Thursday, March 26, 2015

Another renovated synagogue, but fewer Jews

 (Photo: Reuters)

As the renovated Edirne synagogue is unveiled, Turkey joins the ranks of those Muslim countries giving priority to beautiful but empty Jewish buildings over a thriving community of actual Jews. Article in the Jerusalem Post: (with thanks: Heather)

EDIRNE, Turkey - When the domes of Edirne's abandoned Great Synagogue caved in, Rifat Mitrani, the town's last Jew, knew it spelled the end of nearly two millennia of Jewish heritage in this Turkish town.

As a boy, Mitrani studied Hebrew in the synagogue's gardens and in the 1970s, dispatched its Torah to Istanbul after the community shrank to just three families. In 1975, he unlocked its doors and swept away the cobwebs to marry his wife Sara.

"Only I am left. It happens slowly, becoming the last one," said Mitrani, 65, whose family fled here more than 500 years ago.

Now a five-year, $2.5 million government project has restored the synagogue's lead-clad domes and resplendent interior ahead of its Thursday re-opening, the first temple to open in Turkey in two generations, but one without worshippers.

It is part of a relaxation of curbs on religious minorities ushered in during President Tayyip Erdogan's 12 years in power.

Yet it coincides with a spike in anti-Semitism in predominantly Muslim Turkey and a wave of Jews moving away, say members of the aging community, which has shrunk by more than a third in the last quarter century.

The increase, observers say, is linked to anti-Israel sentiment which reached a crescendo during Israel's Gaza offensive in July. Erdogan compared Israel's assault on Palestinians to "genocide" and "Hitler's barbarism."

He drew distinctions between Israel and Turkish Jews, yet his words helped stoke outrage, and local Jews were threatened by public figures and pro-government newspapers.

Turkey's Jews, most of whose ancestors sought refuge here from the Spanish Inquisition, are on edge. Their schools and synagogues are behind security tunnels, shielded by steel blast protection.

"They have lived in a state of fear for a long time after terror attacks and the feeling that they are not treated as Turkish citizens. There is worry for the younger generation," said Ohad Kaynar, Israel's deputy consul general.

Louis Fishman, an expert on Turkish affairs at Brooklyn College in New York, saw evidence of government indifference to anti-Semitism. "Buildings might be protected but the people who visit them are subjected to regular hate speech and threats," he said.

Erdogan's spokesmen and other officials did not respond to requests for comment for this article. However, the Turkish government has been at pains to distinguish between its Israel policy and its attitude towards Turkey's Jewish population.

Close allies under previous governments, Israeli-Turkish ties hit a nadir in 2010 when Israeli commandoes stormed a Turkish-led convoy of ships carrying aid to Gaza and killed 10 Turks. Turkey withdrew its ambassador and ejected Israel's.

"Regardless of the fact that we identify ourselves as Turks, we are still perceived as foreigners. Tensions between Turkey and Israel directly impact us," said Karel Valansi, a political columnist with Salom newspaper.

Read article in full

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The spectacular synagogue of Dura-Europos

The media have claimed that  the spectacular synagogue of Dura-Europos in Syria, one the world's oldest, has been seized by ISIS: in reality, most of its wall paintings have been transported and  reconstructed at the National Museum in Damascus. Adam Blitz describes how western archeologists found the site in the Times of Israel:

The site was (re) discovered by chance during the Arab revolt of 1920 when British-Indian troops pitched camp. Several well-preserved wall paintings with scenes of the Roman commander Julius Terentius sacrificing to the gods were unearthed in (what was later identified as) the Temple to the Palmyrene Gods.
News of the discovery reached James Henry Breasted, archaeologist and founder of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, who was on expedition in Mesopotamia (beyond the Euphrates) at the time. On the 2nd of May 1920 Breasted, together with his colleague Daniel Luckenbill, crossed over from Abu Kamal to devote a day to the site. Breasted’s notes and Luckenbill’s photographs would later appear in the inaugural publication of the Oriental Institute in 1924, Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Paintings. The conclusions would shape discussion about Dura-Europos and its art for decades to come.

The site was subsequently excavated by Franz Cumont of the French Academy [1922-23] and later by Yale University under Michael Rostovtzeff, Clark Hopkins and Frank Brown [1928-1937]. During Yale’s tenure the city was identified as the Dura cited in Parthian Stations by the 1st Century Greek Geographer, Isidore of Charax. The identification was secured with an inscription to the goddess Tyche, “the good fortune (tyche) of Dura” within a wall painting from the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods.

It was also under Yale’s leadership that the synagogue rose from the dust. It was the most sensational find of the sixth season [1932-33] and arguably the entire 10 year expedition.

Saul anointing David
Saul anointing David

This was in fact the second of two synagogues built on the same site opposite the Temple of Adonis: a short distance from both the main gate and the House-Church (the earliest securely dated Christian building ever to be discovered). The original and substantially smaller synagogue had evolved from a private house built in the Parthian age; as it was for the neighbouring Christian shrine.

Construction began afresh shortly after Roman rule. Concurrent with the developments of other public and private spaces to include the Mithraeum and the House-Church, the synagogue was renovated. It was given a colonnaded atrium and the House of Assembly (the shrine) was enlarged such that it now covered an entire city block in width. The date of the renovation (245 CE) was ascertained from an inscribed ceiling tile with mention of the benefactor, Samuel the leader, Abraham the treasurer and Arsakh the non-Jew or proselyte.

The synagogue’s House of Assembly was also embellished as part of the programme. Wall paintings, tempera on plaster or secco (not fresco), were added in 249/250 CE. These covered all four walls in five horizontal bands.

Dura Europos Synagogue West Wall with Torah Niche
Dura Europos Synagogue West Wall with Torah Niche

At the time of its unveiling in 1932, 40% of those images had been destroyed. 29 panels with just under sixty biblical scenes in three bands awaited; as did peripheral stone benches and an aedicula: a scallop-shaped niche for the Torah built in the western wall (which faced Jerusalem).

In diverse hue some of the most prominent narratives refashioned themselves in a very local setting: baby Moses in the basket with Pharaoh’s daughter as a Grecian water nymph, Moses crossing the Red Sea, the binding of Isaac, Saul anointing David, the investiture of Aaron (in Roman toga), Mordechai riding triumphant, Elijah restoring the widow’s son, the capture of the Ark by the Philistines and the defeat of the Philistine god Dagan (and destruction of his temple at Ashdod), are a few examples.

Upon the walls were also two sets of inscriptions: dedicatory Aramaic with less abundant Greek and graffiti inked on the “Purim Panel” (with Mordechai) in Middle Persian and Parthian – a “calling card” from unknown visitors.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Yemini: There is no abyss between ethnicities

After all the abuse directed at Mizrahim in recent days, Ben Dror Yemini (himself of Yemeni-Iraqi parentage) steps forward (in a climb-down from a previous article slamming anti-Mizrahi elitism) to declare that there is no gulf between Ashkenazim and Sephardim /Mizrahim. We are simply witnessing extremists on both sides, mostly post- or anti-Zionists, amplified by the media, who are trying to bring down society by playing a race card. The reality, he writes in Y-Net News, is quite different.

There is a fascinating coalition between militants on both sides. They are trying, with great effort, to put together a conflict between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
The former are returning to the days of old anti-Mizrahi racism, and the latter are excited by the "A Mizrahi votes for a Mizrahi" slogan. The former include types such as Prof. Amir Hetsroni, author and former actress Alona Kimhi, and the "Lo Latet" ("Don't Give") campaign, and the latter are intellectuals from the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow who have turned Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri into their messiah. We should pay attention to the fact that most of the people taking part in this dispute, on both sides, are either post-Zionist or anti-Zionist. That's no coincidence. They are trying to sell us a split, racist society which is falling apart.

In the 1960s, Kalman Katzenelson published a book titled "The Ashkenazi Revolution," a slanderous lampoon by a revisionist who claimed that there are two people living in Israel: Supreme Ashkenazim and inferior Sephardim. It was an antithesis of the integration of exiles vision. The book wasn't a success. Katzenelson didn't represent the revisionists, and his new successors, Hetsroni and Kimhi, don't represent the Ashkenazim. Just like the Shas voters among the anti-Zionists don’t represent even one-quarter of the Mizrahim.

Shas 'A Mizrahi votes for a Mizrahi' campaign (Photo: Shas spokesperson)

Shas, represented by Arieh Deri (bottom), launched its 'A Mizrahi votes for a Mizrahi' campaign after Yair Garbuz (pictured top) insulted 'talisman-kissers and tomb-worshippers'(Photo: Shas )

The problem is that both groups are being given backing and a stage in certain media channels. They are being discussed and inflated. They are being turned into a stream and phenomenon. In the social media, this slander is turned into a celebration.

So we should put things in order. There is no abyss between the camps. There is no abyss between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. That's nonsense. There is an abyss between the extremes. Insanity versus insanity. Hatred versus hatred. In reality, there is a different Israel.

Over the weekend, two days ago, I attended a family event in one of Tel Aviv's satellite cities. A celebration for a daughter who has just been born. The mother is "mixed." She is neither Mizrahi nor Ashkenazi. The father is an engineer, a kibbutznik. There were many other similar couples there. The middle class. The elections were forgotten. It's seems that when you leave the bubble of the phalanges of the extremes, there is another life. It's a bit different. The newborn baby has no ethnic identity. There are many others like her, from Gideon Sa'ar to Dov Khenin, even when people don't know that's what they are.

Following the outburst of racism on the days after the elections, we have forgotten, and so have I, that the other Israel represents the majority. Eighty percent of the members of the golden age club already have "mixed" grandchildren and great grandchildren. Here and there, there are ethnic ghettos, mainly among the haredim, but for the rest this is a disappearing thing.

There is no need to cover up anything. There are still expressions of racism. There are remainders of the state racism we used to have here, which requires distributive justice. And certain elites, like the Supreme Court and the academia, are finding it difficult to change. Not because there are no suitable candidates, but because of the power maintenance mechanisms.

Read article in full 

How the Israeli election awakened the ethnic demon (Huffington Post)

Satirical article (Preoccupied territory)

Herzog blames failure on talisman-kissers speech:

Hotplate fire victims were Syrian Jews

Seven children died and the mother and eldest daughter are fighting for their lives. Media coverage of the tragedy that befell the Sassoon family after a Sabbath hotplate malfunctioned  casts a fascinating light onto the Syrian-Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, to which the family belonged. Article in the New York Times:

The couple came from far-flung corners of the Syrian Jewish diaspora: He was the son of a grandee in a Syrian Jewish outpost in Kobe, Japan, who attended a Canadian international school and spoke fluent Japanese; she was the daughter of a family with a comfortable life in southern Brooklyn, home to a thriving enclave of more than 75,000 Syrian Jews.

But when they met, in Israel, around 1998, Gabriel Sassoon and Gayle Jemal had arrived at similar points in their spiritual journeys. After his secular upbringing and her moderately religious one, personal blows and a deepening sense of devotion had propelled them to Israel, where he studied the Torah. There, they married and began raising the family that would grow to include eight children.

Not long ago, the man who had roamed across continents and the woman with roots deep in New York returned to Brooklyn with their children, settling into what promised to be a contented life not unlike the one she had grown up in — full of big Sabbath dinners in her childhood home and summers on the Jersey Shore.

Then came the fire: the relentless blaze that spread from a malfunctioning hot plate in the family’s first-floor kitchen to the upstairs bedrooms early Saturday morning, killing seven of the Sassoon children and critically injuring their sister and mother. Mr. Sassoon, who had continued studying the Torah after leaving Israel, was at a religious retreat in Manhattan at the time.

“Seven Sassoons are gone,” Mr. Sassoon’s second cousin, David Sassoon, said softly on Sunday, a few hours before a crowd of hundreds mourned the seven children at an Orthodox Jewish funeral in Brooklyn. “It’s very hard to think about that.”

Among the Syrian Jews who live in Midwood, Gravesend and along Ocean Parkway, the deaths are, collectively, a tragedy of stunning proportions. Ms. Sassoon, who remained hospitalized on Sunday, is one of their own, one of several siblings who grew up in the terra cotta-orange-roofed house at 3371 Bedford Avenue that is now a charred shell.

Like other affluent Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, her parents spend summers in Deal, N.J., and winters in Florida. Like other observant Jews in their community, the Sassoons used an electric hot plate to keep their Sabbath meal warm on Friday night to adhere to religious prohibitions against cooking on the day of rest.

Read article in full

Monday, March 23, 2015

A dose of Neanderthal realism

The Israeli election seems to have unleashed an ugly, pent-up racism among the left-leaning cultural elite towards the Mizrahim who voted 'in their droves' for Netanyahu's party. But Mizrahim, with their memory of the 'Jewish Nakba' in Arab countries, were, on the whole, never going to vote for the more dovish Zionist Union. Lyn Julius blogs in The Times of Israel:

“Drink cyanide, bloody Neanderthals. You won. Only death will save you from yourselves.”

By the time the author of these words, an award-winning writer called Alona Kimhi, had deleted them from her Facebook page, it was too late. The blogosphere was buzzing, and Facebook and Twitter heaved with similar enraged disgust, even hatred, accusing Netanyahu and his supporters of racism. Some Israelis even started a campaign called ‘Lo latet’ to stop donating charity to the poor: They deserved punishment for perversely supporting the Right, even when Netanyahu’s ‘capitalist policies’ hurt them most. 

Netanyahu’s ‘racist’ comments pandered to his racist supporters. He had exhorted them to come out and vote because ‘Arabs were being bussed to the polling stations in their droves’.

But the Zionist Union’s own chairman, Yitzhak Herzog, blamed a speaker at his party rally the previous week for the Zionist Union’s defeat: artist Yair Garbuz had derided the “talisman kissers” and “tomb worshippers” who support Netanyahu.

His remarks were taken to refer to the country’s traditionalist Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. But, argued columnist Ben Dror Yemini, Garbuz was not the only one who harboured these condescending thoughts. The Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli establishment – writers, artists, dramatists, media people, academics – must crush its ‘inner elitist’.


Professor Amir Hetzroni's insulting diatribe against Mizrahim is the most venomous yet. Had he been a minister 60 years ago, he would never have let Moroccan immigrants enter Israel under the Law of Return. When the presenter demanded he apologise, he walked out of the TV studio. (With thanks: Ahuva, Janet) 

The Garbuz moment unleashed the ‘ethnic demon’ into the election campaign, Yemini opined. That was the moment when the Israeli election became about identity politics.

“There’s no question that the speech given by Garbuz hurt us,” Zionist Union chairman Yitzhak Herzog admitted.

Although he did not distance himself from Garbuz’s comments at the time, Herzog said he ‘did not subscribe to those beliefs’.

“I have nothing to do with Garbuz. “I have a golden rule – never to criticize beliefs and opinions, or to insult someone for their faith.”

A chastened former Labour leader Shelly Yafimovitch appeared on Israeli TV. She bitterly regretted Yair Garbuz’s words, and promised change.

Even before the election, far leftist commentator Dimi Reider wrote that the Garbuz episode showed something was seriously rotten in the state of the Left. The Israeli electorate has not voted in a Labour government since 1999. If they are ever to win back voters from Likud, the Left needs to do some serious soul-searching.

But Dimi Reider still failed to put his finger on the Mizrahi malaise. Is it pride and pugnaciousness? Or simply fear?

Call it fear – but it is fear grounded in bitter experience.

All Israelis have experienced Hamas rockets and Arab terrorism, but only the Mizrahim carry the memory of what it was like to have lived in Arab countries and to have been brutally displaced from them.

The average Likud voter has not forgotten the ‘Jewish Nakba’. He and his family were dispossessed and uprooted from Morocco or Iraq, but antisemitism still haunts and hounds his tiny corner of the Middle East.

Hamas, Hezbollah and the beheaders of ISIS hover on Israel’s doorstep while Iran rattles its nuclear sabre.

Israel would be mad to go the route of political concession and show weakness, the Neanderthals reasoned. There is no compromise with genocidal jihad. It’s a no-brainer.

Read article in full

Sunday, March 22, 2015

French Sephardim choose aliya over integration

France's majority-Sephardi community is refusing to heed the advice of its leading lights, such as the author Marek Halter, to stay in France and fight antisemitism rather than choose aliyah to Israel, The Times of Israel reports. (With thanks: Michelle)

Halter is among the most prominent French Jews to urge his coreligionists to stick it out in France, but his campaign is exposing tensions between integration-minded progressives — many of them Ashkenazi, like himself — and a more insular Sephardic majority that favors aliyah.
Sephardic Jews are believed to constitute a disproportionate number of French immigrants to Israel — 80-90 percent, according to Sergio DellaPergola, a sociologist at Hebrew University and one of the world’s foremost experts on Jewish demography. Overall, Sephardim represent about two-thirds of French Jewry.

The overrepresentation of Sephardim, according to DellaPergola, owes to “traumas that many North African Sephardim who settled in France after the 1950s brought with them, from living in Muslim societies where many enjoyed a peaceful coexistence, but where many others were beaten and discriminated against.”

Violent anti-Semitism “brings back very unpleasant memories for Sephardic Jews, who already have a higher propensity to make aliyah also out of religious sentiment as they come from more traditionalist societies,” DellaPergola said.

Shoppers outside the Hyper Cacher market near Paris, where four people were murdered in January. The shop reopened on March 15, 2015. (Serge Attal/Flash90/JTA)
Shoppers outside the Hyper Cacher market near Paris, where four people were murdered in January. The shop reopened on March 15, 2015. (Serge Attal/Flash90/JTA)

Last year, 7,231 French Jews moved to Israel, a record-setting figure nearly three times the number who came in 2012 and which made France the world’s largest source of new Israeli immigrants. After the supermarket killings and the murder of a volunteer security guard outside a synagogue in Denmark, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel was preparing for massive immigration and urged European Jews to consider the Jewish state their home. Some officials at the Jewish Agency, the semi-official body that coordinates global aliyah, expect as many as 15,000 Jews to arrive from France this year.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Herzog blames failure on 'talisman-kissers' speech

According to Arutz Sheva, the leader of the centre-left Zionist Union party blamed its failure to win Israel's election on a speech at a party rally by artist Yair Garbuz, backed by playwright Yehoshua Sobol. In what was widely taken to refer to Israel's traditionally religious Sephardim, Garbuz derided 'talisman kissers and tomb worshippers'. In a TV interview leading politician Shelly Yafimovich also regretted that Garbuz's remarks cost the Z U the election. 

Artist Yair Garbuz: infamous

Days after a somewhat unexpected loss, Zionist Union Chairman Yitzhak Herzog has found a scapegoat for the party's poor showing.

According to Herzog, Yair Garbuz - the now-infamous artist who said before elections that Israel was under the control of a cabal of “swindlers, molesters, and mezuzah kissers" - was the reason for the party's big loss.

Speaking in an interview Thursday, Herzog “complimented” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for his very effective campaign, especially in the days preceding Election Day.

“He ran an obsessive campaign full of lies and fear-mongering, and he managed to ruin Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home and Eli Yishai's Yachad, and to take votes from Shas and Yisrael Beytenu. It's as if Netanyahu reinvented himself last Friday,” when the polls showed Likud trailing his party, Herzog said. (...)

“There's no question that the speech given by Garbuz hurt us,” he said.
Although he did not condemn or distance himself from the comments when they were made, Herzog said Thursday that he obviously did not subscribe to those beliefs.

“I have nothing to do with Garbuz,” Herzog said. “I have a golden rule - never to criticize beliefs and opinions, or to insult someone for their faith.”

Read article in full

Leftist slams leftist anti-Mizrahism 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Iraqi poet al-Hamdani visits Israel

Poets and fellow Iraqi exiles Salah Al Hamdani and Ronny Someck found they had a great deal in common: both were born in the same year in Baghdad, and both share a love of the land where poetry likely began. Ilene Prusher wrote in Haaretz:

A groundbreaking meeting in the Middle East peace process took place this week, part of a secret back channel that could change the face of the region.
Scratch that. Rephrase, as writers are wont to do, with less hyperbole and more happenstance.
The groundbreakers in this event were poets, not politicians, and the back channel is not so secret. Salah Al Hamdani, an Iraqi poet jailed under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and now living in France, is in Israel this week, in part to acknowledge and celebrate his deepening friendship with the poet Ronny Someck, who was born in Iraq and came to Israel with his family at the age of 2.

Both men discovered a little over four years ago, during a poetry festival in France, that not only were they moved by one other’s writing, but they were both born in Baghdad the same year.

“When I realized that he was born in Baghdad in 1951, I came to a realization then: I have a Jewish brother who lives in Israel,” Al Hamdani told an audience gathered Monday night to hear the two men interact and read from their works as part of the Jerusalem International Book Fair. “I ran to meet him, because I thought, maybe he looks like me. And we do look like brothers, right? Especially around the head,” Al Hamdani joked with the crowd in a theater of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, running a hand through his thick white shock of hair and gesturing to Someck’s bald head.

They do not actually look alike, but they share a love of the land where poetry likely began, with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and both have deep, gravelly voices that rumble so low, it’s hard to fathom that someone can sound so manly and so poetic at the same time.

“I speak to him, Ronny speaks his Iraqi as he feels like it,” Al Hamdani continued, eliciting more laughter. “And we understand each other, beyond the words. From there, two Iraqis in exile sitting in France, we came to realize that Baghdad needs us.”

Al Hamdani proposed a collaboration, and Someck agreed. In 2012, the two men came out with a joint book of poetry, “Baghdad-Jerusalem,” with their work appearing in French, Hebrew and Arabic. The next year, Al Hamdani took up Someck’s invitation to come to Israel for a poetry festival in Haifa — largely a quiet visit. But this, Al Hamdani’s second visit to Israel, amounted to his first appearance in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to attend a major literary event.

“I’m here and I will return here to meet the Jews of Iraq. They’re my family, they’re my blood,” Al Hamdani said in French, his comments followed by interpretation into Hebrew. “There’s a lot to say about all the problems between Israel and Palestinians, and Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, but these are not what I’m here to talk about.”

In a separate interview, Al Hamdani said he “lost some friends” when his connection with Someck and his travel to Israel became known. Many other poets, writers and artists in the Arab world hold that any kind of cooperation with Israel amounts to “normalization” that should be avoided, particularly in the face of a complete meltdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“I can’t be dictated to about where I should go, any more than I was able to tolerate living under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein,” Al Hamdani told Haaretz. Referring to the late Palestinian poet, he said: “Even Mahmoud Darwish wrote and spoke Hebrew. Should he be ostracized for that? I do have my critique of Israeli policy, but I think it’s for the Palestinians to work out a solution to this conflict with Israel, and I don’t think someone from Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Qatar can decide for them. In the meantime, I am proud to be here, and proud of what the Jews of Iraq contribute to my culture.”

Another poet was also involved in bringing Al Hamdani to Jerusalem: Gilad Meiri, director of the Poetry Place, a literary project working out of a community center in Jerusalem. Meiri was present at the festival in Sète, France, when the two men signed a contract to do a joint poetry collection on a coffee-stained café napkin.

“We see the terrible racism now in Israel toward outsiders, so it was very important for us to bring Salah to the fair to send a message of openness and coexistence — of multicultural realities,” Meiri said in an interview. “Moreover, the fair’s roots have been more focused on commercial interests, and so the position of the poet at the fair is not that high. Bringing an international poet like Salah Al Hamdani to the fair means raising the profile of the poet. Most Arab poets don’t want to do any kind of artistic cooperation with Israel or feel they can’t, and he’s engaging with us in an amazing and wonderfully warm way.”

At the book fair event, Meiri — accompanied by the music of Luna Abu Nassar, an Israeli Arab musician whose songs move flawlessly between Hebrew and Arabic — read a poem he’d written about Katamon, a West Jerusalem neighborhood populated by wealthy Christian Arabs until 1948. The sale to a developer of a plot of land that had been the place where Meiri watched years of Hapoel Katamon soccer games helped him relate to the Palestinians’ feelings of loss and longing, he said.

In reaction to this, Al Hamdani told the audience that this poem, like his very presence in Israel, was a statement.

“He who is in exile, he is doing a political act. My presence here is itself a political act. And in a way I am taking a certain risk. There are those who would like to take our heads off for this and see us dead,” Al Hamdani said. “When I come here, I bring memories, I bring messages. The poem on Katamon, what, there’s no political meaning there? Of course there is, and that is a natural thing.”

Salah Al Hamdani, left, and Ronny Somek. (Photo : Isabel Legni)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Did Tunis terror target Jewish collection?

Mosaic flooring the shape of a Star of David in the Bardo's Jewish heritage room

A terrorist attack in Tunis could have been targeting a room in the capital's Bardo Museum dedicated to Tunisia's Jewish heritage, Le Monde Juif speculates.

Seventeen tourists and two Tunisians were killed by gunmen with Kalashnikovs. The attack ended on the afternoon of 18 March.

Some 100 tourists had been in the museum, which is in the same compound as Tunisia's parliament building. Most had been evacuated, said a spokesman.

In 2002, a terrorist attack on the Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba killed 19 people, almost all German tourists.

Read article (French)

Education must follow Mizrahi cultural revolution

 Writing in Middle East Eye, Michal Zak is right that Mizrahi Jews are discriminated against in Israel. But in my view they are not in the same boat as Arabs and Palestinians, the darlings of the Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli Left, as Zak implies. Education is indeed the answer, but while schoolchildren must be taught the glories of Mizrahi civilisation, they must also be told about the Jewish Nakba in Arab and Muslim lands.
School textbooks devote only nine out of 400 pages to Mizrahi history

At the end of 2014 the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities held a conference called “From hating the stranger to accepting the other.” The President of Israel and the Minister of Education were guests at this distinguished conference. The list of speakers included both Jews and Arabs. Mizrahi Jewish speakers were not on the schedule. The organisers of the main conference did not seem to see any need to point out who among the Jews has European origins and whose origins are North African and Asian.

But while the conference of the Israeli Academy went about discussing how to accept the other, Mizrahi artists, religious leaders and intellectuals who had not been invited to join the panels took part in an alternative conference organised at the last minute in a religious centre across the street. They named it: “The Voices of the Others.” Despite the last-minute notice and the cold and rainy weather, they filled the auditorium. Jewish musicians sang in Arabic and scholars spoke of their visions.

Dr Meir Buzaglo, a philosopher who organised the event, pointed out how the name of the official conference reflects the dominant discourse. When speaking about “accepting the other” it appears to be clear to everyone who the other is and who is responsible for doing the accepting:  “It’s as if Mizrahim, Arabs, Orthodox Jews and Ethiopian Jews, who constitute three quarters of the population, are all sitting around and waiting to be accepted.”

Professor Haviva Pedaya, an expert in Judaism, pointed out the achievements of Mizrahi activists: "We led a revolution in the cultural arena (Mizrahi music has moved from the margins to the mainstream over the years), but we must remember that this is only a cultural revolution. The next step must be an educational revolution. All of the history textbooks describe us as backward and none of us have encountered a fair textbook.”

Israel's Jewish population is divided into these two groups, with the European (Ashkenazi) group as the majority group among the Jewish citizens. It is also the group that has been in power since 1948 and has discriminated against the Jews from North Africa and Asia (Mizrahi Jews).

One reason for this kind of “colour blindness” at the conference is that Israel was established to be a safe and secure home for all Jews. Divisions, racism and discrimination among Jews undermines this historical promise. I can only compare the attitudes towards discrimination against Mizrahi Jews to the ways in which abusive relations within a family tend to be handled – with silence and denial and with a tendency to blame the victim. Those who claim that Mizrahim suffer discrimination are told that this is a thing of the past and that today anyone who works hard can succeed.

Next step: representation in text books: Pedaya's discussion of textbooks was graphically illustrated some years ago by the artist Reuven Gal who addressed the marginalisation of Mizrahi history in the books that were used when he was a high-school student.  He showed that only nine out of the 400 pages in the book were devoted to the history of Jews from Muslim countries.

Pages have been added since then, but Pedaya's call for an educational revolution requires more than that. History is still told from the perspective of European Jews with the Mizrahi - and of course the Arab - as the “other”. Throughout my education I was given to understand that there is less representation of Mizrahi history and culture than of Jewish history in Europe because nothing worthwhile happened in the Jewish communities in Muslim countries over the past 200 years.

The Jewish communities from the Muslim countries are often portrayed as backwards and as needing to be saved by the Ashkenazi Zionists - a perspective contributing to stereotypes about the Mizrahim as passive, primitive and lazy. The history textbooks have evolved over the years and these overt stereotypes have been replaced by a more subtle discourse which describes the Mizrahi as partners in the building of the nation. But until this new discourse includes admitting to the racism they suffered from, it is unlikely that things will fundamentally change.

Read article in full

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Mizrahi party leaders in Israel's elections

From top: Moshe Kahlon, Eli Yishai and Arye Dery

  As Israelis cast their votes today, Haaretz assesses the chances of the main contenders on the hustings. Here is the newspaper's analysis of the prospects of three major Mizrahi party leaders: Moshe Kahlon, founder of Kulanu, Eli Yishai, who leads the Be'Yahad breakaway from Shas, and Arye Dery, who heads Shas.

Moshe Kahlon: Polls give him anything between eight and twelve seats in the new Knesset, and if hundreds of thousands of undecided voters turn to Kulanu as their default choice, Moshe Kahlon could even do much better. What isn’t in doubt is that he will be the kingmaker within the next Knesset. Netanyahu and Herzog both need Kahlon’s MKs to form a coalition, he may be the decisive voice forcing them to sit together in a national-unity government.

With a less than overwhelming charisma and a rather low-key campaign, Kahlon has reached the point where both prospective party leaders are bound to give him the coveted post of finance minister. He did it by sticking doggedly on the trail to social-economic issues, particularly cost-of-living, and by refusing to say who he plans to recommend as prime minister when summoned to the president. He will have a tough choice on March 18 and his political future is far from clear, but for now he is man of the moment.

Eli Yishai: Two years ago the political future of the then-Shas chairman seemed to be in terminal decline when the ailing Rabbi Ovadia Yosef demoted him twice, handing the political leadership of the party first to a triumvirate and then to the old-new chairman, Arye Deri. A few months later, Rabbi Yosef, who nevertheless remained his patron, was dead. Yishai is not the first former Shas lawmaker to breakaway and form his own party, though he is the first who seems about to succeed in an independent venture.

Nearly all the polls have Yahad passing the electoral threshold and receiving at least four seats in the next Knesset. Yishai has linked up with some of the most extreme elements in the religious right, creating a potent mixture of Haredi rebels, radical settlers and Kahanists. Many Israelis are shocked at the prospect of Rabbi Kahane's disciples making it into Knesset; but from Yishai's perspective, it seems to be working. He has created a new constituency and wreaked revenge on his old rival. He is unlikely to be a member of any future coalition, but is now the voice of the extreme-right in Israeli politics.

Arye Dery: With the death of party founder Rabbi Ovadya Yosef and the departure of his old rival Eli Yishai, Dery is now the sole leader of Shas. The rabbis of the Council of Torah Sages are mere puppets he has appointed and the party’s fortunes rest solely on his shoulders. But the man who was once the wunderkind of Israeli politics (before he was convicted of bribe-taking and sent to prison) seems to have lost his magic and Shas was slowly sinking in the polls.
Dery may still work his magic and outperform the polls as Shas has often done in the past. But he has lost his ability to dominate the agenda and Moshe Kahlon has stolen his thunder as the brave Mizrahi politician working for the underclasses. Shas’ campaign on behalf of the “transparent” Israelis failed to capture the imagination of voters and his last-minute slogan “A Mizrahi votes for a Mizrahi” was seen by many among its target audience as a crass play of identity politics. Dery will almost certainly be a minister in whatever government is formed after the election; but it will take all his fabled deal-making acumen to secure him a major ministry. A poor result will also cast doubt on his ability to continue leading Shas in the post-Rabbi Yosef era.

Read article in full

Monday, March 16, 2015

Story of Libyan exile dramatised in Rome

 David Gerbi at the Teatro Argentina in Rome during the January 2015 run of 'I love Libya'.

 Remember David Gerbi? He was the intrepid Libyan Jew who returned to the land of his birth during the 'Arab Spring' in 2011. He tried to pray in a Tripoli synagogue but was unceremoniously thrown out of the country after threats to his life.

David Gerbi has been telling his story, mainly to schoolchildren, in a one-man show called 'I love Libya'. He first enacted it in English in the US in 2007 and in South Africa. The show toured San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle in 2013.

'I love Libya' was put on for World Refugee Day in June 2014 under the patronage of UNICEF and most recently at the Teatro Argentina in Rome in January 2015 to mark the first day of remembrance for Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

The Tripoli-born psychiatrist fled Libya as a refugee in 1967 aged 12. He returned to encourage the Arab Spring opposition to Colonel Gaddafi in the hope of seeing a new focus on democracy, freedom and respect for human rights.

"The show tells the story of suffering, injustice and individual and collective persecution," Gerbi told the Rome newspaper Corriere della Sera."It 's also the story of a community dispersed from Libya but reborn in Italy."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lebanese Jew: 'being Jewish is not an illness'

With thanks: Ahuva

The Beka'a valley, home to Myriam, one of the last Jews of Lebanon

Myriam, 83, is a Jewess living in the Beka'a valley in Lebanon. She has never been to Israel, only a few miles away. But she wants to be buried in the Holy Land.

Myriam tells her moving story here (scroll down to sound file). She remembers a few Hebrew phrases from the Jewish school she went to in Beirut. She grew up in the multi-confessional environment of Lebanon - Christians and Muslims would vie for the chance to be her family's 'Shabbat goy'.

She had intended to go to Israel to get married: her aunt had arranged for her to meet suitors there. But by some twist of fate, her mother broke her leg and insisted that Myriam stay in Lebanon to look after her. She cashed in her air ticket and eventually married an Orthodox Christian.

She used to speak to her family in Israel on the telephone. However, the Jews of Lebanon became the target for vengeance attacks. "Being Jewish is not an illness," she says defiantly."We're all human," digging up for the France Inter interviewer her Hanukiah and an artefact with the Ten Commandments from among her crucifixes.

She pushed aside her anti-Jewish friends as all contact was cut off between Lebanon and Israel. "Israel is my country, my religion", she says. Although she has never been there,  she wants the tiny Jewish community of Lebanon (less than 30 members ), contrary to her children and grandchildren's wishes, to help her achieve her last wish of burial in Israel near her mother's body.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Leftist slams leftist 'anti-Mizrahism'

With the Israeli elections looming, an artist and Haaretz contributor called Yair Garboz (Garbuz) has been venting his prejudices against 'talisman-kissers' and 'tomb worshippers', an obvious reference to Israel's Sephardim and Mizrahim. Condemnation comes from an unlikely source, founder of the far-leftist 972 magazine Dimi Reider. Reider produces some fascinating data indicating that Israelis still vote along ethnic lines, with the poorer Mizrahim supporting Shas and the more affluent Ashkenazim supporting Yesh Atid and Meretz. The mainstream parties are more evenly divided. The left needs to address Mizrahi grievances if it is to make headway, writes Reider. I would say he is partly right - but the Left also needs to tailor its foreign policy agenda to a constituency hard-bitten by Arab antisemitism.

Yair Garboz:derided 'talisman-kissers'

Garboz’s remarks were not merely patronising and prejudiced, throwing such innocuous - and to many, cherished - experiences as pilgrimage into the same category as corruption, genocidal racism and murder. They also highlighted a tremendously important and painful political divide that usually goes unseen by foreign observers: Israeli voters attribute considerable importance to the often unstated ethnic affiliation of a party, almost as much as they do to its political role.

A week before the rally, this overwhelmingly ignored reality was confirmed by a rare survey broadcast by Channel 10 that asked for whom Ashkenazis and Mizrahis intended to vote. The resulting division could not be clearer: 51 percent of the potential voters who support the Zionist Union, which the current standard bearer of Labor Zionism, are Ashkenazi, and only 29 percent are Mizrahi.

Among the voters for the Union’s more liberal cousin, Meretz, whose stronghold is among Tel Aviv academics, kibbutzim and professionals, 69 percent are Ashkenazi and 12 percent are Mizrahi. Habayit Hayehudi, product of the historic Ashkenazi Religious Zionist movement, has 46 percent Ashkenazi voters and 31 percent Mizrahi. Yesh Atid, an “apolitical” centrist capitalist party appealing to Israel’s urban young professionals, has 51 percent Ashkenazi voters and 29 percent Mizarhi.

Meanwhile, Likud, the original vehicle of Mizrahi electoral awakening, boasts the most equal division between the two communities, with 41 percent Ashkenazi voters and 39 percent Mizrahi. Kulanu, a centrist party led by a prominent Mizrahi, ex-Likud politician Moshe Kahlon, comes close to the Likud balance with 36 percent Ashkenazi voters and 42 percent Mizrahi. Shas, the only party so far to bill itself as a party by Mizrahis for Mizrahis, specifically, ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Jews, boasts 75 percent Mizrahis among its voters and only 5 percent Ashkenazi.

These results are further borne out by the voting data from the 2013 elections, processed into map form by the Madlan real estate portal. Hover over Tel Aviv, its northern suburbs or any of the kibbutzim that dot the map, and you will see overwhelming votes for Labor, Meretz and Yesh Atid. 

over Tel Aviv’s poorer southern suburbs, like Bat Yam and Rishon Letzion, or over the far-flung “development towns” where the original Mizrahi immigrants were shunted, and see the color change to blue, with overwhelming vote for right-wing parties and for Shas.

Israeli left-wingers who like to claim that intra-Jewish discrimination is a thing of the past also like to wonder loudly - and often sneeringly - why the poorest Israelis continue to vote for Netanyahu, even though his ultra-capitalist economic policies hurt them first. The question should rather be who and what they are voting against, and how the left-wing parties can address these grievances, past and present.  

 Read article in full

A rejoinder by Benny Ziffer in Haaretz (with thanks: Eliyahu)
Cavemen accuse national poet of racism 
 Playwright derides mezuzah-kissers as fools

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Zeev puts refugees in pole position

 With thanks: Levana

In the last frenzied days before Israelis go the polls, the new Beyahad party has put compensation for Jewish refugees from Arab countries at the top of its political manifesto. Beyahad is headed by Eli Yishai, who broke off from the main Shas party, and includes the splinter group Moetzet Hakhmei Hatorah.

Livni(above):'lukewarm'. Right: Nissim Zeev, driving force for Jewish refugees

The Beyahad website commits the party, if elected to government, to work with the Jewish organizations from Arab countries in order to implement their rights  and to develop the initiative of funding compensation for refugees through the Clinton Plan. The Beyahad platform also includes a  paragraph on improving education about Jews from Arab countries in schools as well as promoting their heritage and history.

Other parties also mention the Jewish refugee issue, such as Yisrael  Beteinu and the Zionist Union. However, Beyahad is the first party to recommend compensation by way of the Clinton International Fund.

The driving force behind the Beyahad initiative is MK Nissim Zeev, who followed Eli Yishai out of Shas. There is no doubt that the Jewish refugee issue is close to Nissim Zeev's heart. It was Zeev who introduced the bill passed in the Knesset in 2010 requiring compensation for Jewish refugees to be on the peace agenda, and also initiated the idea of instituting 30 November as a Memorial Day for Jewish Refugees from Arab countries in the Israeli calendar. When Shas became part of the opposition, the Memorial Day bill was shepherded through the Knesset by Shimon Oyahon MK of Yisrael Beteinu.

Zeev, who stands a good chance of being re-elected to the Knesset, last week convened a meeting with organisations representing Jews from Arab countries, and is seeking to get ex-President Bill Clinton, who first proposed the idea of an International Fund at the Camp David talks in 2000, to kick-start the fund.

All countries would contribute to the International Fund, including Arab countries and Israel, although the US is likely to donate the lion's share. The fund would be used to compensate both Jewish and Palestinian refugees.

The commentator Nahum Barnea  caused a stir recently in Y-net News when he asked if the Kerry peace talks last year had taken seriously the Jewish refugee issue.

The very next day, the article brought forth a robust 'yes' from Netanyahu's office: he and his chief negotiator Yitzhak Molho had not agreed to any proposals which excluded Jewish refugees. Molho had taken over from Tsipi Livni after her failed talks with Abu Mazen.

Perhaps to make up for her lukewarm approach to the Jewish refugee issue,  Livni's Zionist Union, which she heads with Labour's Yitzak Herzog, added the folllowing unexpected words to their manifesto:"the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries must be addressed in any final-status agreement."

However, organisations representing Jews from Arab countries are disappointed that the Zionist Union does not intend to raise the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries during the negotiations themselves.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Enter Gideon Levy,' expert' on Jews in Muslim lands

Norway will host a conference during the week ahead on Jews under Islamic rule. Hold on to your hats, the main guest from Israel will be far-leftist anti-Zionist Gideon Levy - who knows a lot about the subject - not. Ben Dror Yemini in Y-Net News

A read through the lecture program reveals that the central line of the conference will be that the Jews lived wonderful lives under Muslim rule, until the Zionists came along, snatched them from their Muslim health resort, and enslaved them in Israel. I may be selling some of the participants short; perhaps someone there will have something of value to say. It's been known to happen on occasion – even in the academe.

  The thing is, the main guest from Israel, the great expert on the history of the Jews under Muslim rule, who is also a great expert on the situation of the Arab Jews under the rule of the Zionists, who is also the great expert on the situation of the Muslims under Jewish rule, is – hold on to your hats – Gideon Levy.
Iraqi Jews make way to Israel
Iraqi Jews make way to Israel

For the most part, Jews lived under Muslim rule as subjects of inferior status. Now and then there were periods, during a part of the Golden Age for example, in which Jews were generally accepted in society and Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life flourished.
When the Christians expelled the Jews from Spain, the Ottoman sultan was the one who invited them to settle in his empire. The colonial era saw another period of flourishing Jewish life under Muslim rule. These periods, however, were the exception.
Some academics have managed to turn the tables. They glorify the periods of coexistence. They hide the pogroms, the decrees, the abuse and the oppression. And they certainly hide the Jewish Nakba. The Jews didn't suffer from abuse and oppression because of Zionism. To the contrary. They became Zionists because of the abuse and oppression. But manipulating the facts will triumph once again – under the patronage of Gideon Levy and so-called academic freedom. 

Read article in full 

More about Gideon Levy

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Terror victim's father : 'I am an Arab'

 A Jew in Tunis needs to tread on eggshells, and Rabbi Benjamin Hattab, in London to collect funds for a school in memory of  his  son Yoav - killed in the Hyper Casher attack in Paris -  is nothing if not a diplomat.  But did he really need to say, 'I am an Arab'? Report in Jewish News (with thanks: Michelle):

In London to honour his son at a communal dinner hosted by the Centre for Jewish Life, Rabbi Hattab is speaking to the British media for the first time since the Paris attacks.
Having appeared already on French and Tunisian television, Hattab has been a powerful ambassador for reconciliation and interfaith dialogue.

But when it comes to the spectre of rising European anti-Semitism, what we believe and what we want to believe can be two very different things.
Did his son feel safe in Paris? “Yes, he felt at ease in France. He never feared that something like [the attack] could happen.”

No provocations at all? No warning signs? “The truth is that when he first arrived [in France] he told me: ‘Dad, there’s ‘death to the Jews’ written on walls.’ Then he said: ‘Dad, when I walk in the street wearing my kippah, Arabs sometimes hit me.’ Then, he paid for his Judaism with his life.”

Yoav with his proud father
Yoav with his parents

In 2014, some 7,000 of France’s 600,000 Jews made aliyah. That’s twice as many as the previous year. Hattab sympathises with their motives, saying: “I feel safer in Tunisia than I do in France, more than I do in England.”

The tragic irony of this latest attack on Paris’ Jews is not lost on him. Having left an Islamic country for the land of liberté, egalité and fraternité, his son met his end at the hands of a French-born Islamist.

For Hattab, it is the cultural and religious exclusion felt by Arabs living in the West that is chiefly to blame for the fractious ideological landscape that serves as fertile ground for home-grown jihadists. Radicalised Arabs aren’t ‘chez eux’, at home in the West, whereas, he says, in Tunisia “we live together, we have a shared history. There are no problems between Jews and Arabs. I myself am an Arab”.

There are an estimated 2,000 Jews living in Tunisia today – that’s just two percent of the 100,000 strong community at the outbreak of the Second World War.

As Chief Rabbi of a diminished Jewish population in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Hattab is as skilled a diplomat as he is a scholar. His measured delivery and broken voice betray a still-raw grief. Yet his message for the Tunisian government that “protects our synagogue, our school” is one of gratitude.

Read article in full

Monday, March 09, 2015

Can Algeria break its 'Jew taboo'?

 An Algerian-Jewish family

 How ready is Algeria to tolerate Jews? This article by Farah Souames from Open Democracy has been circulating and raises some good points. However, it also labours under a number of misconceptions. My comments are interspersed in bold:

In Algeria, like other countries of North Africa and the Middle East, there are red lines when discussing politics and religion. Some Algerian writers have bravely debated Jewish minority rights, but raising too many questions about Algeria’s Jewish minority is still taboo. This is because most people confuse Israel, Judaism and Zionism.

They certainly do. But even if they did not the Algerian state still discriminates against non-Muslims: the constitution grants Algerian nationality only to those with a Muslim father.

Algeria’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Mohamed Aissa, recently spoke of plans to reopen 25 synagogues closed down in the late 1990s, during Algeria's civil war. The news provoked some Algerian Muslims to protest. The minister, however, says Algerian Jews have a right to exist. Although welcome, the statement is ironic, because few in Algeria would openly acknowledge Jewish identity. Indeed, many observers claim that the Algerian Jewish community no longer exists.  


Radical Islamists have reportedly led opposition to the minister’s plan, but their anger does not stem from Islam itself. Muslims in the Maghreb have a history of coexistence with other religions, as is true in other Middle Eastern countries. Instead, their intolerance is driven by recent history and politics.

For recent history and politics read "the Arab- Israeli conflict".

Muslims and Jews coexisted for centuries in Algeria until European clerics introduced“anti-Semitism.” French colonists offered Jews special treatment, allowing them to capitalize on new economic opportunities. In 1870, the famous Crémieux Decree granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews, elevating their status from “colonial subjects” to “French citizens.”Some Muslims felt betrayed, leading to the first significant rupture between the two communities. Later, Algerian Muslims accused Jews of failing to support the country’s war of liberation.

A revisionist account harking back to the 'myth of peaceful coexistence'. Firstly, French citizenship was imposed on the Jews of Algeria by France. Secondly, Muslims were also offered citizenship in 1865, but refused it.  To say that becoming French led Jews to capitalise on economic opportunities smacks of antisemitism. It is not true that Algerian Jews did not support the country's war of liberation. The Jews maintained neutrality for as long as they could - until anti-Jewish attacks by the FLN tipped them over to the French side.

 In Algeria, religious intolerance against Jews emerged from these processes of colonization and de-colonization, and from a war of independence that generated popular resentment of perceived injustice.  

Not true. Intolerance has a long pedigree in Algeria: French citizenship did allow Jews to escape their inferior 'dhimmi' status, earning them Muslim resentment.

 Today, Jews are like ghosts in Algeria; we hear about them living among us, but we never see them. Some say Jews still live in Algeria under strict surveillance, but most Algerians are confused: is there still a Jewish-Algerian community? 
And if so, is it safe to speak about it? Many suspect that the community exists, but fear that this is a matter of state security about which they should not comment. 

 In other words, those who speak of Jews could be accused of spying or abetting spies, a poor foundation for intercommunal relations.

 Jews are not the only victims of Algerian intolerance; there is also discrimination against Christians. An Algerian Muslim who converts to Christianity is despised because s/he has given up her faith to embrace the ex-enemy’s religion. As a result, even people who are not religiously devout are likely to threaten a convert with rape or death.

 At last, the author finally grapples with the real problem - religious bigotry towards non-Muslims.

 In neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, the last few thousand remaining Jews can practice their faith and send their children to Jewish schools. Most Tunisians and Moroccans – ordinary citizens as well as scholars and academics – speak openly of Jewish contributions to their countries. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Algeria, where people vandalized both Christian and Jewish religious symbols, including cemeteries and places of worship, after independence, and during the 1990s’ civil war. The Arab-Israeli conflict has of course deepened the gap between Algeria’s Jews and Muslims, and has undermined hopes of re-establishing a Jewish presence in the country. Unfortunately, many residents of Arab countries confound anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

The author bravely confronts Algerian antisemitism, but then spoils the message by her spurious distinction between 'good' (anti-Zionist) and 'bad' Jews.

Read article in full

How Algeria lost its Jews 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Nazi influx was King Farouk's idea

King Farouk of Egypt, who had a reputation for sympathy with his Jewish subjects, has been revealed to have been the man who encouraged  a secret army of Nazis to emigrate to the Middle East after WWll, according to The Scotsman:

 King Farouk (Photo: PA)

Intelligence officers, SS generals, propaganda specialists and even Holocaust functionaries went to Egypt after the collapse of the Third Reich to continue to persecute Jews.

Geraldine Schwarz, who has made a film on the subject called Exile Nazi: The Promise of the Orient, said the covert recruitment drive was the brainchild of Egypt’s King Farouk I.

“He commissioned a confidant to build a new army,” she told Die Welt newspaper. The king’s man was Adel Sabit, entrusted to build the anti-Israel force along with former Afrika Korps Lieutenant General Artur Schmitt. “The Arab League wanted it so,” she said.

Arabs failed in their first war against the Israelis in 1947, so the king and his ministers looked to “professionals” from Germany, as the old colonial powers of France and Britain were despised.

Mahmout Sabit, the cousin of Adel Sabit, told her at his home in Cairo: “The secretary-general of the Arab League decided the Germans were the best, with the most knowledge, the actual inventors of modern mobile warfare.”

He said Schmitt had been living after the war in a Cairo hotel under the name of Goldstein. His orders were to recruit his countrymen with the aim of building a million-strong army under a unified command structure and “common military ­doctrine”.

One report from Schmitt states: “The defeat of the Arabs against Israel was the result of an incompetent Egyptian leadership, which was not in a position to take advantage gained in the first week, to impose the force of their actions upon the Jews and destroy the State of Israel in a Blitzkrieg in a maximum of two weeks.”

Mr Sabit said Schmitt did not know Egypt’s neighbour Syria hired 50 Nazis between 1948-9, including many former SS soldiers, to help mould its army and intelligence service to rival Israel’s. One of the men it brought to Syria was Walter Rauff.

Rauff was, at the war’s end, the SS security chief for northern Italy, a wanted war criminal who helped develop mobile gas-wagons to kill Jews and other enemies of the regime.

“Allah in Heaven, Hitler on Earth” was a common slogan in Syrian capital Damascus during the war. It, too, wanted a German-led force to take on Israel, and Rauff was tasked with rebuilding Syrian intelligence services “along Gestapo lines”.

Read article in full

Friday, March 06, 2015

Swimming champion who survived Auschwitz

 A Toulouse public swimming pool bears the name of Alfred Nacache, but how many of its users are aware of the extraordinary story of this man?
Several venues in France are about to pay tribute to this Algerian Jew who overcame his fear of water to become a champion swimmer. Deported to Auschwitz, he lost his wife and daughter but returned to France to run a gym which he used to store weapons for the new state of Israel.  Here's a taster in English of  a biographical article by Veronique Chemla.

A new book by Denis Baud tells the extraordinary story of the swimmer from Auschwitz

Alfred Nakache was born in 1915 into a large Jewish family in Constantine (Kabylia, Algeria). The Nakache family arrived from  Iraq in the nineteenth century to settle in this exceptional site overlooking a river, the Rhummel.

Around the age of ten, he manages to overcome his fear of water. Indeed he takes to water like a duck. Spotted for his physical stamina, Nacache is trained in the Olympic pool by two Frenchmen doing their military service in Constantine. After they leave Alfred Nakache continues training himself, hence his unorthodox approach. (He is disqualifed in one race for straying out of his lane.)

He takes part in local galas, and moving to Paris to attend the prestigious Lycee Janson de Sailly,  in 1935 becomes 100 m French champion.
He is one of 1, 000 Jewish athletes to take part in the 2nd Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv in 1935, winning the silver medal in the 100 m freestyle crawl.

  Alfred Nakache teaches swimming to young Parisians.

In 1936, after some hesitation, the Popular Front government decides to send a delegation to the Olympic Games in Berlin in Nazi Germany. Nacache's team comes fourth, ahead of Germany.

In 1937, Alfred Nakache does his military service in a battalion of top athletes and continues to win medals for France.

  He marries a sporty childhood friend, Paula Elbaz in Paris, and together with his brothers joins the French army in 1939. 

Under the Vichy regime, Jews are deprived of French nationality, and Nacache is forbidden from  exercising his profession, etc.

Fleeing Paris, he takes refuge in January 1941 in the free zone, in Toulouse, where he joined the prestigious club of the TOEC Dolphins. 

Alfred Nakache and Paula make a living by running a gym in rue Paul-Féral.

 In 1941, his career is at its height. He breaks records in France and Europe, and completes the world's 200 butterfly breaststroke race in 2'36 ''.

It it in his hometown that his daughter Annie is born.

Anti-Semitic persecution intensifies. On 26 August 1942, 900 Jews are rounded up in Toulouse. 

While some press welcomes the records broken by Alfred Nakache, others call for his exclusion from national competitions because of his Jewishness. In Algiers spectators hurl insults. Alfred Nakache cannot compete there.

Under German pressure, the French Swimming Federation (FFN) ban Alfred Nakache from participating in the 1943 championships in France.
According to his brother Robert, Alfred Nakache seeks refuge in Spain with his wife and their daughter. But Annie cries so much that the couple return to Toulouse for fear of endangering the group they had joined on this journey.

On December 20, 1943,  Nakache is heckled at his home and his apartment plundered.  Entrusted to a municipal institution, little Annie is arrested by the Gestapo.

  A man who claims to be his friend denounces Nacache. He and his family are deported to Auschwitz on 20 January 1944. Paula and Annie are gassed. Alfred Nakache is brought to Auschwitz labor camp III and then to the camp hospital. He befriends "Young" Perez,  born in Tunisia in 1911, and Noah Klieger. Deported from France, "Young" Perez is the youngest world champion in the flyweight boxing category in 1931.

To humiliate Nacache the Nazis force him to retrieve objects from dirty water. 

 As the Allies advance, he is forced on death marches.  "Young" Perez dies on one such march.

Alfred Nakache reaches Buchenwald. This camp is liberated on 11 April 1945.  Nakache arrives in Paris on 28 April 1945.

Shattered by the news of the murder of his wife and daughter, helped by his friends and his trainer Alban Minville, Alfred Nakache gradually resumes his training and teaches physical education.

  He wins the French championships  of the  4 x 200 and 3 x 100 m  relay races. 

Contacted by Abraham Polonsky, former head of the Jewish Army, he hides in his gym weapons for the future state of Israel.

He returns to competition at the highest level. July 1946:  he is French champion in the 200 breaststroke. He breaks the world record for the  3 x 100 m relay medley three with Alex Jany and Georges Vallerey. Participates in the Olympic Games in London (1948).

Alfred Nakache marries a young girl from Sete, Mary. He ceases his sporting career in the 1950s and devotes himself to his gym and to teaching. 

He also helps train a talented swimmer, Jean Boiteux.

In Toulouse he takes in family driven out of Algeria: the assassination in 1961 of the famous Jewish musician Raymond Leyris, known as Cheikh Raymond, marks the begnning of the end of the Jewish community of Constantine. Nacache's elderly parents cannot tolerate their uprooting and die soon after their resettlement in Toulouse.

Alfred Nakache  dies in Sete of a cardiac arrest on 4 August1983.

Read article  in full (French) 

For information on the new book and documentary about Alfred Nacache and the programme of events being held in France in his memory, scroll down to the end of the French post.