Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Jews and the 1,001 Arabian Nights

It may come as a surprise to learn that the famous collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights is not Arab at all, but Persian. Even more surprising,some stories are of Jewish origin, contain Jewish characters, Jewish legends or Jewish proverbs. So popular were The Arabian nights among the Jews living in Arab countries that editions were published in Judeo-Arabic, ie Arabic using Hebrew letters. Expert Victor Bochman explains (via Drybones):

Almost 100 years ago, a Belgian orientalist, Victor Chauvin, declared categorically: "The Jews do not like the Arabian Nights" ("Les juifs n'aiment pas des mille et une nuits"). Chauvin was a leading expert on popular Arabic literature who had studied this cultural phenomenon for many years, but who was less knowledgeable about Jewish sources. During the 20th century, a great deal of new material has been published that has been found to disprove Chauvin's assertion.

The present writer, who has studied this topic for some 30 years, will attempt in this article to present a survey of some of the most interesting observations and conclusions concerning the issue, to which there are three main aspects: 1. The Jewish contribution to the Arabian Nights; 2. Jews as personages in the Arabian Nights; 3. Jewish interest in the Arabian Nights.

The core of the Arabian Nights was a collection of Persian stories entitled Hezar Efsane ("Thousand Stories"), which was translated into Arabic, most probably in Iraq, as early as the ninth century. Some of the tales seem to be of Indian origin. The Arabic version, first named Alf Laila ("Thousand Nights"), was significantly enlarged in Iraq, Syria and later in Egypt. In the 12th century or possibly even earlier, it received its present name Alf laila wa-laila ("Thousand and One Nights"), a title which is virtually identical in both Arabic and Hebrew.

A most interesting fact is that the oldest documentary evidence of the latter title is preserved in a Jewish source - a notebook of a Jewish doctor and bookseller (unfortunately his name is not recorded) living in Cairo in the middle of the 12th century. This notebook was examined by the eminent Israeli scholar, Shlomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985), one of the world's leading experts on Jewish-Arabic texts. Goitein was born and educated in Germany, emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and was a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for over 20 years.

The most popular version of the Arabian Nights developed into its present form in Egypt evidently at the end of the Mamluk period (15th to early 16th century). It became a virtual encyclopaedia of oriental folklore including folk tales adapted into Arabic of many different peoples as well as some authentic Arabic stories. It combined ancient Egyptian and Babylonian subjects with tales composed in the late Middle Ages.

This variegated collection of material includes some stories of Jewish origin. The longest of them is a fairy tale about a traveller named Bulukiya, and is a Moslem adaptation of old oriental and Jewish legends. Bulukiya, the son of an Israelite king, finds a book his father has hidden from him containing a description of the prophet Mo-hammed. Bulukiya embarks on a journey in order to find the prophet. He meets the serpent queen, who tells him how to obtain a herb giving eternal youth and immortality. In Jerusalem he meets a sage named Affan who knows the secret of Solomon's Seal. He crosses seven seas, seeing numerous wonders and facing adventures, and reaches Kaf Mountain (considered by mediaeval Arabs to be the world's end), meets the king Barakhiya, the archangel Gibrayil (Gabriel) and the prophet Khidr (usually identified as the biblical prophet Elias). The latter, in a flash, returns Bulukiya home. But our hero does not succeed in obtaining the longed-for herb.

This tale is borrowed from collections of prophetic stories, where it is attributed to Abdallah ibn Salam (a Jew from Medina who converted to Islam after listening to Mohammed's sermons). One of the main motifs in the stories (the search for the elixir of eternal life) had already appeared in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (second millennium bce). The most probable origin of the story of Bulukiya seems to be the biblical passage about a Torah scroll found at the Temple of Jerusalem by the High Priest Hilkiah and brought to King Josiah by the scribe Shaphan (II Kings 22: 8-13). The name Bulukiya (not found in Jewish texts) might appear as the result of a misunderstanding of its spelling in some written sources of the Arabic story. Other proper names like Barakhiya are undoubtedly Jewish. Some motifs of this tale are also to be found in midrashic literature. While the cause for the hero's travels might originally have been just the search for everlasting life, Moslem story-tellers might have added a more important motif, to their mind - Bulukiya's desire to see the Prophet Mohammed.

There is also a cycle of short stories on pious Israelites - stories having their origins or parallels in talmudic and midrashic legends. For instance, one such story tells about an Israelite who lost his wife and two sons in a shipwreck. The waves cast him up on an island where he finds treasure and becomes king of the island. Ten years later, his sons (who also escaped from the ship but grew up in different countries) come to the island but do not recognize either their father or each other. Their mother, who was also saved and became the servant of a merchant, also arrives there with her master. The king orders his sons (who were also not recognized by him, and were taken into his service) to keep watch over the merchant's ship. During the night, each of them tells the other his story, and thus they recognize each other as brothers. Their mother, being on board the ship, overhears her sons' stories. The next day they appear together before the king and tell him the story, and thus the family is reunited.

But Jewish elements in the Arabian Nights are not limited only to complete stories. Some Jewish legends have been added to tales of Indian, Persian or Arabic origin. Especially interesting is a legend concerning King Solomon's power over the genies, or djinns. The most ancient Jewish sources reflecting this legend are the apocryphical "Book of Solomon's Wisdom" and the "Antiquities of the Jews" by Flavius Josephus. This power is also described in the Targum Sheni ("Second Translation") of the book of Esther. Although this post-dates the Koran, it is based on earlier Jewish tradition. Legends concerning Solomon's power over demons were already known to pre-Islamic Arabs; for instance, one prominent sixth-century Arab poet, Nabigah, told that Suleiman ibn Daud (the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew name Shlomo ben David) had punished disobedient demons. The motif of punishment was mentioned in the Koran and was later developed in prophetic stories and historical works. This motif also appears in two fairy tales included in the Arabian Nights: those of "The Fisherman and the Genie" and "The Brass City." In both tales, there is a legend about Solomon putting disobedient demons into copper jugs and throwing them into the sea. One such jug is caught by the hero of the first tale; the second tells about an expedition organized by the Caliph Abd el-Malik ibn Marwan (early eighth century) in order to retrieve the jugs.

There are also proverbs of Jewish origin in the Arabian Nights. For instance, the following proverbs are quoted in the tale of Sindbad the Sailor: "The day of death is better than the birthday, and a living dog is better than a dead lion, and the grave is better than poverty." The first two proverbs are directly taken from Ecclesiastes (7:1 and 9:4); the third is similar to an aphorism repeated in several Jewish legends: a poor man is considered as a dead one.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

New anti-Holocaust denial website launched

A new website has been launched to fight Iranian Holocaust denial propaganda.

The purpose of the website is 'to confront Internet-based Iranian propaganda head on'.

"Our vision," say the website operators," is to place this website in the top rank of Internet search engines for the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Holocaust’. This way, our site stands a chance of reaching Internet searchers before they find Iranian propaganda. This site will chronicle international indignation towards Iran’s escalating hate campaign; it will shine a bright light on the regime’s motives and oppressive government; and at the same time, it will link to other campaigns so motivated individuals may find opportunities to respond that are suitable to their time and level of commitment. With approximately one billion Internet users, would you prefer if web searchers found Iran’s information weapons or a critical response to them? "

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Website helps Jews mourn dead Tehran relatives

The International Herald Tribune reports on Shahram Avraham Farzan's unique website (featured on 'Point of No Return' last September). His website allows Iranian Jews to 'visit' the graves of their relatives in the Tehran cemetery of Beheshtieh. (With thanks: Albert)

"I think in an ironic way this Web site makes you feel like you have not left your dead behind," (the Iran-born novelist Roya) Hakakian said. "When you are able to reach back to your dead, then there's a sense of being alive and not having entirely vanished."

The undertaking was somewhat accidental for Farzan, who returned to Iran in 2002 to place a marker on his father's grave.

Nearby, he saw the grave of a family friend and decided to snap a photo for the friend's relatives. In other parts of the cemetery, he saw poorly maintained graves, and others being moved for construction.

Farzan continued to take photos for the next 10 weeks, covering about 70 percent of the graveyard and spending thousands of dollars before returning to the United States.

Farzan would often haul buckets of water in the wintry cold of Tehran to wash the graves before snapping shots of them.

"I thought it would be a good gift for the families of these people," Farzan, 51, said. "A mitzvah."

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Hanucah lights shine in the darkness of Denial

Celebrating Hanucah in Iran in an age of official Holocaust denial. Listen to NPR link here (with thanks:Albert)

How one woman helped save 3,228 Syrian Jews

The amazing story of how one Canadian teacher saved more than 3,000 Syrian Jews - immortalised in a book by Harold Troper - is picked up by Haviv Rettig in the Jerusalem Post.

It was a news item in that newspaper which first aroused Judy Feld Carr's determination to do something about the plight of Syrian Jews. But even now many details of the smuggling operation she masterminded remain secret. (With thanks: Albert)

In 1972, Toronto high school music teacher Judy Feld Carr came across a news article in The Jerusalem Post that told of the tragic deaths of 12 young Syrian Jewish men who ran across a minefield while attempting to flee Syria across the Turkish border.

"I saw the article and I couldn't get over it," Carr recalled last week in a phone interview with the Post 34 years after that fateful publication. The daughter of an independent-minded fur trader from Sudbury, Ontario, she could not sit helpless while Syria's Jewish community suffered. "So my late husband and I decided we had to do something about it." And she did. Spectacularly. Over the next 28 years, Carr masterminded from her Toronto home an international smuggling operation, complete with elaborate secret codes, meetings overseas with foreign agents and extensive bribes for Syrian officials, which rescued 3,228 Jews from persecution.

Much of Carr's work remains secret. "Even today, more is hidden than known, and we still cannot expose in detail many of [Carr's] rescues," noted a recent article in IICC Magazine, the journal of the Israeli Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center. Edited by former senior IDF intelligence officer Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ephraim Lapid, IICC Magazine quoted "foreign sources, who revealed that Carr was involved in the creation of a secret and secure information network with extensive connections," both with "official and secret sources in Israel and private ones in America."

The story began as a local philanthropic initiative. Distraught over the news article, Carr and her husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, organized lectures and a study day on Syrian Jewry. The participants learned of the persecution of Syrian Jews at the hands of the local Arabs and the regime, some of which continues to this day. They learned of the 1947 pogroms in which Arab mobs smashed homes and synagogues in the 2,500-year-old Jewish community of Aleppo; of laws from the 1940's barring Jews from purchasing land; of the Muhabarat (secret police) surveillance of Damascus's Jewish quarter; of the arrest and reported torture of Jews suspected of attempting to leave the country; and of the fact (recently cited in a 2001 US State Department human rights report) that Jews are the only minority in Syria whose religion is denoted in their passports and identity cards.

But, once they understood the problem, "we didn't know what to do," Carr said. "So we decided to do what we knew best from [campaigning for] Russian Jewry. We decided to call Syria." It took almost three weeks ("We were about to give up.") and the help of a Moroccan Jewish phone operator in Montreal to finally get a phone call through to Syria. "The Syrians would shut the line to Canada as soon as we asked for a Jew," Carr recalled.

She finally reached the home of a Jewish woman who was on the payroll of the Muhabarat. Luckily, the woman's husband was the only one home at the time, and though the call from Canada "almost gave him a heart attack," he divulged the name and address of Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra, who would become the Chief Rabbi of Syria.

Following that initial gambit, Carr and her husband "knew we couldn't call again, and it wasn't a good idea to write a letter. So we came up with an idea to send a telegram in French [which is widely spoken in Syria] asking if Rabbi Hamra needed religious books. We prepaid the answer." Ten days later came the response, a veritable shopping list of Jewish books. And so began Carr's communication with the Syrian Jewish community.

Toronto's Beth Tzedec synagogue, the largest in Canada, established the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands, and Carr used donations to this fund to finance her work. "We had no overhead, no executive directors, no salaries. We didn't have dinners, cocktail parties, fundraising," she recalled. "We only printed thank-you cards." Even so, she said, she received quiet financial help from Jews throughout North America. "It spread by word of mouth across Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Then there was a fund in Baltimore that sent their money," she said.

At its outset, the Beth Tzedec fund "was only a link to the rabbi in Damascus, and later on to rabbis in Allepo and Kamashili," the only three towns in Syria where Jews were legally permitted to reside - and even then restricted to ghettos, forbidden to own cars or to travel. "The rabbis wanted books, tefillin (phylacteries), tallisim (prayer shawls)," Carr related.

Soon, the telegrams and Judaica shipments became a code.

"I started inserting words into the telegrams, like 'who's in prison?'" she related. "Then the rabbi would answer with a name, [hidden] inside my address."

In order to verify that the rabbi had received the books, Carr would write one verse of psalms inside a book, and Rabbi Hamra would reply with the next one. Eventually, the verses became a way of discussing events, and Carr began to receive updates and news from the community. As the code developed it took on additional elements, including terms taken from Chinese cooking and alcoholic beverages. Carr herself was codenamed "Gin."

The operation was expanded to Aleppo when another Toronto woman, Hanna Cohen, whose brother was a rabbi in Aleppo, decided to visit him, "taking her life into her hands." Carr recalled that Cohen was arrested and interrogated, but then returned to Canada. She carried with her, hidden in her clothing, a letter for Carr "from the rabbis in Aleppo begging for books and begging to get out of Syria."

And so, the network grew steadily. Through Syrian Jews who had escaped to Canada on their own, Carr slowly developed a network of contacts in and outside Syria. She communicated with Syrian government functionaries, judges and even Muhabarat officers, all of whom were brought together by the knowledge that there was money to be made in "selling Jews" to Judy Carr.

She used this network to "to ransom the [Jews] and to pay off people on the escape route and negotiate prices." She funneled bribe money to Syrian officials through third parties and negotiated the Jews' release personally. Over time, with the cooperation of Israel's secret services, Carr had operatives moving in and out of Syria as well as ready in Turkey and Lebanon to collect escaping Jews and ferry them safely to Israel or elsewhere."

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Iranian Jew pleads for captive son

Writing in The Jewish Journal of LA, Karmel Melamed interviews the mother of Babak Tehrani, who disappeared 12 years ago while attempting to flee Iran and is believed to be held captive (with thanks: Albert):

Why is the world so silent -- why are Jews so silent about the plight of Jews being held captive in Iran?" Elana Tehrani, an Iranian-born Jewish woman now living in Los Angeles asked a crowd during a speech at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills.

Tehrani believes her son is being held captive in Iran, and after 12 years of trying to quietly work through channels, she and 11 other families -- who also believe their loved ones are in the same situation -- have filed suit against Iran's former president, Mohammad Khatami, in U.S. Federal Court. They are asking that the U.S. courts hold Khatami responsible for the kidnapping, imprisonment and disappearance of loved ones between 1994 and 1997.

"As a citizen of the United States," Tehrani said at a rally in New York, "I ask that President Bush and those in Congress help me retrieve my son from the hands of the Islamic Republic!"

Tehrani began speaking out on Sept. 20 before a crowd of more than 30,000 people who were gathered outside the United Nations in New York for a rally organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presence at the United Nations. With her were Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, U.S. senators, national Jewish leaders and Israeli officials.

"I was hoping that from this rally ... the world would become more aware of this issue," she told The Journal in an interview from her West Los Angeles home. "But I don't know why there was no media coverage of it anywhere, and no one said another word about it since."

She believes her son, Babak, was kidnapped and imprisoned by Iranian secret police while trying to flee Iran in 1994.

"We have been trying for the last 12 years to get our sons back, but since we have not heard anything about their status after all these years, we were forced to take this action against Mr. Khatami," Tehrani said. "We want to tell the world that with every day that passes by, we will pursue this issue more and more, until the Islamic Republic of Iran gives us answers".

A homemaker who also works with her husband in their downtown L.A. shoe store, Tehrani said doctors have told her she has developed glaucoma as a result of excessive crying. She said she has developed a closer bond with her two other sons, who also live in Los Angeles, and an inner strength from praying three times a day.

"I refuse to give up on Babak and give up hope that he's still alive," Tehrani said. "We have witnesses that have seen him, and I will not stop looking for my child until he is back in my arms."

Tehrani said her worst nightmare became a reality on June 8, 1994, when Babak, then 17, and his 20-year-old friend, Shaheen Nikkhoo, attempted to secretly leave Tehran. Because they were the age of military conscription, leaving the country was illegal. The two boys, both Jewish, arrived with their smuggler, Atta Mohammed Rigi, in the southeastern city of Zahedan, near the Pakistani border. Witnesses saw them being arrested there by non-uniformed Iranian secret police, Tehrani said. (...)

Experts familiar with Iran's fundamentalist Islamic laws say such a long imprisonment of Babak Tehrani and the other 11 Jews is highly unusual for an attempted escape from the country and could be politically motivated. According to Chapter 11, Article 34 of Iran's official Criminal Laws and Regulations, punishment for illegal exit from the country is either a fine or a prison term ranging from two months to a maximum of two years.

Babak's father, Joseph Tehrani, said he was particularly disappointed with the lack of support and assistance from the Israeli government for the plight of his son and the other imprisoned Iranian Jews.

"Right now, the government of Israel and the prime minister have announced their willingness to release those imprisoned Palestinians who have Israeli blood on their hands in exchange for the release of three of their soldiers. But why isn't the Israeli government willing to do the same for the 12 Jews held captive in Iran?" Joseph Tehrani said. "Is my son and the others not Jews as well for which Israel is responsible to protect?"

According to a 2004 report prepared by Nikbakht, the Jewish community lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from terrorist Islamic factions in Iran. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews were murdered or assassinated by the regime's agents, at least two Jews died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime.

Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

'Heartbreaking' tales of the 1956 Egyptian Exodus

It is 50 years since up to 25,000 Egyptian Jews left their homeland following the Suez war in what they refer to as their 'Second Exodus'. Brenda Gazzar of JTA News records some personal - and literally, heartbreaking - stories (with thanks: Albert):

RAMAT GAN, Israel, Dec. 18 (JTA) — At a lavish dinner party at an Alexandria nightclub on Oct. 29, 1956, Geoffrey Hanson celebrated his engagement to a beautiful woman named Jeanette whom he had courted for six years in a fairy-tale romance.

It happened to be the day that Israel attacked Egypt in the Suez War.

On the evening of Oct. 31, after Britain and France joined the war according to plan, Hanson — who like many Egyptian Jews held a British or other European passport — was arrested about midnight at his home by Egyptian officials. He was imprisoned in Cairo for 90 days.

His Jewish fiancee managed to visit Hanson twice in jail, but when Hanson, a 25-year-old hotel manager, was released, he was expelled to England — never to see his first love again.

“I was miserable for many years,” said Hanson, 75, who today lives in Ramat Gan, Israel, and is happily married to another woman. “It took me years to overcome” it.Fifty years ago about 1,000 Jews in Egypt — including many with Egyptian citizenship — were detained or imprisoned during the Suez Crisis. Many of the French and British citizens who were expelled from Egypt in retaliation for the tripartite attack, prompted by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, were Jews. Another 500 Jews, who did not hold French or British passports, also were expelled from the country, according to historians.

Between 23,000 and 25,000 Jews are estimated to have left Egypt between November 1956 and the end of 1957 due to expulsion or significant pressure, including the sequestering of property and businesses. It was one of the largest waves of exodus for Egyptian Jews in modern history.

For Hanson and other Jews expelled because of the 1956 war — as well as during other wars with Israel — it was a traumatic experience. “I left a good position,” Hanson said, noting that just months before the war he had been named manager of an Alexandria hotel that catered to Egypt’s high society and government elite. “I was a happy man.” Jews had been attacked and imprisoned even before 1948 on suspicion of being Zionists. Yet despite their increasing troubles, many Egyptian Jews did not see Zionism as their primary solution.

“Many of them just wanted to assimilate” into society, said Rami Ginat, a political science lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “They wanted to become part of it. They saw themselves as Egyptians.” From World War I until the mid-1930s, Egypt was a liberal place and many Jews fared well socially and financially. But in the mid-1930s, with the rise of fascism in Europe and the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — formed in 1929 as a reaction to Britain’s occupation of the country — the situation began to change, Ginat said.

Zionism grew in the late 1930s and ’40s. Many Egyptians thought Zionism ran counter to Egypt’s struggle for liberation from Western domination. The situation for the community also worsened following Operation Suzannah in 1954, which came to be known in Israel as the Lavon Affair.Believing that Britain’s presence in Egypt had a moderating influence on Nasser’s military ambitions, Israeli officials recruited several young Egyptian Jews to plant bombs in public places. The goal was to create a perception of instability in Egypt and make the British reconsider their plan to withdraw from the Suez Canal zone.

Egyptian officials discovered the scheme, which hadn’t resulted in any casualties. Two suspects were hanged, two were acquitted and several others were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. It became known as the Lavon Affair for the Israeli defense minister, Pinchas Lavon, who was forced to resign because of the incident.

“The Lavon Affair involved only a small part of Jewish youth, but by involving them it endangered the entire Jewish community because the government suspected that the Jews were not loyal,” said Daphne Tsimhoni, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

When Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956, he also aimed to rid the country of foreigners, many of whom held European passports and had enjoyed special privileges and exemptions under century-old agreements between Egypt and some European states.

After Nasser nationalized the canal, Israel — in part prompted by Egyptian-supported terrorist raids from Gaza — joined with Britain and France to invade. The Jews of Egypt “were identified, whether they wanted it or not, with Israel,” Tsimhoni said.

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Geoffrey Hanson tries to hold services in Egyptian synagogues

Egyptian Jews are wary of admitting their religion

According to JTA News, the remnant of Alexandria's Jewish community prefers not to associate itself with Israel. In some cases, they are wary even of mentioning that they are Jewish. This in a country which has signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state...(With thanks: Albert)

"Most community members in Alexandria and Cairo today are elderly women, many of whom are widowed or who intermarried long ago with Christian or Muslim men.

"But it’s also clear there are some tensions that go along with being Jewish in an Arab country that has fought four major wars with Israel. Growing up Jewish in Egypt has not been a black-and-white experience, says an attractive elderly woman who gave her name only as Mrs. Bilboul.

"There are very positive things about living in Egypt, such as being able to attend the Eliahou Hanabi synagogue in Alexandria to celebrate the Jewish holidays, Bilboul said.

“We could come every Saturday, but it’s much better to not go around and say I’m Jewish,” she said. “It’s much more clever not to mention it. But if someone asks me, I would never say I’m not.”

"Earlier this year, while playing bridge, Bilboul — who is married to a Christian — was asked by a Muslim friend of at least four years whether she was Jewish. When Bilboul responded that she was, the surprised woman asked her in a friendly manner a series of questions, including how Bilboul prays and how she raised her children.

"Bilboul told her she prays all day and raised her sons to be loving people, to have a respectful attitude toward everyone and to become children that she is very proud of today.

“She couldn’t say one word,” Bilboul said. Most of her friends know her religion and are “very respectful” of her, she adds.

"The woman who had asked whether she was Jewish was young and perhaps had never met an Egyptian Jew. They are still on friendly terms.

"But some in the community tread cautiously.

"An elderly woman in the community asked an American visitor living in Israel to contact two of her friends there, also from Egypt, to tell them she was doing fine. She didn’t have an international phone line at home and thus would have to go to a telephone center and request to make the call to Israel through a clerk — something she wanted to avoid.

“With some people who are ignorant, when they hear the name of Israel, they think something else,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. “Things are not running very smoothly with the situation in Israel. They’ll think that maybe I’m a spy.”

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Iranian Jews feel rising discomfort

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's antisemitism is making Iran's Jews feel uncomfortable, writes Pierre M Atlas in the Indy Star. And judging by today's election results, they are not alone: (With thanks: Albert)

"Israel is home to about 75,000 Persian Jews, some of whom have risen to the highest ranks of the Israeli polity. The current president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel in the early 1950s, as did Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz.

"Israel Radio has operated a Farsi language service since the 1950s that is listened to by many Iranians, Jewish and non-Jewish. During the reign of the shah, relations between Israel and Iran were fairly strong, and in 1960 Iran officially recognized the Jewish state. By the late 1970s, Israel was purchasing 75 percent of its oil from Iran.

"The situation changed overnight with the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini cut all ties with Israel and denounced the Jewish state as "the Little Satan," alongside the United States as "the Great Satan."

"But despite his anti-Israel hostility, Khomeini officially recognized Iran's ancient Jewish community as a "protected minority." Today, Iran's Jews have one guaranteed seat in parliament and many synagogues and kosher butcher shops.

"Their situation is not all rosy, however. Iranian Jews are barred from serving as officers in the military, Jewish schools must have Muslim headmasters, and by law if a member of a Jewish family converts to Islam, he can inherit the property of the entire family.

"Ahmadinejad's unusually virulent anti-Semitism is making Iranian Jews increasingly uncomfortable, and the leader of Iran's Jewish community has publicly condemned the Holocaust conference. But Jews are not the only people in Iran who are being put off by the words and deeds of their country's president."

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Turkey and Israel 'natural allies', say Turkish Jews

There is a large society of people in Israel who dance to Turkish music, enjoy the taste of Turkish food and communicate between themselves in Turkish as much as they do in Hebrew. They are members of the Turkish Israeli community, the people who migrated to Israel from Turkey and who define themselves as Turkish Jews, reports Turkish Daily News. (With thanks: Albert)

"They do not want to talk politics, at least until they have established trust that their names will not be revealed. "We don't want to be troublemakers. On the contrary, we want to be living bridges between our two homelands; Turkey and Israel. We are Israelis as much as we are Turks," one senior member of the community said. Now in his early 80s, he spent almost half his life in Turkey and stressed that at times of tension in bilateral relations between the two countries the community feels distressed but remains confident that "whatever misunderstanding might lead to such an unfortunate [lessening of] ties will soon be eradicated and mutual confidence will be re-established between our two countries which, because of the political geography of the region, the values they share and the strong bonds of friendship derived from a rich common past, are destined to be natural allies."

"Still, they complain of hypocrisy on the part of the Turkish media and by some leading politicians of the country in their approach towards the "human suffering" of the Arab-Israeli conflict."

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Last Afghan Jew's tale mirrors community's story

Zablon Simintov, the last Jew in Afghanistan, is still haunted beyond the grave by the second last Jew, with whom he bickered constantly. And as this piece from the (Canadian) Gazette shows, on the shoulders of the last Jew rests the particularly tricky task of protecting what is left of Jewish community assets from theft and encroachment. (With thanks: Albert)

"In a way, Simintov’s personal history mirrors that of his people, whose 800-year history in Afghanistan seems destined to end with him.

"At the turn of the 19th Century the community was at its height. The population swelled to 40,000 as Persian Jews seeking refuge from the forced conversions in neighbouring Iran flooded over the border to settle in Afghanistan.

"It was only the creation of Israel in 1948, that convinced them to move again.

"When the exodus was over, the Jewish population numbered just 5,000. And it shrunk again with the Soviet invasion in 1979, when thousands fled the ensuing violence and repression. Indeed, Simintov even left the country for a six-year hiatus in Israel and Turkmenistan where he met and married his wife Elena. She now lives in Holon, Israel, with the couple’s two daughters.

"But despite the blood ties and his sorry situation in Kabul, Simintov has no plans to return to Israel.

"He cryptically insists: “I don’t have anything to go back to.”

“I have problems,” he says.

"One of those problems, it seems, is the issue of the synagogue’s Torah, its sacred scroll, which was confiscated by a Taliban official years ago and still has not been returned. (...)

“They should cut his hand off,” he says of the official who confiscated the Torah. It is the Taliban punishment for theft and apt in this case, he thinks.

"In the meantime, Simintov spends most of his days and nights alone. He continues to have an easy relationship with neighbours such as Nasir and he says many others in the Islamic Republic have accepted the Jewish presence in their midst without hesitation.

“We are simple people, no one says anything to each other,” Nasir says. “We are free with him.”

"The Jewish legacy in Kabul’s crowded streets tells another story, however.

"Simintov looks after the last remaining section of the city’s Jewish cemetery.

"It is on a hillside in the city’s south end and he has to pay a family of four brothers to occupy the land for him. They, alone, stand guard against its disappearance. The brothers have erected a tall wall around the plot of land, in hopes of fending off gradual encroachment by the Muslim residents of the neighbourhood who already have taken over most of the original burial ground.

"It sometimes seems a futile measure, since more than a decade ago most of the tombstones were bulldozed when the Afghan government tried to clear the land of housing, but Simintov either thinks it is sufficient, or doesn’t want to ruffle feathers."

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Life is normal for Iran's Jews, says leader

Harun Yashayaie, the leader of Iran's Jewish community, adds his voice to those condemning last weeks' Holocaust denial conference in Iran. So far, he tells the German magazine Spiegel, the Jewish community has not suffered as a result. (With thanks: Albert)

SPIEGEL: Are you afraid that President Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli agitation will trigger a wave of anti-Semitism in Iran?

Yashayaie : I don't want to rule out that possibility, but so far we haven't noticed anything. The president keeps stressing that his rhetorical attacks are aimed at Israel and not against Jews in Iran. So far, life has been totally normal for the 25,000 members of our community. In Tehran alone we have 26 synagogues, as well as Jewish primary and secondary schools.

SPIEGEL: But you also try to avoid being recognizable as Jews in public. For example, you don't wear the yarmulke, the traditional skullcap.

Yashayaie : Iranian Jews do not traditionally wear the yarmulke. And officially there is no discrimination. As Iranians, we even fullfil our compulsory military duty.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, you are excluded from holding political office.

Yashayaie : We Iranian Jews have never aspired to a career in politics* or the military.

Read interview in full

*Meanwhile in Beverley Hills, CA, three Iranian Jews are standing for election to the city council (with thanks: Albert)

Monday, December 18, 2006

The antidote to Holocaust denial in the Arab world

Just this week, about 60 'scholars' from around the world gathered for a conference on Arab soil to debate the veracity of the Holocaust, and to call for more "proof" on the subject. Had Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, been invited, he might have told them to simply look outside, Rachel Silverman writes. (With thanks:Lily)

According to Satloff's new book, Among the Righteous, not only did the Holocaust play out in Arab countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, but Arabs themselves were involved -- both as rescuers and perpetrators.

Speaking Monday night at the Jewish Community Services Building in Philadelphia, Satloff framed his 11-country, four-year search into this story as a potential antidote to the trend of Holocaust denial and trivialization in the Arab world.

What's more, Satloff's lecture -- jointly sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Israel and Overseas, the Middle East Forum, the Gershman Y and the National Museum of American Jewish History -- even attempted to put a positive spin on Arab involvement in the Holocaust.

As the scholar writes: "If I could tell the story of a single Arab who saved a single Jew during the Holocaust, then perhaps I could make Arabs see the Holocaust as a source of pride, worthy of remembering, not just something to avoid or deny."

To begin this undertaking, Satloff said that he had to dispel the notion that the Holocaust was strictly a European phenomenon.

Read article in full

See more on Satloff and his book here and here

Jerusalem Post article here

Sunday, December 17, 2006

L A Jews lambast lone Jewish MP in Iran

Being the lone Jewish MP in the Iranian Parliament ain't easy. Maurice Motamed did have the courage to publicly condemn President Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference. But Motamed's visit earlier this month to Los Angeles sparked criticism from Iranian Jews living in the US that that he had painted an unduly positive picture of Jewish life in Iran, according to the Jewish Journal (with thanks: Albert).

"Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and local expert on the treatment of minorities in Iran, claims Motamed's statements about Jewish life in Iran lack credibility. Motamed "has officially sworn to uphold the interests of Islam and the Islamic Republic upon entering the Islamic Assembly as the Jewish representative, as required by the government's constitution," Nikbakht said.

"Nikbakht questioned Motamed's allegiances based on a 24-page Persian-language report authored and distributed by Motamed at an event held at the Nessah Cultural Center during a visit to Los Angeles in 2002. In the report, Motamed outlined his activities as a member of the Energy Committee in the Iranian Parliament as well as his travels to Russia, where he urged Russian companies and officials to complete Iran's nuclear reactor at the Bushehr location.

"IAJF (Iranian American Jewish Federation) leaders defended Motamed's current visit as well as his efforts to protect Jews living under Iran's fundamentalist regime.

"He is in a very sensitive position and is walking a tight rope in trying to keep our community there safe and sound," said Solomon Rastegar, vice-chair of the IAJF. "There are people here in Los Angeles with insufficient knowledge about life in Iran who try to attack him so they can gain credible for themselves."

"Some local Iranian Jewish activists have been had odds with IAJF leaders who have long advocated keeping criticism of Teheran's regime to a minimum for fear of retributions that might be brought against the roughly 20,000 Jews still living in Iran.

Read article in full

Article in the Jewish Forward

Saturday, December 16, 2006

There's no denying this Iranian Holocaust survivor

In August 1939, Menashe Ezrapour could have escaped the horrors of the Holocaust by boarding a train in the French city of Grenoble, but instead, he chose to stay, ultimately becoming the only known Shoah survivor of Iranian Jewish descent interned in concentration and work camps, reports the Jerusalem Post (with thanks Albert, Lily).

Earlier this year, Ezrapour, 88, was honored at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills after coming forward for the first time in more than 60 years to publicly share his story of survival, perhaps bringing the local Persian Jewish community closer to the Shoah.

A number of Holocaust experts, including ones from Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Ezrapour is probably one of the few - if not the only - Iranian Jewish survivors held captive in the camps.

"To my knowledge, I have not heard of any Iranian Jews being held in camps during the war," said Aaron Brightbart, head researcher at the Wiesenthal Center.

For the Iranian Jews of Los Angeles, remembering the Shoah has taken on a new, sorrowful resonance following recent statements denying the Holocaust by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obviously Ezrapour's story is especially significant .

Upon learning of Ezrapour's experience, several local Iranian Jewish leaders said his story may personalize the Holocaust for Iranian Jews who in the past may not have been as impacted by its effects as most European Jewry was.

"We have always felt a close bond with the Shoah," said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. "This new revelation for the community just makes it so close to a personal experience for us."

Ezrapour can still recall the names, dates and events surrounding his internment in various camps in southern France.

His life-altering experience began when he and his brother, Edward, left their home in the Iranian city of Hamadan and went to Paris in September 1938 to pursue higher education. In August 1939, they journeyed to Grenoble in southeastern France. Shortly afterward, when war in Europe seemed imminent, they decided to return to Iran.

"As we were preparing to leave, my friend from Baghdad, Maurice, who was an Iraqi Jew, encouraged me to stay," Ezrapour said.

His brother returned to Iran, but he remained in Grenoble and continued his engineering education at a local university. For the next three years, Ezrapour said that neither France's German occupiers nor the Vichy government bothered him. However, he was eventually forced to register as a Jew in 1941, in accordance to Vichy laws.

In late 1942, he and several hundred other Jews in the area were rounded up and sent to nearby detention camps. The French police took Ezrapour to a work camp called Uriage. He said the prisoners there were worried that they'd be deported to Germany.

"After one month there, I got permission to return to Grenoble for two days, and I never returned to the camp," Ezrapour recalled.

He said he stayed in the Grenoble home of a Christian woman for two weeks and used false identification papers to get around. He was ultimately arrested after the woman was tricked by a police officer into revealing his whereabouts.

After 45 days in jail, Ezrapour said he was convicted of using false papers and sentenced to serve 40 more days in the Shapoli work camp. From Shapoli, he and other Jewish prisoners were taken to the infamous Gurs concentration camp, 80 kilometers from the Spanish border.

According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Gurs was the first and one of the largest concentration camps in France, with approximately 60,000 prisoners held there from 1939 to 1945. According to the 1993 book, Gurs: An Internment Camp in France, the internees included approximately 23,000 Spanish Republican soldiers who had fled Franco's Spain in 1939, 7,000 International Brigade volunteers, 120 French resistance members and more than 21,000 Jews from all over Europe.

Read article in full

Friday, December 15, 2006

Koenraad Elst and the anatomy of Denial

With the antics of President Ahmadinejad and his Holocaust-Denial conference still fresh in the mind, now is a good time to introduce the work of Professor Koenraad Elst, a brilliant Flemish historian and comparative religion specialist. Professor Elst has written extensively on denial, or what he calls 'negationism', particularly in relation to Hindu-Muslim relations. Just substitute the word 'Jew' for 'Hindu', however, and the parallels are uncanny. Here he explains the tactics the negationist uses to confound his interlocutors (with thanks: Ranbir):

  • Ignoring the facts: This passive negationism is certainly the safest and the most popular. The media and textbook-writers simply keep the vast corpus of inconvenient testimony out of the readers' view.
  • Minimizing the facts: If the inconvenient fact is pointed out that numerous Muslim chroniclers have reported a given massacre of unbelievers themselves, one can posit a priori that they must have exaggerated to flatter their patron's martial vanity - as if it is not significant enough that Muslim rulers felt flattered by being described as mass-murderers of infidels.
An oft-invoked counterweight for the charge-sheet against Islam, is the fanaticism record of Christianity. it is indeed well-known that Christianity has been guilty of numerous temple destructions and persecutions. But the reason for this fanaticism is found in the common theological foundation of both religions: exclusivist prophetic monotheism. The case against Christianity is at once a case against Islam. Moreover, in spite of its theologically motivated tendency to intolerance, Christianity has had to go through the experience of "live and let live" because in its formative period, it was but one of the numerous sects in the pluralist Roman empire.

An even more general way of drowning Islamic fanaticism in relativist comparisons, is to point out that after all, every imperialism has been less than gentle. That may well be true, but then, we are not setting up cults for the Genghis Khans of this world. A religion should contribute to man's transcending his natural defects like greed and cruelty, and not sanction and glorify them.

For another example, negationists always mentionn cases of collaboration by non-Muslims (Man Singh with the Moghuls,etc.) to suggest that these were treated as partners and equals and that Muslim rule was quite benevolent; when in fact every history of an occupation, even the most cruel one, is also the history of a collaboration. As has been pointed out, the Nazis employed Jewish guards in the Warsaw ghetto, disprove the Nazi oppression of the Jews.

Read article in full (scroll down to General Characteristics of Islam Negationism)

Has the Mizrahi Rainbow lost its appeal?

What has happened to the Mizrahi Rainbow? It is 10 years since this radical group of post-Zionist intellectuals was founded in Israel to fight for Mizrahi rights. But now, it seems, according to this article in Haaretz, the group is falling apart. Or is it?(With thanks: Edwin)

"He (Yehuda Shenhav, one of the Rainbow's founders) also sees all the internal arguments and the departures from the movement as a natural process in a radical movement: "First the Arabs left, since our struggle over land did not relate to theirs. After that, Meir Buzaglo saw I was using a laptop on the Sabbath and decided he would leave together with the traditional activists. The feminists left because they contended the Rainbow was being run by men, and so on and so forth."

"He adds: "We conducted the struggle over land in the name of the right of 'state lands,' and in this way, we separated it from the joint struggle over Arab lands. To my regret, we also accepted the cultural racism that basically comes with the melting pot approach - that merely tries to find a place for the Mizrahim, instead of posing a challenge in principle to the question of national identity."

"Even if the Rainbow did not enjoy great practical achievements, it contributed to raising public awareness. "Until the 'rainbow' came along, the Mizrahi struggle was associated merely with misery and weakness. This was the first time people who had succeeded on a personal level were those who led the struggle. This created pride and a model for emulation for the educated Mizrahi youngsters."

"And what will the future hold? Some of those interviewed for the article said they believed the Rainbow movement had lost its appeal. Nurit Hajaj, the current director of the movement, believes this is far from the case and attributes the notion to members who are no longer active in the movement. "There is a prominent generation, well-versed in the media, that has left the movement, and these people find it hard to be less dominant. Those looking in from the outside also believe no one is left in the movement. It is true that today's activists are less famous, but there certainly is activity. Our central theme continues to be the vast tracts of lands over which local councils have given control to certain small communities at the expense of the development towns that are in the same areas," she says.

"In other words, it is possible that Shenhav and Yonah's intellectual Rainbow, which was busy examining Mizrahi identity, has died; but perhaps the Rainbow, in its political and social form, as envisioned in Sheetrit and Karif's disappointed dreams, is trying to come back to life."

Read article in full

See Meyrav Wurmser's piece here

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The discrete and inconspicuous Jews of Iraq

David Sheena, who left Baghdad in 1955 for the US, describes the gathering storm of anti-Jewish oppression as he was growing up. Extracts follow from his article of 7 December in the Jewish Advocate (with thanks: Israel B).

"As a child, I was not aware of the long and rich history of our people, but I was aware that I was comfortable, and a part of that people. Even so, I was keenly sensitive to our position as Jews in a Muslim country. We were educated, economically well-off, and part of the cultural elite of Iraq. Our life was rich and substantial, but we had to be discrete, watchful and inconspicuous. We could not expose our Judaism; there were no Jewish stars, no openly displayed Hebrew and our talitot had no overtly Jewish symbols.

"I began to sense that something was not right, that all was not in place.(..) I felt around me the tangible fear as the witch hunt began for Zionists around 1949 and 1950.

"I remember the vague apprehension that was felt everywhere and the stories being told around 1950 of houses being targeted for searches for any Zionist connection. I recall my mother and father sanitizing our house and burning anything that could be incriminating. It was obvious that this was the 'revenge' of the Iraqis on the native 'enemy' Jewish population; after all the Iraqi Jews were also the people of Israel who had just humiliated Iraq - among other Arab countries - in Israel's war of independence in 1948.

"In 1950 after outbreaks of anti-Jewish riots, Iraqi Jews were compelled to renounce their citizenship and leave for 'parts unknown' (Israel would never be publicly acknowledged to exist) under the Law of 'Surrender of Iraqi Nationality'. After virtually the entire Jewish population registered to leave, the state froze all assets and property, effectively robbing the Jews of their life savings. Only Israel was willing to rescue the Iraqi Jews during this 'second exodus'. (...)

"It was such a surprise for me in America to first hear someone say publicly out loud: 'give this to the Rabbi'. That is when I knew I was in America."

Read article in full (subscription required)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Must-read on the world's 38 million refugees

Masterful piece by Ben Dror Yemini in Maariv ( the second in a series) setting the Palestinian refugees in context. Yemini ranges far and wide to prove his point: Bulgarian and Turkish Muslims, Greeks, Hindus from Pakistan and Muslims from India, ethnic Germans, Serbs and Croats - 38 million people - were displaced in the conflicts of the 20th century but only the Palestinians (and Muslims fleeing Armenia for Azerbaijan) still live in refugee camps. (Via Solomonia)

"The number of refugees in the above survey (which is only partial) totals approximately 38 million people. Of all the tens of millions of refugees generated by religious and ethnic strife, however, only the 700,000 Palestinians who fled their homes in Israel in 1948 - most of them at the urging of their leaders - remain a "problem" for the international community nearly sixty years later.

"All over the world, the same pattern pertains. Those who have been expelled or forced to flee from areas in which they were part of a religious or ethnic minority to areas or countries in which their religious or ethnic group is the majority have been absorbed by their co-religionists or those of the same ethnicity. That is what happened when Israel absorbed 600,000-800,000 Jews from Arab lands after the creation of the state. And it is what has happened everywhere else in the world. The two Germanys absorbed ethnic Germans after World War II; India took in Hindus fleeing Pakistan, and Pakistan received Moslems fleeing India.

"That too should be the fate of the Palestinians. They should be absorbed in an independent Arab state of Palestine to be established one day alongside Israel, not in place of Israel.

"Only the Palestinians (and Moslem refugees to Azerbaijan) depart from the general pattern of absorption by those who share their religion and ethnic identity. The Palestinians were never absorbed by their Arab co-religionists in the countries bordering Israel. They faced both de facto and de jure discrimination in many of those countries. Today hundreds of thousands of those who left Israel in 1948 and their descendants still languish in refugee camps nursing their bitter historical grievances and constituting a permanent attack force to be unleashed against Israel.

"The Arab states deliberately maintain the Palestinians in their pitiable state. The international community was also complicit in the process. Rather than helping the Palestinians out of their refugee status, UNRWA and international donors have frozen the Palestinians in that state. That is true not only those who fled Israel in 1948, but all their descendants in perpetuity.

"In place of medicine, the Palestinians' "benefactors" have only rubbed salt in their wounds - sometimes for their own purposes and sometimes from the best of motives. The day that the international community ceases applying a double standard to the Palestinians will be a day of rejoicing for them. On that day, they will stop being political pawns and be on the way to gaining their independence.

"Of the tens of millions of refugees created by World War II and the grant of independence to India and Pakistan in 1947, all lost their refugee status, as far as the international community is concerned, decades ago. And the possibility of those former refugees returning to the lands of their birth would strike the international community with horror, for an attempt to do so would only unleash old ethnic and religious conflicts. We might as well discuss the return of North America to its original native inhabitants.

"Only with respect to the Palestinians does the "right of return" continued to be discussed. Not just discussed, but to be the subject of thousands of books, articles, and documentaries. That "right" is never placed in the context of comparable cases of other refugees around the world.

"Sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians dwarfs that for other peoples who have suffered far worse fates, and who are far less complicit in their fate. The exodus of Palestinians from what is today Israel took place only because five Arab armies invaded Israel immediately after its declaration of statehood. And the Palestinians could long ago have had their own independent state. They have preferred instead to focus their energies on the destruction of Israel.

"The black farmers of the Darfur province of Sudan constitute just the most blatant current example of the disproportionate sympathy for the Palestinians. The U.N. places the number of those killed by Arab Moslem militias at 400,000, while another two to three million people have fled their homes, as a consequence of a concerted effort at ethnic cleansing.

"And yet it is the plight of the Palestinians that continues to be portrayed as the greatest injustice perpetrated by man against his fellow in the world today. International humanitarian aid to the Palestinians is an order of magnitude greater than that directed towards any other people. (That will be the subject of our third investigation.) Meanwhile the black farmers of Darfur are left to their fate.

"The international community has long acknowledged the rule that religious and ethnic homogeneity serves as a preventative to the most vicious of conflicts. For that reason, Turkish Moslems will not return to Greece nor Greeks to their former homes in Turkey. Sometimes history must be forgotten if peace is to be maintained. Judea and Samaria is the historical homeland of the Jewish people. Yet we do not advocate Jewish rule of that area today, for it is home to another people."

Read article in full

Great future planned for Yemenite town

Long feature in the Jerusalem Post about Rosh Ha'ayin, a town in Israel with a distinctive Yemenite cultural flavour:

"From a transit camp for Yemenite immigrants brought here in Operation On the Wings of Eagles, to a small metropolis a short distance from every major city in the center of the country, Rosh Ha'ayin is on the cusp of flowering into a comfortable and desirable place with a unique cultural flavor.(...)

"On the corner of Shabazi and Wolfson streets in the center of the original neighborhoods stands a barracks erected by the British during the Mandate. In a sign of the importance history has to the Yemenite community, the building has become the Yemenite Jewish Heritage House of Rosh Ha'ayin.

"Naftali Simhi, its chairman, has the swarthy skin common to Yemenites and a startlingly bright smile which he is not shy to unleash on visiting reporters.

"I think everyone one has a little warm part of their soul which is Yemenite and I want to open it and develop it," he said while sitting in his office at the Heritage House. A building engineer by trade, he serves purely on a volunteer basis.

"Simhi is convinced that much of Israeli culture has derived from the traditions that the Yemenite community zealously protected throughout its exile.

"The Yemenite community had the most cohesive tradition of any exiled community. You know the new Madonna song? It opens with a Yemenite tune. You cannot have an Israeli dance without a Yemenite step in it," he said cordially but emphatically.

Read article in full

Iranian Jews caught up in war of words

Before the Iranian Revolution, every seat in the synagogue was full for morning prayer, but in those turbulent years, half of Iran's Jews fled the country. Those who stayed behind hope they are not heading for a new crisis, Elizabeth Palmer of CBS News reports. (With thanks: Albert)

But the signs are ominous. Iran's hardline president has denied Hitler's holocaust and said Israel should be wiped off the map. Also, Israel refuses to rule out a strike on Iran's nuclear installations.

But in the shops and bazaars, Jewish merchants don't like to talk about the war of words.

"For the last 26 years we have very, very peaceful life with Muslims," one merchant says.

Instead, they stress that during the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini promised to protect them. But how do they feel when President Ahmadinejad says that Israel has no right to exist? "We know that all these things is politics, and they are not real," one Iranian Jew explains.

Read article in full

Dan Ahdoot is quite a hoot...

Dan Ahdoot is a hit on the West Coast comedy circuit. Here he tells what it's like to be part of an Iranian-Jewish family, the hazards of being of 'Middle-Eastern appearance', and what a Jew does at Xmas. (With thanks: Albert)

Your family are Sephardic Jews. How does that differ from growing up in an Ashkenazi home?

I guess the biggest thing would be that we have flavor in our food [laughs]. And, of course, we have thicker eyebrows! It's very tribal. Sephardic Jews tend to be very family-orientated. My family gets together every Friday night for Shabbat [the Sabbath] -- my grandparents and all of my cousins. There are about 60 of us. And we do that on all the Jewish holidays.

What do you do when you're together?

We hang out, talk, eat. There's a lot of debate and a lot of loud conversations about politics and stuff. It's kind of a crazy scene, but it's all very loving -- men kissing one another on the cheek and stuff like that.

When and why did your family leave Iran?

My family left in the early '70s because they saw that things were not looking too great for them. Religious persecution has been sort of status quo there for thousands of years, at least since the Islamic invasion. It was normal that Jews weren't allowed to go outside while it was raining, because people said they were going to dirty up the streets and stuff like that. At the time they left, it was starting to get a little crazy, with religious extremists getting more power. It was time to get out.

Some relatives weren't as lucky as we were and left in '78 or '79. They had to escape through the mountains. There are still family members there, but most of them are here now. (...)

So your ethnic background isn't front and center in your act?

It's definitely a big part of it, but it's not the whole thing. I have things that happen to me every day that don't even relate to me being Iranian or whatever. But pretty much every show I have some material about being Jewish and Iranian.

I think people have a lot of misconceptions about both groups. I've done shows in the middle of the country where people think Jews are just people with black hats and curlicue sideburns. And they assume most people from the Middle East are terrorists. I'm not kidding. I like to think I show them that's not the case.

You once said that "I was an Iranian up until Sept. 11, and now I'm Puerto-Rican. It makes life a lot easier." Is it difficult to be part of a cultural heritage that isn't universally beloved?

I was joking, of course. But it's true that sometimes people misjudge you based on appearance. I'm actually very pro-American, and I'm pro-Israel, but physically I look like I'd be pro-Taliban.

Read article in full

Monday, December 11, 2006

Yad Vashem remembers Tunisian victims of Nazism

For the first time in 64 years, Yad Vashem held a ceremony honouring the Jewish victims of the Nazi occupation of Tunisia. The ceremony was attended by 400 survivors and their relatives from all over Israel. The Nazis occupied Tunis for six months and the first round-up of Jews took place in December 1942. Video clip on Guysen News.

Report in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Albert)

Iranian Jews blast Holocaust conference

Iran's tiny Jewish community reacted with dismay and condemnation Monday to the controversial Holocaust conference which got underway in Tehran, the Jerusalem Post reports (with thanks: Albert).

Maurice Motamed, only Jewish MP in the Iranian parliament: "This is indeed an insult, not only towards the Jews in Iran but also worldwide as it is widely known that we are quite sensitive as far as the Holocaust is concerned.

"To question this historically proven fact has indeed made us (Jews in Iran) quite upset," Motamed said.

A Jewish physician in Teheran - who spoke on condition of anonymity - called the conference "sad" and "indecent."

"Iran can criticize the Israeli government or even not acknowledge Israel as a sovereign state, but misusing the Holocaust for political causes is simply sad," the physician said.

Read article in full

'Antisemitism only exists in the West'

'Islam needs to reform itself ' - Berber professor

Islam structurally discriminates against women and non-Muslims. Dr. Kamal Nait-Zerrad, a French-Algerian professor of Berber studies in France, asks whether there are Muslim authorities bold enough to critique and reform their religion. MEMRI summarises an article from

"In France, they want to sanction certain Muslim customs or practices, and public funds are used for the construction of mosques. Now, what is going on in the so-called 'Muslim' countries? In Iran, does a woman have the right to walk in the street without a hijab or a chador or a jilbab or who knows what else? No! Foreigners (journalists, Western ministers, and others) must wear the veil! In Saudi Arabia, can one build churches, synagogues, or other temples (and I do not even bring up centers for culture or free thought)? No, let us leave that to the tender democracies! There is no question here of speaking about reciprocity, but only of showing the insidious and fallacious sides of those who slowly but surely - with the help of 'useful idiots' - are shattering the secular edifice of the French republic - in the name of human rights!"

"For Islam, The Christian Or Jewish Non-Muslim Can Only Be A Dhimmi: "The fact is that Islam never foresaw a situation in which it would be in the minority. So long as one has not understood this, one cannot understand the Islamist movements. This is symptomatic of the Muslim vision of man, of human relations, and of other religions. For Islam, the Christian or Jewish non-Muslim can only be a dhimmi. Fighting against infidels is commanded in the Koran in these words [9:29]: 'Fight those who do not believe in Allah and in the last day, who do not forbid that which Allah and his Messenger declared forbidden, and who do not practice the religion of truth, among those who have received the Scripture! Fight them until they pay the jizya (poll tax), directly, when they are humiliated.' The jizya is reserved only for those who have the Scripture - that is, Jews, Christians, and to a lesser extent, Zoroastrians. As for the others - pagans, animists, free-thinkers, agnostics, and atheists - they have no other recourse but to convert to Islam or die.

"The study of the Koran allows one to point to the potential for intolerance that emerges from it and its outdated conception of law and justice. In essence, human rights have evolved in the direction of greater respect for man and his physical integrity. Some speak of a new interpretation of the Koran that is adapted to modern times. However, the political, social, or moral concepts in the Koran are intangible, and the Muslim cannot modify them or reject a part of them without being accused of heresy - unless [such modification] comes from a recognized authority."

"Where Are The Reformers?:"Objectively speaking, one cannot deny the fact that the Koran - like certain texts of other religions, for that matter - is anti-feminist. In Algeria, there is a fundamental contradiction between the constitution - which is supposed to be the basic law - and the family code. This brings us to the problem of the separation of [political] authority and religion in these countries. This separation, which is necessary for individual fulfillment, can only be attained if one sacrifices shari'a, with Islam becoming a personal religion. But where are the Muslims who will tackle this project? Who will propose another path… Where are the reformers?

"God Himself is said to be at the origin of the three great monotheistic religions. Each one then should be perfect, and always relevant, in any given era. But the Koran accused the Christians and the Jews of having falsified the Scriptures, and declared the[ir religion to be] invalid, with Islam remaining the only valid and certain religion. Now, as historical and scientific studies on the genesis of the [Koran] have shown, this accusation can be fired back at the Koran itself…(...)

"To come back to human rights, the contemporary conception of these rights is completely different than that which was current just one century ago. It has become more personalized and more universal…

"It is thus time for Islam - insofar as it is a 'great religion' - to critique itself and adapt to this evolution. The question is whether there exists a Muslim authority strong enough, with both the will and the courage, to start and to carry out this long labor - which would enable society to definitively and legally silence the Islamists and their henchmen."

MEMRI article in full

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Iran taunts the West with Holocaust debate

Defying international condemnation, Iran will open a conference tomorrow questioning whether the Holocaust — in which millions of Jews and other minorities were killed by the Nazis — really happened, Marie Colvin writes in the Sunday Times:

"With no trace of irony, Iranian officials said the conference — sponsored by the Institute for Political and International Studies, a foreign ministry think tank — would include archives, photographs and demographic evidence to establish whether the number of victims was exaggerated.

“Our aim is scientifically to study the Holocaust and listen to both sides before reaching a conclusion,” said Manouchehr Mohammadi, the foreign ministry spokesman for research. “We weren’t involved in this event so we can be a neutral judge. If we conclude that the Holocaust happened, we will admit it, but we are still going to ask why the Palestinians have to pay the price.”

"Iranian sources said the conference emerged from a behind-the-scenes struggle. Foreign ministry officials are well aware that it will have a negative impact on the country’s image at a time when Iran is already under pressure at the United Nations over its nuclear programme, support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shi’ite groups in Iraq.

"Hence, although Ahmadinejad has been publicly flagging the conference for almost a year, foreign ministry officials who were supposed to organise it have been dragging their feet. Forced to go ahead by the president, the foreign ministry tried to portray the conference as an exercise in free speech. It was at pains to point out that Iran has a community of 25,000 Jews. who are protected by the government.

One foreign ministry official said: “Does this conference make sense politically for Iran? No. The conference is being held to answer the questions of the president.” Tony Blair, who was invited, called it “shocking, ridiculous and stupid”.

Read article in full

Muslim makes documentary on Jews in Iran

Ramin Farahani, a young Iranian filmmaker, has made a documentary that examines aspects of the persecuted Jews of Iran. This documentary, which aired on Dutch National Television in 2005, is impressive in its depiction of the official discrimination against the Jews, who were not always willing participants. Gozaar, a journal on democracy and human rights in Iran, reports (with thanks: Albert):

The film’s story begins in Tehran, where a young Iranian Jewish girl talks about her difficult decision to leave Iran. After the camera follows her to a girls' school in Tehran, a typical story of Iranian religious minorities unfolds. The film focuses on the status of this young Jewish girl who is viewed by others as najes or religiously unclean. The film examines the bitter-sweet relationships this girl has with her classmates and teachers and the deep roots that the girl has in the land of her forefathers. She also speaks about the tremendous sense of loss and grief she will feel after leaving Tehran: “I’ll miss everything, even the bumps and holes on the streets.”

Read article in full

Interview with Ramin Farahani here