Monday, May 30, 2005

Israel's secret Kabyl allies

In case you are wondering what the Algerian Kabyls have to do with this weblog the answer is that the Kabyls, like the Jews, are engaged in a parallel struggle for human and political rights. Nowhere is the affinity between these indigenous non-Arab groups clearer than in a talk given on 27 May at the French National Assembly by Ferhat Mehenni.

Ferhat Mehenni is a well-known singer in France and a spokesman for the movement for Kabyl autonomy. A year ago, his 19-year old son was stabbed to death in a Paris street by an Islamist who had mistaken him for Ferhat. The killer is still at large.

According to Ferhat Mehenni, a sector of Algerian and especially Kabyl society refuses to be taken in by the all-pervasive Jew-hatred put out daily by the Algerian media. This Jew-hatred is the instrument for a kind of political and intellectual state terrorism which it is very dangerous to oppose. Oppressed in the name of Arabo-islamism, the Kabyls have been known to try and draw international (and Israel's) sympathy for their cause by expressing support for the Jewish state.

In December 2001 Mehenni himself witnessed a demonstration in the Kabyl town of Tizi-Ouzou against the arrest of a few Kabyl activists. Some young demonstrators being filmed in front of the town hospital were shouting as one voice:"Djich, chaab, maa-ka Sharon!" - "the army and the people are with you, Sharon!"

A daring move in an 'Arab' country. If Israel is a useful scapegoat for the Arab masses, it is also an excellent Trojan Horse for legitimising Arab dictatorships. Israel is associated with the Kabyls in order to legitimise their repression and prevent their emancipation. The average Algerian now sees the Kabyls as the new Jews and Kabylia as another Israel. Mehenni's article (in French)

Friday, May 27, 2005

Israelis among Djerba pilgrims

More than 1,000 Israelis, mostly of Tunisian origin, headed for the island of Djerba on Thursday on a Jewish pilgrimage to the oldest synagogue in Africa, the Ghriba.

Another 300 had cancelled their trip when the private Tunisian airline Karthago decided not to run direct flights from Israel.

The pilgrims came via Malta, Turkey and France. Visitor numbers are up since 2002 when an Al-Qaeda attack on the Ghriba synagogue claimed 21 lives, 14 of them German tourists. Security was in evidence across the island, but particularly around the synagogue.

'Djerba has become the world centre for tolerance', said Rene Trabelsi, son of the Djerba Jewish community president.

Agence France Presse reported that the Tunisian Jewish community had diminished considerably over the years from a peak of 100,000 to 2,000. Jews had left for France and Israel, but AFP did not say why.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has been invited to Tunisia for a conference in November. Opposition groups have called for protest meetings in the last few weeks but these were banned by the authorities.


A Sepher Torah, encased in a Menorah and covered in silk scarves, is carried from the Ghriba synagogue to the Jewish quarter during the Djerba Lag Ba'Omer festivities. Posted by Hello

Ben-Eliezer greets Iraqi foreign minister


Israeli Minister of Infrastructure (left) Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ('Fouad'), who was born in Basra, Iraq and came to Israel in 1949, shaking hands with Hoshyar Zibari, the Iraqi Kurdish Foreign Minister. The picture was taken a few days ago in Jordan during the World Economic Forum. (Thanks Iraqijews) Posted by Hello

Jewish heritage in Algeria

The French Catholic newspaper La Croix has been closely following the progress of some 130 Jews on a return visit to the town of Tlemcen in western Algeria. The visitors, the largest group to come back since independence, saw three former synagogues.

The Rabb (rabbi) synagogue in the street of that name has become a martial arts centre. A few Stars of David are still visible on the walls - a large one on the end wall. Large wooden seats with storage space for prayer books are used in a meeting room on the first floor.

In the next street another synagogue is today a library. The facade has not changed but the Stars of David have been scraped off. Ditto with the third house of worship, which is now a cultural centre. A quarter not far from the mosque is known as 'derb el jihoud' - the street of the Jews.

Some ten rabbis ministered to a third of the total population - some 10,000 mostly observant people, according to Abdelaziz Hamza-Cherif, a local cultural councillor.

Apart from its synagogues, Tlemcen is known among Jews as the site of the tomb of the 16th century Rabbi Ephraim Enkoua, one of the leading lights of Algerian Judaism.

Tradition has it that the rabbi, a refugee from the Spanish Inquisition, cured the Sultan's daughter and obtained for his community the right to settle in the centre of the town and to build a synagogue. The community in Tlemcen dates back to this time. The visitors will go on a Hillula pilgrimage to the tomb, traditional at Lag Ba' Omer. The tomb was restored on the initiative of president Bouteflika whose family came from this area. Not far is the cemetery which though unkept has never been desecrated. The pilgrims will try to locate their ancestors' tombs.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Kurdish convert seeks Jewish roots

AKRE, Iraq, May 24 (AFP) - Hajj Khalil is the last Muslim with Jewish roots in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Akre. One of his dearest wishes is to travel to Israel to apologise to his cousins for failing in his duties as a host when they visited him five years ago.

"In 2000, several of them came to see me and I didn’t even greet them, let alone invite them to stay. Despite the autonomy enjoyed by Kurdistan, Saddam Hussein had spies everywhere," says Khalil Fakih Ahmed, a 74-year-old wearing the traditional Kurdish headdress.

In Akre, a large cluster of hillside houses some 420 kilometres (260 miles) north of Baghdad, near the border with Turkey, place names are one of the few reminders of the former Jewish presence.

The last Jews in the region left Iraq between 1949 and 1951, just after the creation of the state of Israel.

One block of houses is still called Shusti -- or ’Jewish town’ in Kurdish -- but the old synagogue was destroyed long ago.

In the mountains overlooking the town lies a plateau called Zarvia Dji (Land of the Jews) where the Jewish community used to gather for celebrations.

"My grandmother converted to Islam when her husband died and my father had just turned 10," Hajj Khalil recalls, sitting in his garden with his children and grandchildren around him.

"When the Jews left, we stayed because we had become Muslims."

But in the streets of Akre, Khalil and his family are still called "the Jews". More

Monday, May 23, 2005

Jews visit Algeria

On 22 May some 130 Algerian Jews arrived in Tlemcen, 600 km West of Algiers, at the start of a visit organised by the Fraternelle, an association of 1,300 French Jews of Algerian origin.

The visit was the first to be organised in cooperation with the Algerian embassy in France. The Jews visited family graves and went on a pilgrimage to the tomb of the 16th century Rabbi Ephraim Al Khawa, as well as to their childhood homes.

Visits by 'pieds-noirs' (as the French living in Algeria were known) are no longer taboo. Much water has flowed under the bridge since 1999 when the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika,invited the Algerian-Jewish singer Enrico Macias to perform in his hometown of Constantine. Macias' visit was called off after it provoked the anger of Islamic fundamentalists.

A dozen or so elderly Jews still live in Algeria. There is no synagogue.
The vast majority left when the country became independent in 1962. The rest left after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. The 300,000 Algerian Jews represent half the French Jewish community.

The origins of the 'exchange of populations'

It was in 1949, when Nuri al-Said took office as Iraqi Prime Minister, that the idea of exchanging the 160,000 Jews of Iraq for the Arab refugees created by the war in Palestine was first floated. In an essay entitled 'The break between Muslims and Jews in Iraq', in Jews among Arabs (Ed Cohen and Udovitch) the late, lamented Iraqi-Jewish historian Professor Elie Kedourie shows how the idea started as a threat, then took on a life of its own.

The Jews of Iraq - settled in the country since Biblical times but increasingly being driven from their jobs and treated as if they had no right to be there - were now seen as 'pawns and hostages to...allow Nuri to appear as champion of the Palestinian Arabs'.The outside powers too, cynically viewed the Iraqi Jews as useful pawns for resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The Israeli foreign minister, Moshe Sharrett, initially refused any possible linkage between the two sets of refugees. As the Jewish exodus got underway, Levi Eshkol, treasurer of the Jewish Agency, told the Zionist Underground in Baghdad that they must not rush: Israel did not have enough tents. "If they come, they'd have to live on the street," he said.

Even before the passing of a law allowing Jews to renounce their Iraqi citizenship and leave for Israel,some 30 or 40 a day were fleeing Iraq illegally through Iran. When the law was passed it was thought that not more than 10,000 Jews would leave Iraq. By the time the law expired at the end of March 1951,some 120,000 had chosen to leave. A thirst for vengeance seemed to be driving Nuri al-Said, who tried unsuccessfully to get the Jordanians to agree to truckloads of Jews, whom he branded exploitative, seditious and worthy of punishment, being dumped on the border with Israel.

Now came Nuri's masterstroke. A law passed in secret froze the property of the Iraqi Jews, in contravention of all undertakings Iraq had made to safeguard minority rights. The property of those who were abroad and failed to return within two months would also be confiscated, even if the Jews had not given up their Iraqi citizenship. There were 25 such cases in Britain.

By then Sharrett had accepted the linkage of the two sets of refugees. A Foreign Office memo approvingly spoke of the two accounts, of the Iraqi Jews and the Arab refugees, standing in perfect symmetry and precise balance. And all this before the expulsion of Egyptian, Syrian and North African Jewry, with all their lost assets, were added to the equation.

Gaddafi Junior links compensation for Jews to Palestinian demands

The good news, according to the Libyan leader's son, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, is that Libyan Jews are welcome to visit the country of their birth. The bad news is that 'if they are Israeli, they will first need to give Palestinians back their homes.'

According to a Jerusalem Post report of 23 May - despite professing a lack of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ('I'm more interested in Darfur now', Seif claims) - Gaddafi Junior continues to make an unabashed political linkage between the demands of Libyan Jews and Palestinians ( previously dismissed by some Jewish quarters as 'for Palestinian consumption only')and attaches impossible conditions to earlier declarations that Libya is prepared to compensate Libyan Jews for their lost property and assets.
Article in full

Sunday, May 22, 2005

In search of righteous Arabs

'Denial of the Holocaust is a recurring theme of Arab politics—a staple not only of radicals,both secular and Islamist, but of the mainstream as well', writes Robert Satloff, director of policy and strategic planning at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in this important Commentary piece. 'Borrowing methods and motifs from their European and American counterparts, Arab deniers wrap their arguments in pseudo-scientific scholarship,discounting (or denying) the numbers of dead, equating the Holocaust with lesser crimes, denigrating its historical uniqueness, or reversing history to ascribe to present-day Jews the role of “Nazi” persecutors of Palestinians.

"So routine has this Arab form of Holocaust denial become that it did not seem shocking when the first-ever Palestinian prime minister, the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas,turned out to have earned his (Soviet) doctorate with a dissertation expressing doubt about the Nazi extermination of six million Jews. A heartening trend in recent years is that a number of figures in the Arab world have begun to address this pervasive phenomenon, and to deplore its effects. Their motives vary. Some want simply to correct the inaccuracy of Arab historiography. Others seek to remove an ugly stain on Arab intellectual and political culture. Still others seem to hope that Arab recognition of the crime of the Holocaust will induce Jews and Zionists to acknowledge,in turn, the “crime” of Israel’s existence. Finally, some sincerely believe that expressions of empathy with Jewish suffering may help overcome deep-rooted psychological impediments to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Such, for instance,appears to have been the impulse behind the May 2003 visit to Auschwitz by a joint delegation of Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.

Despite these halting signs of progress, however,Holocaust denial remains a powerful orthodoxy—so powerful that dissenters often feel compelled to speak under the cloak of anonymity.(...)

Moreover, the dissent is limited in its scope, directed either toward acknowledging the facts of the Nazi Holocaust or displaying sympathy with its victims. Out of bounds is any effort to explore the intersection of the Holocaust with Arab history itself. For the Holocaust, although overwhelmingly a European story, was not solely a European story. It was an Arab story, too, and the dimensions of that story are much larger and more complex than such by now familiar facts as the pro-Nazi exploits of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, or the largely unsuccessful propaganda rants by the Nazis’ Arabic mouthpieces on Radio Berlin.

From the outset, German plans to persecute and eventually to exterminate the Jews extended throughout all the lands Germany and its allies hoped to conquer. That included a great Arab expanse in North Africa, extending from Casablanca to Tripoli and onward to Cairo—a region that was home to a half-million Jews. Indeed, the countryby-country plan of extermination laid out at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942 makes sense only if the wildly inaccurate figure for the Jews of unoccupied France—700,000—is understood to include France’s North African possessions: the colony of Algeria and the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia. In the brief period when they had a chance, the Germans and their allies made a significant start toward their murderous goal for North Africa’s Jews. For three years—from the fall of France in June 1940 to the expulsion of German troops from Tunisia in May 1943—the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators, and their Italian Fascist allies applied in these areas many of the same tools that would be used to devastating effect against the much larger Jewish populations of Europe. These included not only statutes depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence, and free movement, but also forced labor, confiscations, deportations,and executions. Virtually no Jew in North Africa was left untouched. Nearly 10,000 suffered in labor camps, work gangs, and prisons, or under house arrest. By a stroke of fortune, relatively few perished, many of them in the almost daily Allied bombings of Tunis and Bizerte in the winter and spring of 1943 when the Germans forced Jewish workers to stay at their jobs clearing rubble. But if U.S. and British troops had not driven the Germans from the African continent in 1943, the 2,000-year-old Jewish communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and perhaps Egypt would almost certainly have met the fate of their brethren in Europe.

Many Arabs today would respond that all this has nothing to do with Arab history. It has to do, rather, with the history of colonialists who played out their designs on Arab soil; Arabs had no part in it, they would say. But they would be wrong. Just as in Europe, most members of the local populace stood by and did nothing; a few helped—the Arab world, too, had its “righteous Gentiles”; and some made matters demonstrably worse. The story of the Holocaust in Arab lands has three main divisions: the extension of Vichy’s “state anti-Semitism” to France’s North African possessions; the imposition of Mussolini’s anti-Jewish regime in Libya; and the six-month occupation of Tunisia by German and Italian troops. Other French possessions in the Levant—Syria and Lebanon— were affected by Vichy, but to a much lesser degree and for a considerably briefer time. There was also the special case of Iraq, which in 1941 witnessed a rapacious campaign against Jews in the course of a short-lived military coup by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, a Nazi sympathizer; but neither the Germans nor their other European partners were central actors in that drama.

Particularly hard hit was Tunisia, the only Arab country to come under direct German occupation. In just six months, from November 1942 to May 1943, the Germans and their local collaborators implemented a forced-labor regime, confiscations of property, hostage-taking, mass extortion, deportations, and executions. They required thousands of Jews in the countryside to wear the Star of David, and they created special Judenrat-like committees of Jewish leaders to implement Nazi policies under threat of imprisonment or death. Tunisia was also the training ground for some of the most notorious Nazi killers—like SS Colonel Walter Rauff, who had earlier invented the mobile death-gas van.

Nevertheless, of the three European countries that brought the Holocaust to Arab lands, the most malevolent by far was France. In Morocco and, especially, Algeria, France implemented strict laws against local Jews, expelling them from schools,universities, and government employment, confiscating their property, and sending a number of local Jewish political activists to harsh labor camps. In some respects, Vichy was more vigorous about applying anti-Jewish statutes in Arab lands than in metropolitan France.(...)

According to later testimonies, the camp commandants and senior officers, mostly legionnaires themselves, were vicious anti-Semites, sadistic and often drunk,many of German origin or fascist sympathies. They were assisted by Arab and Senegalese guards, notorious for their cruelty. Any Arab or Berber watchman discovered showing sympathy for the Jews, secretly providing them with extra water, blankets, or rations, was quickly assigned to other duties and replaced by local guards whose ruthlessness was more reliable. A 1943 British Foreign Office document, “Barbaric Treatment of Jews and Aliens in Morocco,” records the testimony of Polish Jewish prisoners who made their way to London after being freed by the Allies. (...)


Thus far I have touched but lightly on the role of Arabs themselves in the events I have been recounting. There has been, indeed, scant writing about and little documentation of this side of things. But for the past two years, while living in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, I have tracked down stories of Arabs who played a role in the Holocaust,be they villains or heroes. With the help of researchers and investigators in ten different countries,I have been able to unearth the stories of dozens of such individuals. Their number includes outright collaborators—i.e., Arabs who personally participated in the persecution of Jews. Among these were an Arab sadist who commanded a Jewish work brigade in the Tunisian countryside; another Tunisian, Hassen Ferjani,convicted by a French military tribunal of having informed to the Germans on three Jews fleeing across Allied lines, an act leading to their deportation and eventual beheading; Arab patrolmen who tracked down Jewish escapees from forced-labor camps; Arabs who walked alongside German soldiers, pointing out Jewish homes and property for confiscation; the Arab accomplice to a German soldier who raped a Jewish woman in La Marsa, outside Tunis; and Arab camp guards who urinated on the heads of Jewish forced laborers as they lay buried to their necks in the sands of Algeria.

In addition to these individuals were the hundreds of Arabs who volunteered to join Axis and pro-Axis forces like the Phalange Africaine, the Brigade Nord Africaine, and the German-Arab Training Battalion. And then there were the nameless thousands throughout North Africa who extorted money and property from Jews at their moment of abject weakness. As for the heroes who helped save Jews from pain,injury, indignity, and perhaps death, they included: • the Bey of Tunis and, more famously though less conclusively, the Sultan of Morocco, both of whom bucked their Vichy and German overlords to provide vital moral support to their Jewish subjects, as well as practical help to a number of Jewish personalities and their families; • the Arab country squire who opened his farm to 60 Jews escaping from an Axis forced-labor camp in Tunisia’s Zaghouan valley; • a middle-aged Arab notable in the Tunisian seaside town of Mahdia who, upon learning that a German officer was bent on raping a local Jewish woman, a mother of three, whisked away the entire family in the middle of the night and kept them hidden on his farm for several weeks until the Germans quit the town;* • the Arab politician who secretly warned and offered shelter to his longtime Jewish friends when Nazi SS troops were planning raids against the Jewish leadership in Tunis; • religious leaders in Algiers who forbade any Muslim from serving as a Vichy-appointed conservator of Jewish property; • Arab inmates of a prison camp in the Algerian desert who forged an anti-fascist bond with their Jewish prison mates; • Arab soldiers whose response to shoot-to-kill orders was to fire wide, purposely missing helpless Jewish laborers; • and, in faraway Paris, the rector of the municipal mosque, Si Kaddour Bengabrit, who is said to have given Jewish children counterfeit certificates of good standing as Muslims,thereby enabling them to escape deportation.

* In October 2003, this woman’s daughter, Anny Boukris, told her family’s story in detail for the first time to an interviewer I arranged to visit her in Palm Desert, California; she died eight weeks later. I was able to confirm key details of the story in a May 2004 visit to Mahdia. Similarly not to be forgotten are those Arabs who suffered alongside Jews—as prisoners in Vichy concentration camps or, as was the case in Tunisia,as forced-laborers drafted once the Jewish community had exhausted its own manpower. A small number of Arabs and Berbers also participated in one of the war’s most daring and overlooked exploits: the takeover of key sites in Algiers by the predominantly Jewish underground, an action that eased the amphibious entry of thousands of U.S. and British troops on the night of Operation Torch in November 1942.

Taken together, this history is rarely told,and the heroes, in particular, have never been recognized. Of the more than 19,000 “righteous Gentiles” honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews from death during the Holocaust, not a single one is an Arab (though there are a number of Muslims, including Turks, Bosnians, and Albanians). In my view, the reason for this lacuna is dual: few have ever looked for “Arab righteous,”and fewer still have had an incentive to be found. For Arabs, the legacy of World War II was soon overshadowed by two other developments: the conflict with Zionism over the fate of Palestine and the struggle for independence against European colonialism. By the late 1940’s—and certainly by the time of the Suez crisis in 1956—the blurring of the state of Israel with “the Jews” was already a deeply embedded theme of Middle Eastern politics. For an Arab, there was little to be gained (and much to be lost) by being identified with the defense of Jews or of Jewish interests. Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco and, to a lesser extent, Habib Bourghiba, the secular leader of Tunisia’s independence movement, were significant exceptions, noteworthy not least for their rarity.

For Jews, the situation was more complex. To many of those remaining in North Africa, memories of their horrible wartime experience were swiftly overtaken by the less systematic but often more violent anti-Zionism that compelled hundreds of thousands to quit their homes for Israel in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Once in Israel, wartime memories were further obscured by the tension in that country between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. To the degree that the former jealously guarded their Holocaust legacy—theirs, after all, had been by far the greater calamity—the latter tended not to focus on theirs. Similarly neglectful were Holocaust historians and institutions; even today, one hears debate in Israel over whether it is even appropriate to use the term “survivors” for Jews from Arab countries who suffered Nazi-era racial laws and punitive actions. An additional wrinkle concerns the odd position held by the small and still dwindling remnants of once-grand Jewish communities in Arab countries.

Less than 2 percent of the wartime Jewish population is left in Morocco and Tunisia today; in Algeria and Libya, the communities are effectively extinct. Navigating between the Scylla of Islamic radicalism and the Charybdis of regime indifference to their fate, Jews in these countries have by and large opted for quiescence. This attitude even extends backward to their past history. Although in the course of my research I did come across Sephardi activists agitating for wider acknowledgement of the history of the Holocaust in Arab lands,none actually resides in an Arab land today.

But if these considerations help to explain the obscuring of the Arab encounter with the Holocaust,they hardly excuse it. When I began my research into this hidden history, my secret desire was to organize a commemorative event in May 2003 on the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied liberation of Tunisia. For the obvious reasons, I wanted it to take place in Auschwitz—as it happens, a handful of Tunisian deportees were eventually killed there—and I envisioned a ceremony that would bring together Tunisian government officials,scholars, journalists, local Jewish community leaders, and members of Tunisia’s expatriate Jewish community.

My idea died when, traveling to Tunis, I asked my first interviewee, a prominent Arab historian,about the day his country was “liberated” from Nazi occupation. With a quizzical look on his face,he replied: “Liberation? What are you talking about? The departure of the Germans meant the return of the French, who were infinitely worse!” And this rebuff was nothing compared with my reception by the children of one of my prime candidates for recognition as a “righteous Arab”: Tunisia’s wartime prime minister, Muhammad Chenik. Walking a dangerous line between the Germans and his longtime personal friendships with Jews, this Arab notable, according to various interviewees, had used his connections to warn Jewish leaders of impending arrests and had secured dispensations from forced labor for the sons of Jews he knew from his business days. He very likely saved Jewish lives, perhaps at risk to his own.

Whatever the motive behind these deeds—personal friendship, old business obligations, simple kindness—they were truly noble. Since I was intending to resurrect the story of this long-forgotten statesman, and bring honor to his name, I had expected his family to embrace the revelations I was offering them, or at the very least to thank me for my efforts. And indeed, the family members who gathered in their comfortable seaside villa to hear my tale were polite, generous, and welcoming,plying me with tray after tray of delicious sweets and several rounds of coffee and tea. But through the smiles and handshakes, it rapidly became clear that they wanted nothing to do with my story of their father’s exploits. We have never heard about any of this, they insisted, and even if what you say is true, it does not amount to anything significant. Although they urged me to return with irrefutable proof, they offered no help, and it was obvious they hoped never to hear from me again. Perhaps the hardest blow has been the silence that has greeted most of my entreaties to moderate, forward-thinking Arabs to assist in shedding light on this chapter of their history. For every positive response to a phone call or a posting on an Internet message board, there have been a dozen cold shoulders, unanswered faxes, or unfilled promises. In October 2003, to take one example, I contacted the prominent Egyptian thinker Ahmed Kamal Abulmagd—widely considered one of the most moderate and open-minded of Muslim theologians,and certainly no Holocaust denier—after his appearance before an audience at the American University of Cairo, where he had participated in an exchange with the American ambassador.

At one point in their discussion, Abulmagd had turned to the ambassador and said: We all condemn the policies of Hitler and the Holocaust, but enough is enough. There is a moment of saturation and, let me be very blunt on this, world Jewry is in danger because of the very irresponsible policies of the government of Israel, supported by some unaware leaders of the Jewish community in the United States. I hate to see a day where there is an unleashing of dormant general anti-Semitism, in Europe, particularly, and maybe in the United States. But we Arabs are not part of it. We are not part of the Holocaust. We never persecuted Jews. In contacting Abulmagd, my purpose was not to persuade him to repudiate his remarks. On the contrary, I wanted to ask him to use his good offices in helping me gain access to Egyptian consular records from the late 1930’s.

Those files, I believe, may contain evidence of an “Arab Wallenberg,” an Egyptian diplomat who I suspect provided marriage or birth certificates to German and Austrian Jews, enabling them to flee to Cairo and from there to freedom in London. Though one might think Egyptian officialdom would be eager to exploit proof of a great humanitarian act by an Egyptian diplomat, one that would burnish Egypt’s bruised image in the United States, none of my requests to Cairo policymakers—some of whom, at the highest levels of government, I have known for more than fifteen years—has ever been acknowledged. That is why I wrote to Abulmagd—twice. Noting the absence of a single Arab among Yad Vashem’s list of “righteous” non-Jews, I begged for his intercession: “Didn’t some Arabs help or rescue some Jews?,” I asked. “And if indeed some Arabs did rescue some Jews, then isn’t this the positive, constructive answer to Arab Holocaust denial?” But the taboo against recognizing any Arab connection to the Holocaust, even in order to celebrate the deeds of a heroic Arab rescuer, is evidently too strong. I am still waiting for an answer. Read article in full (subscription required)

Friday, May 20, 2005

What were Arab-Jewish relations really like?

This article from the Spring 2005 issue of the Jewish Quarterly tries to cast some light on a contentious topic.

Dilemmas of Dhimmitude: Lyn Julius untangles the controversies about Jewish life in Arab lands



‘I have not come to rediscover my memories, nor to recognize those I have distorted, nor to imagine that I could live here again. I came to bury all this, to get rid of it, forget it, even hate it, as we are taught to hate those who do not want us.

I now realize that I am behaving in a typically Jewish fashion. I came back to Egypt as only Jews do, aspiring to return to places they were in such a rush to flee’ – [Andre Aciman, [False Papers: essays in exile



Last year, the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafy invited the Jews of Libya to ‘come home’. In October, a Jewish delegation did return for the first time in almost 40 years - and was well received. They wished to visit their roots, renew business ties, seek the restoration of Jewish communal sites and compensation for lost property. (A follow-up visit of some 20 Israelis of Libyan origin was scheduled for March 2005, the first time Israeli citizens will have set foot on Libyan soil.) And Libya, anxious to be rehabilitated in the post-Saddam era, seems eager to usher in a new era of reconciliation.

Yet this was not the first time the Libyan leader had asked the Jews to return to the land of their birth. When he made a similar offer in 1975 (‘Are you not Arabs like us, Arab Jews?’), Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born French writer and intellectual, scoffed:

'Yes, indeed we were Arab Jews – in our habits, in our culture, our music, our menu. But must one remain an Arab Jew if, in return, one has to tremble for one’s life and the future of one’s children and always be denied a normal existence? We would have liked to be Arab Jews. If we abandoned the idea, it is because over the centuries the Muslim Arabs systematically prevented its realization by their contempt and cruelty.’ ‘Who is an Arab Jew?’, in [Jews and Arabs[Chicago: O¹Hara, 1975]; this essay can also be read on-line at www.jimena-justice.org/faq/memmi.htm).
Even if it acknowledges that the Jews ever lived in the Middle East ­ an admission which undermines the oft-heard claim that Israel is a white, European, colonialist settler state - modern Arab historiography has marginalized the Jews and their ancient heritage to the point of invisibility, appropriating their achievements. Maimonides has morphed into an Arab scientist. Schoolchildren are taught that the sixth-century Jewish poet As-Samawaa'l and the medieval luminary Avicebron (Ibn Gvirol) were Muslims. How many know that a Jew helped write the constitution for the modern state of Egypt?

The very expression 'Arab Jews' is a misnomer to describe people who were living in the Middle East and North Africa 1,000 years before Islam and the seventh-century Arab invasion. From these communities sprang the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Hillel and the philosopher Philo. In the last 50 years, after almost 3,000 years of unbroken presence, nearly a million Jews fled persecution and legalized discrimination and overcame much hardship to build new lives - mostly in Israel - where they now account for roughly half the Jewish population. The remaining 5,000 live reasonably securely in Yemen, Morocco and Tunisia, in spite of being targeted by recent Al-Qaeda bombings. But a key chapter of Jewish history is drawing to an irrevocable close.
Some have propagated the myth that the Jews left of their own free will, or were forced out by Zionist pressure. Israel itself has been complicit in drawing a veil over the Jewish narrative, emphasizing the romance of the Zionist 'pull' factor, while glossing over the unhappy circumstances of the 'push'. The comparatively neglected story of this Jewish exodus continues to live in the shadows.
So what is the truth about relations between Arabs and Jews? The issue is loaded with political implications for today. Consider two extreme views. If Jews and Arabs can be shown to have always coexisted harmoniously, then Arabs bear no responsibility for the existence of Israel; they are the undeserving indirect victims of European antisemitism. If, on the other hand, antisemitism is seen as endemic to the Middle East, that offers uncomfortably little hope for an end to the conflict. One thing is sure: a complex reality, varying from era to era, from region to region and ruler to ruler, does not lend itself easily to sweeping generalizations.

Ask Jews themselves about the life they left behind and they will wax lyrical about the scent of jasmine and lemon trees: sunsets over Alexandria harbour; samekh mousgouf, the fish grilled on the banks of the river Tigris; sleeping under the stars on the roof; a comfortable life of leisure and servants. Yet most of these same Jews fled for their lives with one suitcase.

Many Jews like to reminisce about their charmed lives and do not dwell on their hasty uprooting. But while these rosy images of the past reflect a genuine reality, Albert Memmi insists that it was temporary, a reasonably secure interlude lasting only for the duration of the colonial era, a matter of a few decades.
So what were Arab-Jewish relations like historically? Again there are two extreme competing answers to this question. On one view, Jews and Christians enjoyed the status of a 'protected' minority under Islam, and the Jews in Muslim Spain enjoyed a golden age of peace and prosperity. Others argue that Jews and Christians were 'protected' only from extermination and were never anything but second-class.

Muslims took control of the Middle East through [jihad ­ religious wars of conquest. The indigenous Christians and Jews were spared conversion and death if they abided by certain terms of a dhimma agreement. They had to pay a special tax, the jizya, cede the centre of the road to Muslims, ride only donkeys, not horses. They could not build a synagogue taller than a mosque, could not testify against Muslims in court, could not bear arms, and had to wear distinctive clothing. In short, their status was one of institutionalized inferiority and humiliation.

However, like all other dhimmis, writes Norman Stillman in The Jews of Arab Lands (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979), the Jews

'enjoyed extensive communal autonomy precisely because the state did not care what they did so long as they paid their taxes, kept the peace and remained in place.'
There were massacres, but these were rare and only occurred when the Jews were thought to have stepped out of line.

The golden age myth
One of leading writers on Islamic history, Bernard Lewis, believes the golden age in Spain is a myth - Jews were persecuted by both Muslims and Christians:

'Belief in it was a result more than a cause of Jewish sympathy for Islam. The myth was invented by Jews in nineteenth-century Europe as a reproach to Christians ­ and taken up by Muslims in our own time as a reproach to Jews.

If tolerance means the absence of persecution, then classic Islamic society was indeed tolerant to both its Jewish and Christian subjects ­ more tolerant perhaps in Spain than in the East, and in either incomparably more tolerant than was medieval Christendom. But if tolerance means the absence of discrimination, then Islam never was or claimed to be tolerant, but on the contrary insisted on the privileged superiority of the true believer in this world as well as the next ([Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East' [London: Alcove Press, 1973]).
The truth is that both extreme forms of Arab-Jewish relations (and many in between) could obtain in different times and different places. Conditions for the Jews were good in the early Middle Ages, worse in the later Middle Ages, dire under the Almohads, difficult under the Mamluks. Life was best in the centre of the Ottoman Empire, hardest on the periphery. As the European powers increased their influence and during the colonial era, Jews and Christians acquired near-equal status to Muslims. Crucially, however, conditions for the non-Muslim minorities deteriorated again when Arab nation states gained their independence. To blame was a sinister nexus of European fascism and an anti-western Arab nationalist movement. Today, a virulent Islamist strain of anti-westernism and antisemitism sweeping the Arab and Muslim world bears little resemblance to the more tolerant end of traditional Muslim attitudes.

When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, a good period began for the Jews. The Ottoman Turks populated the city not with fellow Muslims but productive and creative Armenians, Greeks and Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Unlike Europe, where the Jews were the only minority, the Ottoman Middle East was a mosaic of religions and ethnicities. Jews, debarred only from the army and the diplomatic corps, rose to prominence as doctors, merchants and courtiers, at a time, to quote Professor Norman Stone's Foreword to Lord Kinross's study of The Ottoman Empire (Bury St Edmunds: Folio, 2003) when Christian kingdoms were shovelling heretics or Jews out to sea'.

Islam, unlike Christianity, did not view Jews as Christ-killers: ­ they were simply benighted unbelievers. As Bernard Lewis explains in Semites and anti-Semites (New York: Norton, 1986),


'The situation of non-Muslim minorities in classical Islam falls a long way short of the standard set and usually observed in the present-day democracies. It compares, however, favourably with conditions prevailing in western Europe in the Middle Ages, and in eastern Europe for very much longer.'

Lewis traces the infiltration of specifically Christian hostility towards Jews - with its blood libels, fears of conspiracy and domination, images of Jews poisoning wells and spreading the plague - to the high Middle Ages, when many Christians converted to Islam, and to the particular influence of Greek Orthodox Christians.

Over the centuries a Muslim family, the Nusseibehs, were the keepers of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, not because the Christian sects squabbled among themselves (although squabble they did) but as a symbol of Muslim primacy. To escape their inferiority, Christians were at the forefront of twentieth-century pan-Arabism; the founder of the League of the Arab Homeland was a Christian.

Christians, more conspicuous and identified with the Ottomans' European enemies, deflected attention from the Jews. They bore the brunt of persecution ­ the 1915 genocide of over one million Armenians being the most extreme example. But their common dhimmitude did not make them any more sympathetic to their economic rivals, the Jews - quite the contrary. It was Christians, for example, who stirred up a blood libel in Damascus in 1840 (and on 34 subsequent occasions), a Christian who first translated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Arabic.

Dhimmitude on the fringes
In Iran, where there were fewer minorities, and in Yemen and North Africa, where Christianity had died out, the Jews led a miserable and degraded existence subject to a much stricter application of the rules of dhimmitude. They were confined to mellahs or ghettos and periodically subject to forced conversions. Whereas the Turks had introduced the fez in Iraq in 1808, so that religious groups should not be immediately recognizable by their headdresses, in Tunisia over a century later the social rules of dhimmitude were still in force, even under French colonial rule, and Albert Memmi's grandfather was still expected to wear the obligatory and discriminatory Jewish garb. Every Jew could expect to be hit on the head by any passing Muslim, a ritual which even had a name ­ the chtaka. Shi'ites subscribed to ritual purity prejudices until recent times. A Jewish friend who lived in Shi'a Bahrain tells how her grandmother once picked up some fruit to see if it was ripe. The fruit seller tipped his basket to the ground, crying out 'You have defiled it!' In Iran, Jews were executed for brushing up against Muslims in the rain, and so 'defiling' them.

Dhimmitude and Zionism
Why did Zionism elicit fury from the start? An explanation suggested by Francisco Gil-White in 'Whitewashing the Palestinian Leadership' (http://emperors-clothes.com/gilwhite/Israel.htm#part4, 31 August 2003) is that

'the Arab upper classes saw dhimmitude as the cement of the social fabric, helping to guarantee the loyalty of the street. Many Arabs saw in the lowly status of Jews a confirmation of their own worth. And there was special contempt for the Jews, perhaps because, unlike the Christian case, no Jewish states existed to compete with Islamic states.'

The movement for a Jewish state in Palestine overturned the natural pecking order. When slavery was abolished, American whites in the Deep South responded by lynching black slaves. Similarly, as Albert Memmi writes,

'The Arabs . . . have not yet recovered from the shock of seeing their former underlings raise their heads, attempting even to gain their national independence. They know of only one rejoinder ­ off with their heads!'
In Histoire de chiens (Paris: Mille et Une Nuits, 2004), Nathan Weinstock, a former Trotskyist, claims that the breakdown of the traditional dhimmi relationship was one of the root causes of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Jews became the focus of Arab aggression, he believes, when in 1908 the Hashomer Hatza'ir pioneers of Sejera dismissed their Circassian guards - who protected their settlement against Bedouin raids ­ and replaced them with Jewish guards. For the Jews, this was an ideological statement of self-sufficiency. But for the neighbouring Arab [fellaheen, they had crossed a red line. They had reneged on their part of the dhimmitude agreement: the dog-like dhimmi, who was not allowed to bear arms, should always look to the Muslim for protection. The title of Weinstock's book is taken from the battlecry of those who slaughtered members of the old yishuv in Hebron in 1929: 'The Jews are our dogs!' Because the targets were indigenous Jews, not Zionists, he argues that Palestinian nationalism was predicated on bigotry.

The colonial era

By the late nineteenth century, the colonial powers had made inroads into the declining Ottoman Empire, extending protection primarily to the Christian minorities. Under European pressure the jizya was abolished. But even though the Turks declared all the Sultan's subjects equal under the law in 1856, the best guarantee of one¹s inalienable rights was a western passport. (After 1860, Jews, along with Armenians, were denied Egyptian citizenship. The majority were left stateless, but a privileged 25 per cent of the Jews held foreign passports. To them a parallel legal system applied.)

At the turn of the last century, life was incomparably better than before for the Jews of Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Jews sat in the Istanbul parliament after 1908. They served in the Turkish army. The big cities of the Middle East were heavily Jewish; along with other minorities, the Jews controlled trade and business.

But unlike the German Jews, many of whom who aspired to assimilate, the Jews of the Middle East had no desire to be like the Muslim majority. Although they lacked political power, they felt superior. The 60 Alliance IsraƩlite Universelle schools established in 1860 had hauled the Jews out of poverty and ignorance and turned them into an educated elite speaking English, French, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew. Soon they had also established trading networks through relatives in Manchester, India, the Far East and Latin America.

Iraq ­ a test case
Iraq on the threshold of independence is a good test case of how Arab states were to treat minorities. The authorities had little excuse to treat the Jews badly. They were thoroughly Arabized in language and culture. They were the backbone of the country's civil service. Arriving as Babylonian slaves in 586 BCE, the Jews had sunk deep roots in a country which witnessed the birth of Judaism at Ur of the Chaldees. A Muslim could not tell a Jew to go back where he came from when the Jew had been there before him. The dearth of foreign passport-holders made it hard for the Jews to be tarred with the brush of British imperialism. And there was another thing in their favour: most Jews were indifferent or even hostile to Zionism.

Although the communities were strictly segregated, Muslims and Jews got along perfectly well in everyday life. Children enjoyed a carefree existence ­ although only within certain limits. Naim Kattan writes in Adieu Babylone (Paris: Albin Michel, 2003) that he would never have ventured alone into a dark cinema. Boys his age, Christian and Muslim, would have leapt on him and beaten him up.
Even before the Palestine question started having an impact, it is clear that Jews viewed the prospect of Iraqi independence with foreboding. In 1917 they asked Britain as the mandatory power to allow them to become British subjects. They gave three reasons for not wanting an indigenous government to rule over them. The Arabs, they said, were politically irresponsible; they had no administrative experience; and they could be fanatical and intolerant. Their pleas were not heeded, and in 1921 the Jews sent another delegation to the British High Commissioner, Sir Percy Cox. They came away empty-handed, but a London-Baghdad agreement signed in 1922 laid down that the laws of the country guaranteed freedom of creed and conscience for all (see Nissim Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1985).
But if national independence paid lip service to equal rights, Islam was still the state religion. Entrenched cultural and religious attitudes reasserted themselves. One story illustrates the corruptibility of the justice system: in 1931, a Jewish landowner was murdered by an Arab squatter he wished to evict from one of his properties. The killer was arrested and tried, but he was soon released after protests from his clan. The victim, no matter how wealthy or influential, was still a Jew.
The Jews were keen to play their part in building the new Iraq, but in the face of discrimination, their enthusiasm gradually waned and gave way to anger, frustration and disappointment. As Naim Kattan puts it,

'For centuries we learned to live with injustice, even coming to see it as part of the nature of things. Was it not the price we had to pay for being different? We had no reason to envy the Assyrians, the Armenians, the Kurds, nor even the Christians and the Shi¹ites. We lived in the shadow of a beast which for years had maintained a stony silence, and suddenly his giant frame was wracked by a fever. We could feel him quaking and then he threw his full weight upon one victim or another.'
Newly independent Iraq gave formal undertakings on minority rights when joining the League of Nations in 1932 ­ and massacred thousands of Assyrian Christians within the year. Xenophobic nationalism, together with anti-British and anti-French feeling, gave rise to political parties and paramilitary youth movements of the Nazi and fascist type. The German envoy to Iraq, Dr Fritz Grobba, set about disseminating Nazi ideology and anti-Jewish propaganda, reinforcing local prejudice. Dozens of Jews were quietly dismissed (although some were reinstated after the community protested). Laws were gradually brought in to deprive Jews of jobs, then education and, eventually, property, residence and free movement. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, colluded with the ex-Prime Minister, Rashid Ali, to engineer a pro-Nazi coup, eventually culminating in the farhoud massacre of 1941. For two days and one night of looting, rape and murder, the mob rampaged through Jewish districts of Baghdad. One hundred and seventy Jews were killed.

Naturally, the Palestine question was also to have serious repercussions on the Jewish population. Menahem Salih Daniel, a Baghdad Jewish leader, expressed his misgivings as early as 1922 in a letter to the Secretary of the Zionist Organisation in London (quoted by Nessim Rejwan), even though there had as yet been no active resistance to Zionism:

'It is . . . the feeling of every Arab that it is a violation of his legitimate rights, which it is his duty to denounce and fight to the best of his ability. Iraq always having been an active centre of Arab culture and activity, the public mind is always stirred up as regards Palestine.'
One Jewess, growing up in the 1930s, recalls how the mob would rampage every anniversary of the Balfour declaration carrying clubs dipped in tar. It fell to a kindly neighbour to shelter her until the mob had passed.

In the 1941 farhoud too, when the forces of law and order failed to come to the Jews' rescue, the last line of defence was again the kindly neighbour. As Nessim Rejwan writes,

'Throughout the disturbances, with a few exceptions, Jewish homes in mixed neighbourhoods were defended and hundreds of Jews were saved by the willingness of their Muslim neighbours to protect them, in some cases at the cost of their own lives.'

The broader picture
For the Jews, the 1930s and 1940s were a time of turmoil across the Arab world. Seven years before the farhoud, Jews had been killed in the pogrom of Constantine, Algeria. In Libya, 136 Jews, 36 of them children, were slaughtered in 1945. That same year, bloody riots erupted in Egypt and Aden, as in Syria in 1947.
All these events, targeting civilian communities, predated the creation of Israel. They demonstrated the vulnerability and insecurity to which Jews were exposed up to 50 years ago. Things might have turned out differently ­ Crown Prince Faisal, later the British-appointed King of Iraq, had signed a pact in 1919 with Chaim Weizmann viewing with sympathy the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. Instead, Arab ruling elites made Zionism a crime from 1948 onwards, passed discriminatory legislation and whipped up popular feeling against the Jews to distract attention from their illegitimacy, their internal problems and obligations.
The 1948 defeat of the Arab armies by Israel marked the beginning of the end for most of the Jewish communities, although some claim that Arab governments had planned to expel their Jews even before the UN partition vote (see Yaakov Meron, 'Why Jews fled the Arab countries', [Middle East Quarterly, September 1995). Three-quarters of the Iraqi community fled in 1951, stripped of all possessions. The Egyptian Jews were expelled after Nasser amended the Egyptian nationality law in 1956, their property confiscated and a number imprisoned. The Jews of Algeria left en masse with the French. The other Maghreb countries adopted a policy of economic strangulation and emigration restrictions. When these were lifted in the early 1960s the Jews streamed out to France and Israel. With every Israeli triumph on the battlefield the remaining Jewish communities were targeted with economic boycotts, mob violence, mass arrests and even show trials and executions.

Ultimately, the Jewish populations of the Arab countries were given little choice but to leave. Jews signed loyalty petitions, proclaimed themselves Arabs first, gave money to the Arab war effort against Israel­, all to no avail. The situation of all Jews, even the anti-Zionists and the nationalists among them, was untenable. The root cause of the exodus was the dangerous failure of Arab autocracies to protect their minorities ­ and, indeed, their propensity to scapegoat them.

The situation today

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the concept of Ottoman pluralism (whatever its limitations) could not be more remote. The Arab world is almost monolithically Muslim and judenrein. Pan-Arab nationalism is a spent force but pan-Islamism is asserting its grip. Those Copts, Assyrians and other groups who have not fled continue to be persecuted and marginalized.

The mass media of the Muslim world pump out a new antisemitism, inspired by Saudi Wahabism, fed by Koranic accounts of Jewish treachery and drawing on every antisemitic motif and conspiracy theory in the book. This antisemitism is a product of the Israel-Arab dispute, but a fight between two nationalisms over the same piece of land has changed, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, into an intractable religious conflict. Israel is an affront to the umma: what was once Muslim territory can never become non-Muslim. Palestine must be reconquered by jihad and the Jews revert to their natural status of dhimmitude. Until this alarming religious dimension is addressed and the forces of Islamic militancy subdued, the conflict will be insoluble.


The only long-term answer is Arab democratization. Already the Iraqi elections have whetted the popular appetite across the Arab world for change. Dissidents have been emboldened. Despots are quaking in their boots. Democracy will bring accountability, end arbitrary government and enforce pluralism, freedom and equal rights for all ethnic and religious groups. Only then might Arab states once again be able to give any Jews who chose to live in them that protection against vulnerability - what Albert Memmi calls 'our constant sense of frailty of the underdog' ­ - they enjoy in Israel and the West.

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Thursday, May 19, 2005

North African survivors to get Shoah restitution

Jews who were incarcerated for at least six months in certain labor camps in Hungary, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria during World War II are now eligible to receive pension payments, the German government decided on 18 May, Haaretz reports.

"The Nazi-allied Vichy French regime established about 30 labor camps in Morocco and Algeria in 1941 and 1942, according to records held by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Some 4,000 people were held in these camps before they were liberated by American troops.

Germany occupied Tunisia in November 1942 and held it for six months. During that time period, thousands of local Jews were held in 32 camps. Germany has already recognized Jews held in Libyan camps as Holocaust survivors. Article here

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The terror behind Iraq's Jewish exodus

This article, written about Iraqi Jews in London by Julia Magnet in April 2003 for the Daily Telegraph, coincided with the American invasion of Iraq. It was to prove the inspiration for a whole book. (With thanks: Jerusalem Posts)

"In Baghdad, there are only 30 Jews left. Thirty. You can count them."

The woman speaking is an Iraqi Jew. She and her husband saw their friends being hanged in the main square of Baghdad; in the early Seventies, they had all their property confiscated and were forced to flee the country.

Her father-in-law was wrongly imprisoned for "one year, seven months and three days. And he suffered, he suffered a lot," her husband says.

He is anxious not to single himself out as a special case, but his voice thickens and he begins to cry. I am sitting with this middle-aged man and his wife in a terrace house in Edgware, where they finally rebuilt their lives.

But, even after all this time, they are still too scared to give me their names - what I write, says his wife, could "start a hatred against the Iraqi Jews in London, and they can find and attack you anywhere".

As he weeps, his wife gestures at the television set in the corner of the sitting-room, where they are constantly flicking between al-Jazeera, Sky and Fox.

"It's because we are watching this all the time," she says. "It came back." Their old life has invaded their clean London sitting-room, and all the memories of persecution in Baghdad are flooding back - "like a dream".

It wasn't always a hard life. In the 1920s, Baghdad was 40 per cent Jewish: Jews made up the largest single community in the city and controlled up to 95 per cent of business.

The first finance minister of the country - established after the First World War, when the British drew up new borders - was a Jew, as was the justice minister. And when the British imported King Faisal I to Iraq, in 1921, one of his first visits was to the leaders of the Jewish community.

As late as 1948, after Israel's war of independence, there were still about 150,000 to 180,000 Jews in Iraq. Now there are between 30 and 40 left in the entire country. In 50 years, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world has all but vanished.

Within the borders of Iraq, of course, is the city of Babylon, where the Jews came after their first exile from Jerusalem in 587bc. Iraq is also the birthplace of Abraham. Islam arrived only when the Arabs invaded in ad641 - more than 1,000 years after the Jews had first settled.

In the past week, I have spoken to a dozen Iraqi Jews about their memories. I was expecting to hear only about suffering and persecution, but they wanted to talk about the vibrant society in which they grew up.

They recalled a privileged life: elite schools, close communities, two-storey houses with indoor courtyards and evening promenades along the Tigris. Some of the best neighbourhoods were almost entirely Jewish, because only Jews could afford the houses. "It was a good life," I was told again and again.

Dr Sami Zubaida, a distinguished 65-year-old humanities lecturer, came to study in England in 1954. "In the first half of the 20th century," he says, "there was a sense in which Baghdad was a Jewish city: we were the educated, the middle classes."

Moshe Kahtan, a 65-year-old business consultant, concurs: "My father was a legal adviser to the ministry of finance, and he was also a member of parliament. You have to appreciate that, at the time of King Faisal I, the Jews enjoyed a very high standard of education and health - in fact, they ran the country."

Kahtan, who came to London in 1955 to further his studies, had attended the Alliance Israelite, a private Jewish school so sought after that wealthy gentiles sent their children there, too.

In addition to providing lessons in Arabic and Hebrew, he says, the school had French and British teachers. There was also a large girls' school, at a time when traditional Muslim Iraq did not educate its girls.

Although most of the people I met were in their sixties, their self-appointed leader in exile - the Exilarch - is an 88-year-old called Naim Dangoor. From 1949 until 1965, he ran the Coca-Cola franchise in Iraq, with his beloved Muslim business partner. Soon it will be time, he believes, to restart that business and bring Coca-Cola back to a newly liberated Iraq.

Like the others, he refuses to be seen as a victim. Dr Zubaida puts it this way: "There is a kind of devaluing of Iraqi Jews' cultural background, by saying that they were oppressed minorities, that they had no culture and the Muslims colonised and oppressed them. And so the tales of victimhood then override everything else, and all the great achievements of Iraqi Jewry are hidden, forgotten."

"Before the Six-Day War," the couple in Edgware point out, "before 1960, the Jews led a nice life - they were free to do whatever they wanted. But the brainy ones thought that, one day, this would turn upside down and they decided to leave the country."

Sadly, what this couple remember is only an interlude: the persecution of the Jews had started 20 years before. In June 1941, there was the Farhud - or pogrom - during which "the mob wreaked havoc", recalls Kahtan.

"For two days, they killed Jews in the streets, kidnapped girls, raped them, killed them and mutilated the bodies. They burned property, looted houses - it's estimated that about 600 Jews were killed in those two days."

For Jews born later, such as the Edgware couple, the public hangings of Jewish teenagers in 1969 and the omnipresence of the secret police are fresher memories. But their insistence on the "nice life" of the past echoes a pattern set long before.

"At the time of the Ottoman empire," Kahtan explains, "the Jews' fate depended on the governor's mood and whim and the amount of corruption that he exercised. So, when there was a lull in the persecution - bless them - they called it 'the golden age'. It was not a golden age. It was an age when the Jews were persecuted less."

Even so, this persecution was not out-and-out violence until shortly before the Farhud. So, what changed? In the Thirties, the rise of pan-Arab nationalism coincided with the second King Faisal's admiration of the Nazis.

By 1936, says Sylvia Kedourie, widow of the eminent Middle Eastern scholar Elie Kedourie, there were "episodes of Jews being killed in the streets that led to a growing sense of insecurity". Meanwhile, Zionism was on the rise, and though the Iraqi Jews were hardly Zionists, many Arabs began to see them as hostile, intent on conquering Arab territory.

The Nazi agenda crystallised Arab anti-semitism. On April 3, 1941, the rabidly pro-Nazi Rashid Ali, a former prime minister, with a group of similarly inclined politicians and army officers, staged a coup against Faisal II. Rashid Ali's aim was to root out British influence and ally Iraq with the Nazis.

His new "government" declared war on Britain, and was promptly defeated. On May 31, Rashid Ali fled. But his soldiers and policemen, inflamed by Nazi ideas, started the Farhud - aided by the Arab mob. Although the British Army was stationed outside Baghdad, it waited for two days before stopping the massacre: "They didn't want to wound Iraqi pride," says Kahtan.

"I was a very young child at the time, but certain things are imprinted on your mind. On the first day, the mob came to our door to do their business. The house was rented from a Muslim neighbour, of the old generation, and he came down with his rifle, shot in the air, and said: 'These people are under my protection; anyone who lifts a finger will be dead' - and he drove them off.

"But, as they were banging on our door, our parents took us to the roof and threw us across the wall to the neighbour's house just in case. I was very young, just three, and I still see myself flying."

Like him, Dr Zubaida says his own first memories are of the Farhud. "I recall distinctly that just as it was happening, there was an air raid - the British Air Force - and people were very happy to see them, though they dropped bombs. And I remember some bit of a bomb landed in our house."

Dangoor was older, a reserve officer in the Iraqi army. "I had a revolver in my hand, my brother had a shotgun and so on, and we were surrounded at one time by rioters," he says.

"My father said: 'Please don't shoot them because tomorrow everything will be all right - so why create enemies?' That was very wise advice.

"The rioters tried to open the windows to get into the house. And then they remembered that I was an officer, so after half an hour, they left."

Although the "good times" returned for a few years after this massacre, the old generation of friendly Muslims was gradually being replaced by its more hostile descendants. By 1947, Israel was an inevitability.

"When the whole question of the partition of Palestine came up," says Dr Zubaida, "all the Arab countries sent armies to Palestine, including Iraq. This generated a kind of hysteria, and then Jews who were prominent in public life started being sacked and students in higher education started being expelled."

Kahtan was 10 in 1948, when the state of Israel was declared. The son of his Muslim neighbour - the one who had saved his family - called him into his house.

"He was 19. He showed me a map and said: 'Today, seven armies are going to attack Israel, kill all the Jews and throw the survivors into the sea.' Now, that was the son - you see what a change of mentality had taken place. I'll leave it to your imagination to think what change of mentality has taken place between 1948 and now."

It doesn't take much. In 1949, a court of law falsely accused Safiq Adas, one of Iraq's most prominent Jewish businessmen, of selling arms to Israel. The charge was ridiculous: Adas sold scrap metal to Italy.

He protested his innocence and refused to pay the bribes that might have saved his life. Although he had some of the best lawyers in Iraq, his defence was not allowed to call witnesses. He was hanged in front of his house as his wife and children watched. His Muslim partner was never charged and continued the business.

This, Elie Kedourie has written, was the moment when the Jews realised the full extent of their vulnerability: they were no longer under the protection of the law and there was now little difference between the mob and Iraqi court justice. Everyone I spoke to mentioned Safiq Adas's "trial".

"After that," Kahtan says, tripping over his words, "a lot of people started to run away - illegally, because Jews were not allowed to travel. By then, they were not even allowed to buy or sell property."

What was to be done? In 1950, the British government brokered a secret deal between Israel and Iraq: the Jews of Iraq could obtain a passport to go to Israel if they renounced their Iraqi citizenship. Some 120,000 to 130,000 registered to leave. Only then did the Iraqi government pass a retroactive law: all those who renounced their citizenship would have their property and all their assets confiscated.

So came "the biggest exodus of the Iraqi Jews" - the airlifts of 1950-51. Those who left were allowed to take only a suitcase and 100 dinars.

This was, however, just half of the deal: the Jews were to go to Israel, and the Palestinians were to be resettled in Iraq. Kahtan put it succinctly: "Fifty per cent of the deal was done, and the other 50 per cent was reneged. So the Jews went to Israel, and the Arabs stayed in Israel as refugees."

Only Kahtan has been back to Iraq. In 1965, he returned to see his dying father and to try to save his family's property. His passport was confiscated on arrival and he was trapped in Iraq for "two years of hell", becoming the last Jew to escape before the Six-Day War. His father died in Iraq.

His escape on a smuggler's boat, like all those in the 1960s and 70s, was organised by Israeli agents who mapped out the routes, paid the necessary bribes and met the refugees in Iran. "Israel was paying to save the Jews," Kahtan said. "I owe my life to the state of Israel."

After the Six-Day War, the Iraqi government took its revenge on the few thousand Jews left in Baghdad. The woman in Edgware recalls: "They started putting young people - youngsters of 16 years old - on trial, just because they were Jews.

"They would just catch them in the streets - whomever they could find - and take them to prison. Then they would torture them and put them on trial as spies.

"And they hanged them in the main square of Baghdad. People were dancing around the gallows there, dancing and celebrating, distributing sweets. 'What a big day, what a happy day', catching the Jews and hanging them."

Did she see this? "Of course," she says, pointing to pictures in a book. "I lived on that square." For a few moments, she studied the faces of the childhood friends whom she saw hanged in 1969.

She left with her mother in 1971, and her husband escaped through the north two years later, driving with his parents "as far north as you could go" towards Iran, where they were met by Kurds.

"When we got to that crossing point over the border," he says, "the Kurds said: 'Look, we are helping you now - when you get to Israel, you must help us.' And now they have a problem, and I can't"

Like the Holocaust survivors, some of the Iraqi Jews will perhaps now claim compensation for their confiscated property. Kahtan, however, is sceptical.

"Look, it took Europe 50 years. How long do you give the British and Americans to do that? Probably, they will say it's against the interests of the state to raise that point. They have their excuses, and we have to try and convince ourselves to believe them."

Dangoor is more bullish: "I am not sorry that I lost everything in Iraq, but that does not mean I have no right to ask for compensation." In any case, he says, he needs the capital to restart the Coca-Cola franchise in Iraq.

"Would you go back?" I asked them all. No, they said - Britain was their home now. But Kahtan also laughed at the question. "Why? Are they doing special air rates?"


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Giving the lie to the 'big lie'

Seminal piece by David Meir-Levi giving the lie to the 'big lie' that Israel created the Arab refugee problem. He makes the point that Israel has more than paid handsomely in reparations to the Arab refugees in terms of abandoned Jewish land and assets, assuming Israel was responsible for the Arab flight - which he then demonstrates convincingly that for the most part it was not.'Hypothetically,' he argues,'the Arabs would be getting the better deal.'

" Some observers have suggested that this turn of events could be understood as a “population exchange” – Arabs fled to Arab countries as Jews fled to the Jewish country, both as a result of the 1948 war, both under conditions which their side regards as forced evacuations. On the other hand, no one on the Arab side has suggested the obvious: if Jewish refugees were resettled on land vacated by fleeing Arabs, why not resettle Arab refugees on the lands of Jews who were forced to flee the Arab countries. One reason no one has suggested this is that no Arab state with the exception of Jordan will even allow Palestinians to be citizens. Another point: Taking into account the assets of the Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands, one can conclude that the Jews have already paid massive “reparations” to the Arabs whether warranted or not.


The property and belongings of the Jewish refugees, confiscated by the Arab governments, has been conservatively estimated at about $2.5 billion in 1948 dollars. Invest that money at a modest 6.5% over 57 years and you have today a sum of $80 billion, which the Arab and Muslim governments of the lands from which the Jews were expelled could apply to the benefit of the Arab refugees. That sum is quite sufficient for reparations to Arab refugees. There is no way of accurately assessing the value of Arab property left in Israel’s control; but there are no estimates as high as a 1948 value of $2,500,000,000. So, hypothetically, the Arab side would be getting the better of such a deal.

Another irony must be considered in the context of the refugee issue. Israel handled its Jewish refugee problem by devoting massive resources to the education and integration of the Jewish refugee population into its society. Read the whole thing!

Their self-inflicted Naqba

As the Palestinians mark the Naqba of Israel's creation 57 years ago, Gerald Honigman's strident message is once again that the indigenous non-Arab and non-Muslim peoples of the Middle East and North Africa - Jews, Berbers, Kurds, Assyrians - are denied the political rights that the Arabs claim for themselves.

" Keep in mind that for every Arab who was forced to flee the fighting that Arabs started, a Jewish refugee was forced to flee Arab/Muslim lands (where they were commonly known as kilab yahud, "Jew dogs") into Israel and elsewhere... but with no UNRWA set up to assist them. Half of Israel's Jewish population consists of these people.

And as just a few of many other examples, Greater New York City alone now has tens of thousands of Syrian Jewish refugees and their descendants, and most of France's post-Holocaust Jewish population consists of these Jewish refugees from "Arab" lands as well.Read it all...

Berber Jews of Morocco

Not much is known about the Berber-speaking Jews of Morocco, but with the total Jewish population having dwindled to fewer than 5,000, the Berber Jews are vanishing fast.

While distinguishing between the 'toshavim', the pre-Islamic communities of the Atlas mountains, and the 'megorashim' - Jews fleeing Spain in the 15th century who settled mainly in the towns - foreign travellers and ethnographers in the 19th and 20th century were divided over the Berber Jews' mysterious origins. Some believed that they descend from the Jews of ancient Israel. Some believed Berber tribes converted to Judaism, like the famous Berber queen, the Kahena. Some even thought that the Jews who settled in Spain were originally North African Berbers.

This article (in French) is worth reading and ends with an extract of a rare Haggadah written in amazigh, the Berber language.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Will Libya's Jews get back what Gadhafi confiscated?

Another article for an Arab readership by Michael Fischbach, an American history professor who specialises in Palestinian and Jewish refugee compensation issues, this time about progress on the Libyan track (with thanks to Faelino). The article is not entirely accurate, and certainly distorts the history of the Libyan Jews, whose situation began to deteriorate in the 1930s well before the creation of Israel, but is nonetheless of interest.

The matter of Arab states, compensating their former Jewish citizens for property abandoned when they left their countries of origin during and after 1948 was long ago made an issue of international diplomacy. After decades of relative obscurity, renewed focus on Jewish property claims against Arab states has emerged during the past two years.

In Iraq, the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime initially led to movement on compensation for abandoned and sequestered Jewish property, although the current instability in the country has stalled this. Much more tangible progress on compensation, however, was recently made by former Libyan Jews, who have held discussions about the matter with high-level Libyan officials, including Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi himself. Gadhafi has spoken out publicly in favor of compensation, and reports claim that two months ago a high-ranking Libyan official actually visited Israel, where most former Libyan Jews now live. Could a deal be in the works?
More

Monday, May 16, 2005

Iraq will not compensate the Jews: official

Iraq will not compensate the Jews whose property was confiscated, the Israeli business publication Globes reports.

by Itamar Levin

Looted Jewish private property is estimated at $4 billion, and communal property at several more billions of dollars.

Iraq Property Claims Commission head Sohail al-Hashmi today denied reports that his country would restore property looted from Jews who immigrated to Israel.

In an interview in "Asharq Al-Awsat", al-Hashmi said that the reports were unfounded. He said that a reports concerning recent case involving such a claim were inaccurate, since the claimant was an Armenian Christian, not a Jew.

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, rumors circulated that the new regime would compensate Iraqi emigrants for their property in order to establish closer relations with the West, especially the US. To date, however, the reports have not been officially confirmed, and have now been officially denied. More

Arabs without Jews - roots of a tragedy

This extraordinary article is by Magdi Allam, an Egyptian Muslim (he has since converted to Christianity) and deputy editor of the respected Milan newpaper, Corriere della Sera. Allam wrote it just after seeing Pierre Rehov's acclaimed documentary about the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries, The Silent Exodus, in November 2004.

Israel is the keeper of a mutilated Arab identity, the repository for the guilty consciences of the Arab peoples, the living witness to a true history of the Arab countries, continuously denied, falsified and ignored.

Seeing Pierre Rehov’s documentary film “The Silent Exodus,” about the expulsion of a million Sephardi Jews, helped me gain a better understanding of the tragedy of a community that was integral and fundamental to Arab society. Above all it revealed to me the very essence of the catastrophe that befell it, a catastrophe which the mythical Arab nation has never once called into question. I could see the tragedy of the Jews and the catastrophe of the Arabs are two facets of the same coin. By expelling the Jews, who were settled on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean centuries before they were Arabised and Islamised, the Arabs have in fact begun the lethal process of mutilating their own identity and despoiling their own history. By losing their Jews the Arabs have lost their roots and have ended up by losing themselves.

As has often happened in history, the Jews were the first victims of hatred and intolerance. All the "others" had their turn soon enough, specifically the Christians and other religious minorities, heretical and secular Muslims and finally, those Muslims who do not fit exactly into the ideological framework of the extreme nationalists and Islamists. There has not been a single instance in this murky period of our history when the Arab states have been ready to condemn the steady exodus of Christians, ethnic-religious minorities, enlightened and ordinary Muslims, while Muslims plain and simple have become the primary victims of Islamic terror.

Underlying the Arab 'malaise' is an identity crisis that neither Nasserist nor Ba'athist pan-Arabism, nor the Islamism of the Saudi Wahabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, Khomeini and Bin Laden has been able to solve. It's a contagious identity crisis, spreading to and taking hold of the Arab and Muslim communities in the West.

I remember that around the mid-1970s the Arab exam in civic education taken in both state and public schools in Egypt defined Arab identity thus: "the Arabs are a nation united by race, blood, history, geography, religion and destiny." This was a falsification of an historical truth based on ethno-religious pluralism, an ideological deception aimed at erasing all differences and promoting the theory of one race overlapping with a phantom Arab nation in thrall to unchallengeable leaders. It was directly inspired by Nazi and fascist theories of racial purity and supremacy which appealed to the leadership and ideologues of pan-Arabism and Islamism. It is no wonder that in this context Manichean Israel is perceived as a foreign body to be rejected, a cancer produced by American imperialism to divide and subjugate the Arab world.

The historical truth is that the Middle Eastern peoples, in spite of their arabisation and islamisation from the 7th century onward, continued to maintain a specific identity reflecting their indigenous and millenarian ethnic roots - cultural, linguistic, religious and national. The Berbers, for example, who constitute half the population of Morocco and a third of that of Algeria, have nothing or very little in common with the Bedouin tribes at the heart of Saudi or Jordanian society. When in 1979 Egypt was sidelined from the Arab League for signing a peace treaty with Israel President Sadat restored its Pharaonic Egyptian identity which he proudly contrasted with its Arabness. Here was an isolated but significant attempt to recapture an indigenous identity - advertising historical honesty and political liberation while saying 'enough is enough' to rampant lies and demagogy. Before the screening of the 'Silent Exodus' in the Congress Hall in Milan, a gentleman in his Seventies came up to me and said, in perfect Egyptian dialect: "I am a Jew from Alexandria. I have recently been in Tunisia and Algeria. I have to say that people there are not like us, they don't have the sense of irony that distinguishes us Egyptians." I smiled and replied that indeed, the Egyptians have a reputation as jokers. They are capable of laughing at anything, including themselves.

What struck me was the "us" - "us Egyptians": even if we were both Italian citizens, he a Jew and I a Muslim. It reminded me that just after the 1967 defeat, I discovered by complete accident that the girl I was in love with - we both were 15 - was Jewish. For me she was a girl like any other. But for the police who submitted me to intensive interrogation she was a 'spy for Israel' and I was her accomplice.

In fact 'the Silent Exodus' testifies that anti-Semitism and the pogroms against the Jews of the Middle East preceded the birth of the state of Israel and the advent of ideological pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. It infers that hatred and violence against the Jews could originate in an ideological interpretation of the Koran and the life of the prophet Muhammed taken out of context.

It would be a mistake to generalise and not to take into account that for long periods coexistence was possible between the Muslims, Christians and Jews of the Middle East, at a time when in Europe the Catholic Inquisition was repressing the Jews and when the Nazi Holocaust was trying to exterminate them. In the same way, one cannot ignore Israel's responsibility together with Arab leaders in the emergence of the drama of millions of Palestinian refugees and the unresolved question of a Palestinian state.

The fact remains that of the million Jews who at the end of 1945 were an integral part of the Arab population, only 5,000 remain. These Arab Jews, expelled or who fled at a moment's notice, have become an integral part of the Israeli population. They continue to represent a human injustice and an historical tragedy. Above all, they are indicative of an Arab civil and identity catastrophe. That is why to recognise the wrongs committed towards the Arab Jews - as the maverick Libyan leader colonel Gaddafi has recently done - by objectively rediscovering their past and millenarian roots, by finding again their tolerant and plural history and by totally and sincerely reconciling themselves with themselves, the Arabs could free themselves from the ideological obscurantism which has relegated them to the most basic level of human development and has changed the region into the most problematic and confict-ridden on earth.


Read article in full (scroll down)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Jews seek Libyan compensation in test case

As this Reuter's piece indicates, Libya's willingness to compensate the Jews who fled the country has been one of the more positive developments of the past year. But the final paragraph seems to suggest that the compensation offer comes with impossible strings attached.

By Jonathan Saul
JERUSALEM, May 8 (Reuters) - The day Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war is burned deep in the memory of Libyan-born Jew Raphael Luzon.
His uncle, aunt and six cousins were killed on the edge of the capital Tripoli by Libyan soldiers out for vengeance. Luzon fled Libya soon after.
With Libya emerging from diplomatic isolation and holding out the possibility of compensation to Jews who fled abroad, Luzon hopes that he might be able to get back the remains of his family.

"I am not seeking revenge, only justice. I want to have the opportunity to take their bones and give them a proper Jewish burial," says Luzon, who led a campaign for compensation long before Libya's Muammar Gaddafi suggested it.
Jews also see Gaddafi's talk of reparations as a possible test case for other Arab countries, whose centuries-old Jewish populations left or were forced out after the founding of Israel in 1948.

The history of Libya's Jewish community, once 40,000 strong, stretches back 2,500 years. Jews lived comfortably for centuries, their numbers boosted by expulsions from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century.

But pogroms were triggered by the war of Israel's creation with Arab neighbours, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs also fled or were driven from homes in what became the Jewish state.

Laws stripped Libyan Jews of rights and property and only 300 remained by the time Gaddafi seized power in 1969. He confiscated remaining Jewish assets and cancelled all debts to Jews.

Most of the community now lives in Israel and few expected to have contact again with the country of their birth.

JEWS PUT TOTAL LOSSES AT $600 MILLION

But that has changed since Gaddafi ended Libya's diplomatic isolation in 2003, announcing that it would give up the search for weapons of mass destruction and agreeing to pay victims of the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing.

At the same time, Gaddafi became the first Arab leader to say he could compensate Jews who were forced from their homes after 1948.

Libyan Jewish groups estimate the value of private assets lost at around $500 million with a further $100 million for public assets such as synagogues and cemeteries.
A small delegation of Jews living in Rome met Libyan officials in Tripoli last year as part of the emerging dialogue.

"I believe regarding Libya there will be positive developments in the coming year," says Moshe Kahlon, the deputy speaker of Israel's parliament whose family is from Libya and who recently met Libyan representatives in London.

"(Compensation) will start with Libyan Jews in Italy and should develop in the direction of Israel," said Kahlon.

Libyan officials declined further comment on the compensation issue.
Jewish groups hope that if they get compensation from Libya then it may be possible to take the idea further in the Arab world, from where an estimated 850,000 Jews emigrated or were driven out, many settling in Israel.

There is no suggestion yet, though, that the Arab world might pick up on the ideas of the maverick Gaddafi.

Claims are also complicated by the fact that the departure of Jews from Arab states happened alongside the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

PALESTINIAN REFUGEES

Millions of Palestinians who fled themselves or are descended from those who demanded a "right of return" to land in what is now Israel or at least compensation for their losses. Most live in Arab states neighbouring Israel.

"Paying compensation to the Jews of the Arab world can only be seen by Palestinian refugees as a sell out and an unjust formula while their rights are being simultaneously denied," says Abbas Shiblak, a British-based Palestinian writer on refugee issues and author of a book on the Jews of Iraq.

Some Jewish groups have called for Jews who fled Arab countries to be recognised as refugees in the same way that Palestinians have been. They also propose tying any compensation for Palestinians with that for Jews.

Palestinians argue that they are not responsible for the suffering of the Jewish communities.

The refugee issue remains one of the trickiest issues for any final Middle East peace talks, which still look a long way off despite an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire which has strengthened hopes for negotiations.

Gaddafi's son Seif al-Islam, a driving force behind the policy shift, emphasised recently that Libyan Jews who moved to Israel would need to prove that they had not taken Palestinian assets if they were to get compensation.

"They have to return the homes and properties they confiscated from Palestinians to the Palestinians before negotiations over getting back their assets and properties in Libya," he said.