Friday, February 22, 2019

Ashkenazim are as much 'people of colour' as Mizrahim

It is a mistake to confront charges of “white Jewish colonialism” or accusations that Jews are 'white',  with the response is that Israel is majority Mizrahi , ie made up of 'people of color'. This new variant of anti-Semitism doesn’t need to target all Jews: only those who are perceived as the “most threatening” to anti-Semites. Dani Ishai Behan explains why in this important article in the Times of Israel: 

Today’s generation of Jews are experiencing an anti-Semitism renaissance. Although Western reckoning with the Holocaust temporarily forced overt Judenhass underground, anti-Semitism was far from finished. It began its slow, steady climb back into mainstream consciousness by the late ’60s, and is now acceptable in polite society once more.

'White' Ashkenazim such as champion swimmer Mark Spitz (above) and actor Jeff Goldblum have been 'stripped' of their Levantine identity

Anti-Semitism has undergone yet another mutation. At the heart of this newly revitalized anti-Semitism is anti-Zionism, a self-professed “anti-imperialist” ideology aimed at dismantling the State of Israel. Dressed in hip social justice frippery, anti-Zionism has proved to be an effective conduit for anti-Semitism, simultaneously appealing to old school anti-Semites while seamlessly adapting itself to modern cultural sensibilities, thus resonating with younger generations and bringing many new converts into the fold.

 Anti-Zionism’s core belief is that Israel, the very first nation-state built by a historically dispossessed indigenous people, is an illegitimate “colonial” project built on the bleached white bones of “indigenous people of color.” In this narrative, Ashkenazi Jews (i.e., Jews who wound up in Central/Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, and were the vast majority of Israel’s fighters in 1948) are cast as “white European” interlopers whose only claim to the land is a Bible and a gun. Zionism, by extension, is framed as the Jewish version of Manifest Destiny, ennobling the broader Arab and Islamic crusade against Israel as a righteous struggle against “imperialism.”

 It certainly makes for a romantic story, one that manages the nearly impossible feat of appealing to oppressed peoples throughout the world, while also reeling in classic racists with a familiar villain. It is, however, quite false. What Zionism DID do is uproot centuries-old power structures, restoring a native people back to its land and overthrowing a 1,000+ year old colonial occupation. It not only gave one of the most abused and widely despised minorities in the world a sizable chunk of its land back, it gave them power. And in the eyes of anti–Semites, Jews are not supposed to have either of these things.

 As with other successful liberation movements (e.g., feminism), the resistance against Zionism has been, and continues to be, ferocious. Anti-Semites on both ends of the spectrum — and both ends of the globe — have made it more than clear that they will stop at nothing to see Israel destroyed, and the Jews restored to their rightful place at the bottom of the totem pole. And they decided that only way to do this would be to re-ignite anti-Semitic passions throughout the world (or at least, bring them out of hiding) and recruit them to their cause.

But the times have clearly changed, and the old anti-Semitic rhetoric involving the foreign, non-white, conniving, sinister, bloodthirsty Jew was in dire need of a contemporary makeover. In today’s climate, it is no longer acceptable (or wasn’t, until just a few years ago) to openly advocate white supremacy or advance the “inferiority” of people of color. These views are now (rightly) considered retrograde, chauvinistic, and morally reprehensible. Instead, the locus of what is considered undesirable and abhorrent has shifted to white supremacy, along with all of its trappings.

 Jews, having been traditionally despised as primitive, static, Oriental “outsiders,” can no longer be seriously harmed by these arguments. Right-wing anti-Semites would remain on board (as they would have anyway, since their values haven’t really changed much), but the center-left, progressives, and other minorities would have immediately rejected it. If anything, it would have increased their sympathy for Jews (and thus, their sympathy for Israel). A change was obviously needed.

 To this end, Jews have been stripped of their indigenous Levantine ethnic identity and reduced to a religious faith, whose adherents are merely: “Slavs, Germans, Italians, Arabs, and Berbers who just so happen to practice Judaism.” Ashkenazim by extension are situated as “white Europeans” who — despite their “very unfortunate” experiences throughout history — are recast as part of the white European ruling caste. And from there, Zionism is delegitimized as a “European colonial movement,” since political Zionism was born in the European exile, and Ashkenazim were arguably the driving force behind Israel’s re-establishment.

 In this current epoch, wherein white supremacist power structures are grappled with on more of a mainstream level, Jews (Ashkenazi Jews in particular) are once more cast as the villain, if not “the brains” behind it all. This is in spite of the fact that these very same structures have, and still do, harm Ashkenazim — and Jews more broadly.

 Reframing Ashkenazim as “white Jews” in the 21st century carries an array of benefits to the anti-Semite — many of which I have written about previously — that simply weren’t available decades ago.

 1. It implies that Ashkenazim are not really ethnic minorities at all, thereby robbing them of the critical protections that such a status would accord. For example, a “white Jew” who complains of anti-Semitism or otherwise gets too uppity can be swiftly shut down with “you’re white, stop centering yourselves.” This is why you’ll often hear ludicrous claims like “the Holocaust is a white on white crime,” thereby diminishing its overall significance in the social justice arena.

 2. It has the effect of bleaching out their indigenous Middle Eastern roots. Stripping a people of their entire identity, history, and lived experiences by conflating them with their captors and oppressors is both dangerous and morally unacceptable. That should go without saying, and it stands to reason that few, if any, would consider whitewashing Arabs, Natives, or (hypothetically) Africans in this way. But this is done to “white Jews” on a regular basis. Labeling the vast majority of Israel’s founders “white European” reaffirms the premise of anti-Zionism (that Zionism is essentially a settler-colonial enterprise), thereby leaving Zionism vulnerable to attack. This, I assume, is the entire point of the term “white Jews,” and accounts for why the term is so vigorously defended.

 3. As a result of 1, anti-Semites can vent their anger by specifically targeting “white Jews,” whom they are more likely to see as “representative” or “emblematic” of world Jewry (since anti-Semitism was born in developed in Europe, and therefore centered on Ashkenazim). By doing so, they can strike at the Jews without actually striking directly at all Jews. To give an example, whenever one starts screaming about “white Jewish colonialism” or accuses “white Jews” of being “fake Semites,” our usual response is to remind them that Israel is majority Mizrahi and call it a day. But what they fail to understand is that this new variant of anti-Semitism doesn’t need to target all Jews: only those who are perceived as the “most threatening” to anti-Semites (and we all know who those are). Moreover, anti-Semitism that targets Ashkenazim only is STILL anti-Semitism. It’s not a game of hot potato where we can address the problem by handing it off to another group of Jews, and it isn’t something that can (or should) be answered with “oh, that’s okay, because these non-Ashkenazi Jews are legit.”

 4. Minority anti-Semites get a free-pass. In other words, it can be excused away with “they have no institutional power, which white Jews have in abundance” (more on this below). Anti-Semitism then becomes a form of “punching up.” In summary, the term “white Jew” renders its target completely and utterly vulnerable. That’s why the debate over Ashkenazi “whiteness” (or lack thereof) has become such a hot-button topic. The conception of Ashkenazim as “white Europeans” (and Jews more broadly as “just a religious faith”) is at the very heart of the anti-Zionist movement, and of America’s contribution to this millennia-old prejudice. It is not an innocuous debate by any means. It is simply the latest battle in a very old war.

Anti-Semites of today NEED Ashkenazim to be “white” because anti-Semitism cannot flower otherwise.

Read article in full

Thursday, February 21, 2019

London Sephardim mark 50 years since Baghdad hangings

It was a moving, yet dignified ceremony at Europe's oldest functioning synagogue, Bevis Marks. Dignitaries joined congregants and relatives of the dead to  recall the hangings 50 years ago of nine innocent Jews executed in Baghdad and their bodies suspended in Liberation Square. The day was declared a national holiday as half-a-million Iraqis came to sing and picnic under the suspended corpses. Over 40 Jews were executed, murdered or disappeared in the years to follow. Jenni Frazer writes for Jewish News:

The names of the men and women murdered by the Iraqi regime 50 years ago rang out in the crowded congregation of Bevis Marks on Tuesday night.
And many of those in the centuries-old synagogue, the families of the dead, wept as they paid tribute to their loved ones, hanged, murdered while in custody, or simply missing, their fates unknown.
One of the key results of the killings — which began in January 1969 with the public hangings of 15 men, nine of whom were Jews — was the fleeing of the majority of the Iraqi Jewish community (Only 3,000 of a 150,000 -member community remained by the late 1960s - ed). Many of them began new lives in Britain.

In an emotional keynote address, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi community, recalled the glory days of the Iraqi Jewish community, the cornerstone of diaspora Jewish scholarship for hundreds of years, and “part of the national psyche of the Jewish people”. For centuries, he said, “we not only survived in Arab lands, we thrived”. He spoke of the “glory and grandeur of Jewish life in that country”, but, while acknowledging the pain and suffering of the loss of that life, urged the community to “stand taller, not slouch, be stronger, not sad. Lift up your hearts”.

The evening began with a candle lit by the S&P Sephardi community president, Sabah Zubeida, in memory of Ezra Naji Sion Hesqel Zilkha, and his own father, Daoud Sassoon Zubeida. The January 27 1969 hangings had been “the beginning of the end” for Iraqi Jewry, he said, a “terrifying time, in which Jews were the easiest target”.The bodies of the nine Jews hanged on that January day 50 years ago were returned to the Jewish community for burial. But many more, who died at the hands of the regime in prison or were simply rounded up and killed, were never seen again, never buried — but always mourned.

In tears, Samira Elias lit a candle in memory of her brother Hesqel Salih Hesqel and her sister Suad Kashkush; Faiza Saigh lit one in memory of her brother, Daoud Ghali Yadgar, and Nouri Dallal lit a candle in the name of his brother Daoud Hesqel Barukh Dallal. Other candles were lit by Chef Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who recited Psalm 137; Rabbi Abraham Levy, who had, as a young man, led a demonstration against the hangings outside the Iraqi embassy in London, but who today also rejoiced in the contribution made by Iraqi Jews to Britain’s Jewish community; Bishop Graham Kings, representing the Church of England; Lord Pickles, the UK’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues; and Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, who spoke of Iraqi antisemitism and its echoes today, in “vile tropes on social media, relating to dual loyalties and undue influences”.

The actor and musician Noa Bodner linked the event with a series of readings outlining the terrible events of January 1969. A memorial prayer was led by the rabbi of Lauderdale Road Synagogue, Rabbi Israel Elia, while Rabbi Dweck recited kaddish.
R-L: Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Senior Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Ambassador Mark Regev, Rt Revd Graham Kings, Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark (Church of England), The Rt Hon. the Lord Pickles, United Kingdom Special Envoy for post-Holocaust issues, David Dangoor and Sabah Zubaida. (Credit: MART Photography-Tammy Kazhdan)
Read article in full

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Rediscovering the Sephardi greats of Judaism

 There is more to Sephardi culture than cuisine and music: their vast intellectual contribution to Judaism is slowly being recognised. Article in Hasepharadi by Henry Aharon Wudl:

Before the demise of the Jewish communities of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions in the middle of the twentieth century, their migration away from their countries of origin, and their resettlement in the West and Israel, the Sephardic ḥakhamim and intellectuals produced an immense literature that spanned the whole range of traditional Jewish learning: Biblical exegesis, Talmudic commentary, halakhic treatises and responsa, musar (ethics), philosophy, Kabbala, grammar and poetry.

It is known that this literature’s history extends back to the early Middle Ages, to the era known as the ‘Golden Age of Spain’ (more specifically Al-Andalus), when the Muslim Middle East was the world center of dynamic intellectual creativity, in which the Jews were engaged as much as their Muslim and Christian neighbors, and out of which came such luminaries as Maimonides, Seʿadia Ga’on, R. Yehuda HaLevi, and Bahya ibn Pakuda, whose works have become Jewish classics and are well-known and studied to this day.

What is less well-known is that, while the ‘Golden Age’ may have gone into decline, intellectual creativity never ceased in the Sephardic world, and continued down to modern times- contrary to the perception of Sepharadim which prevails in today’s Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish world, according to which Sepharadim are, almost by definition, conservative, tradition-bound, patriarchal, and entirely lacking a coherent response to the challenges of modernity; the latter, it is assumed, they never experienced prior to their emigration to North America, Europe or Israel.

The ancient Etz Hayim library, founded in 1639 by Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam (Photo: Jessica Spengler)

R. Moshe HaKohen Khalfon’s powerful writings on charity, social justice, and world peace (written in the wake of World War I), firmly and yet creatively grounded in Jewish thought, are almost inaccessible to most. Jewish thought that engages creatively and insightfully with modernity, we are given to understand, has been the exclusive preserve of Ashkenazi intellectuals.

 Most Jews today who have received a decent Jewish education know of figures such as R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig etc. But very few have heard of R. Yiḥya Qafiḥ of San’a, who strove to revitalize his community by promoting the classical rationalist Jewish thought of Maimonides and Saʿadia Ga’on, writing sustained and intense polemics against Kabbalah, and opening a school which taught science, mathematics, Arabic, and Turkish alongside Bible and Talmud.

Not many know of Shadal (Shemuʿel David Luzzato), the head of the Rabbinical College of Padua, who promoted academic methodology for the study of classical texts in the seminary and opposed both Kabbalah and rationalist philosophy of the Maimonidean sort – or of Umberto Cassuto, a product of a similar rabbinical college in Florence, who saw no contradiction between being a strictly observant rabbi and a critical Bible scholar. Few have seen the responsa of Moroccan rabbis like R. Yoseph Messas and their fearlessness in attempting to synthesize halakhic solutions to some of modernity’s most pressing challenges, their permitting the use of electricity on Yom Ṭov, their inclusive approach to converts (including those who convert for the sake of intermarriage) and their encouragement of women who wished to study Talmud.

 The Tunisian R. Moshe HaKohen Khalfon’s powerful writings on charity, social justice, and world peace (written in the wake of World War I), firmly and yet creatively grounded in Jewish thought, are almost inaccessible to most.

 Read article in full
 
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Before the demise of the Jewish communities of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions in the middle of the twentieth century, their migration away from their countries of origin, and their resettlement in the West and Israel, the Sephardic ḥakhamim and intellectuals produced an immense literature that spanned the whole range of traditional Jewish learning: Biblical exegesis, Talmudic commentary, halakhic treatises and responsa, musar (ethics), philosophy, Kabbala, grammar and poetry. It is known that this literature’s history extends back to the early Middle Ages, to the era known as the ‘Golden Age of Spain’ (more specifically Al-Andalus), when the Muslim Middle East was the world center of dynamic intellectual creativity, in which the Jews were engaged as much as their Muslim and Christian neighbors, and out of which came such luminaries as Maimonides, Seʿadia Ga’on, R. Yehuda HaLevi, and Bahya ibn Pakuda, whose works have become Jewish classics and are well-known and studied to this day. What is less well-known is that, while the ‘Golden Age’ may have gone into decline, intellectual creativity never ceased in the Sephardic world, and continued down to modern times- contrary to the perception of Sepharadim which prevails in today’s Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish world, according to which Sepharadim are, almost by definition, conservative, tradition-bound, patriarchal, and entirely lacking a coherent response to the challenges of modernity; the latter, it is assumed, they never experienced prior to their emigration to North America, Europe or Israel. R. Moshe HaKohen Khalfon’s powerful writings on charity, social justice, and world peace (written in the wake of World War I), firmly and yet creatively grounded in Jewish thought, are almost inaccessible to most. Jewish thought that engages creatively and insightfully with modernity, we are given to understand, has been the exclusive preserve of Ashkenazi intellectuals. Most Jews today who have received a decent Jewish education know of figures such as R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig etc. But very few have heard of R. Yiḥya Qafiḥ of San’a, who strove to revitalize his community by promoting the classical rationalist Jewish thought of Maimonides and Saʿadia Ga’on, writing sustained and intense polemics against Kabbalah, and opening a school which taught science, mathematics, Arabic, and Turkish alongside Bible and Talmud. Not many know of Shadal (Shemuʿel David Luzzato), the head of the Rabbinical College of Padua, who promoted academic methodology for the study of classical texts in the seminary and opposed both Kabbalah and rationalist philosophy of the Maimonidean sort – or of Umberto Cassuto, a product of a similar rabbinical college in Florence, who saw no contradiction between being a strictly observant rabbi and a critical Bible scholar. Few have seen the responsa of Moroccan rabbis like R. Yoseph Messas and their fearlessness in attempting to synthesize halakhic solutions to some of modernity’s most pressing challenges, their permitting the use of electricity on Yom Ṭov, their inclusive approach to converts (including those who convert for the sake of intermarriage) and their encouragement of women who wished to study Talmud. The Tunisian R. Moshe HaKohen Khalfon’s powerful writings on charity, social justice, and world peace (written in the wake of World War I), firmly and yet creatively grounded in Jewish thought, are almost inaccessible to most.. Read more at: https://hasepharadi.com/2018/03/25/on-republishing-the-works-of-sephardic-scholars/

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Is the Moroccan Jew happier outside Morocco?

How do Moroccan Jews feel about their country of birth and their new countries? In this fascinating paper by Emanuela Trevisan Shemi in HaSepharadi, the author concludes that Jews who moved to Israel are more likely to be nostalgic for their country of birth; Jews who left for France, Canada or the US less so. My explanation is : in Israel, a country of Jews,  citizens accentuate their roots and ethnic differences,  whereas in the West, new immigrants are drawn into assimilating into the majority culture.
. Read more at: https://hasepharadi.com/2019/02/17/from-heritage-to-the-construction-of-a-collective-memory-of-the-moroccan-jewish-diaspora/?fbclid=IwAR2xOiOdfg5EKQmK22cX9tiSPA_hHJJch4z_mZ5_dYNlRPsOZKUptlGsf4E
From Heritage to the Construction of a Collective Memory of the Moroccan Jewish Diaspora. Read more at: https://hasepharadi.com/2019/02/17/from-heritage-to-the-construction-of-a-collective-memory-of-the-moroccan-jewish-diaspora/?fbclid=IwAR2xOiOdfg5EKQmK22cX9tiSPA_hHJJch4z_mZ5_dYNlRPsOZKUptlGsf4E
(With thanks: Isaac)

Jewish quarter in Fez

Moroccan Jews that have emigrated to Israel often evoke images of separation and amputation from the motherland, feeling as if they belong to two cities, that of birth and that of death. Both cities are joined by the same golden threads, to a life divided by exile in the homeland, ruled by feelings of sobriety and tenderness; and exile in Israel, ruled by intoxication and excitement, culminating in an indelible love for one’s city of origin, like an infant being nurtured by its mother. Conversely, the writers that did not emigrate to Israel typically dwell more on the traumatic event of the departure itself and less on any nostalgic feeling for the city of their birth. For instance, David Bensoussan, originally from Mogador, who later emigrated to Canada, reconstructs in his historical novel, The Rosette of King Solomon, the generational line of Jews living in Morocco.

He connects the Jews of Morocco directly to King Solomon, symbolized by a six-petal rosette. Each of these petals represent a generation who descended from Solomon, portraying their own unique story, handed down from generation to generation until our own times. Mogador, the author’s birthplace, receives great attention, as does the story of the fifty martyrs of Oufran, a tale of violence and abuse towards Jews in a small settlement in the south of Morocco. Only the Jews have retained a memory of what occurred there and carried that memory wherever they went. The question of why the Jews left Morocco, which is still a matter of scientific debate, is a thorny and complex issue.

 In an attempt to provide some answers, Bensoussan has two young men, one Muslim and one Jewish, converse. From this conversation their differing stances are expressed. In their exchange, feelings of nostalgia are attributed above all to the Muslim, who feels the shadows of the Jewish past weigh on him, “the past of our town haunts us”: “I can conceive that the French have returned to their home country,” says Mounir. “But why have the Jews left the town? They felt at home and lived in friendship with us!” “They have nonetheless gone back to their homeland”, says Elika, “but how can we speak of homeland? They had lived on Moroccan soil for more than two millennia. The past of our town haunts us,” declares Mounir. Many of our elders talk of nostalgia of the town “at the time of the Jews.” Your ghosts gnaw in our walls. (p.230)

As with Bensoussan, the next writer expressed ambivalence towards his hometown. Jacob Cohen, a writer born in Meknes in 1944 and a resident of Montreal, Berlin, Casablanca, and Paris, tells in his novel The Danger of Climbing onto the Terrace  of the kidnapping of a little girl, whose kidnappers try to convert her to Islam. In a novel that touches upon this delicate and controversial theme of the 1960s and 70s, the author grasps the opportunity to express his own nostalgia for Meknes: “Did people live in peace in Meknes?” “Well, to tell the truth … it was peace in fear but nonetheless peace … it was also more cheerful, warmer … and in this vapid life (in Israel) … even the parties had no taste. Have you forgotten Meknes? The clandestine departures, the humiliations…” (p.12).

Accordingly, as someone who did not emigrate to Israel, Cohen expresses criticism of the migratory experiences of Moroccan Jews towards their mythical homeland: They had left the mellah because we had nothing to expect from the Muslims, despite the fine words, except to find themselves in a similar situation, openly exposed to the sarcasm of humorists and politicians. The Moroccans again lowered their gaze, this time before other Jews who believed in Western superiority… “The portrait of the colonized” described him, well fitted, this has become an intrinsic part of his being. Ashamed of his origins, he would say he was from Marseilles. (p. 35)

The Jewish Quarter in Meknes: For Ruth Knafo Setton, who was born in Safi and emigrated as a child to the United States at the end of the 1960s, her past is colored black but splashed with color: “When I look back into our past as Moroccan Jews, it’s dark, like the mellah. A dark line, broken by glimpses of sun”. In the novel, written in English, Setton revisits the story of Sol Hatchuel, known to Muslims as Lalla Suleika (“Holy Lady Suleika”), the girl from Tangiers who in 1834 chose martyrdom rather than surrender her faith. In the novel, it is a return journey to Morocco which recounts the weight of family memory. The environment described is that of the Moroccan Jews belonging to the upper class, who remained in Morocco after many left in the 1950s and 60s. In this context, anyone who stayed behind maintained a disillusioned vision of Israel, which no longer corresponded to that of a mythical country dreamed of for centuries. The only people who continued to dream were the older generation, subjugated by a still memory and image.

This feeling of disillusionment is evident in the writings of Daniel Sibony, a French psychoanalyst born in Marrakesh in 1942 and later relocating to Paris. Sibony exhibits feelings of belonging to his native city. These emotions fed on the roots of the Diaspora and were built on the hopes surrounding the imminent departure from Morocco: As for me, I’m back in my native city where I never felt at home and here I once again have the impression of only feeling “at home” when I’m due to leave; throughout all my childhood I have felt it within my body… it is one exile which takes over from another, where we were not at home. In Marrakesh we were deeply “rooted” and these roots were made of exile, just by the fact of being there. It was exile which, although represented as a delightful, festive act, remained nonetheless an exile: “our exile was of those which are made of uncertain little acts of home-building and are delightful, festive, radiant havens (p.15).”

 The narrator objects to those Jews who stayed in Marrakesh when they declare themselves satisfied and lacking in nothing; a nothing that has permeated throughout their entire lives: “We have everything here (tbark llah  ̶  thanks be to God); we lack nothing.” Yet the nothing lacking seems to have invaded everything. The emptiness I encountered was filled by our presence ̶ our gestures, our bustling activity, our arguments, our parties and our desire to leave. (p.144)

In conclusion, it would seem that the phrase uttered by Bensoussan, “How happy within himself is the Moroccan Jew and how infinitely happier he is outside Morocco,” may be true above all for those Jews who have left Morocco for Europe, Canada or the United States and less so for the Jews who emigrated to Israel. The feeling of a double sense of belonging, on the one hand to one’s city and country of origin and on the other to the country of arrival, as described, are noticeably present among those who have emigrated to Israel.

 There is an ideology of denying the memory of the past, denying the Arab language and culture, or put simply denying the possibility of having a dual Jewish-Arab identity. Despite this, the past seems even more ready to rise up in the generation that left Morocco as children or adolescents, and contribute to a diaspora identity within Israel, forming a “Little Morocco” in Israel.

 Read article in full


Moroccan Jews that have emigrated to Israel often evoke images of separation and amputation from the motherland, feeling as if they belong to two cities, that of birth and that of death. Both cities are joined by the same golden threads, to a life divided by exile in the homeland, ruled by feelings of sobriety and tenderness; and exile in Israel, ruled by intoxication and excitement, culminating in an indelible love for one’s city of origin, like an infant being nurtured by its mother. Conversely, the writers that did not emigrate to Israel typically dwell more on the traumatic event of the departure itself and less on any nostalgic feeling for the city of their birth. For instance, David Bensoussan, originally from Mogador, who later emigrated to Canada, reconstructs in his historical novel, The Rosette of King Solomon,6 the generational line of Jews living in Morocco. He connects the Jews of Morocco directly to King Solomon, symbolized by a six-petal rosette. Each of these petals represent a generation who descended from Solomon, portraying their own unique story, handed down from generation to generation until our own times. Mogador, the author’s birthplace, receives great attention, as does the story of the fifty martyrs of Oufran, a tale of violence and abuse towards Jews in a small settlement in the south of Morocco. Only the Jews have retained a memory of what occurred there and carried that memory wherever they went. The question of why the Jews left Morocco, which is still a matter of scientific debate, is a thorny and complex issue. In an attempt to provide some answers, Bensoussan has two young men, one Muslim and one Jewish, converse. From this conversation their differing stances are expressed. In their exchange, feelings of nostalgia are attributed above all to the Muslim, who feels the shadows of the Jewish past weigh on him, “the past of our town haunts us”: “I can conceive that the French have returned to their home country,” says Mounir. “But why have the Jews left the town? They felt at home and lived in friendship with us!” “They have nonetheless gone back to their homeland”, says Elika, “but how can we speak of homeland? They had lived on Moroccan soil for more than two millennia. The past of our town haunts us,” declares Mounir. Many of our elders talk of nostalgia of the town “at the time of the Jews.” Your ghosts gnaw in our walls. (p.230) As with Bensoussan, the next writer expressed ambivalence towards his hometown. Jacob Cohen, a writer born in Meknes in 1944 and a resident of Montreal, Berlin, Casablanca, and Paris, tells in his novelThe Danger of Climbing onto the Terrace 7 of the kidnapping of a little girl, whose kidnappers try to convert her to Islam. In a novel that touches upon this delicate and controversial theme of the 1960s and 70s, the author grasps the opportunity to express his own nostalgia for Meknes: “Did people live in peace in Meknes?” “Well, to tell the truth … it was peace in fear but nonetheless peace … it was also more cheerful, warmer … and in this vapid life (in Israel) … even the parties had no taste. Have you forgotten Meknes? The clandestine departures, the humiliations…” (p.12). Accordingly, as someone who did not emigrate to Israel, Cohen expresses criticism of the migratory experiences of Moroccan Jews towards their mythical homeland: They had left the mellah because we had nothing to expect from the Muslims, despite the fine words, except to find themselves in a similar situation, openly exposed to the sarcasm of humorists and politicians. The Moroccans again lowered their gaze, this time before other Jews who believed in Western superiority… “The portrait of the colonized” described him, well fitted, this has become an intrinsic part of his being. Ashamed of his origins, he would say he was from Marseilles. (p. 35) The Jewish Quarter in Meknes For Ruth Knafo Setton, who was born in Safi and emigrated as a child to the United States at the end of the 1960s, her past is colored black but splashed with color: “When I look back into our past as Moroccan Jews, it’s dark, like the mellah. A dark line, broken by glimpses of sun”8. In the novel, written in English, Setton revisits the story of Sol Hatchuel, known to Muslims as Lalla Suleika (“Holy Lady Suleika”), the girl from Tangiers who in 1834 chose martyrdom rather than surrender her faith. In the novel, it is a return journey to Morocco which recounts the weight of family memory. The environment described is that of the Moroccan Jews belonging to the upper class, who remained in Morocco after many left in the 1950s and 60s. In this context, anyone who stayed behind maintained a disillusioned vision of Israel, which no longer corresponded to that of a mythical country dreamed of for centuries. The only people who continued to dream were the older generation, subjugated by a still memory and image. This feeling of disillusionment is evident in the writings of Daniel Sibony, a French psychoanalyst born in Marrakesh in 1942 and later relocating to Paris. Sibony exhibits feelings of belonging to his native city. These emotions fed on the roots of the Diaspora and were built on the hopes surrounding the eminent departure from Morocco: As for me, I’m back in my native city where I never felt at home and here I once again have the impression of only feeling “at home” when I’m due to leave; throughout all my childhood I have felt it within my body… it is one exile which takes over from another, where we were not at home. In Marrakesh we were deeply “rooted” and these roots were made of exile, just by the fact of being there9. It was exile which, although represented as a delightful, festive act, remained nonetheless an exile: “our exile was of those which are made of uncertain little acts of home-building and are delightful, festive, radiant havens (p.15).” The narrator objects to those Jews who stayed in Marrakesh when they declare themselves satisfied and lacking in nothing; a nothing that has permeated throughout their entire lives: “We have everything here (tbark llah ̶ thanks be to God); we lack nothing.” Yet the nothing lacking seems to have invaded everything. The emptiness I encountered was filled by our presence ̶ our gestures, our bustling activity, our arguments, our parties and our desire to leave. (p.144) In conclusion, it would seem that the phrase uttered by Bensoussan, “How happy within himself is the Moroccan Jew and how infinitely happier he is outside Morocco,” may be true above all for those Jews who have left Morocco for Europe, Canada or the United States and less so for the Jews who emigrated to Israel. The feeling of a double sense of belonging, on the one hand to one’s city and country of origin and on the other to the country of arrival, as described, are noticeably present among those who have emigrated to Israel. There is an ideology of denying the memory of the past, denying the Arab language and culture, or put simply denying the possibility of having a dual Jewish-Arab identity. Despite this, the past seems even more ready to rise up in the generation that left Morocco as children or adolescents, and contribute to a diaspora identity within Israel, forming a “Little Morocco” in Israel. . Read more at: https://hasepharadi.com/2019/02/17/from-heritage-to-the-construction-of-a-collective-memory-of-the-moroccan-jewish-diaspora/?fbclid=IwAR2xOiOdfg5EKQmK22cX9tiSPA_hHJJch4z_mZ5_dYNlRPsOZKUptlGsf4E

Monday, February 18, 2019

More and more Arabs are positive towards Israel

 Are we witnessing a sea change in Arab attitudes to Israel? In spite of continued antisemitism and widespread rejectionism, there could be an opportunity to encourage Arab-Israeli partnership, argues Joseph Braude in Mosaic.

In the Arab Middle East, known, deservedly, as a global hub and disseminator of anti-Semitism, something is astir of immense interest and importance.
First, the bad news—which is hardly news at all. Even as some Arab leaders are visibly warming toward Israel and Jews, the widespread culture of rejectionism and anti-Semitism persists at key levels of their societies. Ingrained over generations through Arab media, schools, and mosques, and more recently reinforced by Iranian and jihadist propaganda, it permeates Arab establishments and much popular sentiment alike.


 A cartoon from the Israeli MFA's Arabic Facebook page

As Israel’s “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan has abundantly shown, official treaties do not, on their own, ameliorate this culture of animosity. And though a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could substantially mitigate the problem, prospects of achieving such a settlement are themselves obstructed by it. From North Africa to the Gulf, opposition to an accommodation with the Jewish state amounts to a check on any rulers inclined toward signing a treaty.

 Click here to see a lively Washington Institute discussion of Joseph Braude 's new book Reclamation (With thanks: Doug)

But then there’s the new news: across the region, seeds of an effort to challenge Arab rejectionism and anti-Semitism have unmistakably been sprouting. Beyond official circles, a growing number of Arabs not only view Israel and Jews in a positive light but espouse, openly, a “peace between peoples.” For their part, Israelis and some Jewish activists in the West have developed means of engaging in Arab public discussions, breaching historical barriers to such communication and holding out the promise of forward movement.

Between the spread of positive Arab sentiment and a modest opening for its public expression in Arab media lies the potential for a more coordinated effort to complement and reinforce the warming taking place at the topmost level of international diplomacy. This is an opportunity begging to be seized.

Consider the Israeli foreign ministry’s Arabic Facebook page, “Israel Speaks Arabic” (Israil Tatakallam al-‘Arabiya): a daily diet of infographic and video posts by a small Israeli digital-outreach team that has attracted 1.7 million followers in the Arab world.

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Sunday, February 17, 2019

Film is set in former epicenter of Syrian-Jewish life

 'Roma', the film which won a BAFTA award and is a frontrunner to win an Oscar, is set in district of Mexico City once inhabited by Syrian Jews. Alan Grabinsky reports in Times of Israel: (With thanks: Paul)

During those early decades of development, the neighborhood became a stage where the global architectural trends of the early 20th-century — gothic, neogothic, and later, art nouveau and art deco — were given a tropical twist. Initially conceived for a European-influenced aristocracy, the neighborhood eventually became home to an emerging middle class, after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. That’s when Syrian Jews started to move in.

Mexico City’s Syrian Jewry is unique in that it was divided in the 1930s into two separate communities, those who were initially from Aleppo (the “Maguen David” community) and those who came from Damascus (the “Monte Sinai” community). Both communities thrived in Roma, according to a specialist on Mexico’s Jewish neighborhoods, Monica Unikel.

From the late 1920s to the 1950s, Roma was the epicenter of Syrian-Jewish life. The second oldest synagogue of Mexico City, Rodfe Sédek — colloquially known as Cordoba, after the name of its street, and which now houses a library and archive documenting 100 years of Jewish life in Mexico — is a small replica of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, and was established by the Maguen David community in 1931.

 Inside the 'Cordoba' synagogue in 1945. It was modelled on the Great Synagogue of Aleppo

“By the 1930s, the tight-knight community of Syrians coming from Aleppo were already reproducing the habits of their homeland in Roma with their very own bakeries and shops,” Unikel told JTA. “As a matter of fact, Arabic could be heard in  Roma up until the late 1930s.”

Eventually, schools that catered to both Syrian communities were established in the area, and a series of temples where built to cater to their religious needs. (The Maguen David community was more rigidly Orthodox than the Monte Sinai.)
By the mid-1950s, at a time when the sister Condesa neighborhood was becoming the center for Ashkenazi Jewish life, a Syrian-Jewish exodus from the Roma neighborhood began. Scaling further up in society, Syrian Jews moved into the up-and-coming Polanco neighborhood and, by the early ’70s — the time when Cuaron’s movie is set — few Jews lived there anymore.

In 1985, the Roma neighborhood was devastated by a massive earthquake that cost the city billions of dollars, and for a couple of decades the area remained run-down. But over the past 10 to 15 years the district has been revived as Mexico City’s epicenter of cool: Today la Roma, as it is called in everyday slang, is one of Mexico’s trendiest neighborhoods, full of hipster cafes and boutique fashion stores on every other block. It caters to many international tourists.

 But despite the geographical distance, some older Syrian Jews are committed to keeping Jewish Roma alive. Every Saturday, a group of 10 to 20 Jews drives up to an hour to attend Shabbat morning shacharit (or shajarit, in Spanish) prayers in Roma’s Monte Sinaí Synagogue — colloquially known as Queretaro. Although it wasn’t finished until 1953 (due to a shortage of supplies during World War II) the massive building, which seated up to 900 people during the High Holidays, was for many years the center for Damascus-Syrian Jewish life.

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Saturday, February 16, 2019

How did Israel's Mizrahi food become mainstream?

Mizrahi influences have now made Israeli haute cuisine mainstream and Israeli restaurants among the trendiest. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Claudia Roden, who played her part in popularising Sephardi and Mizrahi cuisine, traces the rise and rise of foods once considered low-class and backward.

While Turkish, Lebanese and other Middle Eastern restaurants serve the same traditional standard menus, that never vary, of grills and mezze, Israeli chefs feel free to pick elements from all the cuisines of Mizrahi and Sephardi communities and to do their own personal take on tradition. Their cooking is pan-Mediterranean because it spans the entire Mediterranean basin all the way to Spain.

How did Israel, where visitors always complained about the food and only praised Arab restaurants, most of which were kiosks at the back of petrol stations, get to be a food destination? I first went to Israel in the 70s when my Book of Middle Eastern Food came out in Hebrew. The publishers said they didn’t expect it to sell because the food of Mizrahi Jews was not appreciated. I realized only recently that they had changed the Hebrew title to A Book of Mediterranean Food.

    Nor was Ashkenazi food appreciated. The Diaspora and its foods was then something to be forgotten and left behind. Ashkenazi dishes smelt of persecution, Mizrahi and Sephardi foods were seen as low class poor food from backward cultures. Food itself was a matter of embarrassment, was not something to talk about.

When I told people I was researching the food they said things like. “Please don’t write anything bad’. They joked about chopped liver made from aubergines, apple sauce from courgettes, semolina pudding simulating whipped cream - the fake foods from the time of austerity and rationing that lived on. They described the unidentifiable compressed fish mixture called ‘fish fillet’ imported from Norway and the non-descript cheese called “white”.

A few years later at a gastronomic conference in Jerusalem, I was in the kitchen with cooks from Poland, Georgia, Bukhara, Morocco, Iraq, and other countries. We were preparing our cooking demonstrations and tastings of Jewish festive dishes from our communities.

The first discussion, in Hebrew, was whether there was such a thing as Jewish food? Eastern European food was considered “Jewish”, the food of all those who were not Ashkenazi was labelled ethnic, and the local foods such as falafel, hummus, babaghanoush, and shakshouka were considered street foods. The only food identified as purely Israeli - not shared with neighbouring countries - was turkey schnitzel. Food writers talked of creating a distinctive national cuisine using biblical ingredients such as honey, figs and pomegranates, indiginous ingredients like prickly pears, chickpeas and herbs that grew wild on the hills, and new Israeli products such as avocado, citrus and cream cheese that the government was promoting.

The kitchens of the land, from the army, schools and hospitals to restaurants and hotels, recruited their staff from the working class population of Mizrahi Jews from countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Iraq, Kurdistan and Yemen, as well as Israeli Arabs. All young men who went into cooking, went in through the army, and trained in the army catering school, Tadmor. A catering contractor who had taught at Tadmor told me: “The cooks rejected their mothers’ cooking because they saw it as part of a humiliating backward culture. But after learning the basics, they fell back on what they vaguely remembered from home. They were given ingredients that the nutritionists decided soldiers should eat and together they concocted a mishmash.”

Top restaurants served French cuisine and there were also Chinese and Italian restaurants. The big hotels that catered for tourists, where the executive chefs came from Switzerland, Austria and Germany, offered chicken soup with kneidlach, gefilte fish, pickled herring, chopped liver, tzimmes and lockshen pudding. Since the 1960s a few restaurants opened that did what Syrian, Bukharan or Iraqi Jews cooked at home, but they quickly closed because of lack of custom.


Moshe Basson, chef owner of the famous Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem was one of the first to open a Mizrahi restaurant. He had Arabs from a nearby village to bring their own home cooking, and the village bakery to send local specialities. When I was there he had a young Syrian woman making fried kibbeh. My friend Ella told him I was a food writer and he brought out my book and showed me the recipes he was using, including the pudding we were eating - balouza made with corn flour and water, to which he had added his own rose petal jam.

His story is like that of many first generation chefs. His family came from Iraq and his early years were spent in a refugee transit camp in Talpiot until his father was able to buy a small house with a piece of land near the camp close to the Arab neighbourhood of Baka. When the family moved, they left their first home, an enlarged shack, to Basson and his brother who turned it into a restaurant.

When Basson served at the Suez canal, most of the cooks were Sephardi or Mizrahi from Arab lands. There was a kitchen book with recipes written in Hebrew which the head cook could not read so he telephoned his Moroccan mother and asked her for recipes. The lowest grades in the army were cooks. Whilst being in the army was greatly admired, Basson said the stigma of being a cook in the army continued outside. Being a chef was the lowest thing to be.
Ronit Vered, who has a prestigious food column in Haaretz, says that things began to change in the 1980s. A mini revolution took off in the upmarket Israeli kitchen when the economy and the security situation made it possible to enjoy eating out. At that time intensive attempts were being made by the government to restore the lost pride of ethnic communities by reviving and disseminating their cultural heritage. Womens’ magazines and radio presenters asked people to send in family recipes.

A third generation of immigrants, who didn’t have the complexes of their parents and grandparents about culture and identity wanted to rediscover the tastes of their ancestral cuisines. Chefs, mostly of Mizrahi origin, went to train in top restaurants in Europe and America and returned to develop a modern Israeli haute cuisine with the techniques they had learned, and inspired by ideas of innovation.

Read article in full 

From Jerusalem ma'abara to trendy restaurant

Friday, February 15, 2019

Magda: 'my goal is to rehabilitate Jewish memory'

Magda Haroun, the leader of the four-member Jewish community of Cairo, was in the US for a conference at the end of January. There she found time to answer questions from Viviane Levy at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Later, she made a fundraising appeal at the University of Pennsylvania.  See comments below by Levana Zamir, head of the organisations representing Jews from Arab countries in Israel.

Magda was with her colleague, Sammy Ibrahim, of the Association of the Drop of Milk, and Professor Yoram Meital, who is on a sabbatical at the University of
 Top: Carmen Weinstein, former head of the Cairo Jewish community. Above: Magda Haroun, the present head.

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia from Ben Gurion University.  

When her predecessor Carmen Weinstein managed the Jewish Community in Cairo, she had never set foot in the rooms where the official records and documents of the community were kept, according to Magda.  Only Carmen's assistant (she called him "the gigolo") entered these  rooms to look for documents. Again, according to Magda, it appears that this gentleman, instead of making photocopies, just tore out pages, scattered everything on the floor and never put the books or documents back in place.


 So, after Carmen's death, and that of Magda's older sister, Magda herself finally decided to take matters into her hands and went to inspect these document rooms. Everything had been turned upside down. Magda did not know where to start, so when the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities offered her help, she accepted their proposal to put all the documents and registers in the building housing the Egyptian national Archives . "Everything there is watched and guarded, with cameras on 24 hours a day," she said. "I was afraid that if I had kept the documents in the office, anyone could have come in and set fire to them!"


She gave assurances that the Egyptian government has enshrined in their constitution that the Ministry of Antiquities must protect synagogues and documents. In case of a change of government, and the arrival of another (Islamist) Morsi,  she said, "As long as it's in the Constitution, everything is protected."

Only four Jews remain. In spite of this, the Ministry of Antiquities insists on taking on the restoration of the 12 synagogues of Cairo. The Ben Ezra synagogue was restored in the early 2000s. The Rambam synagogue has been restored.  They hope to finish repairing Sh'aar Shama'im  (Adly Synagogue) and to reorganize all the books and put them in the basement of the synagogue to make a small museum.

Professor Meital explained that he has just finished his expert's report and detailed plans of the twelve synagogues, including that of Daher, the Hanan synagogue, the Karaite, the Meir Bitton synagogue and the Ashkenazi synagogue. All the details have just been given to ARCE (American Research Center of Egypt). In mid-February the plans will be uploaded and accessible on  the Internet. According to Magda, the synagogues will be designated "Historical Monuments of Ancient Egypt" /"Historical Monuments for Egyptian Antiquities." 

The next priority is to clean up the Bassatine cemeteries in Cairo. Magda and Sammy  are seeking to put the cemeteries under the protection of what they call "World Monument Fund," like the cemeteries in Alexandria, she claimed.

When asked point blank how many Torah scrolls and other Jewish artefacts are in the synagogues, and why they are not shared with the Egyptian Jewish community all over the world, Magda was taken aback. She claimed that all but a dozen were pasul (non-Kosher). She balked at the suggestion that any scrolls be shared out with synagogues outside Egypt, or even Jewish museums.


When asked if she might visit Israel, Magda shrugged her shoulders and said, 'one day'. 'It is difficult to fight from within the country. My goal is to rehabilitate the memory of the Jews of Egypt, so that people in Egypt and around the world do not forget us.'

Levana Zamir comments: Slowly but surely all our holy sites and private property are becoming Egyptian property.  Magda -  she is the only witness to the mess she claims the community's archives were in - has turned over all the community's documents and registers to the Egyptian authorities. The Alexandria community did the same. The Nebi Daniel Association has been fighting to obtain copies of the Jewish registers for 16 years. This is important for those who need to confirm their identity as Jews. But Magda, and Carmen before her, flatly refuse to release photocopies, and this is very sad. (Sixteen US senators  have sent a letter to President El-Sisi, so we live in hope.) American money has been donated for the preservation of antiquities - Pharaonic, Coptic or  Jewish -  and the Egyptian government has the right to spend it as it wishes. Magda's fundraising drive is unnecessary, as  private Egyptian donors  are ready to help preserve and restore Jewish sites.

See Preserving traces of Egypt's lost Jews - but for whom?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Why Djerban Jews celebrate a mini-Purim

On 4 February 2019, Jews across the world read the Torah portion of Terumah. At this time some Djerban Jews celebrate a mini-Purim to recall their deliverance from their Nazi oppressors.

What happened to the Jews of Djerba during the six months of Nazi occupation during World War II? Isolated on their island in the farthest corner of eastern Tunisia,  the Jews of that community appear to have been spared the round-ups resulting in males between the ages of 16 and 60 being sent to do forced labour.

The al-Ghriba synagogue on Djerba, focus of the Lag Ba'Omer pilgrimage

But one incident does stick in the collective memory. At the time of the reading of Terumah, the Nazis sent out instructions that the Jews of Djerba should immediately give them 50 kg of gold.

The deeply religious Jews of Djerba had just read the verse: "God instructed Moses to tell all Israelites whose heart so moved them to bring gifts of gold."

On that Shabbat, the residents knew that something was seriously amiss when the chief rabbi of the island drove around in his car collecting the gold. He did not manage to fill the quota of 50 kilos.

But the Nazi occupation was on its last legs, and two months later, in May 1943, the Allies re-conquered Tunisia.

Other Purims

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Why I cannot stay silent about Iran's regime

Karmel Melamed is a journalist with Jewish Journal of LA. On the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution he explains why he will never stop writing about the horrors visited upon the Jews of Iran and others.

A demonstration in favour of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979

Several weeks ago an American Jewish friend of mine who is not Iranian really surprised me when he questioned why I continue to speak out and write against the current radical Islamic regime in Iran. He questioned why I continue to publicly discuss the horrors Iranian Jews have been facing at the hands of this brutal regime for the last 40 years.

“I’m tired of hearing about their hostage stories and what happened to them back then… can’t we just move on?” he asked me.

My answer was a simple “no.”

The nightmarish hell unleashed upon Iran’s Jews at the hands of the current ayatollahs regime in Iran is something I, as an Iranian Jew, can never forget and will never stop speaking out against for as long as this brutal regime remains in power.  This is a pain that many in my Iranian Jewish community in America still carry because we had loved ones executed, we were imprisoned, we were tortured, we had our livelihoods and properties randomly confiscated by this regime in Iran all because of the “crime” of being born Jews in that country.

With this same Iranian regime actively pursuing the goal of another Jewish genocide through nuclear weapons attacks on Israel, I cannot remain silent. With this regime in Iran continuously denying the Holocaust and actively supporting Holocaust deniers, I cannot remain silent.

Other Jews may never fully understand the depth of our painful experiences since February of 1979, but as the first victims of this evil Iranian regime, we Iranian American Jews have a duty to educate the world about the very real dangers of this regime and stop this regime’s quest for another Jewish genocide.

Read article in full

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Minister Gamliel gets a platform in Newsweek

 It is rare for mention of Jews of Arab countries to penetrate the mainstream international media, let alone for a voice in the maligned Israeli government to make itself heard. This piece in Newsweek by the minister of social equality, Gila Gamliel, bucks both trends. Gamliel recently launched a new app for uploading the stories of Jews from Arab countries to an oral history website, Seeing the Voices.

Gila Gamliel: story with us for good

Like most things, this history has its good and its bad periods; peaceful neighborly relations were followed by economic discrimination and then deadly violence as thousands of Jews were murdered in violent rioting caused by blood libels and false accusations.

My father Yosef escaped Yemen at the age of 10, and came to Israel as an orphan, where he was adopted by a Polish Jewish family. My mother Aliza came from Libya to Israel at the age of 6, the oldest of 12 brothers and sisters.
Aliza and Yosef were just two people among the 850,000 other Jews from Arab countries who were forced to leave their homes.

For seven decades, the story of the Jews from the Arab countries—both the good and the bad—was left largely untold both in Israel and around the world.
Now as a Minister in the Government of Israel, I am working to preserve the rich cultural history of our parents and grandparents from the Arab world.

We’ve just launched an app allowing Israeli citizens to document the testimony of family members and friends; we’ve promoted research on this history by academics and historians, we have marked an annual commemoration of the Jewish communities from the Arab countries; and we’ve made sure this history is in our classroom schoolbooks.

I can say with satisfaction that this important part of history is now with us for good.

It is a critical part of the story of the Jewish people who over centuries of steadfast determination managed to maintain their identity and religion, along with the dream of one day returning to the Holy Land.

In today’s ever-changing Middle East, the descendants of Jews of the Arab world, like myself, can serve as emissaries and ambassadors to a better future with the Arab world.


It is rightly said that the past cannot be changed.

But we can and should try to use our Jewish Arab heritage to serve as a bridge for a better tomorrow.

Read article in full

Monday, February 11, 2019

Preserving the traces of Egypt's lost Jews - but for whom?

When the head of the five-person Jewish community of Cairo, Magda Haroun, journeyed to New York to take part in the Jewish Africa conference, the author and  reporter Lucette Lagnado interviewed her. The upshot was this piece in the Wall St Journal. See my comment below. (With thanks: Viviane, Carol and Gina).
Haroun has no comment to make about books and documents seized from the Adly synagogue in Cairo 


Magda Haroun likes to say she will be the last Jew left in Egypt. She sees it as her mission to prepare for that day, which is why she is obsessed with preserving the remnants of Egyptian Jewish culture. Today, many younger Egyptians don’t know that, in the early 20th century, the country was home to some 80,000 Jews, who lived alongside Christians and Muslims in a flourishing multicultural society.

Ms. Haroun was born in 1952, the year when King Farouk was overthrown and life in Egypt changed dramatically. The Jews of Egypt had been departing in waves since 1948, the year of Israel’s creation, when they suddenly found themselves the object of the rage that so many Egyptians felt over the new Jewish state. Still, Farouk was viewed by the Jewish community as a protector. When Colonel Gamal Abdel-Nasser took over, he made it clear that Egypt was only for Arabs; Jews, even whose families had lived there for generations, didn’t qualify. 

Nasser’s government introduced new edicts that confiscated or nationalized private businesses. Jewish-owned companies were forced to take on Arab managers and employees. It became hard for Jews to find work, and financial uncertainty helped to fuel their departure, as much as darker fears of persecution.
But Ms. Haroun’s family refused to leave. Her father, Shehata Haroun, was a charismatic Communist lawyer with strongly anti-Zionist sentiments. He did all he could to stay, including offering denunciations of Israel and Zionism. Still, he was jailed during the anti-Jewish frenzy that broke out during the Six Day War in 1967, when all Egyptian Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 60 were imprisoned, some for years.

When Shehata Haroun was released, he could have left the country—as most of the remaining Jews did—but he insisted that Egypt was his home. Ms. Haroun herself spent some of her adult life living abroad, in Kuwait, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Istanbul. But like her father, she saw Egypt as her home: “I always wanted to return to Egypt,” she says.

Today, there are fewer than a dozen Jews living in Egypt, by some estimates—Ms. Haroun says only four, including herself, are left in Cairo, and another Jewish woman in her 90s died this week. Nobody really knows the exact number, since so many of the Jews who stayed in the country married Muslims or Christians and have kept a low profile. As they aged and lost their spouses, they became, if possible, even more fearful.

But in recent years, some elderly Egyptians—mostly widows in their 80s or 90s—have “come out” to reclaim their Jewish identities. A couple of times a year, they journey shyly to the Gates of Heaven, the main synagogue on Adly Street, to attend a Passover Seder or a Hanukkah menorah lighting. To survive, they receive discreet financial help from the Joint Distribution Committee, the New York-based Jewish relief organization, which has quietly supported the last Jews of the Arab world, sending aid to Algeria and Libya until there were no Jews left to help.

So when Ms. Haroun became president of the country’s Jewish community in 2013, she assumed the role with some trepidation. The community still owned several properties, including schools, synagogues and the vast Bassatine cemetery. The synagogues, many abandoned decades ago, were filled with rubbish and had decaying walls and interiors. But the cemetery was in especially dire condition, vulnerable both to squatters and vandals. After going to visit her father’s grave, Ms. Haroun found the area in disarray, writing in an emotional Facebook post: “Forgive me, Shehata Haroun—forgive me that your place of rest looks like this.”

To tackle the problem, Ms. Haroun made use of a venerable Jewish communal institution: La Goutte de Lait, a school for impoverished children founded in 1918 whose name means “the drop of milk.” Ms. Haroun inserted a new clause in its bylaws suggesting that since there are no longer any Jewish children in Egypt to educate, La Goutte de Lait would instead devote itself to restoring and preserving Jewish institutions throughout Cairo.

This Pied Piper of Jewish Cairo has also enlisted a group of Egyptian Muslims and Christians to help in her efforts. Some, like Samy Ibrahim, Ms. Haroun’s chief of staff, have Jewish relatives. (Mr. Ibrahim’s father, an avowed Communist who converted to Islam, managed to remain in Egypt against the odds, and still lives in downtown Cairo.) Femony Okasha, whose grandmother was Jewish, is another active volunteer. “It is important that people remember how we all coexisted harmoniously in Egypt,” she says. Her work with Ms. Haroun is about emphasizing “values of tolerance and respect.”

The group’s first goal has been to repair the dozen or so Cairo synagogues that are still viable and turn some of them into cultural centers to attract Muslim and Christian—and Jewish—visitors. With American grant money, an Egyptian design firm prepared detailed architectural drawings of Cairo’s dozen synagogues as a first step toward refurbishing them.
Proclamation by US Rabbis forbidding Egyptian synagogues from being used as social clubs or cultural centres (HSJE)

Another goal of La Goutte du Lait is to create a library to house several thousand Hebrew books that were abandoned when the Jews left Egypt. And of course there is the cemetery. “Every day there are squatters,” Ms. Haroun says. “I want to build a wall to safeguard it.” Ms. Haroun has turned beyond Egypt for support. She spoke in New York last week at the American Sephardi Federation to make the case for rescuing Egypt’s Jewish institutions. 

Ms. Haroun has also been working with an Israeli scholar, Yoram Meital, to survey and analyze these properties. Dr. Meital, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University, has been chronicling what he calls “a very significant attitudinal shift within Egyptian society,” the realization that Egypt suffered from the departure of its Jews. Recently, a group of young people from the once heavily Jewish neighborhood of Daher advertised an evening at the local synagogue, Temple Hanan, which has been closed for decades. Organizers expected 25 people to respond. Instead, 5,000 Egyptians clamored to come.
This embrace of the Jewish past is part of a far-reaching nostalgia for a time that most Egyptians have only heard about from their parents and older relatives—the “golden age” of the early 20th century, when Cairo was a diverse, world-class city. The wider movement includes efforts to restore some areas of Cairo’s downtown, which once boasted grand cafes, cinemas and department stores, many of which were Jewish-owned.

To be sure, the anti-Semitism that Egyptian authorities helped to fuel over decades is far from gone. But after years of hostility and estrangement and war, many Muslim citizens want to reconnect with their former Jewish neighbors. “People say to me, ‘We miss the Jews,’” Prof. Meital says.

—Ms. Lagnado is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She is at work on a book, “And Then There Were None,” about what became of the Jews of the Arab countries, to be published by Nextbook/Schocken.
Write to Lucette Lagnado at lucette.lagnado@wsj.com

Read article in full 

*Point of No Return comments: with all but a handful of Egypt's 80,000 - 100, 000 Jews driven out, talk of coexistence and respect between religions sounds a little hollow. The article fails to make clear that 10 of 12 synagogues in Cairo have been designated as Heritage sites under the aegis of the Egyptian ministry of Culture, as Egypt has rejected all offers of partnership with outside Jewish bodies. It seems that  a group of interested Egyptians, some with Jewish links, have been enlisted in order to legitimise turning the remaining two synagogues into 'cultural centres'. (The US-based Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, supported by rabbis, has already voiced vehement objections to using a synagogue for purposes other than what it was intended.) Possibly under duress, Magda Haroun has been acting as an agent of the Egyptian government, facilitating the seizure of communal registers and doing nothing to advance demands from exiled Jews for access to their records.