIU officials did not make great play of the incident. Two of the Beirut school governors, Rene L Farhi and Ezra E Farhi wrote a confidential note to AIU chairman Rene Cassin, confirming that the bombing was a Palestinian terrorist attack. They criticised the community council for wishing to suppress the incident.

There were emotional scenes at Mme Penso's funeral, which was attended by pupils, local Jewish charities, school staff and many friends.

The Beirut AIU school reopened in 1951 and did not finally shut its doors until the 1970s.

The photos (from top) show the bomb damage. Two were killed in the incident, including the school headmistress, whose funeral was attended by hundreds of pupils staff, officials and personal friends. One year later, the school re-opened.

More information here (French)

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

We must re-think identity, privilege and oppression in the Middle East

The outcry against systemic racism sparked by the  death of George Floyd has caused some pro-Palestinians  to  appropriate Black suffering for their own political purproses. The victimisaiton of Middle Eastern Jews  throughout history should make us re-think the narrow lens through which many see the Arab-Israeli conflict, writes Nave Dromi in a groundbreaking piece in Newsweek: 

These groups and individuals are attempting to hijack the all-too necessary discussion on racism, oppression and identity in the U.S. for their own narrow agenda of browbeating Israel. They are hoping that the narrow lens they have manufactured for the conflict will allow them to find common cause with those who lack a proper understanding of the historical context of the Israel-Arab conflict. They try and paint the conflict in simplistic and facile terms of oppression, conquest and occupation. 

Image of 19th century dhimmi Jew in Algeria

However, in truth, this lens could not possibly be applied to the conflict—in great part because of the history and identity of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), who make up the majority of Israeli Jews today. Inserting MENA Jews and their history and identity into the debate allows for discussions of Israel, occupation and oppression in less simplistic terms.

It allows for the imposition of less clearly defined roles in the Israel-Palestinian debate. Including MENA Jews into the debate is sometimes can be uncomfortable for some. But a wider understanding of MENA Jewry would turn terms like conquest, occupation, oppression and even apartheid-like conditions on their head. These terms are very visceral memories of cultures, languages and lands erased in the seventh century until today by Arab conquest, imperialism and subsequent colonialism and occupation.

 Trying to force the conflict into a narrow box of the last few decades erases the hundreds of years of Arab-Jewish experience that has shaped today's reality on the ground.< MENA Jews have a very different worldview that is shaped by this historic experience, much like the European experience has shaped much of Ashkenazi Jewry. They recognize and worry about a refusal to see the Jewish people's rights in the region as equal and legitimate, and see in this frequently violent rejectionism echoes of their community's experience under the oppressive and discriminatory dhimmi status.

Conversations on identity in the U.S. are strongly connected to the notion of privilege, which is understandably based on history, imperialism, conquest and oppression.

MENA Jews, because of their wider regional and historic experience, sometimes see an Arab Muslim privilege in a somewhat similar way that a person of color might see a white person in the U.S. This is what possibly shapes the fact that on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, MENA Jews remain on average more than their European Jewish counterparts. The Arab culture, language and mentality is instantly more familiar to them because it was one forced on their community for the last 1,300 years.

However, the culture, language and tradition of MENA Jews is sadly less familiar to people in the U.S., who judge Israel according to what they see through the lens of a supposed European semi-colonial implant—thus erasing Israel's indigenous identity and culture.

Read article in full

Monday, June 08, 2020

Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria are 'beyond repair'

A new study has listed over 300 Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria. Its conclusions hardly come as surprise: most Jewish heritage sites are beyond repair or in a bad condition. Even if they could be restored, the instability of the regime does not guarantee that the sites will remain unaffected by neglect or vandalism. The Times of Israel reports: 

The location and condition of over 350 Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria have been identified by a major new research project. But most of them are said to be ruined or nearly so, often because of neglect or redevelopment work. The 18-month study conducted by the Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative (JCHI) catalogues and assesses sites from antiquity to the present day in once-vibrant

a synagogue in Mosul, Iraq
centers of Jewish life in the Middle East. But an accompanying report published this month warns that nearly 90 percent of the sites in Iraq – and more than half of those in Syria – are beyond repair or in a very bad condition. It also identifies four Iraqi sites where it believes “emergency relief” could be critical to preserving them.

They include the last functioning synagogue in the country and a Baghdad cemetery where the remains of Jews who were publicly hanged in the 1960s on charges of spying for Israel are buried.

 The JCHI is a collaboration between the London-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage and the American Schools of Oriental Research. The study was led by Dr. Darren Ashby and Dr. Susan Penacho of the US institution’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives. The research team used desk-based, satellite and on-the-ground assessments.

 Read article in full