Monday, March 25, 2019

Were Moroccan Jews refugees?

A few weeks ago, Abraham Elarar, head of the Canadian Sephardi Federation wrote in Canadian Jewish News that Moroccan Jews left their country of birth out of Zionism. Those who did not go to Israel could not possibly be refugees, since they still have links with Morocco: (but Jews who fled Nazi Germany might still have links with Germany. It is true that Morocco did not strip Jews of their citizenship, but it still criminalised Zionism, with all that entailed.)

Jews in Morocco

Of the 856,000 Jews who lived in Arab countries and Iran, over 257,000 – 30 per cent – lived in Morocco. There, already before the bitter experience with the Vichy period of the French protectorate, a growing segment of pro-Zionist youths had already begun to engage in tsiyonut magshima – active Zionism leading to aliyah. In his book, North African Jewry In The Twentieth Century, Michael Laskier notes that the Charles Netter Association was transformed into an important Zionist organization operated in Morocco from the late 1920s. (...)

In spite of Morocco’s reluctance under the French protectorate to allow a mass emigration of its Jewish subjects, and later the reassurances by Balafrej and the king’s declaration, 108,000 Jews made aliyah between 1948 and Morocco’s independence in 1956.

According to Israeli historian Yigal Ben-Nun, 237,800 Jews immigrated to Israel from Morocco between 1948 and 1967. Most did so out of a strong Zionist conviction, while the others longed for better economic conditions. To claim, however, that the Moroccan Jews who made aliyah were refugees denigrates them by distorting the historical facts and denies that they were ardent Zionists.

As for the other 20,000 Moroccan Jews who immigrated to France and Canada, where they established thriving communities, it would be likewise preposterous to call them refugees, especially since many continue to maintain strong economic, cultural and academic ties with Morocco. Indeed, unlike other countries, Morocco has never stripped its Jewish citizens of their citizenship.

Read article in full and see comment by Davka

For a comprehensive  response, see this piece by Mogador-born Professor David Bensoussan, a former president of the Communauté Sépharade Unifiée du Québec :

 Were Moroccan Jews refugees in the same way as Jews from Egypt, driven out in 24 hours, or Jews from Iraq or Libya, who were subject to massacre?
What is the definition of a refugee? The Jews of Morocco were not war refugees, but a set of conditions prevailed which meant that they could no longer see their future in the land of their birth. This best describes the situation of the Jews of Morocco. That said, in 1948, there were massacres at Ouijda and Zellidja. There were other isolated incidents, but the persecution was not on the scale of Iraq, for instance.

What caused the exodus of the Jews of Morocco?
There was a feeling of liberation with the establishment of the state of Israel. There was also the fear, after the French left in 1956, that the condition of pre-Protectorate insecurity would return. Many thought by emigrating to Europe or the US they could improve their socio-economic circumstances. There was also the tragic issue of forced conversions of young Jewish girls in the early 1960s. At the same time, Morocco aligned itself with the radical stance of the Arab League, spreading a definite 'malaise' among the Jews of Morocco, which became more serious owing to the repercussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. All these factors forced them to leave.

How much of the emigration of the Jews of Morocco was influenced by the attraction of the Jewish state?Many saw the rebirth of the state of Israel as a messianic event marking the end of exile and its torments and the beginning of redemption. Their identification with the Judean motherland over the millennia had not dimmed; Jewish liturgy identified the return to Zion with the end of Humiliation. Jewish life on Moroccan soil certainly had its great peaks of symbiosis, but also troughs of great distress. Although many Jews served their rulers loyally, the great mass of people endured difficult conditions, and not only in times of crisis. But pride in the rebirth of the Jewish state was a feeling shared by many Jewish communities throughout the world, without their witnessing a massive exodus.

Read article in full

Sunday, March 24, 2019

No progress on Jewish claims since 1979 Treaty

 Forty years have passed since the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty but the Egyptian government has made no progress in meeting the property claims of Egyptian Jews. Lyn Julius explains the situation, in this extract from her book Uprooted: How 3000 years of Jewish civilisation in the Arab World Vanished Overnight.
The 1979 Camp David Treaty declared: ‘Egypt and Israel will work with each other and with other interested parties to establish agreed procedures for a prompt implementation of the resolution of the refugee problem’, without specifying if the refugees were Jewish or Arab. Under Article VIII of the Treaty, the two sides agreed to establish a Claims Commission for the mutual return of financial claims. But the Claims Commission was never established.
In 1980, an Egyptian Jew, Shlomo Kohen-Tsidon, wrote to Menahem Begin suggesting that, in the absence of a Claims Commission, the state of Israel was now responsible for meeting Egyptian-Jewish compensation claims. But Kohen-Tsidon’s interpretation was rejected by Israel’s foreign ministry.
Why was the Claims Commission never established? Egypt has never pressed for it. The Egyptians initially realised that Israeli claims could leave Egypt ‘stripped bare’, as one Israeli source put it.  Israel, for its part, feared that Egypt might file a massive claim for oil pumped from the Abu Rudeis fields in western Sinai between 1967 and 1975. In anticipation, Egyptian Jews formally asked the Israeli government in 1975 not to return the oilfields without claiming compensation for Jewish property claims. Israel did not do so, and the Organization of Jews from Egypt sued the state of Israel before the High Court of Justice in September 1975. They lost the case, however: the Attorney-General Gabriel Bach concluded that it was too late. The agreement returning Abu Rudeis to Egypt had just been signed.
Levana Zamir, then head of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association, argued that the UN Charter on Wars between countries stipulates that no natural resources need be returned in peacetime. Therefore, the oil pumped by Israel from Abu Rudeis should not have been taken into account.
The government of Israel produced a variety of excuses for not pursuing Egyptian-Jewish claims. In the end they claimed that, at the time their property was taken from the Jewish refugees, they were not Israeli citizens. As one Egyptian Jew ruefully remarked, this argument never stopped Israel from claiming from Germany on behalf of Holocaust victims.
The late Israeli minister of Justice, Yosef ‘Tommy’ Lapid, declared in 2003 that the failure to resolve Egyptian-Jewish claims was a severe omission by Israel – and its reticence on the question of Jewish refugees ‘one of the greatest blunders in the state’s history’.Meanwhile, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has given a renewed impetus to the collection of claims, although they now declare recognition of refugee rights, not redress, is their top priority.  (…)
The Cecil Hotel is the only known example of property restituted to its Jewish owners. In 1956, the Jewish owners of Cecil Hotel in Alexandria were expelled from Egypt. They left with one suitcase. Nationalised five years before the family was expelled, the eighty-six-room hotel was resold to Egypt after its return.39 In its heyday the Cecil hosted such figures as Winston Churchill and Al Capone. In 1996, an Egyptian court ruled that the hotel should be returned to its owners, but the ruling wasn’t implemented for fear it would establish a precedent for the restitution of nationalised Jewish property.

After a fifty-year struggle, the Egyptian government agreed to compensate the Metzgers. The hotel’s owner, Albert Metzger, died in Tanzania in the 1960s and his son Chris continued the struggle to recover the hotel. In 1996, the Egyptian Supreme Court in Cairo ruled that the hotel and all revenues accruing over the years belong to the Metzgers. But only in June 2007 did the Egyptian government propose a deal whereby the government would agree to implement the court ruling but would immediately buy back the hotel from the Metzgers.
Now living in Canada, the Bigio familyhave been engaged in a long- running battle for justice against the giant multinational corporation Coca- Cola. The Bigios are among the many Egyptian Jews from whom the Egyptian authorities under Nasser’s ‘Arab socialist’ regime expropriated and nationalised land and property. In November 1961, the Beirut newspaper al- Hayat printed the text of a Nasser decree, which stated that ‘all Jews included in the list of sequestrations are deprived of their civic rights and cannot serve as guardians, caretakers or proxies in any business association or club’.
After Nasser’s regime expropriated the Bigios’ Heliopolis plants, producing Coca-Cola under licence and bottle caps, the family fled Egypt and the UN classified them as refugees. They made their way to France, where they were granted asylum. Determined to obtain compensation for the family’s assets, the Bigios undertook several trips to Egypt. In 1979, the Egyptian government finally issued an official decree returning their real estate assets. But when the time came to receive these
The Bigio family, fighting for restitution of their bottling plant in Egypt (Wikimedia Commons)

assets, a state-owned insurance company, which was holding the property, refused
to return them. The Bigios took their legal fight to the US when they learnt that their assets had been acquired by Coca-Cola International. In 2011, in the US federal court, the Bigio family lost their case for justice against the Coca-Cola Company: the latter had managed to avoid presenting detailed factual evidence of their direct involvement in the acquisition of the Bigio family’s real estate assets and factories. Instead, the US court, upholding (together with the Egyptian government) the family’s right to compensation, pointed to the liability of a subsidiary of Coca-Cola.
For its part, Egypt has reacted with paranoia to Jewish property claims. Media hysteria caused a roots trip fromIsrael to be cancelled in 2008 on the grounds that elderly Egyptian-born Jewish tourists were coming back to reclaim their property. From time to time, the press scaremongers about ‘Jewish documents’44 which it alleges Jews are attempting to steal and smuggle out of the country to support their claims for property restitution. But the vultures – unscrupulous lawyers and property developers – are circling: the Jewish community has untold assets in real estate. Its synagogues may be crumbling but they stand on prime property in Cairo and Alexandria. The sprawling Bassatine cemetery, where community leader Carmen Weinstein was buried and which she fought to salvage from squatters and vandals, used to be on the outskirts of Cairo; now it occupies precious acreage virtually in the centre. Then there are the thousands of homes and businesses seized from or abandoned by Egypt’s 80,000 Jews in their mass exodus. Egypt’s worst nightmare is that the Jews should return and claim it all back. In the meantime, property deeds are being forged and false ownership claims made.
In an ironic reversal of roles, an Egyptian bank is even suing the Israeli government for the return of shares in the King David Hotel, Jerusalem.

Cheque from the Palestine Hotels Ltd account with Banque Mosseri. Egyptian Jews held shares in hotels such as the King David in Jerusalem.
The Jewish-run Bank Zilkha, which held 1,000 shares in the hotel, was taken over by the huge Egyptian Banque Misr. Clearly, the sums owed to Banque Misr would be dwarfed if the Israeli Administrator General were to sue for the billions owed to Jewish refugees from Egypt.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Egyptian Jews: How five minutes turned into years of detention

 Hundreds of Jewish males were rounded up as 'Israeli PoWs' and imprisoned in Egypt in the wake of the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. 'Cinq minutes tout au plus' is the ironic title of a new book by Ovadia Yeroushalmy, now available in French translation from Hebrew. The authorities came to arrest Jews, promising that they would be detained for no more than five minutes. For many their stay turned into two or three years and involved torture, deprivation and abuse.

 Maurice Maleh (Association of Jews from Egypt - UK) has sent in this review:

 Ovadia Yéroushalmy was born in Cairo in 1945 to an ordinary Jewish family typical of the Arabic-speaking Jewish community in Egypt.

Between 1964 and 1967 he attended the American University of Cairo to study Economics and Business Administration.

On  5thJune 1967, his world was turned upside-down as two policemen turned up demanding that he to follow them to the police station with the excuse that  it was only a ‘simple check, with no need to bring anything, as it will take just five minutes’.

Several hundred other Jews were being detained at the same time without rhyme or reason and with no judicial review.  For Ovadia, and many others, these so- called ‘five minutes’ turned into two long years of incarceration, a cruel waste of time for a mere 22 year old and his co-prisoners.  

This book evokes the drama experienced by those arrested and describes the roles played by the state, International Institutions, other actors and personalities.  Ovadia contacted former prisoners and collected their testimonies, whilst also exploring various archives and press articles,  building up a dramatic account of this turbulent period of history affecting the remaining Jews of Egypt after the Six-Day War.

From mid-March the book has been available to order at a reduced price of 18€ plus p+p. (regular price 25€ ). Book launch in the presence of the author on 12 April in Paris, 8, rue des Tanneries, 75013 Paris. Further details (Email: , Tel: 01 45 35 29 86)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Three Torah scrolls stolen from Iran synagogue

 As we celebrate Purim, the festival marking the salvation of Persia's Jews from an evil tyrant, news has trickled out in the Jewish Journal of LA of a theft of Torah scrolls from a synagogue - all the more shocking  since the state's extensive security apparatus did not manage to prevent it.

Iranian Jewish community leaders in the U.S. have confirmed reports that on Feb. 28 three antique Torah scrolls were stolen by unknown thieves from the centuries-old Ezra Yagoub synagogue located inside Tehran’s Jewish ghetto.
While the Iranian regime has not launched any official investigation into the incident and state-run media outlets have not reported on it, a statement released by the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) indicated that their organization is unaware of any specific motive behind the theft of the Torahs.

“The Iranian American Jewish Federation is deeply concerned and anxious about this incident and will be looking closely to learn the results of the investigation by the authorities and the law enforcement,” stated Susan Azizzadeh, president of the IAJF in the statement.

Shahram Yaghoubzadeh, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York, said his group “hopes that the governmental authorities in Tehran will do the right thing and use their vast intelligence and power to ensure the apprehension of the perpetrators and return of these sacred scrolls to the synagogue”.

The modest synagogue which is a little more than 500 square feet was established 125 years ago after an affluent Jewish merchant Ezra Yagoub bequeath funds for the formation of the synagogue at his deathbed. Likewise, the synagogue’s Torah scrolls are from the same time period and encased in ornate wood and metallic cases with metallic ornaments on top called “rimonim”. (...)

The theft of the Torahs from the Ezra Yagoub synagogue is just the latest incident against Iran’s Jewish community. In late December 2017 two synagogues located in the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz were vandalized by unknown assailants who left a total of five Torah scrolls and numerous prayer books damaged or totally destroyed. Likewise, Tsedaka charity boxes were also stolen from the synagogues. The incident was never investigated by the regime’s authorities and no arrests were made in connection with the crime.

Inside Ezra Yagoub synagogue (Photo by

Moreover, in November 2012, Toobah Nehdaran, a 57-year-old married Jewish woman, was strangled, then repeatedly stabbed to death, and her body was mutilated in a ritual manner by thugs who had broken into her home located inside the Jewish ghetto within the Iranian city of Isfahan. Nehdaran’s gruesome murder was never investigated by Iranian authorities and suspects were never arrested in connection with her murder.

Also in January 2011, the Iranian student Basiji militia, of the Abu-Ali Sina/Avicenna University in the western Iranian province of Hamadan rioted outside the entrance of the Esther and Mordechai tomb and threatened to destroy it if Israel destroyed the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The Iranian state-run media news reported at that time that Basiji militia had removed the mausoleum’s entrance sign, covered the Star of David at the mausoleum’s entrance with a welded metal cover and demanded the site be placed under the supervision of the local Islamic religious authority. In the end the tombs, were not damaged nor destroyed.

Read article in full

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Jews of North Africa have their own Purim stories

Tonight begins the festival of Purim. The original story took place in present-day Iran, but  Jews in North Africa had their modern-day celebrations of deliverance. Lyn Julius reports in Times of Israel: 

 The great festival of Purim celebrates how the Jews of Persia were saved from the wicked Haman some 2, 500 years ago, but Jewish communities have had their own local festivities to mark their miraculous deliverance from catastrophe.

On November 8, 1942 (Operation Torch), American and British forces invaded Vichy- occupied Morocco and Algeria. It took the Allies just eight days to defeat the  Vichy French partners of the Nazis.

 ‘Megillat Hitler,’ commissioned to mark the wartime liberation of the Jews of Casablanca

The Jews saw the Allied conquest as a miracle. The Vichy regime had stripped some 330,000 Jews of their civil rights, imposed quotas,  restricted their entrance to schools and some professions and forced them back into the Jewish ghettos.
The Jewish community of Casablanca commissioned a scribe called P. Hassine to write a  special commemorative scroll called ‘Megillat Hitler.’ The scroll is now on display at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Written in Hebrew, its text echoes the original Scroll of Esther. It describes the rise of “Hitler the painter,” who rose to become the ruler of all of Germany, and who took the advice of his chamberlain Himmler to destroy the Jews.

P. Hassine, a Hebrew teacher from Casablanca, tells how Hitler’s plan to deport the Jews of North Africa was foiled at the last minute by the decision of President Roosevelt, “who could not sleep,” and so “commanded that these states be rescued and given protection.” Thus the Jews “went from mourning into happiness because the Americans established their rule.” The scroll declares that every year,“we are obligated to establish this day of rescue,” a “fixed and grand festival”.

But the Casablanca Jews rejoiced too soon:  At the same time as Operation Torch,   the Nazis retreated to Tunisia and imposed direct control: thousands of Jewish men were marched to forced labour camps. It would take the Allies another year before the Jews of North Africa would have their rights restored to them.

What happened to the Jews of Djerba  during the six months of Nazi occupation during World War II? Isolated on their island in the farthest corner of eastern Tunisia,  the Jews of that community appear to have been spared the round-ups resulting in males between the ages of 16 and 60 being sent to do forced labour.
But one incident does stick in the collective memory. At the time of the reading of the parasha of Terumah, the Nazis sent out instructions that the Jews of Djerba should immediately give them 50 kg of gold.

The deeply religious Jews of Djerba had just read the verse: “God instructed Moses to tell all Israelites whose heart so moved them to bring gifts of gold.”
On that Shabbat, the residents knew that something was seriously amiss when the chief rabbi of the island drove around in his car collecting the gold. He did not manage to fill the quota of 50 kilos.

But retribution did not come. The occupation was on its last legs. The Nazis never returned to the island of Djerba  and two months later, in May 1943, the Allies re-conquered Tunisia. And so the Jews of Djerba, too,  mark their own mini-Purim.

More Purim celebrations

 Read article in full 

Wishing all those who are celebrating Purim חג שמח!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Democratic drift towards criminalising Zionism

Alarmed at the drift of the left of the US Democratic party towards anti-Zionism, Sarah Levin* warns in the Times of Israel  that it could soon lead to fully fledged antisemitism. She draws on the experience of Jews  in Arab countries, where Zionism was criminalised. Moreover, anti-Zionism did nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians.

Earlier this month, when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar accused American Jews of dual-loyalty to the State of Israel, many former Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran recoiled, remembering the innocent Jewish lives imprisoned and lost in their countries of origin because of anti-Semitic accusations of dual loyalty. American Jews, including those from the Arab world and Iran, questioned why leaders of the Democratic party insist on keeping Congresswoman Omar on the House Foreign Affairs Committee after she repeatedly spouted the same anti-Semitic tropes that led to the oppression and ethnic cleansing of one million Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Why are they allowing a member who clearly knows so little about Israel and global anti-Semitism to sit on a committee that helps shape US Foreign Policy?
Jewish immigrants from Arab countries remember how seeds of anti-Semitism sprouted into full-fledged state-sanctioned, anti-Zionism as Arab-nationalism spread through the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century.  Upon the establishment of the modern-state of Israel in 1948, country after country throughout the region turned against their indigenous Jewish populations by passing numerous laws stripping Jews of their rights, and decrees criminalizing Zionism.

 Sarah Levin:'anti-Zionism 'othered' entire Jewish communities'. Right: Congresswoman  Ilhan Omar accused Jews of 'dual loyalty'. 
For example, in 1948, an Iraqi law was amended to equate Zionism with anarchism and immorality – a crime punishable by seven years imprisonment. A 1956 amendment to Egypt’s Nationality law stipulated that, “Zionists were barred from being Egyptian nationals.” In more severe cases, like Libya, laws were passed that completely restricted communication with individuals in Israel. Sadly, in 1961 Libya passed a law restricting citizenship to all but six Jews – leading to the ethnic cleansing of an entire Jewish community. When Ayatollah Khomeini took control of Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he promptly murdered a prominent leader in the Jewish community, Habib Elghanian (Z”L). Mr. Elghanian  was accused of being a Zionist spy and his sham trial and subsequent murder sent a very clear message to the Jews of Iran.
Zionism in the Middle East and North Africa was hardly ever defined by Arab governments and this ambiguity enabled terrible acts of anti-Semitism to happen under the color of law. Jews were denied legal representation in courts of justice and Jews throughout the region were regularly imprisoned, tortured and even hanged because of their supposed dual-loyalty and alleged relationships to the “Zionist regime.” Anti-Zionism in the Arab world contributed to the alienation and othering of entire Jewish communities – and a similar form of alienation is happening again today in the USA, but it’s perpetrators are ironically leaders in progressive movements.  This should have us all deeply concerned.
The irony of anti-Zionism laws in Arab countries is that they ultimately helped strengthen Israel. As Jews in Arab countries and Iran faced mounting anti-Semitism that was codified as part of national anti-Zionism agendas, daily life became untenable and led to the ultimate departure and ethnic cleansing of one million Jews from the region. 650,000 Jews from Arab countries fled to Israel as dispossessed refugees. This led to a population boom in Israel, and a “brain-drain” in the Arab world – the losses of which still reverberate today.
Another irony is that the anti-Zionism that pervaded the Arab world in the 20th century did nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians and this consequential story should be noted by those leaning towards anti-Zionism for the sake of Palestinian rights. Those supporting movements to isolate, boycott and divest from Israel are pushing a dangerous and divisive agenda that has proven to be counter-productive and totally ineffective. While they’ve failed to secure the rights of Palestinians, champions of BDS and anti-Zionism have excelled in exposing their anti-Semitic tendencies. Their narrow attitudes and approach seem not so dissimilar from the governments that expelled and ethnically cleansed Jews from Arab countries.
While anti-Zionist activists and leaders here in the USA continue to drum up anti-Semitic controversies, they are missing efforts taking place through diplomatic and grassroots channels to strengthen relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. It’s been widely reported, that this past winter three delegations from Iraq visited Israel, and there are a growing number of progressive groups in the Arab world eager to re-establish relationships with diverse Jewish communities around the world – including those in Israel. This is not to mention a range of Jewish groups in the US, including JIMENA, who work closely with Arab partners both here and in the Middle East. Not all of the organizations involved in normalization efforts are led by groups on the far left. We come from a diversity of backgrounds and outlooks and it’s a total fallacy to believe that only those groups and leaders labeled as “progressive” are able to lead and engage in productive normalization efforts.
Anti-Zionist leaders here in the USA could care less about diverse normalization efforts, because they are solely focused on mainstreaming the vilification of Israel and its supporters. Like Arab governments who criminalized Zionism as a means of persecuting Jews – anti-Zionist leaders here in the USA have proven time and again to center their activism more on the de-legitimization of Israel and the isolation of Jewish people, than the advancement of Palestinians.

Read article in full 

*Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA, will  be appearing on an AIPAC panel on 25 March together with Rabbi Elie Abadie, Shula Bahat and Carole Basri to discuss Jewish refugees from Arab countries. It will be for the first time that this issue is being discussed in this forum. To attend, register here.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Why do the Jewish refugees still matter?

For years the story of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands was not told by those Jewish organisations in the forefront of fighting for a truthful account of all aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That's why this background article by Pesach Benson of Honestreporting is welcome.

Why do the Jewish refugees from Arab countries still matter? Why is their story still relevant for today, rather than relegated to history books?

The number of Jews who fled their Arab homelands during Israel’s founding and early years amounts to a population exchange with the Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during the wars of 1948 and 1967. A peace agreement addressing compensating Palestinian refugees would also have to take into account Arab compensation for dispossessed Jews.
Some background is necessary to understand why.

An Iraqi immigrant working as a shoemaker at the Holon maabara in 1952.

Under Arab rule, Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims were considered dhimmis, or second-class citizens. This status meant Jews had to pay a special yearly tax, could not build synagogues or too openly practice their religion. To further reinforce their lower status, dhimmis could not build homes as tall as the Muslims, were required to dress differently, and weren’t allowed to ride horses — only donkeys. Jewish orphans were frequently removed from the community and forcibly converted to Islam. In North Africa, Jewish communities had to live in a ghetto (mellah). For better (and sometimes for worse), Arab rulers weren’t consistent on enforcing these rules.

Demonstrating the precariousness of Jews in the Arab world was the Damascus blood libel of 1840. When a Capuchin friar and his Muslim servant disappeared, a rumor began that the two had been murdered by Jews who wanted to use their blood for Passover. Several Jews were arrested, some of whom died under torture while others “confessed.” The remaining detainees were saved thanks to the intervention of Sir Moses Montefiore and others. However, Mitchell Bard explains, the affair left behind a bitter, lasting legacy:
The idea that the ritual murder case had been conclusively proved in Damascus and the prisoners only released for political reasons or because of bribery now became a key theme repeated at length in an extensive series of antisemitic journals and books,
Despite their “otherness,” Jews still managed to contribute to Arab culture and politics. Some of the notable personalities included:
By the early 1900s, much of the Arab world was ruled by the European powers. On one hand, this opened doors for Jews to advance in education, business and government. But it also placed them between the forces of European colonialism and restless Arab nationalism.

Although they were spared the hell of the German death camps in Europe, Jews in Arab countries faced their own difficulties which history has largely overlooked. The pro-Nazi Vichy French regimes of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia enacted discriminatory laws against the Jews. These including revoking the French citizenship some 110,000 Algerian Jews and sending 5,000 Tunisian Jews to forced labor camps. Nazi forces occupying Libya deported 2,000 Jews from Tripoli and Benghazi to work camps in the Sahara Desert.

In Iraq, Nazis whipped up the locals with antisemitic propaganda that led to the most violent pogrom against Jews known as the Farhud. On June 1–2, 1941, following Britain’s victory in the Anglo-Iraqi war and during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, Arab rioters killed more than 180 Jews in Baghdad, injured hundreds more, looted property, and destroyed an estimated 900 Jewish homes.

Iraqi Jewish immigrants at Lod Airport, 1951
In the time leading up to Israel’s founding, the situation of Arab Jews further deteriorated. Arab authorities arrested Jews thought to be active Zionists. Rioting Syrians killed dozens of Jews in Aleppo and destroyed hundreds of homes, synagogues and shops, while 76 Jews were similarly killed in Aden. Iraqis boycotted Jewish businesses and hung Shafiq Ades, the Jewish community’s most prominent businessman, on trumped up charges of selling arms to Israel. Egypt passed discriminatory laws and 70 Jews  were killed in a wave of firebombings of Jewish businesses and homes.

Read article in full

Sunday, March 17, 2019

'No official policy to kidnap Yemenite children'

As the Yemenite Children Affair rumbles on, Yaakov Lozowick, former Israeli state archivist, writes in the Tablet that the staying power of  the issue has more to do with emotions than facts. The recently released archive documents, argues Lozowick, corroborate the conclusion that there was no official policy to kidnap babies from Israeli hospitals.

I chose Haim’s file at random. You read these testimonies—one, then another, then a dozen, then hundreds—and you understand why the grandchildren won’t let go. It’s heartbreaking.

Protocols of an autopsy at the Beilinson Hospital, Petach Tikva, 1953 (Israeli State Archives)
But that’s not all that’s in the files. There are lists of patients confirming who was where; and who died when; and who was buried precisely when and where. Sometimes sections of the lists are copied into the case files of individual children (in Haim’s case, here). Sometimes there are specific, individual documents such as hospital reports by doctors, or death certificates. In Haim’s case there’s a detailed paper trail, from the local clinic in Rosh Ha’ayin all the way to his grave. It includes the initial fear of polio which caused him to be sent to the hospital, various medical reports and lab results at the hospital, an official death certificate, and the specific burial license in the Petach Tikva cemetery. Since we used an advanced tagging system, the public can research by subjects, such as prohibiting visits by parents, or medical personnel.

All three investigating committees have been castigated by families and activists for being sloppy, or perhaps intentionally negligent. One can follow the investigators in their daily work, here and here, for example. So far as I could see, they seem to have worked methodically and with great professional integrity.

There are no documents that tell or even hint at a governmental policy of kidnapping children for adoption. Not one. Had there been such a practice, there would by necessity be hundreds or thousands of elderly dark-skinned Israelis who grew up in light-skinned families in the 1950s and ’60s. These people don’t exist. So, the activists claim, the babies were exported and sold to rich and childless Jewish families in America, or perhaps elsewhere. The archives contain not a shred of evidence for this claim, either.

Over the past three years I have sat in public discussions of the Yemenite Children Affair at the Knesset and elsewhere; I’ve followed the significant media attention given it; I’ve maintained personal contact with many of the main activists; I’ve watched three cabinet discussions. And while we were preparing the archives, I personally looked at hundreds of files and talked to the staff as they looked at thousands. From here on, I’m speculating, based on what I’ve seen, heard, and learned.

The stubborn staying power of the Yemenite kidnapped babies story comes from emotions, not historical data. There is none, and never was any—which is why opening thousands of files never made a dent. The activists merely moved their focus: The Big Secret must be in the Mossad’s files; or WIZO’s files; or in files that had been destroyed. As I was leaving my position a few months ago, they were speculating we had merely pretended to open everything while in reality opening only the “harmless” files.

Yet many family members will admit, at least in private, that what they are seeking is not evidence of kidnapping, but closure for the deaths of their loved ones. They want to see a grave, not a scanned image of a Xeroxed copy of a list of graves from the 1970s. They want explanations for the demeaning behavior of arrogant medical staff and bureaucrats who brushed them off, and otherwise treated them as inferiors, or at least as bothersome. If you assume—as I’m inclined to do—that the overworked staff trying to deal with a tsunami of immigrants in a poor country were normal people, and sometimes even idealists, it is also easy to imagine the callousness, and obtuseness, and even contempt, with which the young parents were fobbed off. Some of it can be explained by pressure, some by prejudice. And some, perhaps, by the need indeed to hide a secret—just not the one the activists seek.

There are more than 200 files with information about autopsies. My personal opinion is that these may contain an important key to the entire story. Admittedly, while we were working on the files I asked my entire staff to look for a smoking gun and we didn’t find it. But there is circumstantial evidence that many of the deceased infants had autopsies performed on them. The medical staff was distressed by the high death rate, which was especially high among the Yemenites, and they sought explanations. The body of an infant after an autopsy has been performed is not something one wishes to show grieving parents, certainly not religious parents from an undeveloped country who don’t speak any of your languages, and who never gave their permission for the bodies of their dead children to be cut open.

There was no crime, but there was a sin. All sides were unfamiliar to each other and overwhelmed, in different ways, by their circumstances. Those in power did their best, with scant resources—and scant regard for the emotions of the immigrants they were tasked with helping. The immigrants were also doing their best—and have bequeathed their traumas to their more confident, better-positioned descendants.

Read article in full

More about the Yemenite Children affair

Friday, March 15, 2019

Some Jewish features still remain at al-Kifl

The good news from this article in Ajam by Alex Shams (an Iranian-American who previously worked for Maan, the Palestinian News agency) is that some of the original features of the Jewish shrine of Ezekiel at al-Kifl  have been preserved and a layer of whitewash removed, although the author admits that the 'Jewish character of the site has been 'de-emphasised'. The bad news is that the ancient holy site has been dwarfed by a new Shi'a mosque. See my comment below.

In the 1300s, under the Mongol Ilkhans, a mosque was built around the site, in keeping with a widespread policy of shrine patronage around the empire. The ancient minaret at Ezekiel’s Tomb, which today leans sharply, is thought to be from that era. Its construction began under the Ilkhanid king Oljeitu, who converted to Shia Islam and was known in Persian as Muhammad Khodabandeh.
With the extension of the mosque around the front, Jewish access became controlled by mosque authorities, who collected dues from pilgrims. The economy of Al-Kifl, which had become mostly Muslim, thus became directly dependent on the Jewish pilgrimage.(...)

 A giant mosque built since 2010 in the Iranian style dwarfs the original Jewish shrine

 In the early 2010s, an Iranian company was charged with restoring the mosque.
Some initially feared that the restoration would compromise the site’s Jewish history, but in the end a compromise was reached: the outer courtyard would be restored as a mosque – which is how it was being used – while the inner sanctum, under the authority of Iraq’s heritage authorities, would be left with its Hebrew markings remaining as they have for decades since the Jews left. The Iranian company charged with preservation efforts appears to have carried out renovations on the tilework and other aesthetic features inside the sanctum, but otherwise left it as it was.

Debates over the tomb’s present and future highlight the complexities of historical preservation at sites holy to multiple communities. Preservation requires balancing respect for those to whom the site previously belonged with the interests of a community that actively uses it today. 

In the restoration of al-Kifl, however, the renovation of the shrine’s “mosque” included de-emphasizing Jewish features or erasing Hebrew inscriptions that result in more emphasized Muslim character. This was intended to make the site work for Muslims who currently worship at the site, while simultaneously preserving Jewish historical features inside the sanctum.

 Read article in full


The floral decoration and Hebrew inscriptions are intact but Islamic inscriptions and green coverlets are much in evidence (Photos: Alex Shams)

My comment: While it is gratifying to know that some of the original Jewish decoration and Hebrew inscriptions remain around the burial chamber, we do not know what became of the graves of the Geonim, the Jewish dignitaries, including that of Menahem Daniel. Have these been destroyed? Far from being a 'shared place of pilgrimage',  the tomb was always the subject of a battle for control between Jews and Muslims. Since the departure of the Jews in 1950 - 51, it has been increasingly islamised. Muslim pilgrims are not told about Ezekiel – this is the burial site of Dhu al-Kifl, a minor prophet in the Koran. There was never an Arabic inscription on the tomb cover until recently.

This is not a tomb where Jews and Muslims worship side by side; the Jews have been banished and the Muslims have appropriated it as theirs. The huge Shia shrine has been built since 2010 and dominates the original shrine. ‘Next Shavuot in Kifl?’ not likely while most Iraqi Jews, now Israelis, are not allowed in the country.

Although we appreciate the photos, Shams'  revisionist history of Palestine does nobody any favours.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Tunisian-born Albert Memmi gets Lifetime Achievement Award

 The American Sephardi Federation  has awarded its Pomegranate Award for Lifetime Achievement to the writer and sociologist Albert Memmi at the start of the 22nd NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival. 

Born in Tunisia into a poor Jewish family, the 98-year-old Memmi is a giant of Sephardi literature of French expression. His works include The Pillar of Salt, The Scorpion, Portrait of the Colonized, and numerous seminal sociological works.

 Memmi situated his work early on at the crossroads of Jewish, Arab, and French cultures. Seen as a “Prophet of Decolonization,” he strove toward a recognition of multiple identities, the fight against all forms of racism, and wrote about the difficulty of finding a balance between East and West. Recognized by peers, including Albert Camus, Aragon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Léopold Sedar Senghor, his work is often read in conjunction with those of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire.

 Dr. Judith Roumani, Editor of Sephardic Horizons and a translator of Memmi’s works, says “Albert Memmi’s writing as a philosopher, sociologist, novelist and poet has been revolutionary in many senses: he diagnosed the predicament of colonized peoples and in particular of the educated individual, and the predicament of Jews in Middle East countries, sharing both in the life of indigenous Muslims and in that of the colonizers, yet not accepted by either. He has perched precariously across three civilizations, but would not be complete if any one were missing. Inventor of the term ‘Arab Jew’, yet not confined by it. Recipient of many prizes, including the Grand Prix de la Francophonie by the Académie française, and the Prix de Carthage, awarded personally by President Bourguiba of Tunisia. A subtle and complicated writer in many genres, exemplifying Sephardi creativity.”

Video showing the presentation of the Pomegranate Award to Albert Memmi

Due to Memmi’s advanced age, an award ceremony was organized at his home in Paris with authors Colette Fellous and Guy Dugas, coordinator of the upcoming Memmi Centennial in France and Tunisia.

 Previous recipients of the ASF Pomegranate Award for Lifetime Achievement include André Azoulay, Senior Counsellor to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI; Enrico Macias, the Algerian-born French international recording superstar, and Erez Bitton, the award-winning Moroccan-born Israeli poet. The ASF Pomegranate Award is sculpted by the renowned Baghdad-born artist Oded Halahmy of the Pomegranate Gallery in Old Jaffa and Soho.

Who is an Arab Jew? by Albert Memmi

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Remembering four Jewish girls murdered in Syria

This time of year is the 45th anniversary of the murder of four Syrian-Jewish girls as they tried to reach Israel. Their plight, here described by Chrstopher Robbins in Israel Hayom, is emblematic of the years of horror endured by the 3,000  Jews trapped as hostages in the country until they were released in the 1990s. There is still a handful of Jews living in Syria. (With thanks: Lily)

 The four girls from the Zeibak and Saad families were raped and murdered
Those who stayed in Syria started to realize that the smaller the Jewish community became, the greater the chance that gratuitous or preplanned mob – even government – violence would visit upon its remaining individuals. At some point, the risk of violence is so high that it forces a decision. Is it better to ride out the Syrian storm or to put your family at risk on the open road in an attempt to escape?

Should we stay or should we go? These two questions are usually posed in unison. Our people have asked these questions in nearly every language we have ever spoken. The answers are often given in whispers, in dark rooms, in attics, or basements, and between anguished tears.

In 1974, the Mossad and various Jewish charities were working overtime to clandestinely smuggle Jews out of Syria. Relationships, networks and smuggling routes were established. Israeli and diaspora money was effectively deployed. Judy Feld Carr, a Canadian Jew, and her supporters, helped smuggle over 3,000 Jews out of the country. The Mossad was running constant operations as well, many in cooperation with the Israeli Defense Force.

Regrettably, the Syrians caught on quickly. They increased the number of men and arms at the border. The feared Mukhabarat was put on high alert. A Jewish boy was shot in the leg by a Syrian soldier while crossing the border with a Mossad handler. Two other boys, Natan Shaya and Kassem Abadi, seemingly vanished on their attempt at freedom.

Back at their homes in the Jewish Quarter, the Zeibak and Saad families' discussions had concluded. Now the conversation shifted to strategies and plans. Slip away at night? Or try and fade away on a trip to the market? How long before the Mukhabarat or a nosy neighbor notices our absence? What can they take with them? Family photos, heirlooms, keepsakes? Or just a small bag with cash and other items that can be easily converted to cash?

It was the fear of premature discovery, as well as their daughters' zeal to start anew in Israel as soon as possible, that led them to send the young women first. Lulu, Mazal, Fara and Eva would rendezvous with a group of smugglers. The smugglers had been recommended by two of their friends in the Jewish community. It was all arranged. Perhaps the cold and rainy weather would be a benefit, keeping border patrols to a minimum as temperatures dropped into the 20s.

We can imagine the scene as the women departed. For thousands of years, our people have often had to say goodbye in circumstances which make reunions uncertain. The family's handoff of their daughters to Syrian smugglers was an agonizing moment for the women's parents.

The trip into the mountains may have started well. As they left the confinement of the Jewish Quarter they would have passed valleys, brooks, waterfalls, caves and Roman ruins that dot the region. It may even have been possible for the women to begin to anticipate long-awaited freedom as they neared the Lebanese border. Lulu, Fara, Mazal and Eva doubtless imagined what life in Israel would be like for them. We will never know.

The women's bodies were found on March 2, 1974. They were discovered in a cave outside Al-Zabadani. They had been raped before they were murdered. Their bodies were hacked to pieces and burned by acid almost beyond recognition. They had also been robbed. A finger of one of the young women had been cut off in order to remove a ring.

Syrian police returned the women's remains to their families in burlap sacks. They cavalierly deposited the sacks in front of their parents' homes on Purim.
The bodies of Natan Shaya and Kassem Abadi were also discovered in the cave. They were likely victims of an earlier massacre. The boys were also attempting to reach freedom in Israel. While the official statement of the Syrian government is that smugglers were responsible, some people believe the atrocity was committed by Syrian soldiers.

A member of the Zeibak family said that to this day the Syrian government has concealed all facts from them.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

How Israel brings its fallen men home

Nissim Attiyeh was a member of the Arab Section, a small group of Arabic-speaking spies sent to gather intelligence in Israel's early years. He died on a mission among the Arabs of Jaffa. A special unit in the Israeli army is tasked with finding and bringing back home the bodies of fallen men like Attiyeh. Matti Friedman, author of Spies of No Country,  reports for the Globe and Mail (With thanks: Simone):

Nissim Attiyeh: body never found

Two days before Attiyeh set out on his last mission, two of his comrades from the Arab Section were caught in the Arab city of Jaffa. Both were young Jews recently arrived from Iraq. They claimed to be Arab workers, but their cover stories were blown by perceptive members of the local Arab militia. The militiamen interrogated the suspicious pair, took them to some dunes outside town and shot them both, burying them in an unmarked grave.

 The trigger for Attiyeh’s dispatch two days later appears to have been an attack by Arab fighters on a Jewish convoy. He was supposed to pick out a route for a retaliatory raid and report back the same evening. But, like his two unlucky comrades in Jaffa, Attiyeh caught someone’s eye. His cover must have slipped. He’s assumed to have been executed in one of the nearby orchards, but no one knows for sure; he just disappeared.

Nissim Attiyeh, and the two spies killed in Jaffa the same week in December, 1947, were the first fatalities of Israeli intelligence.

 In the offices of the missing-soldier unit, known by the Hebrew acronym EITAN, there are 95 files still open from the 1948 war. A team of about 50 active researchers is tasked with closing them – a hybrid outfit of detective-historians, not regular soldiers but rather reservists called up for a few weeks a year. In their real lives, some of the researchers are academic historians. Others are policemen, or computer programmers.

The necessary personality type ranges from patient to pedantic. They might spend years on one case. The rule is that they can never give up. The unit’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Nir Israeli, told me that part of his job is keeping an open mind. He’s regularly contacted by civilians with a lead or just a hunch about where a body might be found. He gets quite a few calls from psychics. “I don’t turn anyone away,” he said.

Why persist, even long after the close relatives of the missing have died, and long after it would no longer seem to matter? In the Jewish tradition, families must have a grave where they can mourn, he explained. And they need closure. “This is a commitment we make to our soldiers – we sent this person, and we have to bring them home,” Lt.-Col. Israeli said.

 Read article in full

Reviews of 'Spies of No Country'

Monday, March 11, 2019

High Court rejects Farhud demand for compensation

 According to the Jerusalem Post, two Iraqi-Israeli petitioners suffered a setback when their demand for compensation for their suffering arising from the 1941 Farhud was rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court. The Court  denied that the Farhud was the sole  result of the direct impact of Nazism. One wonders whether the 2,000 survivors would be better off demanding Germany pay them reparations through the Claims Conference, as German radio did much to incite anti-Jewish hatred, and the Nazis supported the Palestinian Mufti and his pro-Nazi acolytes. Moroccan Jews have received compensation for wartime suffering, although they were only indirect victims of the Nazis. 

The High Court of Justice on Sunday rejected a petition submitted by Jews who were impacted by the 1941 Farhud Pogrom in Iraq that sought compensation from the State of Israel. The petitioners were asking to be compensated for their suffering and economic losses under a 1957 law designed for that purpose for Jewish victims of the Nazis.

Two Iraqi-Israeli Jews demanded compensation under the 1957 law on behalf of around 2,000 Iraqi Jews. The state had denied their claims, saying the compensation law only applied to those directly impacted by the Nazis.
The High Court expressed horror at the 179 Jews who were killed, and the thousands injured in the anti-Jewish pogrom in Iraq in 1941. It also agreed that the pogrom was partially caused by the antisemitic tone set by Germany and Iraqis aligned with the Germans. However, it said the 1957 law simply did not recognize them.

Rather, the High Court endorsed the state’s narrow interpretation of who can be compensated under the 1957 law.

The High Court implied that the Knesset could still compensate the Iraqi Jews for the 1941 pogrom, but that it would need to pass a new law.

Read article in full 

Haaretz article 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

How Chabad saved 1,800 Jewish children

A largely unknown operation to rescue Jewish children from Iran began in the spring of 1979. The children travelled without their parents and were housed with families  of the Chabad - Lubavitch community in Brooklyn, USA. One was Anna Monahemi Kaplan, now New York state senator for the 7th district.  Chabad News tells the story: (With thanks: Michelle)

It was a cold day in the spring of 1979 when 13-year-old Anna Monahemi arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. She came with a group of 40 Jewish girls—all of them from Iran, each of them alone. Her parents, like those of the other girls, had quietly bought her a ticket to Rome and sent her off, not knowing when they would see her next. There, the girls were greeted, processed and issued U.S. I-20 student visas. Five days later, they were safely in America.

From JFK, Anna and the girls were brought directly to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and placed with host families—members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community. This was not the only group of Iranian Jewish children in Crown Heights. Since the end of 1978, planeloads of Jewish refugee children had followed the same path to safety, intensifying after the January 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran and the return from exile two weeks later of the Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. By Passover of 1979, there were 1,000 Iranian Jewish children staying in Crown Heights with families, living in dorms, and studying in schools and classes established especially for them in the neighborhood.

 A group of young Jews registering on arrival in the US in 1979

Jews had lived in what was long known as Persia for 2,500 years, and at the time of the revolution, 100,000 of them called it home. They were well-established and successful. But then came the Islamic revolution, followed swiftly, 40 years ago this month, by the Islamist seizure of power. Violence roiled the streets. Threats against Jews were followed by the arrest and murder of leaders in the Jewish community. As the ground shifted under their feet, Persian Jews desperately sought avenues of escape, especially for their children.
The answer came in the form of Operation Exodus, a historic Chabad-Lubavitch effort, still largely unknown, to rescue the Jewish children of Iran. With help from the Crown Heights community and an army of volunteers, the operation was spearheaded by the late Rabbi Yaakov Yehudah (J.J.) Hecht, the exuberant executive vice president of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE), and personally approved and encouraged every step of the way by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Operation Exodus was by far the largest organized effort to rescue the embattled Jews of Iran, and by the time it wrapped up in 1981 had brought 1,800 children to the United States. While Hecht was promised financial assistance from mainstream Jewish organizations, much of it never materialized, leaving him to cover the expenses alone. When Hecht passed away a decade later, his organization was still millions of dollars in debt. Yet he never for a second regretted it; there were Jewish children to be rescued, and he had gotten it done.

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