Friday, November 15, 2019

On 30 November, a mass kaddish for Jews in Arab lands

For the second year running, prayers will be recited in  synagogues across the world in remembrance of Jews buried in inaccessible cemeteries in Arab lands.

This year the mass Hashkaba (kaddish) will take place on 30 November, the official day to commemorate the exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran, which in 2019  falls on Shabbat.

The mass Kaddish is the initiative of  a Montreal resident of Iraqi origin, Sass Peress. For decades, families have been prevented from reciting prayers at the gravestones of their loved ones buried in Arab lands.

 Last year,  18 synagogues in Canada, the US, the UK, Mexico and Germany recited he prayers. This year, Sass Peress is hoping that 50 congregations will  take part,  ' helping to create a positive and cathartic event for all' .

 Inspired by a Facebook post by a Muslim friend in the UK referring to Miss Israel's selfie with Miss Iraq in 2017, Peress embarked on a project to locate and clean up his grandfather's grave in the Sadr City Jewish cemetery in Baghdad. This was done in secrecy in case of official interference.

"While some Iraqi Muslims stepped up and saw the positive in helping me discover my grandfather’s grave, some tried to get in the way, to the point of threats against the lives of those who sought to help me, "Peress recalls.

Before long the clean-up was extended to 150 graves. Their inscriptions were photographed and translated into English by Sami Sourani, a historian of the Iraqi-Jewish community based in Montreal. Peress hopes to obtain a photographic record of all 3,000 graves in the Sadr City cemetery.

Grave of Sasson Moshi Peress, grandfather of Sass Peress

 Jewish cemeteries across the Arab world have been vandalised or destroyed by Arab governments. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein reportedly planted grenades among the gravestones in Sadr City Cemetery. The government under General Kassem (1958 - 61) refused to revoke an order to bulldoze the old Baghdad Jewish cemetery so that a highway could be built. Most of the tombs were destroyed, including the mass grave containing the remains of the victims of the 1941 Farhud.

"If your synagogue or community centre would like to join the mass Hashkaba please contact Sass Peress (

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Embracing rather than erasing Mizrahi culture

This article by Sasha Goldstein-Sabbah in HaSepharadi takes up the familiar theme of Middle East and North African Jewry suffering 'discrimination' by the Israeli establishment. It has some interesting insights, but fails to differentiate between the various Mizrahi groups. It assumes that Mizrahi Jews were 'coerced' into abandoning  their customs and languages, when many were all too eager to change their names,  learn Hebrew and integrate into the new state. As for Ashkenazim getting better housing and jobs it is almost never stated that many were able to move out of the ma'abarot thanks to reparations they received from the German government. (With thanks: Isaac)

Ovadia Yosef, Israel's legendary Sephardi Chef Rabbi, being greeted by Shimon Peres.

In the period between 1948-1973 over a million Jews left the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It’s no secret that this experience was traumatic. Historic Jewish communities dissolved overnight, families were separated and many were left impoverished due to autocratic governments, political insecurity, and corruption.

 The trauma of exile was compounded for those who went to Israel by the atrocious conditions of the ma╩┐abarot (transit camps) in the 1950s and later resettlement in remote development towns along Israel’s border. The experiences left an indelible mark on MENA Jewry, but it was not only the dreadful living conditions (which many Eastern European Jews experienced as well) that traumatized MENA Jewry. More shockingly, MENA Jewry were treated as second class citizens by the Ashkenazi establishment who saw their languages and cultures as inferior to that of the Germanophile Ashkenazi majority at the time.

 It is well documented that many political leaders in the early years of the state viewed Eastern European Jewry as having greater potential than MENA, not a surprising bias given the shared origins. Furthermore, government leaders feared that lack of enthusiasm for Zionism, connections to Arab communist parties, and apathy towards an agrarian lifestyle in many circles of MENA Jewry could engender political instability in the already fragile state. As a consequence, these concerns and biases translated into Ashkenazim being allocated better housing, jobs, and more access to higher education due to their perceived superiority, ultimately resulting in socio-economic differences which are felt to this day in Israel. 

Read article in full

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Jews in Egypt apply for Spanish citizenship

Eleven Jews born in Egypt have applied for Spanish citizenship. Three are Samy Ibrahim, his brother and his father, among the last Jews living in Egypt. Fascinating article on the history of Jews of Sephardi origin in Egypt in Al-Monitor: 

According to a list published in a 1948 Spanish law anticipating the end of the Capitulations in Egypt and Greece the following year, at least 265 Sephardim, meaning originally from the Iberian Peninsula, had been under Spanish protection since Ottoman times.

The list, the only one of its kind ever published, shows that 123 of those Sephardim lived in Cairo and the remaining 142 in Alexandria and Port Said. Jews of other origins and those who received protection after 1914 are not listed. After Ibrahim found the documents of protection of his family, the Spanish authorities in Egypt suggested he apply for Spanish citizenship in accordance with a 2015 law granting citizenship to the “sons of Sepharad," a reference to the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in the late 15th century. The window for application closed on Oct. 1.

Samy Ibrahim, pictured here with Levana Zamir of the Jews from Egypt association in Israel and Cairo community head Magda Haroun

At first, “it was not in my mind to apply,” said Ibrahim. But he came to think, “If I am defending the Jewish identity, why not seek the origin?” he wondered. “From then on, I started to give real thought to my origins.” Today, all Jews in Egypt, thought to now number around 10, are of Sephardic origin, Ibrahim said. Historically, the differences of origin, culture, language, religious rites or social status made the Jews of Egypt one of its most diverse minorities, yet Sephardim were always in a clear majority compared with the Ashkenazis and Karaites.

 The first Sephardim started to arrive in Egypt by the end of the 15th century. But from 1897 to 1907, there was a major immigration during which Ibrahim’s grandfather came from Istanbul. A source in the Spanish Ministry Foreign Affairs told Al-Monitor that a total of 11 Jews born in Egypt had applied for citizenship. Of them, the Spanish Ministry of Justice confirmed to Al-Monitor that nine retain Egyptian nationality.

Yet only Ibrahim, his brother and his father — all of whom applied following Ibrahim’s initiative — still live in Egypt, according to the official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To meet all the conditions required to obtain Spanish nationality, Ibrahim had to learn the Spanish language and history in Cairo while he was putting the pieces of his familiar story together, especially that of his grandfather’s side, information that was crucial to proving his Spanish ancestry.

Read article in full

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Taliban put bickering Jews in prison

Zebulon Simentov is the last Jew of Afghanistan. There used to be two, but they bickered constantly - so much so that the Taliban imprisoned them, then kicked him out for being too annoying. Laura Adkins reports for JTA:

As the old saying goes, two Jews, three opinions. Add one headache for the Taliban.

Emran Feroz profiled Simentov for Foreign Policy and uncovered some incredible stories about the feisty Afghan — including that the Taliban once imprisoned him for arguing with a fellow Jew, then kicked him out because the constant bickering became too annoying. 

 There is a good amount of information available already on Simentov, given his newsworthy title as Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew. He always wears a kippah and observes the Jewish Sabbath, though he will watch television if a non-Jew has turned it on for him. He lives in Afghanistan’s last standing synagogue — which he renovated himself — in the heart of Kabul’s flower district. Every Shabbat, he reads Torah from the bimah of the old sanctuary. He hates the Taliban, and is on a quest to reclaim a Torah stolen by its interior ministry. 

He allegedly charges a pretty penny (or euro) for interviews.

 But Feroz’s article, framed around the imminent return of the Taliban to Afghanistan, adds much to the story. “Everyone in these streets knows [him],” one neighbor told Feroz. “He is very salient and, sometimes, he is very choleric. But we have fun with him.” 

Read article in full

Simentov: charges a pretty penny for interviews

Monday, November 11, 2019

How Egypt's beloved cartoon Mishmish fell into oblivion

There is a famous Arabic saying ' Bukra fil mishmish' - literally 'tomorrow, when the apricots bloom.' It's the languid Egyptian equivalent of 'when pigs fly' .

In the 1930s and 40s, Egypt was home to a thriving film industry. The work of Walt Disney became popular. It was then that the three Frenkel brothers, David, Herschel and Shlomo, hit on the idea of introducing a typically Egyptian character into animated films screened in Egypt -  Mishmish Effendi.

Mishmish Effendi got his name when a sceptical producer refused to back the brothers' work, telling them: 'Bukra fil mishmish'.  But the fez-wearing character soon became a household name in the 1930s and 40s. The Frenkel brothers, whose Ashkenazi family was driven by the Turks from Palestine to Egypt during WWI, were at the peak of their career.

The best years lasted until the early 1950s - when like thousands of Jews, they were forced to leave. Egypt confiscated Jewish property, replaced Jews with Muslims, and accused Jews of sending smoke signals to Israel.

The Frenkel story encapsulates the tragedy of Egypt's Jews. It  is now the subject of a new one-and-a-quarter hour documentary, Bukra fil Mishmish, directed by Tal Michael and produced in Israel by Cassis Films. A story of displacement, frustration, and failure. In France, the brothers doggedly waited for the apricots of their career to bloom. They shifed to colour from black-and-white and ingeniously invented a portable projector so as to pitch their ideas to one producer after another. They sank all their savings into one last film in 1964. It flopped.

The film follows Didier Frenkel, son of Shlomo, into the basement of the family home. Ancient film reels are gathering dust. This is the oeuvre of the Frenkel brothers, salvaged from Egypt, which Didier's embittered father had wanted destroyed. The reels are shipped off to be restored at France's leading film laboratory. After decades in a crate, Mishmish Effendi is given a new lease of life.

But there is another side to the story: Didier's surviving mother, Marcelle, reveals the tension at the heart of the family dynamics. She and Shlomo and their three children shared their house in Montgeron with David and Herschel, who never married. She is the down-to-earth Sephardi who wanted to join her family in Israel and start afresh, while the brothers ranged against her - united  'as the fingers of one hand' in clinging to their futile film-making dreams. They disparaged Marcelle's voice of reason. For her, a better tomorrow never came: 'bukra fil mishmish'.

The plight of the Frenkel brothers mirrors that of actors, artists and musicians who plummeted from fame after their uprooting from Arab countries. There was Zohra al-Fassia, who once sang for the king of Morocco but ended up shuffling around aimlessly in her dressing gown in a tiny Israeli apartment. Souad Zaki, a famous Egyptian singer,  became a cleaning lady in Tel Aviv. And the el-Kuwaity brothers, once the darlings of the Iraqi music scene, were reduced to selling kitchen utensils in the Hatikva market. To add insult to injury, their names were erased in their native land, although their songs were still played.

As with the El Kuwaity brothers, so with the Frenkels. But Mishmish Effendi has been rehabilitated recently in Egypt and the Frenkels are no longer forgotten. Fifty years too late for the brothers - who died despairing and disappointed.

The film has been produced with French and English subtitles. Enquiries

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Bene Israel have a special link to the Tomb of Rachel

A 19th century Jerusalem rabbi, Yaakov Sapir, forged a special link between the Bene Israel Jews of India and the Tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem, when he travelled to India to raise funds for the tomb's renovation. Today few Bene Israel Jews visit the tomb, which more closely resembles a fortification, writes Shalva Weil in Jewish Asian News, but the memory is still alive.

One of the causes to which the Bene Israel of Bombay contributed was the Tomb of Rachel. This tomb marks the very spot where the Biblical matriarch Rachel died in childbirth on the road to Bethlehem. In the Book of Genesis (35:19-20) it is written: "And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day."

 Muhammad al-Idrisi, the 12th century Muslim geographer confirmed that: "On the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the Tomb of Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin." The tomb has been the site of pilgrimage and prayer for Jews in the Diaspora for more than three thousand years. Throughout the centuries, Jews from all over the world visited the tomb, and sent funds to help renovate and maintain it. It was such a revered site that even Jews in far-flung countries, as far away as India, longed to pray there and felt connected to the place.

However, as with many Jewish religious sites, and particularly with respect to tombs of patriarchs, prophets and great Rabbis, the site also had religious significance for members of other faiths. This was particularly well documented in the 15th century with descriptions of Jews, Muslims and Christians frequenting the place. In 1615, Muhammad, Pasha of Jerusalem, gave the Jews exclusive rights to the tomb. In 1830, the Ottomans recognized the legal rights of the Jews to the site.

When Sir Moses Montefiore purchased the site in 1841, he restored the tomb and added a small prayer hall for Muslims. When Rabbi Yaakov Sapir left Jerusalem, emissaries were collecting money for the renovation of the tomb. It appears that Rabbi Sapir was successful in fund-raising in India for the holy site.

Inscribed on the wall of Rachel's tomb is the following plaque: "This well was made possible through a donation from our esteemed brothers, the Bene Israel, who dwell in the city of Bombay, may the Lord bless that place. In honour of the whole congregation of Israel who come to worship at the gravestone for the tomb of our matriarch Rachel, may her memory rest in peace, amen!

In the year 5625." This lunar year is the equivalent of 1864, the year that Rabbi Sapir returned to Jerusalem from India. At the beginning of the twentieth century, while Jewish art in Palestine portrayed Rachel's tomb as one of the most important holy sites, the site also began to be coveted by Muslims and became a source of contention, with the Wakf demanding control of the place on the grounds that the tomb was part of a neighbouring Muslim cemetery.

After the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the tomb was allocated to Jordan and Jews could no longer visit. During the Six Day War in 1967, after Israel occupied the West Bank (previously Jordanian territory), the tomb once again became part of Israel. During the 1970's, when I used to visit the tomb, the keeper of the small tomb was a Bene Israel Indian Jew from Bombay, who felt an historical affinity with the site because of his forefathers.

 The security around the Tomb of Rachel In 1995, after the Oslo agreement, Bethlehem, with the exception of Rachel's tomb, became part of the Palestinian Authority. The following year, the Israel Defense Forces, fearing a terrorist attack at the site, built a huge fortification around the previously modest tomb. In retaliation, in 1996, the Palestinian Authority declared the place to be on Palestinian land, stopped referring to it as Rachel's tomb and made the claim that it was the site of an Islamic mosque.

 During the second Intifada in 2000, there were intermittent attacks on the tomb with altercations between the IDF and Palestinian gunmen. Since then, there has been a growing wave of support for the idea that the site was in fact a thousand year-old mosque by the name of the "Bilal ibn Rabah mosque" until, finally, the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) endorsed the idea. In October 2010, it was declared a mosque.

Out of 58 member states, only the United States voted against the decision; 12 European and African countries abstained. In a petition to UNESCO initiated on the internet, petitioners wrote: "In attempting to sever the Jewish cultural, religious and natural heritage bond with the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb, UNESCO denies the history it is mandated to preserve, engages in a political maneuver designed to weaken a member UN nation, and undermines its own principles. …

We demand that UNESCO, whose purpose it is to protect heritage, also protect Jewish heritage, rather than deny it." The tomb was even known by the Bene Israel of Bombay as one of the holiest sites to Jews over the generations even though they were disconnected from world Jewry. It symbolized fertility, and is of special significance to Jewish women. Rachel's birthday, which falls on the 11th day of the lunar month of Heshvan, has become a day of pilgrimage for thousands of Jewish women, who come from all over Israel to pray for their loved ones or themselves. Busloads of Bene Israel have in the past visited the tomb to make vows and pray for suitable marriage partners for their children or beg for children for a childless couple.

The Bene Israel groups who visit the tomb today, which now more closely resembles a fortification marking the checkpoint to Bethlehem more than an ancient holy site, are few and far between. The Bene Israel guard is no longer there. The memory, though, is still closely guarded.

Read article in full

Friday, November 08, 2019

Israelis will be admitted to Dubai in 2020

It is a sign of how far relations have improved between Israel and the Gulf states that Israeli tourists will be allowed  to visit Dubai in 2020 to see the World Expo.  The arrangement might even be made permanent. Ynet News could not contain its excitement. (With thanks: Lily)

The Dubai skyline

For most Israelis, the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was nothing more than a lucrative, unattainable vacation destination.

That dream, however, might now become a reality. Ynet has learned that as an official host of next year's World Expo event, the Gulf nation is expected to open its gates to Israeli tourists in 2020.

 The World Expo, an international exhibition designed to showcase achievements of nations, takes place once every five years, lasts for up to six months, attracts millions of visitors from all over the world, and is considered by many to be the "Olympic Games" of innovation.

Read article in full

Thursday, November 07, 2019

What is the truth behind the story of the Mullah's donkey?

Karmel Melamed was intrigued by the story of the Mullah's donkey. Was the Jewish community under threat of death by a Persian mob in 1922 after allegedly obstructing the path of a Mullah, and did a US Jewish diplomat save them? Melamed finds that the story is true, and testifies to the long history of Persian antisemitism. Melamed writes in Jewish Journal:

The story of the “mullah’s donkey” was so appealing to me, I wanted to dig deeper by doing my own research to find out if it was just Iranian Jewish community folklore or truly a real and dangerous pogrom that was averted.

 I turned to the book “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran” by Iranian Jewish historian, Dr. Habib Levy which verified the accuracy of the story and offered surprising details of the incident involving the “mullah’s donkey” that took place on September 4, 1922.

 On that day, a servant of a Tehran mullah was riding his donkey past the Jewish school in the Jewish ghetto, when the school’s custodian stopped the donkey to prevent a group of children from colliding with the animal as they were exiting the school. The servant returned home to his master, the Islamic cleric or mullah “Agha Shayh Abd al-Nabi” and informed him of the incident that occurred with his donkey being held up for a group of Jewish children.

Ambassador Joseph Kornfeld: interceded  on behalf of the Jews of Tehran

 The Islamic cleric was furious because his donkey was held up by some “filthy Jews” and he demanded retribution for such an insult! After the mullah called for a general strike in the city, within hours all of the stores in Tehran were shut down and local thugs and hoodlums armed with sticks and clubs randomly beat up Jews they came across in streets and alleyways. The following day thousands of armed rioters surrounded Tehran’s Jewish ghetto seeking vengeance.

The Jews of Tehran had nowhere to turn to for help but to their co-religionist, the American Ambassador Kornfeld and he did indeed intercede on their behalf. Habib Levy states in his book that “on Friday morning, with the smell of death and blood in the air, the American Ambassador, a devout Jew, asked for help from the minister of war, Reza Khan Pahlavi, reminding him of the international consequences of this incident”.

 Following the meeting between Kornfeld and Reza Khan, the minister of war at the time, dispatched the cavalry to the Jewish ghetto to break up the riot and again calm was restored with no Jews being slaughtered by the angry Muslim rioters. The imminent crisis had been averted and lives of thousands of Tehran’s Jews had been saved because of Kornfeld’s intervention on their behalf. Subsequently in 1925, Reza Khan took power in Iran and proclaimed himself the new king or Shah.

  Read article in full

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Iraqi demonstrators want Jews to return

With thanks: Daniel

The current demonstrations in Iraq  are producing some interesting messaging. Here is a placard bearing the words "Sectarianism is ended, we demand [of our government] that our Iraqi Jewish people [gain the right to] return to their homeland Iraq".

It is interesting that disaffection with the current government and sectarianism translates into a nostalgia for the 'golden age' of Iraqi pluralism in the first half of the 20th century. Then King Faisal had proclaimed himself king of all Iraqis equally, irrespective of religion: Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Jews can find such philosemitism flattering, but ultimately it belongs in the realms of fantasy. No Jew wants to return to Iraq, where there are barely five Jews. Instead of turning the clock back,   Iraqis who want change need to recognise that over 70 years have passed and the Iraqi Jews are no longer the community they remember with such affection.

These demonstrators must come to terms with Israel, given that most of the descendants of Iraqi Jews are Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizens.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Libyan pogrom destroyed trust between Muslims and Jews

Between 4 - 7 November 1945, the Jews of Libya suffered a murderous pogrom which snuffed out 133 lives. This article in Focus on Israel by Leone Nauri gives the context of this massacre without precedent and lists the names of the dead. Nauri concludes that it is about time that Libyan Jews started a political campaign for their rights. (With thanks: Lucky)

I read continuously about the good old days in Libya…and I remain incredulous and amazed.

 It would be enough to remember that from that country we were hunted and expelled after three pogroms and without a penny in our pockets for not believing these lies but probably it is not enough -- so I would like to remind my fellow villagers how we lived, without Stockholm or other syndromes.

I would like to remind you that when we left the house the silent advice of the parents was: head down and brisk walking. That way, the chances of being insulted, spat upon, beaten, were between 30 and 50 percent. When we left home there was possibly more than one of us, and we accompanied each other. Generally every one of us had a "ghibbor and courageous" companion to return with.

When I came back, my mother always told me that I was a brawler,  because in the end if I followed safer roads, with my head down, with a brisk pace, or running, I would probably have reduced the number of fights! In the narrowest streets with small sidewalks if you were lost in thought and did not realize that a Muslim came from the opposite side and therefore you did not get off the sidewalk and caught a slap and a series of insults from the "ia kelb" (you dog), to "iudi kafr" (Jew non--believer). And this was the rule, it wasn't a special situation, it was just so. When you came back from the temple they waited outside and attacked you.

I remember that our little group coming out of Slat dar el Malte consisted of myself,  Leone Nauri, Victor Meghnagi z""l and Simo Dula. He was the real ghibbor (hero) , he put his tongue between his teeth and said: 'don't answer randomly if they beat you, answer to their leader and not to others'.

 My parents always told me when I told them to leave that I was exaggerating! I would like to remind you first of all that in 1945 40,000 Jews and 500,000 Arabs lived in Libya in a territory three times the size of Italy and that our annihilation led to our progressive expulsion despite the fact that we were residents for over 2,000 years, much earlier than the Muslims, but this is never remembered, no one gets up with the house keys to request our homes and our rights.

We were about eight percent of the population and we should have 8% of the territory, of the oil, all of the money that has robbed from us, beyond revaluation and interest. Hundreds of synagogues turned into mosques or  were set on fire, hundreds of deaths and our cemetery repaved with the asphalt of a highway. We did not resist with arms, neither did the UN nor the other international associations listen to us. But I think we should start thinking about a political movement, even with the use of fashionable flotillas. Damn them.

First of all I would like to recall the context in which the pogrom took place. Libya was a Turkish colony, then an Italian colony and after the war it was under the control of Great Britain. On November 4, 1945, Muslims attacked Jews wherever they were, burned hundreds of shops, houses, synagogues and murdered 133 people. The British authorities did not lift a finger for four days and four nights!

The result was the assassination in Tripoli of: Amira Izhak (Huga Giabin), Attia Regina (Tesciuba), Barabes Huatu Asciusc, Barda David, Bendaud Masauda, Dadusc Lisa, Fellah Musci-Kisc, Fellah Rubina, Genah Barkhani-Kassis, Genah Yosef Kassis, Gerbi Hmani Barghut, Guetta Meri, Habib Pinhas, Haiun Mazala, Halfon Hmani-Aruah, Halfon Masuda-Buda, Hassan Mas'auda, Leghziel Mamus - Ghezal, Makhluf Nissim, Meghnagi Gebri, Messica Hai Glam, Messiah Raffael Halil, Nahum Pinhas, Nahum Shlomo-Nawi, Naim Bekhor, Naim Bekhor Baiiba, Naim Raffael, Naim Nasi, Naim Iosef-Haba, Rav Dadusc Sciaul, Rav Avraham Tesciuba, Serussi Iakov-Gabbai, Sofer Hanna (Haddad), Sofer Mas' ud, Zanzuri Rubina.

In the town of Amrus the murdered were: Buaron Misa, Baranes Zina, Baranes Miha, Baranes Mas'uda, Glam Abraham, Glam Giuara, Iamin Mas'uda, Cahlon Huatu, Cahlon Huatu, Cahlon Hai, Cahlon Micael, Cahlon Makhluf, Cahlon Mantina, Cahlon Saida, Cahlon Pinhas, Cahlon Sciuscian, Cahlon Sara, Makhluf Guta, Makhluf Huatu, Makhluf Khlafu, Makhluf Misa, Makhluf Misa, Makhluf Misa, Makhluf Mantina, Makhluf Nesria, Makhluf Sultana, Makhluf Scimon, Makhluf Scimon, Mimun Lisa, Mimun Sfani, Saada Wasi, SaadaMisa, Scmuel Bekhor, Scmuel Iaakov, Scmuel Meir, Scmuel Mergiana (Makhluf), Sasson Lisa, Scmuel Rahel, Scmuel Scimon.

In the city of Zanzur the murdered were: Cahlon Bachuna, Cahlon Huatu, Cahlon Mamus, Cahlon Masu, Cahlon Sturi (Debasc), Guetta Aziza, Guetta Aziza, Guetta Eliau, Guetta Fragi, Guetta Ghezala, Guetta Ghezala (Debasc), Guetta Hluma, Guetta Hmani , Gueta Kalifa, Guetta Khamsa, Guetta Khlafu, Guetta Khlafo, Guetta Lidia, Guetta Mas'uda (Serussi), Guetta Misa, Guetta Mosce, Guetta Nissim, Guetta Saruna, Guetta Sbai, Guetta Sfani, Guetta Toni, Hayun Dukha, Haiun Hmani , Haiun Khamus, Haiun Kheria, Hayun Khlafo, Haiun Mergiana (Makhluf), Makhluf Gamira, Makhluf Sara, Makhluf Scimon, Scmuel Nissim.

In Zawia were murdered: Bukris Esther (Dadusc), Badasc Giuara, Badasc Rahamin, Dadusc Scialom, Haggiag Nissim, Halal Eliau, Halal Hevron, Halal Khamus, Halal Somani, Haiun Sclomo, Hayun Ester (Tura), Leghziel Kheria (Dadusc) , Zigdon Nesria.In Tagiura the murdered were: Arbib Bekhor, Arbib Khalifa, Arbib Scmuel, Attia Eliau, Buaron Amira, Frig Guta (Dadusc), Skhaib Abraham. In Msellata the following were assassinated: Attia Rahmin-Agila, Attia Iehuda, Legtivi S’ayid.

The Jews had always trusted Muslims, and despite some problems they would never have imagined an assault of those proportions. This caused an unbridgeable gap with the Muslims and an absolute lack of trust in the British authorities. The massacres lasted from 4 to 7 November and I am not aware of any commission of inquiry of the UN or international associations. To be honest, it must be remembered that even some Muslim dignitaries tried to stop the massacres and that only after that date did the British intervene and stop them.

Read article in full (Italian)

An eye-witness account of the 1945 pogrom 

70 years since the Tripoli pogrom

Remembering the 1945 riots in Libya

Monday, November 04, 2019

Social media helps identify photos of Iraqi Jews

A batch of photos of unknown Iraqi Jews has finally been identified after they were uploaded and shared 200 times on social media by the Babylonian Heritage Center in Israel. Ynet News has the story (with thanks: Orit) 

After conducting a short inquiry, (employee Ginat)  Salman discovered that the pictures were actually found by an elderly woman who came to the Heritage Center years ago. The woman gave the pictures to the Center, claiming they had been found on a street corner in Tel Aviv along with the rest of the belongings of a recently deceased woman.

 "She couldn't share any details because, according to her, she didn’t know anything about the pictures," says Aliza Dayan-Hamama, the CEO of the Heritage Center.

 "We very interested in finding the origins of the pictures, so we decided to use the power of social media in the hopes someone somewhere would recognize a person or two, and we'd be able to finally solve the mystery."

 Dayan-Hamama says the pictures were uploaded to the Center's Facebook and Instagram accounts, where they received huge engagement. "The response was amazing," she says.

"We got more than 200 shares across dozens of groups, along with responses from a great many people. The most touching response came from a man named Ilan Gabay, who was actually able to identify his mother as the baby in one of the pictures."

Mrs Gabay with a photo of herself as a baby in Iraq

 According to Dayan-Hamama, "we were also contacted by several other people from Israel, Canada and London, who identified themselves in the pictures - and with that, the puzzle was complete."

  Read article in full

Astronaut charts Iraqi-Jewish father 's journey

Jewish astronaut Jessica Meir, who made history last month as one half of the first all-female spacewalking team,  has posted pictures of Israel snapped from space with a caption saying the country was part of her father’s journey. The Times of Israel reports: 

 “My father’s globe spanning journey as a surgeon from the Middle East, to Europe, and eventually to the U.S. was an inspiration to many in my immediate and extended family. " Meir wrote.

 Meir’s late father was born in 1925 in Baghdad, and in 1931 the whole family left Iraq as a result of anti-Semitism and settled in pre-state Israel. He was in medical school at the American University of Beirut when the 1948 War of Independence broke out and returned to Israel, where he drove an ambulance during the war.

He then went to Geneva to finish medical school before taking a job in Sweden, where he met Meir’s mother, a nurse who was raised in a Christian Swedish family. Her parents then moved to the US.

  Read article in full

Dr Jack Shabi, father of modern Iraqi psychiatry

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Leader of Tunisian community Roger Bismuth dies

Arab  and Jewish media have both been mourning the passing, on 1 October 2019, of Tunisian Jewry's leader, Roger Bismuth. He would have turned 92 on 6 November.

Roger Bismuth - a personal friend of Tunisian Presidents

Arab Weekly writes: 

Bismuth saw the community as a full-fledged component of Tunisia's makeup. To a foreign Jewish delegation that asked him if he would ever leave Tunisia, Bismuth was categorical: “This is the country where I was born. This is the place where my ancestors and I were born. This is my home. Why should I leave? :

Bismuth rose from being a construction worker to managing 12 Tunisian industrial companies. He started as a labourer in the construction industry when he was 14, walking as much as 10km to arrive to work. “I was just a labourer among labourers,” he recalled during an interview three years ago. He was a successful business executive who perceived his companies as "families."

For decades, he was an active leading member of the country’s business federation, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicraft, known by its French acronym UTICA. Since independence, he maintained close contacts with all Tunisian governments. He repeated that his philosophy about politics and politicians was derived from his faith.

“Our religion teaches us to cooperate with the authorities of our country, for the common good,” he said.

 Bismuth was a personal friend of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and before him of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, both of whom died in recent weeks. For six years after 2004, Bismuth was the "only Jewish senator" in the Arab world. As president of the Tunisian Jewish community, Bismuth maintained good relations with political leaders since the 2011 uprising.

Read article in full

Palestine politics impacted Jewish communities from the 1930s

It is by now an established  fact that much of the work produced about the Arab-Israeli conflict in western universities can be considered tendentious. Dr Moshe Behar of Manchester University, a member of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, is  predictably critical of Israel in his research. But one paper (scroll down) he presented at a conference to debate the One-State, Two States question, has some surprising insights of interest to Point of No Return readers.

Manchester University, where Dr Moshe Behar is a senior lecturer

Behar contends that a huge body of academic writing zooms in on the 'Liliputian' territory of Israel/Palestine, while the regional dimension of the conflict is undervalued. From 1936 *, and the outbreak of the Arab Revolt against the British in Palestine, he argues, the Arab/Zionist dispute spilled over into Arab politics, and became a topic of domestic concern in Arab countries.  It's what he calls the 'butterfly effect': - a small change in one place can have large effects elsewhere'. Yet in their focus on 1948 and not 1937, scholars have effectively dismissed the 'butterfly effect' as 'residual dust - a historical nuisance to be brushed off'.

The result  of the 'butterfly effect' was an antisemitic backlash against local Jewish communities in Arab states - collective punishment for what the 'Zionists' were doing in Palestine. There were calls to boycott Jewish shops. By the mid- to late 1930s, Jews  were being murdered in Baghdad. The Islamic ulema called for jihad  in Egypt and Iraq. In 1939 Young Egypt planted bombs in synagogues. In Iraq, Jewish clubs were targeted.

Shortly after these bombings, an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior wrote  to his superior: 'Before long a demand might arise  for the expulsion of all Jews from Iraq. It was not entirely fantastic to visualise the 90,000 Jews of Iraq being escorted across the Euphrates (sic) and told to run the gauntlet to this Palestine of theirs.' These words proved prophetic, as it was barely 12 years later that the Jewish community was forced out of Iraq.

Behar spreads the blame for conflating Jews and Zionists,  equally - between the Zionists, the Arabs and the British.

Controversially, Behar argues that Arab atrocities such as the Farhud massacre in Iraq are overblown by Zionist academics in order to detract from Zionist 'misdeeds' in Palestine. But he completely underestimates the influence of anti-minority ultra-nationalism in Arab states, the exploitation of Jews as a distraction from domestic issues, and the impact of anti-Jewish incitement by the Palestinian Mufti and the Muslim Brotherhood. Jewish declarations of loyalty and hostility to Zionism proved utterly futile in the end. Even anti-Zionists were forced to flee.  And  the butterfly effect impacted on other minorities who had no Zionist movement of their own.

The antisemitism of British diplomats clearly shows through in their reports back to the Colonial Office. But it has to be said that British rule was overwhelmingly positive for the Jewish minority in regional terms.

To blame the Zionists for the plight of MENA  Jews is even more difficult to argue. At the time, the Zionists  were singularly uninterested in Jews in Arab countries, directing all their efforts at rescuing the Jews of Europe from Nazism.

Our conclusion still stands:  If it had not been for Arab and Muslim antisemitism  Jews in Arab countries would not have been compelled to flee.

* Or even before - ed

Scroll down to read Moshe Behar's paper: One State, Two states,Binational state - mandated imaginations in a regional void.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Yemen agreement would criminalise owners of Jewish property

Fox News has reported on the consequences of a future agreement (MOU) which the US intends to sign with Yemen. This is intended to protect national and cultural heritage, but would in effect legitimise the theft of Jewish property. Jews have taken Torah scrolls and other Jewish property while fleeing persecution in Yemen. Following a campaign by JIMENA, some 150 comments were filed, objecting to the Memorandum of Understanding on the grounds that it would criminalise Jews for taking what is rightfully theirs. The US Cultural Committee hearing was held on 29 - 30 October.

Members of the Dahari family leaving Yemen for Israel brought out a scroll which had been in their possession for decades. A Jew was arrested in retaliation.

To see Fox News video report, click here

When Jews fled Yemen, they took along their highly-valued religious items and artifacts. One such item is a Torah Scroll, believed to be hundreds of years old, that was smuggled out of Yemen to Israel by the family of Manny Dahari. Dahari's family has owned the scroll for at least 300 years, but Yemen’s government is hoping to get it and other Jewish items back, claiming them as “national cultural artifacts.”

 Yemen's government has filed a request with the U.S. State Department for a Memorandum of Understanding, which if granted would recognize Yemen’s ownership of the items.  Anyone transporting or possessing such items, like the Daharis’ Torah Scroll, could face sanctions.

Read  Jerusalem Post article in full (with thanks: Lily)

Houthis demanding return of Torah hold Jew

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Pakistan: The Australian Consul-General's wife's tale

If you visit the Israeli town of Ramleh, you will find a synagogue built by Pakistani Jews. It is named Magen Shalom, after the synagogue in Karachi which no  longer exists. The Jews of Pakistan once numbered about 3,000, but the violent repercussions to the Arab-Israeli conflict have driven the community  away. (In addition, as the case of Asia Bibi has shown, Pakistan is hardly today a beacon of religious freedom.)  The following story is based on real events and centres around the Jews of Karachi, who were desperate to  cross the closed border with India in the 1970s. Wayne Croning has recreated the story in his own words...names are made up.

Hannah made the driver cover the number plates of the Mercedes, even made him remove the flag from the bonnet.  She got in front and gave him the address. Jamila Street, in the Ranchore.

Her husband David was posted to Karachi a few months previously,  as the Australian Consul-General. Hanna and their children arrived a few weeks later. They had been to several countries, including some in South America. The city reminded her of Bombay, where she and her family once lived.

Crowded, bustling, hot and humid. But she loved it. She loved the food, the people and the culture. The first thing she did on arriving at any new country was to look up the Jewish population; being Jewish herself. After a short search with help through a high ranking local official, she found to her amazement, that there was indeed a small but thriving Jewish community with a decent-sized synagogue in the commercial hub of the city.

 As they drove from Clifton to Saddar, they eventually got onto Bunder Road (M.A.Jinnah Road), and took a turn off this busy street.The street they were on now was narrow, but crowded with people, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles. The synagogue was not hard to find. A large stone and brick building soon appeared on their right. Above the steel gate, and on the building itself was a sign: 'Magain Shalome Synagogue’.

An early picture of the Magain Shalome synagogue, Karachi (Photo: Haroun Haidar blog)

 They pulled up to the side of the street and parked. Hannah got out, walked to the gate and was stopped by the chowkidar or watchman.

 “Who is it you wish to see?” he asked, in Urdu. Hannah had picked up a bit of Hindi after spending a few years in Bombay.“Rabbi sahib say milna chatha hoo.” (I would like to meet the Rabbi).

 He replied that this was Saturday and to come back in one hour. She waited in the car, and soon observed a number of people entering the premises. Men, women and children, families, all dressed for Shabbat, in their finest. They all appeared to be East Indian, but some of their features were a little different.

The gates were fully open now and she decided to walk in. The main door of the synagogue was made up of solid oak. She entered and was greeted by a high-ceilinged, cathedral-like room.and spacious, wooden benches flanked each side of a narrow aisle. Women on the left, men on the rght. Men wore kippot, women wore shawls around their head.

An elderly, bearded man stood to the side of the entrance on the inside, greeting everyone. He looked surprised when he saw Hannah.

Smiling, he introduced himself.“Hello and Shalom. I am Rabbi Simone Isaac. And you are...?"

 Hannah smiled back. “I am Hannah. She had covered her head with a silk scarf. After guiding her to a seat, the Rabbi went to the back of the building. Large chandeliers hung down, brightening up the space.

The Ark stood on a raised wooden pedestal in the middle of the wooden prayer platform. Torah scrolls were stored here. The Rabbi climbed the two stairs, removed one of the large scrolls, holding it high above his head with both hands.  He walked around the prayer platform, reciting prayers in Hebrew.

After the service ended, Hannah managed to meet the Rabbi again. She learned a lot after their hour -long conversation. Most of the Jews here were from the Bene Israel community, that originated on the South West coast of India, just South of Bombay. Some were Baghdadi Jews and a few had Afghani connections. Most of them spoke Marathi, Urdu and of course English. Many had left in 1948, one year after the Partition of India and the birth of a new nation: Israel. By the mid 1960’s the population had further dwindled. Most left for the UK, Israel and even India.

 This was now 1972, India and Pakistan had just gotten over a major war. The border was closed between the two countries.

 Hannah was seen regularly at the synagogue; attending Shabbat prayers, weddings and social events. She had even attended two funerals, where the dead were laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery not too far from the  synagogue. She got to know most of the families, made close friends with some of the women, hosting many parties and get-togethers at her home. Her own children also attended prayers at the synagogue every Saturday.  She would supply the community with Kosher wine, grape juice, etc., even medical supplies.

 As she grew closer to the community, and came to know several of them wanted to make ‘Aliyah’ to Israel, especially the younger generation, she devised a plan: Travel to Israel for Pakistanis was not allowed (passports were stamped as such).But many had immigrated to Israel via Iran and India.

 The bizarre idea came into her head one day.  She would drive with two or three Jews to Lahore and then drive across the border at Wagh, hiding them in the trunk of the same consular car.

“Are you insane?” her husband asked as she prepared for the trip. “What if you are caught? What if they are caught? Even if you do, what will happen to them in India? They could be arrested there!”

 Hannah smiled but said with confidence .“They will not stop a foreign consular car. I have made arrangements with the British Embassy in Delhi. They will be given British passports. The ones who want to immigrate to Israel can do so as well. There is a representative from Tel Aviv who will be in Bombay at the end of the year. They are inviting Indian Jews to immigrate to Israel.

 When the day arrived, Hannah and two young women and one man, got into the Mercedes and bid tearful goodbyes to relatives.

The long drive to Lahore took about two days, with stops along the way. Hannah also took the family pet dog along for the trip. The morning before crossing the border, she hid the two young women in the trunk of the car. The rear middle armrest was removed and a plastic pipe fitted to allow cool air from the air conditioner to reach them in the trunk. The young man was given a consular uniform with a badge and would act as the chauffeur.

They drove to the border. It was heavily guarded with signs posted along the fence. Guard dogs began barking at the car. The guards took a walk around and noticed Hannah’s dog in the back seat.  in Delhi.” she told them, holding out her passport.“This is my chauffeur and these are his papers”, she added, handing them his passport.

 After informing her that she would be allowed to cross, they refused to let the chauffeur through. She looked up at the guard, half annoyed. “I cannot drive! Do you want me to walk to Delhi?? ”He appeared confused for a second. After consulting with a senior official, he came back.“You can both go through, but at your own risk. We cannot be responsible for your safety, or the safety of the driver.” With that he handed back the papers, opened the gate and let them through.

 On the other side, she encountered similar problems. “I can’t walk to Delhi!” and an annoyed look finally got her through.

“I have to make this trip two or three times a year. Make a note of my name and my number plate,”she said, as they slowly drove away from the border.

 The two young women made it to the UK. The chauffeur had to return with her to Karachi, so as not to raise suspicion. She made several such trips back and forth. Things became more relaxed at the border crossing.The chauffeur made it out to Israel after the third border crossing.

Hardly any Jews remain in Karachi. Many of them married into other communities, changed their religion or just left for good.

 Many years later, a journalist interviewed the Karachi Jewish community who had settled in Israel in a place called Ramleh. They had set up a new synagogue and named it Magen Shalom after the one in Karachi.

When one elderly man was interviewed he had tears in his eyes.“I miss Karachi. I was born there, I miss the place dearly.What really hurts is that I can never go back for a visit. Never!”

Diplomat's wife smuggled Jews out of Pakistan

Pakistani Jews go to court over synagogue

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Friedman: kudos to Netflix for telling Mizrahi spy story

Matti Friedman is pleasantly surprised by The Spy, the Netflix series about Eli Cohen, Israel's most famous spy. It is long-overdue recognition of a marginalised, yet invaluable group of Arabic-speaking Jewish agents. Read his article in Mosaic:

Sacha Baron-Cohen as Eli Cohen, Israel's legendary spy in the Netflix series

Hollywood’s Mossad movies haven’t been good in part because most Western observers have never really grasped Israel’s secret identity, which is also the secret that made the Mossad’s reputation in its first decades. This is the fact that more than half of the new state’s population came, like Eli and Nadia, from the Arab world and included people who could move in that world with ease, as Arabs. That fact has been obscured by Israel’s own Europe-heavy narrative, by the West’s Holocaust fixations, and by the Mossad’s own PR about derring-do and technical wizardry.

The truth is that Mossad recruiters had at their disposal an invaluable reservoir of people who were loyal to a fault, ideologically motivated, and capable of passing for the enemy. One of them was Eli Cohen. There were many others who, unlike Cohen, remain anonymous because they were lucky enough to make it home.

The series deserves credit for broaching, if only in a peripheral and inelegant way, the harsh ethnic irony of the Cohens’ life: namely, that the same characteristic that made Eli useful to Israel’s young intelligence service was what kept his family on Israel’s margins. Being an Arabic-speaking Jew in those years was useful if you were a spy. In real life it was a handicap to be overcome.

“You know what they see when they look at me?” Eli says to Nadia after a party at the poolside mansion of Ashkenazi friends, where the host mistakes Eli for a waiter: “They see an Arab. That’s it. Jewish, yes. But just an Arab.” Never mind that no such mansion could have existed in socialist Israel circa 1960, or that the host’s 1970s shirt and haircut are off by at least a decade. Eli’s point to Nadia gets at something true, and if there are to be more—and better—Mossad stories told on screen, they’ll have to address it again and in much greater depth.

Read article in full

Eli Cohen's story dramatised on Netflix

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Libyan Jew will help draft new Libyan Constitution

A Libyan Jew based in the UK is set to contribute to the drafting of the war-torn country’s new constitution, according to Jewish News. But scarred by his arrest and interrogation on a visit to Libya in 2012,   Raphael Luzon will only agree to take part in the drafting via Skype.

 Raphael Luzon, who came to the UK in 2001, said he had been invited to take part in the process by Muhammed al-Hosh, president of the High Council of Reconciliation. Luzon said it was “historic” that he had been appointed an “observer and representative of Libyan Jews” in the country’s newly-established Council of Sheikhs, which is the equivalent of Libya’s upper chamber or Senate.

Speaking to Jewish News, he said: “The current constitution, which dates from the days of the King in 1951, talks about equal rights for all citizens, but I am trying to introduce a line that says this should be irrespective of religion.”

He added: “While there is some reluctance from the Salafists [fundamentalists] most Libyans agree that something like this is needed.”

 The activist, who chairs the Union of Libyan Jews, was born in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi but was forced to flee during a pogrom as a result of the 1967 Six Day War fought between Israel and Arab states. He has since been back several times, including in 2012, when he was briefly abducted. As a result of this, he said he would participate in the drafting via Skype “despite a lot of pressure on me to travel back."

Read article in full

More about Raphael Luzon

Monday, October 28, 2019

Women helped Mashadi converts retain their Judaism

This year is the 180th anniversary of the mass forced conversion of the Jews of Mashad to Islam.  Largely thanks to their women, who remained isolated from social and religious pressures,  the Jews proceeded to lead a double life - Muslim outwardly, but Jewish at home - which helped preserve their identity at the height of adversity. Dr Mehran Levy summarises their story in Kinloss magazine (with thanks: Michelle)

 The extraordinary history of the Jews of Mashad began during the reign of Nader Shah (known as the 'Napoleon' of Persia) of the Afshar Dynasty, who ruled from 1736, and his empire briefly stretched across present-day Iran, India, and parts of central Asia.

 At the time, for over 2500 years, Jews lived in various provinces of Persia. They were engaged in trade but were also bankers, and ran depositories. The Shah brought forty Jewish families - trustworthy and reputed for being good financiers and honest business people - to his capital Mashad to run his business, while seventeen families were sent to the nearby city of Kalat, his seat of residence.

Jews were appointed to manage the Shah's vast treasures (including the largest diamonds - Kohinoor and Dariyanoor) brought in after the conquest of India. Initially, they resided in a shanty precinct called Eidgah (Ghetto). Meanwhile, the Zoroastrian community of Mashad, subjected to religious annihilation, were fast evacuating the area. This gave the opportunity to the Jews to purchase their lands and properties, and the Shah sanctioned them to build synagogues and community centres.

Nader Shah, the community's only hope and saviour, was assassinated shortly afterwards in a rebellion (1747).  The country was fragmented and revolts erupted between his successors. Several families tried to flee eastward, to Herat, Bukhara and on to India.  In spite of the long and dismal period that followed, the rest of the community remained united, alert, vigilant. It designated elders to solve disputes and to liaise between the Jewish and the Muslim population. The whole of Eidgah was interlinked with small inconspicuous doors, which could be used as escape routes at times of trouble. The windows faced alleyways rather than areas where onlookers could see into the private dwellings.

Migratory routes taken by Mashadi Jews

 The Jews established business links with local Muslims as means of survival including trading woollen clothes, silk, and other textiles.

There were many assaults on  Mashadi Jewry, the most poignant in 1839. The 180th anniversary of this event  falls this year and the community is commemorating and reflecting upon it. An incident occurred when the inadvertent misconduct of a Jew resulted in the killing of several Jews by a mob. This was the catalyst for more persecution, giving  rise to one of the darkest epochs in the lives of Persian Jewry, followed by the forced 'conversion' of Jews to Islam. Within days, the entire community of about 400 families was forcibly converted to Shia Islam, some were killed and most community centres, including synagogues, destroyed.

These Anusim (forced converts) among the Mashadi Jews were known as Allah-dadi (God given) and recognized as Jadid al-Islam (New Muslims). The sceptics, to ensure they no longer practised their 'idolatrous' religion kept the 'New Muslims' under surveillance. The ghetto was renamed Mahalleh Jadid (The New Precinct). This grim situation motivated a large number to leave for  the Land of Israel and the nearby cities in Persia where they assimilated into the existing Jewish communities, or moved to  more tolerant Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

However, those who remained continued to adhere tenaciously, although undercover, to their orthodox religious activities and began to live a dual life. Kashrut, marriage, and burials were all conducted under strict Jewish laws. Intermarriage was unknown within the community - girls were betrothed to Jewish boys at an early age to avoid a forced marriage to outsiders. The marriage ceremony would be first conducted in a local mosque by the Imam, and then carried out under rabbinic auspices; having two marriage certificates, one in Persian and one in Hebrew, was common. Men had dual names, a Persian Arabic name as well as their Hebrew birth names.

Men attended mosques for daily prayer followed by davening in their secluded synagogues. To make them inconspicuous, miniature Tefillins, Siddurim, and Torah Parshiots printed as separate smaller booklets (read in services even to this day) were in use. A unique form of scriptwriting known as Jadidi (new) was created - this was a mixture of Persian and Hebrew only understandable by the Jews at the time. Some even went on to Mecca for pilgrimage and were commonly ennobled by the title Hajji after returning from Hajj.

Mini-parashiot booklets printed in Lithuania in 1900 and used in Mashad c. 1918 (Photo: UMICA)

Because of this duality, there were no openly Jewish schools in Mashad. Pupils attended local primary and secondary schools while the elders, behind closed doors, taught Jewish studies. When the Alliance Israelite offered education classes, the elders, fearful that their secret faith may be exposed, rejected it. This inevitable but wise decision had damaging ramifications for the community because they were comparatively less educated than their Jewish counterparts in Iran in the first half of the twentieth century.

Under the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925), life for the Mashadi Jews improved immensely. As the courts made strong attempts at secularism and eased many religious restrictions, Jews cautiously began practising their faith publicly. The city thrived as a business and economic centre and the Jews benefited from this and the favourable trading environment of the nearby Russian provinces.

However, with the rise of the Nazism and the outbreak of the Second World War, prejudice and anti-Semitism re-ignited in the country. In search of a safer and more prosperous life, the Jews gradually left Mashad in favour of larger cities, settling mainly in the capital Tehran. The exodus reached its peak in 1946-1948. By the 1950s, Jewish life in Mashad was almost non-existent. This momentous move and the moderate reign of the Pahlavi Dynasty, presented the community with enormous social, vocational and work opportunities and, in particular, they could openly practise their faith with little fear or hindrance. That period also saw the first group of Mashadi Jews going onto higher education and, a few held senior positions within their disciplines in Iran, among whom are remembered and honoured: 'Mohandes'  Nourollah  M., Dr  Aghajan  R., Dr Lotfollah  Y., Dr Yousef  H.

By 1979, with the creation of the Islamic Republic, the majority of the Jews had left Iran. Some moved to Germany, Italy, and America. Israel was also a favourite choice. Mashadis  joined earlier migrants from 1901, forming the largest Persian Jewish community. Those who immigrated to Britain joined the well-established but small community that settled there in 1910. The Anglo-Mashadi community founded their own Synagogue in Stamford Hill in the mid-1920s. This evolved into the present-day magnificent Persian shul.

 Mashadi Jews have been unique in the diaspora because for centuries, they maintained their Jewish faith and practised Orthodox Judaism to the full, if underground, in an Islamic environment. Historians argue that this was due largely to the women who were somewhat excluded and segregated from the public domain and the city's fervently religious atmosphere. The characteristics of the traditional Iranian home and the segregated closed unit of the Jewish household meant that the women had, comparatively, a greater degree of liberty to live as Jews in their homes. Hence, they upheld their ancestral traditions and passed on that unadulterated faith to the next generation. 

Young Mashadis never witnessed or experienced the lives of their parents in Iran. However, in their unique and highly integrated social life outside Iran, and the negligible rate of intermarriage, they have upheld their traditions. They are well-educated, informed and are involved in wider academic, corporate and political institutions. 

 From the outset, the crypto-Jews of Mashad, consciously or not, believed that it was best not to assimilate and to remain unnoticed and united within their tightly-knit community. Some attribute this to the community’s double life in the past as a means of survival and believe that their parents' socio-cultural lifestyle has perpetuated itself and is apparent in the present day. However, it is certain that this unique lifestyle has worked in their favour, keeping the community integral, safe, prosperous and, remarkably, preserving their orthodox Jewish identity unhindered for centuries in the face of extreme adversity.This trait is unlikely to erode in the near future and perhaps unwittingly, they have formed their own diaspora within a diaspora.

This article, written in memory of the author's father, has been reproduced with the kind permission of  Dr Mehran Levy.

More about the Jews of Mashad

Sunday, October 27, 2019

IDF Arabic instructor tells her incredible story

Now an Arabic instructor in the IDF, V. was one of the last Iraqi Jews to make aliya. She tells her incredible story of growing up under Saddam's regime to Israel Hayom (With thanks: Lily)

A photo which V brought out of Iraq shows her with family members and friends

 The family decided not to forgo their Jewish identity, but for their own safety, they chose to hide it as much as possible.

One of V.'s first childhood memories was drawing shapes on a piece of paper. One was a Star of David. Her family panicked and made her promise never to do it again. V.'s first encounter with the Hebrew language was also scary.

 "I remember one time I was sitting at home with my dad and he was looking for something to listen to on the radio. Suddenly, we heard a broadcast in a language I couldn't identify and sounded very strange to me. My dad looked at me in total silence and changed the station."

 "I noticed what station it was and he saw me looking. And he whispered, 'Don't you dare to look for it later. That's Hebrew. It's illegal. If they catch us, we're done for."

 V. falls silent.

 "You have to understand. We didn't show anyone that we were Jews. We weren't taught the language, the religion, or the customs. From age four I knew what I could say to those around me and what I couldn't. I knew we were Jewish, but I didn't really understand what that meant at that age. I only knew I wasn't a regular kid."

  Leading a double life from such a young age came at a price, which was declaring loyalty to the regime. When she started elementary school, V. was recruited for the scouts, the youth movement of the Saddam regime. Unlike youth movements in Israel, the Iraqi scouts was actual military training. V. was given a uniform, a gun, and a hefty dose of Ba'ath party propaganda.

 Israel was always the enemy. "I realized that I had to prove that I was more loyal to Iraq than anyone else. That I was the most Iraqi anyone could be," V. says.

 Her school studies only increased her exposure to the propaganda of the regime and put V. into a permanent dilemma. "The brainwashing was absolute. In school, in the media, the message was always the same. If there is a situation of war or danger, our loyalty was first and foremost to Saddam and the regime. I was confused between my identity at home and the one I adopted when I was with friends at school and in the youth movement."

 When V. reached high school, things only got more complicated. "I finished elementary school without any of my childhood friends knowing I was Jewish. When I got to junior high and high school I encountered difficulties being accepted because of the lessons in religion. It was the first time I talked with my mom about religion. I asked her to stop hiding so I could show myself for who I was. She scolded me and once again there was the threat and the stories about what my father had been put through."

 But this time, V. would not be deterred from revealing her true identity to her friends. She was sick of hiding. "In the end, I decided to tell my friends I was Jewish. I prepared myself for the worst, for anti-Semitism and even violence. There was no violence, but there were anti-Semitic questions… even the blood libel about Passover matzah was brought up. I needed to explain that I was a Jew, not a monster, but in the end it went fine and made me stronger."

 Although her high school friends accepted her, V. began to realize that she had no future in Iraq. The family was living in constant fear that the regime would discover that her brother was living in Israel and that her father would be taken in for interrogation again.

V. secretly started to dream of making aliyah to Israel, and some Jewish girlfriends helped her. "From a young age, I had two Jewish friends and we'd play a game that had real meaning," she says. "We invented all sorts of written codes so in case one of us left Iraq, we could communicate freely in letters. Innocent lines like, 'What's the trendy color there now?' or 'When can you start studying in Holland?' became codes for getting visas to leave Iraq and make aliyah. That funny game eventually helped us a lot at the moment of truth." Surprisingly, the memory sparks a need for V. to explain that while the Iraq of her childhood was a tough and frightening place, it was not hell on earth.

Read article in full

Lavon affair spy Marcelle Ninio dies

Marcelle Ninio, one of six Israeli spies formerly jailed in Egypt in the infamous Lavon Affair of the 1950s,  has died at the age of 90.  The operation caused no casualties but much consternation, and provoled a political crisis in Israel. The Times of Israel reports: 

Marcelle Ninio: jailed for 14 years

 In the Lavon Affair, known commonly in Israel as “The Bad Business” (“Esek Habish”) and officially named Operation Susannah, Israeli spymasters, acting without the knowledge of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, recruited Egyptian Jews to carry out false flag terror attacks against civilian targets in the country in order to destabilize the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

 However, the operation failed, eight cell members were imprisoned and two others were executed. Ninio, who served as a liaison between cell members and was the only woman in the squad, spent 14 years in an Egyptian prison for her actions.

 Operation Susannah was launched due to Israel’s concerns over Washington and London’s good relations with Nasser, and particularly British authorities’ plans to evacuate their forces from the Suez Canal.

 Read article in full

Friday, October 25, 2019

Buffeted by Egyptian winds of exile

At last the historian Bat Ye'or has published the novel she had always wanted to write: it covers all aspects of the exodus from Egypt, the defining experience of her life. Lyn Julius reviews Le Dernier Khamsin in the Times of Israel:

‘There is hatred for everything that is different,’ a friend tells the incredulous young woman, as their world collapses around them in Nasser’s Egypt.

Le dernier Khamsin des juifs d'Egypte  is the novel (in French) which the author Bat  Ye’or ( her pen name, meaning Daughter of the Nile) had always wanted to write. Instead  the Cairo-born  Jewess’s  life was thrown off course by her pioneering research into the dhimmi, the subaltern status of Jews and Christians under Islam.

The Hamsin is the hot wind blowing in to Egypt  from the Sahara. For the 80,000 Jews of Egypt, riots combine with state-sanctioned persecution to blow this age-old community out of the country, never to return. The book is written in an impressionistic style but is nuanced and covers all aspects of the exodus.

 It is heavily autobiographical. Arriving in 1957 as a young refugee in London to study at the Institute Z, Elly ( Bat Ye’or) comes from a well-heeled family. Now she is struggling to survive on a handout of eight pounds a month. Depressed in the cold and the fog, she tries to make sense of what has happened. She is haunted by flashbacks and ghosts from her Egyptian past. Her long-dead,  observant  relatives are resigned to their fate, but Elly, of a new breed of educated, secular, independent women,  can’t accept that Egyptian Jewish life is being wiped out.

Elly’s father is burning their family archives lest they be accused of Zionism before their hurried departure. They can’t leave without signing a declaration forfeiting their property.

 The storm has been brewing for 100 years. Egyptian nationality was only granted to those who could prove roots going back to 1845.

 Elly’s friends at the equestrian club reflect the Egyptian upper crust : there are French, Syrian Christians, wealthy Muslims. Some want her to stay. Many see no future. One tells her to go to Europe. Another to Israel, the place that dares not be named.

 Elly bears no grudge towards the noble and brave Egyptian people. It is Nasser and his cronies who are to blame for the Jews’ plight. There are Muslims who saved Jews from lethal riots.

 The events of 1967, when the regime exacted its revenge on the remains of the community, merge with those of 1956. The book”s most moving episode is Eliyahu Cohen’s story. He is one of 400 Jewish males jailed by Nasser as Israel POWs. They are incarcerated 72 to a cell which measures 8×4 m. They are given food infested with cockroaches. Some are tortured or sodomised. It’s an experience Eliyahu cannot live with.

 Ultimately, the story holds out hope. Forced exile can lead to hell  –  or to redemption. The Egyptian Jews have rebuilt their lives, and none wants to return.

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