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

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.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

New Israeli party fights for refugee compensation

Exclusive to Point of No Return

A new political party campaigning for compensation for Jewish refugees intends to join the race to enter the Israeli Knesset on Election Day on  9 April.

Document showing that the new party, Peula Le'Israel, has been successfully registered.

The objective of  the party, registered as Peula Le'Israel,  is to obtain compensation for all Jews from Arab countries, Iran and other Muslim states. 'Time is my greatest enemy,' declares party chairman David Navy. 'I must enter the Knesset in order to get billons from the US, Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Japan.' Navy also envisages compensation for Palestinians in Israel and Jordan.
David Navy:'time is the enemy'

Born in Iraq in 1940, Navy, who is a qualified engineer and a lawyer, has been running two charities, Shemesh and Relief for the Poor. His greatest success, he claims, has been to obtain one billion NIS to support over 50,000 elderly Jews from Iraq, Morocco and Algeria. The Israeli government has been paying each needy citizen up to  40,000 NIS over four years. They are exempt from paying for medical supplies.

Navy was eleven when he and his family fled Iraq for Israel. His father was chief accountant in  the Eastern Bank in Baghdad. "The Iraqi government confiscated our money and property. We had no future in Iraq, " he says.

The family lived for two years in tent camps (ma'abarot ) in Bat Yam and Pardes Hanna.

David Navy first sprang to public attention in 2005 when Shemesh initiated a class action on behalf of Iraqi Jews to force Israel to obtain compensation from the Iraqi government. The move was unsuccessful.

Like other small parties Peula Le'Israel  thinks it stands a good chance of gaining at least one seat in the Knesset if the electoral threshold is lowered to below 3.25 percent.

There could be up to 3,000 Jews in Gulf States

The Jewish community of Dubai have raised their heads above the parapet as the Gulf states celebrate their 'tolerance' to religious diversity. Ynet News reports: 

On the occasion of the historic arrival of Pope Francis in the United Arab Emirates - the first visit by a Catholic pope to the Arabian Peninsula – the country is also publishing the book "Celebrating Tolerance," which mentions all of the UAE's religions – Muslims, Armenians, Buddhists, Copts, Hindus and Jews.

The book's preface was penned by UAE Minister of Tolerance Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, effectively giving a government sanction to the recognition of local Judaism.

In Abu Dhabi, the Pope attended a conference promoting moderate Islam, to which 150 religious leaders from all over the world were invited.

Among the invitees was Rabbi Mark Schneier, head of the Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Foundation in the US. Schneier is a common sight in the palaces of the Persian Gulf, and serves as advisor to kings and princes of the region. He was also among the writers of the newly released book.

Rabbi Marc Schneier with the book he helped write

During the visit, Rabbi Schneier met for the first time with the Jewish community in Dubai, which has until now operated under the radar. "They meet every Shabbat in a synagogue that is located in a private house, with an ark and a Torah scroll, and they perform kiddush," said Schneier. "They have a chairman but not a rabbi. But now thanks to the official recognition, there are talks about establishing a proper synagogue, a kosher and even a mikveh (ritual bath)."

According to Schneier, there is a thriving Jewish community already in existence in the Persian Gulf.

"The community includes Jews who live here, alongside Jews who have arrived because they are involved in business and commerce in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. No one really knows how many Jews live here, and now they can have a census. I have heard numbers ranging from 150 families to 2,000-3,000 people," he said.

Read article in full 

More about Marc Schneier

Friday, February 08, 2019

Repair news was simply good PR for Egypt

Last month, to much fanfare, Egypt announced it was devoting $71 million to restoring Jewish heritage. The announcement was later walked back (but except for this blog, the media did not notice): the money would also cover Muslim and Coptic site restoration.  What was Egypt's motive? The Media Line investigates:(with thanks Lily, Boruch)

“[There] was exaggerated coverage to catch the eyes of western media and market Sisi as a tolerant leader,” Haisam Hassanein of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The Media Line.

To this end, he believes Cairo is seeking to shore up support from policymakers in the United States while encouraging Jews to travel to Egypt in order to boost tourism revenue. Notably, the effort comes ahead of possible constitutional amendments that would allow Sisi to remain in power beyond his two-term limit.

“[The announcement] was a short-lived joy leading to disappointment and a recollection of old promises gone sour,” Desire Sakkal, Founding President and Director of the Historical Society of Jews From Egypt, told The Media Line. “We hunger for deeds and not words, our ears are bursting with the latter. The conclusion of many is: ‘It’s all [theater].’”

Sakkal notes that there are very few Jews left in the North African country capable of conducting religious services and that tourists require special permission—which is exceedingly difficult to obtain—to visit Jewish sites.
“We believe the move by the Egyptian government is a reply to foreign criticism [about the treatment of] Egypt’s minorities and [is intended] to alleviate economic difficulties,” he asserted.

Inside the Adly Synagogue, Cairo

On this backdrop, Cairo has registered some 500 Jewish artifacts collected from several synagogues across that nation, including Torah scrolls, lamps, cups and candlesticks. Jews have lived in Egypt for thousands of years, although most of the 80,000-strong community was expelled following the creation of Israel in 1948.

Today, only a few Jews remain scattered throughout the state.

“Shortly after the announcement, the minister of antiquities himself issued a correction and said [the money] would go towards the monuments of all religions in need of repair,” Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, explained to The Media Line.

“The media did not update the story to reflect the minister going back on his earlier statement.”

Mazel highlights the fact that Egypt still refuses to allow Jewish artifacts to be sent to Israel or other Jewish communities abroad. In his estimation, though most synagogues in Egypt are in a severe state of disrepair only a small number will ultimately be renovated.

“What Cairo is interested in is sending a message to Jews, especially those in the West, that ‘we are a country that takes care of its minorities,’” he said. “There are not really any Jews remaining in Egypt. The head of the community there, Magda Haroun, hates Israel with a passion and refuses to speak to any Israeli.”

Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Affairs at the American Jewish Committee advocacy group, has been encouraging the Egyptian government to address the issue of dilapidated Jewish monuments for nearly 15 years.

“I discovered over my repeated visits to Egypt that the government was not interested in partnerships with any foreign organizations,” he recounted to The Media Line. “They maintain that Jewish heritage is also part of Egypt’s, and one could press them on this basis to take care of it.”

Baker previously met with Egyptian ministers on several occasions to discuss a plan to revive Jewish sites, including Cairo’s main synagogue and the Maimonides Yeshiva learning institute. The U.S. government backed his efforts and also made attempts of its own to persuade Sisi to proceed accordingly.

“The Egyptians have provided funds [in the past] but usually without any public announcement,” Baker elaborated. “I believe they recognize that these things are not popular with the public so they preferred to do them quietly.

“At the moment, the Egyptian government is spending over $5 million to carry out repairs and restoration of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria. This in itself is a considerable contribution…and they deserve credit for doing this.”
The Media Line reached out to the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry and other government bodies for comment but did not receive a response.

Read article in full

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Antisemitism plagues the Cairo Book Fair

 The Cairo Book Fair is a laboratory of antisemitism in Egypt, and reflects the strength of feeling against Israel.  Elder of Ziyon reports that Egyptians were upset at the visit of the Israel ambassador to Egypt, David Govrin, with an aide. And now, the US has shut down its booth at the fair in protest against books like Mein Kampf and the International Jew being on sale.

 David Govrin at the Cairo Book Fair

Egyptians on Facebook expressed their displeasure, some saying that had they known they would have beaten them ( ieDavid Govrin and his aide).

People started to get angry at the head of the book fair for allowing this to happen.

In response, the head of the General Authority for Books, Haytham Al-Haj Ali, made a brief statement asserting that the visit was informal and that the embassy did not inform the management of the exhibition and that they did not hear about the visit until after it was completed.

Govrin visited the exhibition as a normal visitor, buying a ticket and waiting in line like every other visitor - and therefore no one could stop him.

The Cultural Committee of the Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate condemned the "childish behavior of the ambassador and his attempt to suggest a state of cultural normalization," which they said will not dissuade the Egyptian people from confirming their rejection of all forms of normalization with Israel.

 Read post in full

 The Jerusalem Post Reports: 
The United States Embassy closed its booth at the Cairo International Book Fair due to the presence of antisemitic materials, the Simon Wiesenthal Center reported on Wednesday.

Earlier this week, the Jerusalem-based center reported that staples of antisemitic literature were featured in the Egyptian stand at the 2019 Cairo International Book Fair, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Henry Ford’s International Jew and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
US Embassy ChargĂ© d’Affaires Thomas H. Goldberger responded to the Wiesenthal Center exposĂ© by deciding to close the US booth in protest.

“I immediately contacted the Egyptian government on the phone and in writing to protest the presence of antisemitic materials at the Cairo International Book Fair,” wrote Goldberger in a statement, “and to demand that it take immediate action to remove the materials.”

Considered the most important event in the Arabic publishing world, last year’s book fair drew a crowd of over two million attendees as well as publishers from over 27 countries, according to the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Son of Iraqi Jew named US antisemitism monitor

 The son of a Jewish refugee from Iraq and descendant of 19th century Chief Rabbi Abdullah Somekh,  has been named antisemitism monitor at the US State Department. Elan Carr, who speaks Hebrew and Arabic, also served in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein as an army major. He arranged for Hanucah to be celebrated in the dictator's palace. The Times of Israel reports:

Carr has a knack for getting attention with acts of dramatic symbolism: As an Army major in Iraq in 2003, he organized a Hanukkah celebration at the palace of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, who had persecuted the country’s Jewish community.

 Elan Carr, 50, served in Iraq

It was an especially sweet moment for Carr, he told The Times of Israel in 2013, because his grandfather was jailed in Iraq during the anti-Jewish acts following Israel’s establishment in 1948.

“Hanukkah, the symbol of freedom, of conquering a profane and cruel tyranny that defiled a land,” Carr told The Times of Israel. “We were profoundly moved by the experience.”

Carr’s mother is descended from Iraqi Jews, while his father is Ashkenazi. He attended a Jewish day school, spent a lot of time in Israel growing up and joined Alpha Epsilon Pi, the leading Jewish fraternity, at the University of California, Berkeley, which he says helped change his life. He was the organization’s president, or supreme master, from 2012 to 2014.

His signature initiative as AEPi leader was expanding civic engagement for members in the wider, non-Jewish community, said Jay Feldman, the group’s managing director.

“There was a concern young Jews were becoming less civically engaged, and learning what civic engagement was, what activism was, by having a program to teach students these opportunities upon graduation, they would be better equipped to seek civic leadership,” he said.

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Tablet article 

More about Carr's family history at the Times of Israel (With thanks: JIMENA)

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

British rabbi pays interfaith visit to Lebanon

 One wonders at the wisdom of a London rabbi visiting a town in Lebanon, now mostly controlled by Iran's proxy Hezbollah and ethnically cleansed of all Jews, to discuss 'interfaith relations'. Rabbi Goldberg's visit, here reported in the Jewish Chronicle,  took place under the auspices of the Lokahi Foundation, which takes its name from the Hawaiian word for 'harmony'. (With thanks: Andrew)

It is not every day the Grand Mufti of Tripoli, Lebanon - where security forces have clashed with Islamist militants in recent years - meets with a rabbi from London.

It is not every day he admits to doing so on social media.

 Selfie taken by Rabbi Goldberg with the Alawite Mufti Malek Shaar

But, after meeting Rabbi Alex Goldberg - the first rabbi to travel to the city since the 1970s - Mufti Sheikh Malek Shaar went on Facebook to speak positively about his meeting with “Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews and Baha’is”.
As well as the risk Rabbi Goldberg faced in travelling to a city the Foreign Office warns against visiting, there is also a risk for Muslim leaders to admit publicly to meeting someone Jewish.

The visit, which took place earlier this month, was an opportunity for Rabbi Goldberg, a Surrey University Chaplain and chief executive of the Carob Tree Project, to find out more about how Catholic, Orthodox, Druze, Sunni and Alawite leaders are working together in the city.

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Monday, February 04, 2019

Philosemitic Iraqi poet gunned down

Was it his interest in Jews? Or his criticism of the Iranian Ayatollahs? We may never know why Alaa Mashzoub had 13 bullets pumped into his body on 2 February 2019. But targeted assassinations in Iraq are becoming an almost daily occurence, reports Seth Frantzman in The Jerusalem Post: (with thanks: Lily, Imre, Simone )

Alaa Mashzoub: wrote a novel about Jews in Iraq

According to The Baghdad Post, Mashzoub was born in 1968 and graduated from the University of Baghdad in 1993. He was a journalist and intellectual who wrote novels, including a book about Jewish history in Iraq, published in 2017. A journalist in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, he suffered along with many Iraqis from the privations of the blockade in the 1990s following the Gulf War. After the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, he became more prolific.
His novel on the Jews in Iraq, called Hamam al-Yahud (The Jewish Bath), takes place in 1918 and looks at a period of coexistence when the Jewish community was thriving. It received praise online in Arabic. According to an obituary published at in Arabic, the book tells the story of a Jewish man who settled in Karbala, the Shi’ite holy city in Iraq. He opens a shop and builds a public bath, or hamam. The book highlights pluralism and coexistence.
The article asks why was he killed, and notes that the police have launched a special investigation and cautions against assigning blame. However, some pointed out that he was a critic of extremist elements in Iran and had critiqued the Islamic Revolution that swept Iran in 1979. It is the 40th anniversary of that revolution.
His murder is one of several high-profile killings in Iraq in recent years. Tara Fares, a beauty queen, was murdered in October, and other women involved in the fashion industry have been killed as well. A 2013 article from Al Jazeera noted that more than 500 Iraqi academics and intellectuals had been victims of targeted assassinations since 2003. In 2017, a wave of assassinations targeted doctors, becoming an “almost daily” occurrence according to locals.

Pursuing family ghosts in Morocco

' I was never a Moroccan Jew, only a Jew in Morocco', Irin Carmon's grandfather tells her. He has put his past behind him, but it is a past, full of ghosts and magical thinking, that Irin is eager to reconstitute. Here is her lyrical account of her visit to Morocco in Tablet magazine. (With thanks: Shulamit) 

 Synagogue in Marrakesh (Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

My grandfather does not remember himself as a dupe. He remembers three beatings on the road to Israel.

The first beating came in 1948, when he would have been about 15, he went to buy a newspaper and saw that the Jews had occupied Jaffa. A boy his age, he tells me, saw him smiling, and demanded, “Tu es satisfait? De quoi?” Yes, I am satisfied, he replied, “Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” What do you want? My grandfather began backing into an alley.

The second beating occurred two years later, at the border between Morocco and Algeria. He had spent two weeks salary on laissez-passer papers to cross the border at Oujda, which was letting its Jews leave for what was by then the State of Israel. He was around 17. At the border, they told him to empty his pockets and turn around. He remembers the kick that knocked him to the floor and the 24 hours in jail for having what turned out to be false papers. A member of the Jewish community bailed him out as the ones before him had been, and put him on a train to Casablanca. There, he was taken in by relatives and wrote letters for illiterate laborers to earn his fare home.

The third beating was in Casablanca a few months later. By this time, he had begun to drive a sardine truck between Agadir and Casablanca, a well-paying job. The clandestine network was still the only way for the Jews to leave. He heard about a travel agency that was a front for the Mossad, run by a Madame T. Each time he came to the travel agency to ask for her by name, he was told no such woman worked there. For three mornings he stood outside and watched as the clerk went for coffee and went up to the second floor. On the fourth day, when the clerk left, he went inside and went upstairs. There a woman sat. “Are you Madame T?” he asked. “I want to go to Palestine.” Israel was a forbidden word.

“You have the wrong address,” she replied.

But then she relented. At 17, she said, he was too old for the youth aliyah and too young for the army. He could, however, do agricultural training in France. Anything to leave Morocco, he replied. “Come back in a few days,” she said. “I’ll tell him to let you up.”

When the day came, my grandfather put on his best suit and in the crowded streets of Casablanca, bumped shoulder to shoulder with a boy around his age.

“Pardon,” my grandfather said, but the boy turned around and smacked him hard in the face. Blood seeped into his suit. When it became clear that the stony faced Meir was not going to fight back, the other boy became enraged and began to yell that the Jew had cursed Islam.

Unluckily for him, another Muslim who was sitting nearby had witnessed the entire encounter. Rising from his chair, the man slapped the boy in the face. “You’re a liar!”

My grandfather did not clean his suit or his face before he went to see Madame T. that day. “You see why I need to leave Morocco?” he grinned.

She did. Here were his instructions: At 4 p.m. he was to go to the Place de France and enter a horse-drawn carriage. The carriage took him to a bus that was already full of boys and girls. The bus took him to a house surrounded by trees and an orchard. At 2 in the morning they were awakened and taken to an abandoned port, where they sailed—at first, smuggled below deck—until Gibraltar. After 10 months in Toulouse and a month in Marseilles for agricultural training, he was on a ship to Israel.

The way he tells the story, he had to refuse the calls of sirens, women who sought his protection and who would tie him down. The family where he stayed in Casablanca had tried to trick him into marrying their daughter, such that his mother showed up all the way from Agadir to wish him well on his engagement. He was so furious he walked out on her then and there to begin sleeping on a park bench until they let him go to the promised land. Two weeks in Place de France. He still has a postcard of the bench. The woman on the boat from France who had asked for his protection; he told her she would get it on his terms only, which were cold and dutiful terms that demanded she keep her distance.

But he arrived in Israel reborn. “I became a child again only in Israel.”

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Al-Jazeera programme on Morocco 

A partial paean to coexistence in Morocco 

Keep calm and carry on - in Mogador