Sunday, August 31, 2008

Benny Morris reviews Andrew Bostom 's new book

Benny Morris's trajectory from leftwing revisionist historian to exponent of the Islamic jihad against the Jews appears complete in this New Republic review of two books: Andrew G Bostom's The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History (Prometheus Books) and Icon of Evil: Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann (Random House). With thanks: Independent Observer

"The story peddled by latter-day Arab propagandists (and reinforced by some Jewish scholars, who tended in decades past, sometimes for apologetic reasons of their own, to highlight the medieval "Golden Age" of Islamic Spanish Jewry)--that the Jewish minorities in the Muslim Arab countries before the advent of Zionism enjoyed a pleasant fraternal existence among the majority populations--has often been trotted out for the benefit of ignorant Westerners, to illustrate Muslim Arab tolerance of minorities and, politically, to promote plans for a multi-ethnic, one-state solution for Israel/ Palestine. It also has taken hold among Western intellectuals.

"Thus as prominent a journalist as Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, writes that "until the end of World War II, there was little precedent in Islam for the anti-Semitism that was now warping the politics and society of the region. Jews had lived safely--although submissively--under Muslim rule for 1,200 years, enjoying full religious freedom," until Christian missionaries, Nazi propaganda, and the rise of Israel twisted their minds and propelled them toward anti-Semitism.

"Or consider Esther Webman, of Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center, who has written that "antisemitism did not exist in the traditional Islamic world.... Antisemitism is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon in the Arab world." She attributed its rise to three factors: the nineteenth- and twentieth-century penetration of Western thought into that world; "the collapse of traditional political systems and of the loyalties" associated with modern nationalism; and, "most crucial, the development of the conflict [with Zionism] over the domination of Palestine."

"But this construct, in Bostom's view (and in my own), is wholly false. It flies in the face of the evidence, much of it presented in Bostom's tome. Certainly modern Christian influences, nationalist enthrallment, and Jewish nationalism (and its success) have added layers to traditional Islamic anti-Semitism. But they were building on firm foundations. From its inception, Islam and its adherents, beginning with Muhammad himself, saw Judaism (and Christianity) as rival parent religions that had to be fought and overcome for Islam to succeed. The initial struggles, in the early seventh century, were existential, a matter of survival, for the Muslims bent on dominating Hijaz and then breaking out of the dismal, arid, thinly populated confines of Arabia. The first Muslims shared a deep sense of vulnerability and threat.

And so the Jews (and Christians) in the realms of expanding Islam were subjected to a regime based on an understanding or agreement--the dhimma--of subordination, marginalization, and discrimination. By the twelfth century, the great philosopher Maimonides, a successful Jew in the Islamic world, the doctor to sultans, was to lament: "God has cast us into the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael, who persecute us severely, and who devise ways to harm us and to debase us.... None has matched [them] in debasing, humiliating, and hating us." And the situation was to remain more or less constant in most of the Islamic lands down to the twentieth century.

Consider Bostom's excerpt from Leon Godard's travelogue Description et histoire du Maroc, published in 1860:

In the cities, the Jews live in separate quarters ... called the Mellah, or the salted earth, dry and cursed. They are locked in from sundown to sunrise and on holidays, all day. They pay the Moorish guards who protect them.... They [pay] the capitulation tax ... that the government sets for each Mellah.... They have eight days to pay the tax; after that, and without warning the Mellah can be pillaged.... According to the laws, the Jews cannot cultivate earth, own land or houses outside the Mellah, ride a horse in front of a town other than on a saddle for a mule ... hit a Moslem, even to defend themselves except in their own house if it has been violated, be a witness in front of a court.... They cannot bid for food in Moslem market, or walk in some streets, in front of Mosques or Koubas, without holding their slippers in their hands, or get married without the permission of the Sultan.... They have to dress only in black or dark colors, wear a black hat different from the turban and not to tie with more than one knot the black scarf holding their headgear.

How and why this condition of degradation came about, and why anti-Semitism persists and, indeed, is on the upsurge in the Islamic Arab world is what Bostom's anthology sets out to explain.

It all begins with the Qur'an--or, rather, with the encounter, as described in the Qur'an, between Muhammad, the prophet of the new religion, and the Jewish tribes in Hijaz, the area of western Arabia that includes the towns of Mecca and Medina, where Islam arose around 620 C.E. The Jews, not surprisingly, rejected the new faith and its prophet; and if the Qur'an is to be believed, they were contemptuous and sarcastic. (Religions notoriously do not take well to humor at their expense.) Indeed, the Qur'an asserts that the Hijazi Jewish tribes were downright hostile, even at one point trying to poison the Prophet. Muhammad, for his part, had earlier ordered the assassination of prominent Jewish opponents, and forcibly converted tribesmen and expelled many others, and slaughtered hundreds and consigned many of their women and children to slavery. (He took one of the daughters, Safiya, as his wife, after first dispatching her father and husband, according to the Prophet's first major biographer, Ibn Ishaq.)

Partly in consequence, the Qur'an designates the Jews a "base" people and "killers of prophets" (harking back to the Christian charge of Christ-killing). The full verse (2:61) reads: "Humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon them, and they were visited with wrath from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in Allah's revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully." They are also said to be usurious. The full verse (4:160-161) reads: "And for the evildoing of the Jews ... and for their taking usury ... and for their consuming people's wealth under false pretenses we have prepared for the unbelievers among them [i.e., those not converted to Islam] a painful punishment." Elsewhere (5:63-64) the Qur'an states, "They hasten to spread corruption throughout the earth, but Allah does not love corrupters!" and instructs (5:51): "Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends." And it refers (5:60) to Allah's punitive transformation of the Jews into "apes and pigs" (the distant theological basis for Hamas's current designation of the Jews as "sons of apes and pigs").

Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the current grand imam of Al Azhar University of Cairo, a supreme authority in Sunni Islam, published a book in the late 1960s called The Jews in the Qur'an and the Traditions; it was re-issued in 1986. It summarized the Qur'an's (and Tantawi's own) attitude to the Jews in this way: "The Qur'an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e., killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people's wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness ... only a minority of Jews keep their word.... [But] not all Jews are the same. The good ones become Muslims." Tantawi was later to describe contemporary Jews as "the descendants of apes and pigs." I add in fairness that he was later to condemn the September 11 attacks, and suicide bombings in general, as contrary to Islam, though he defended "jihad" against those violating Islamic soil.

The hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, the subsequent exegeses of the Qur'an, and the early biographers of Muhammad built on and built up this anti-Semitic tradition. Ibn Ishaq (died 761), Muhammad's first and major biographer, as transmitted by Ibn Hisham, wrote: "The Apostle of Allah--may Allah bless him and grant him peace--declared, 'Kill any Jew who falls into your power.' So Muhayyisa Ibn Mas'ud fell upon Ibn Sunayna, one of the Jewish merchants with whom his family had social and commercial relations, and killed him." One of the more famous hadiths, quoted in Bostom, from Sahih Muslim, Book 41, no. 6985, reads: "Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me: come and kill him: but the tree Gharqad would not say [this], for it is the tree of the Jews." This hadith appears in variants in different collections.

Major Muslim scholars followed this anti-Semitic tradition. Al Baydawi (1286-1316?), a Shafi'ite intellectual who was chief kadi of Shiraz, wrote of the Jews' "intense obstinacy, multi-faceted disbelief, and their addiction to following their whims, their adherence to the blind following of their tradition, their distancing themselves from the truth, and their unrelenting denial of, and hostility toward, the prophets." Ibn Kathir (1300-1373), a Basra-born historian, wrote of the Jews' "rebellion, defiance, opposing the truth, belittling other people, and degrading the scholars. This is why the Jews--may Allah's continued curses descend on them until the Day of Resurrection--killed many of their Prophets." And in our own time--he is a full-fledged member of this odious tradition--Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the "spiritual mentor" of modern Islamist extremism, wrote: "No other nation has shown more intransigence and obstinacy than the Jews. They viciously and mercilessly killed and mutilated a number of prophets and messengers. They have over the centuries displayed the most extreme attitudes towards God.... They have always boasted of their virtue and made the implausible claims of being ... the chosen people of God.... Such claims are totally refuted by the Qur'an.... Theirs is a wicked nature, which is full of hatred for Islam."

It is little wonder, then, that such anti-Semitic motifs creep into the speeches of contemporary Muslim leaders. Bashar Al Assad, the president of Syria, welcomed Pope John Paul II to Damascus on May 5, 2001 by declaring that "we notice them [the Jews] aggressing against Muslim and Christian holy sites in Palestine.... They try to kill all the the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him)." Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, described the survivors of the Holocaust as "a bunch of hooligans who emigrated to Palestine," while his protege Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies that the Holocaust took place at all. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, has written: "If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli.... If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide."

But contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism, as typified by such statements, is not all of Qur'anic derivation. It also owes a great deal to modern European hate-merchants. Without doubt, Christian missionaries, traders, and officials in the nineteenth and early twentieth century flooded the region with their religious-ideological wares. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, was first translated into Arabic and published in Cairo in 1920. And more modern European anti-Semitic tenets penetrated the area during the following decades. They were perfectly embodied in the person and beliefs of Haj Muhammad Amin Al Husseini.

In her book The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock, the American scholar Virginia Tilley recently wrote that "the racist ... incompetent and reactionary Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini" was "unrepresentative" of the Palestinian Arabs. Tilley would have her readers believe that Husseini "was never a leader of more than a few reactionary Palestinian factions." This is nonsense. In this respect, at least, David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann put matters aright.

From his appointment in 1921 by the British as the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Husseini was a major figure, and during the 1930s and 1940s he was the recognized leader--recognized, that is, by the British Mandate authorities and the Zionist leadership and, not least, by the leaders of the surrounding Arab societies and states--of the Palestinian Arab national movement, much as Yasser Arafat was the leader of the movement from the late 1960s until his death in 2004. And like Arafat, Husseini basked in the support of the Palestinian multitudes, led them into a series of historical disasters, and--when all is said and done--rejected a succession of compromises that would have resulted in the establishment many years ago of an Arab state, alongside Israel, in part of Palestine.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

'Most Iranians would support Israeli strike'

Menashe Amir, the voice of Israel in Iran (Photo: CBC News)

Most Iranians hate their fundamentalist Islamic regime so deeply that they would support an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities - Menashe Amir, who runs a Farsi programme on Israel radio, tells Terry Milewski of CBC News.

"Of course, nobody is bombing Iran, yet. But Israel is creeping inexorably to a decision - and many experts say time is running out. In one or two years, they say, an Iranian nuclear device may be ready and it will be too late to stop it. Israel's new F16s — called F16Is — have been fitted with bigger fuel tanks to increase their range and Israeli missile defences are being upgraded.

"What to do to avert this nightmare? Many governments — including those of Israel, the U.S. and Canada — take this question to Menashe Amir.

"Amir is the voice of Israel in Iran — but he's much more than that. Governments call for his advice because, on Israel's state-run radio, he's been broadcasting daily to Iran, in Farsi, for 48 years. He's been at it ever since he immigrated to Israel from Iran and, for the past 15 years, he's also been hosting a fascinating Sunday call-in show. It's a kind of an Iranian version of the CBC Radio program Cross-Country Checkup, with a twist: it's broadcast from outside the country.

"Iranians can call a number in Germany, so that they're not seen to be calling the "Zionist entity," and they're rerouted to Amir's studio, where they can vent. Once you understand what they're saying, it's a revelation.

"Amir's Iranian callers don't just condemn their own government. They pour out their admiration for democracy, for America — even for Israel. On a recent show, the first caller had this to say: "Long live the people of Israel, who have so much freedom and democracy that they can prosecute their prime minister."

Actually, Ehud Olmert hasn't been prosecuted yet. But it could happen. And Iranians aren't shy about applauding Israel's democracy — or lamenting Iran's lack of it. One pleads, "Come and help us overthrow this regime." Another asks, "Why do we need an atomic bomb? For what?"

"In an interview with CBC News, Amir said the West has failed to understand the Iranian threat. He believes the regime is opposed by most Iranians but is consumed by an apocalyptic vision: the triumph of Shia Islam [also known as Shiite] over the world.

Western governments, he says, don't see that, for the Iranian mullahs, the destruction of the Jewish state is just a step along the way. Everyone knows that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for Israel to be wiped off the map. But Amir points out, "On the same day, in the same speech that Ahmadinejad called for wiping off Israel from the map, he added that the destruction of Israel is the first step of our final confrontation with western civilization."

"Amir says the regime dreams of a new caliphate — an Islamic empire spanning the globe. He adds, "I want to tell you one more thing that the western countries don't understand or don't take it serious — and that's the item of the Mahdi, the Shiite Messiah. And they believe that once the Mahdi comes, the whole universe will convert to Shiite Islam."

"What scares Israelis even more is that this fundamentalist world view is married to high technology. Iran recently sent a rocket into space to mark the birthday of the Mahdi — a 9th century imam known to Shias as the "last imam." When Iranian TV covered the launch, the reporter didn't forget to add the obligatory phrase when mentioning the Madhi: "May Allah hasten his return."

"Amir says the rocket sent a message. "They have the money, the missiles, they are seeking to have the nuclear bomb and the life of humankind is not important for them. I want to mention what Rahim Safavy, who was the chief commander of the revolutionary guards in Iran, said a few days ago: 'We shall win and you, the westerners, shall lose because we gave 200,000 victims, martyrs, in eight years of war with Iraq and we have 300,000 disabled and injured in this war — and we don't care about it. But you, the westerners, are afraid to give 4,000 or 5,000 thousand victims and casualties, so the final victory will be ours.' "

"But Amir says the Iranian people don't share the regime's messianic vision. He says most would support an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and even rise up against the regime.

"Iranians are totally a different nation — a peaceful, polite, moderate people who want a good life, who adore the United States, who respect Canada, who like western music … But the regime in Iran doesn't feel like they're Iranians. Mostly, firstly, they think they are Shi'ite Muslims and they have to work for the sake of Islam and not for the sake of Iran — and they are sacrificing the Iranian interest for the sake of Shi'ism."

"But not everyone shares Amir's view on the fragility of Iran's government.

"One who does not is Shabtai Shavit, who ran Israel's legendary spy service, the Mossad, from 1989-96. Shavit, who's now a security consultant, says the notion of Iranians overthrowing the regime in the wake of an Israeli strike is a fantasy.

"Still, Shavit agrees with Amir that Israel must not assume that the regime will act rationally. "We have to make our decisions according to the worst-case scenario: They're going to have the bomb," Shavit says. "They're going to pursue … an unrational way and they're going to use the bomb. If this is the case, then I don't have any other choice but to pre-empt it."

"Amir says his Iranian callers believe Israel has an obligation to act.

"Their message, he says, is rooted in history. "They claim the Israelis and the Jews have a historical debt to the Iranians because, 2,000 years ago, Cyrus the Great came, freed Jews from Babylon and he sent them back to their country to build again their homeland ... Iranian listeners say, now that's the time you pay us back. Please come and help us to get rid of this regime."

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Iraqi-Israeli actor Naor is politically-correct Saddam

Igal Naor raised the roof playing Saddam Hussein in the BBC drama series 'The House of Saddam'. In this interview with Rachel Shabi, anxious to come across as an Arabic-speaking Iraqi in Israel, a Communist and anti-imperialist, he tells her what Guardian readers want to hear:

Igal Naor

Igal Naor, actor who played Saddam Hussein on the small screen. Photograph: Gali Tibbon

The BBC's just-screened, rave-reviewed drama House of Saddam was billed as an ensemble piece but it was obviously going to triumph or be trashed on the strength of one role: the dictator himself. And the reviews for this character were effusive: critics described the performance as "transfixing", "bombastic" and "unnervingly charismatic". He was the main reason viewers kept tuning in to the four-part television series about the Iraqi ruler. Everybody just loved the BBC's Saddam.

"The minute I heard about it, I knew that I and no one else would play him," says the Israeli actor Igal Naor. It's a curious sense of conviction, because when the BBC was casting for the role, Naor was virtually unknown outside Israel. True, he had appeared in the 2005 blockbuster film Munich, in which he played one of the Black September gunmen blown up by Mossad agents to avenge the assassination of 11 Israeli Olympian athletes. But his screen time was, by his own reckoning, "less than five minutes - you know, the Mossad works quickly."

Naor, who says he always dreamed of playing Saddam Hussein, contacted the BBC series' casting director and received no response. Then he emailed photos of himself sporting a swiftly improvised, sticky-taped-on block moustache and kefiyeh head scarf. "Within less than an hour they called and asked how soon I could be in London."

It's not just the on-screen resemblance that made Naor a stunning Saddam. Dominating every frame, the actor conveyed with his very presence the bone-chilling, cultish charisma of the Iraqi dictator who ruled by bloody, ideologically-convinced terror. Neither was it a case of copycat acting.

"I wasn't interested in recreating his every gesture and I didn't impersonate Saddam's voice, which was very high-pitched, like Kermit the Frog." He does a flash impression of Saddam talking, a nasal, drawling Arabic that instantly turns heads in the sedate Tel Aviv cafe where we are sitting.

His portrayal of the Iraqi ruler is "beyond acting, it's just being," says Naor. "I am him, and he is me." What, he is Saddam? "Yes. I won't kill you, but it's me," he says. "You don't find many opportunities to play someone that you know is you, perfectly you. The soul, the essence, we share it, me and him. I was astonished to realise that, but playing him, I felt that everything he did was exactly what I would do if I were in his place." We are talking about the ruthless dictator, torturer and murderer of thousands, including close friends, long-time colleagues and family-in-law? "I understood him perfectly," says Naor. "It is something that is connected with childhood, with pains that you have in your first years."

Similarities between the two men's childhoods are not glaringly obvious. Saddam's father abandoned him, and his abusive stepfather forced him to leave the family home, aged 10, and live with his uncle. Naor was born in 1958 in Givatayim, a well-heeled suburb of Tel Aviv. His Iraqi-Jewish parents migrated from Baghdad in the early 1950s, soon after the creation of Israel (they were "strongly encouraged" to drop their original, Arabic family name and adopt the Hebrew Naor). Naor describes a happy childhood home, but relates that he grew up in "strange conditions". During early toddler years he was raised by his grandmother - like any Iraqi child, he says - while his parents worked. As a result, his mother tongue is Arabic and he didn't speak a word of Hebrew when he first attended nursery school.

"Iraqi grandmothers are obsessively clean and so I always wanted to wash my hands at kindergarten," recalls Naor. "I'd say it in Arabic and nobody would understand. One day I must have just kept asking, nagging, and they got fed up and locked me in the toilet, and I stood on the seat shouting through the window, [In Arabic] 'Granny, granny, come and get me!'"

He grew up feeling different. "I thought, I don't speak the language, I don't belong to you ... and life is a fight, a struggle and you have to change the world," he says. "Sometimes you realise that the biggest revolutionaries just wanted to change something in their childhood that was painful - and Saddam was a socialist revolutionary in the beginning. He did many great things for his country at first, like building a health system, education and nationalising oil revenues. And then he took the country to war with Iran and destroyed everything."

Naor's Saddam comprised a dimension of the Iraqi dictator as a victim of geo-politics: a classic tragic hero. The series ending, which closed on Saddam moments before his hanging, managed to evince some sympathy for the dictator, hunted down, found hiding in a hole and executed for crimes against humanity. "When you hear his name, you immediately, instinctively connect it with evil, a murderer, craziness, and so on," he says. "If I played him only as that, I would just be fulfilling people's expectations and that's not interesting." The Iraqi ruler clearly came over as a brutal tyrant in the series. "My role was to build tension between the intention of the writers and my own performance," says Naor. "So, as Saddam, I believe every word I say, and I believe every terrible thing I do is for the good of the nation and every mistake I make is because I can't do things in any other way, because of who I am. That's the duty of any actor playing any role, but especially this role where there is so much prejudice."

While the BBC was scouting for a Saddam, Naor was on location for last year's film Rendition, in which he plays the Arab torturer-interrogator hired by the CIA to deal with terror suspects that the organisation has "disappeared" to a secret detention facility somewhere in the Middle East. He is currently working on Green Zone, a big-budget thriller inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's exposé of the US-controlled zone of Baghdad as an enclave of luxury and ignorance. In the film, due for release next year, Naor plays a politically ambiguous Iraqi general chased by American agents who are trying, post-2003 invasion, to find evidence of WMDs.

Both films raise bold questions over western policy in the Middle East and Naor's own sentiments echo that. He thinks that blanket US support gives Israel licence not to do anything "to solve the problem with our brothers the Palestinians, the biggest problem in the Middle East". He talks about present-day Iraq, where the American administration "just doesn't care. They only care about their interests. And the people are paying the price, with their blood." A communist since he was a teenager, Naor is decidedly anti-imperialist. "I was born in a period of ideology. I never liked capitalism. I don't like people who think they can invade a country to change the regime or to kill the elected leader," he says. "You are not the judge and not the police of the world. Who asked you? And how dare you? And what do you understand about it, anyway?"

By his own admission, Naor's concern for Iraq goes deeper than the compassion he feels for human suffering, anywhere. "My blood, my mentality is Iraqi," he says, pronouncing the country with a strong guttural "Q" just like his BBC Saddam. "I really know the western game well and I play it," he says. "But I felt at home when I was filming in Morocco and Tunisia. I speak the language; I like the food, the Araq [aniseed drink], the nargile [hookah]. Me and my Iraqi friends [in Israel] talk only in Arabic when we are together. We enjoy it - there is a lot of humour and nuances that we can never express in Hebrew." Among those friends are the Iraqi-Israeli actors Sasson Gabai and Uri Gavriel, who both featured in the House of Saddam.

In his home country, Naor is better known as a stage actor, having played countless lead roles spanning more than two decades in theatre. He is still remembered for roles in classic productions performed years ago. He is due to return to theatre later in the year, schedule permitting. Does he worry about being stereotyped as the Arab movie villain? "I don't talk in terms of goodies and baddies," he says. "I won't do roles that are just 'an Arab' with nothing interesting about it. I also just turned down a big role because the script was anti-Israeli, it was coming from a place of hatred."

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Haaretz profile

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ezra's tomb in Iraq is now a Shi'ite Muslim shrine

A quarter of all Biblical prophets are buried in Iraq. This fascinating photo-feature in the Los Angeles Times blog (17 August) on the tomb of Ezra the Scribe in Amarah reveals that since the mass departure of the Jews, the site is now revered by Muslims. The tiny Jewish community is thought to have paid for repairs in 2000.

Here on the plains of the Tigris River lies the shrine of Ezra, the Jewish prophet, who returned to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian exile. According to biblical scholars, Ezra died years later back in the Mesopotamia at age 120 in what is now called Uzair. Locals believe Ezra passed away while roaming through the area with his donkey.

His shrine still exists in this predominantly Shiite district of Amarah province filled with supporters of young cleric Muqtada's Sadr late father, a grand ayatollah assassinated in 1999. Bashir Zaalan is the custodian of Ezra's shrine. Zaalan inherited the job from his blind 100-year-old father, who hobbles around on crutches. Iraq's once sizable Jewish population, which thrived in Baghdad, appointed him caretaker long ago. The capital is 268 miles away.

If the shrine was forgotten after the creation of Israel in 1948, when most Jews left Iraq, Uzair has proudly embraced its cultural heritage. Like other prophets in the Bible, Ezra is a holy figure in Islam. And the wooden shrine and blue mosaics in the domed building are treated as sacred by visitors.

A picture of Sadr's father hangs in the room where men worship by Ezra's wooden shrine. They touch the wood out of reverence. People visit the shrine to hold classes and deliver sermons on Islam.


"Before, people had no idea who Ezra was!" Zaalan said.

Zaalan guesses the brick building is 150 years old and replaced a reed structure. Until now, Zaalan says the shrine has received no funding from the national government, but he plans on heading to Baghdad to request money.

Once Zaalan and his father visited Baghdad's old Jewish community and informed them they needed funds for renovations. They were told a committee would be sent down to inspect the building.

No one ever came, but in 2000 a contractor showed up in the village and carried out some repairs. "We don't know who paid for it," Zaalan says.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hamas: 'Jews lived peacefully in Arab countries'

If ever Hamas were to conquer Palestine it seems that what lies in store for their non-Muslim minorities is a dhimmi future, according to this interview with a top Hamas official on


DAMASCUS — When announced to its audience a scheduled exclusive interview with Dr. Mousa Abu Marzook (pictured - Google photo), a top Hamas leader, it received a flood of questions from its diverse global audience.

One question was put forward by a person who identified himself as an Israeli Jew who wanted to make up his mind about Hamas "independently of the local news sources."

He wanted to know the kind of state Hamas would establish if it ever rises to power in Palestine, and whether it would expel Jews if Israel was dismantled.

"[We will deal with Jews] in accordance with our ethics, religious teachings, and historical values," Abu Marzook, the deputy head of Hamas political bureau, told IOL.

He highlighted how Jews lived peacefully for centuries in Muslim and Arab countries.(Don't mention the word 'dhimmi', anyone - ed)

"Jews lived freely and ran prosperous businesses in Egypt and Baghdad, and the markets of Baghdad are evidences of what the Jews owned."

Colour me cynical, but whatever happened to those prosperous businesses and Jewish-owned markets, Abu Marzook? All appropriated by Arab governments without a penny in compensation to their Jewish owners - ed.

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Will Mofaz's election as PM bury 'ethnic demon' ?

Iranian-born Shaul Mofaz could become the first Israeli prime minister who doesn't have a European heritage. No Sephardi has ever had such a realistic hope of attaining the premiership in the history of the state of Israel, claims Ashley Perry of the Sephardi Perspective blog. But is the 'ethnic demon', which has dogged every Israeli election, dead and buried - or just dormant?

"Mofaz already has an impressive resumé and has succeeded in many positions usually reserved for Ashkenazim. He became one of only a handful of non-European Chief-of-Staffs in the IDF, with the first being Moshe Levi in 1983 - a full 35 years after the founding of the state.

"Unlike many prominent Sephardi politicians such as Amir Peretz, David Levy and Aryeh Deri, Mofaz is not known for being concerned with social and economic affairs. He has only held the transportation and defense portfolios in the government.

"As a result, although considered hawkish, Mofaz has not become identified with 'Sephardi politics'.

"We are not witnessing any backlash and cries of discrimination when Mofaz is attacked in the press and by fellow politicians the way we witnessed it when Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Amir Peretz ran for leadership of the Labor party.

"Indeed, the 'ethnic demon' has been the decisive factor in almost every election ­from the riots in Wadi Salib in Haifa in the 1950s, the Black Panthers of the 1970s, and Dudu Topaz's "chach-chachim" of the 1980s.

"Apart from receiving the blessing of Shas spiritual mentor Rav Ovadia Yosef, which is given to all who seek it, Mofaz has not sought, nor received much of the Sephardi vote.

"This is largely because Kadima members, who will decide the outcome of the race, do not appear to have much of an obvious 'Sephardi agenda'.

"The upcoming Kadima race is being compared to the race between the US' Democratic presidential candidates, with Livni compared to Hillary Clinton and Mofaz in the guise of Barack Obama.

"Obama's campaign has been clouded with references to the skin color of the Senator from Illinois. Whether used as a weapon or as a deflective measure, Obama relates to his ethnicity constantly on the campaign trail. In contrast, Mofaz's ethnicity has hardly been alluded to.

"The simplest explanation for this could be that Israeli society has matured and is ready for an 'ethnic' prime minister. However, recent barbs at Peretz and Ben Eliezer prove that this is far from true.

"Ben-Eliezer was frequently pejoratively referred to as 'Fuad', similar to those who include the middle-name 'Hussein' when referring to Barack Obama. This demonstrates to the listener or reader that the candidate is an outsider and casts aspersions on whether he or she is fit for that particular office.

"However, Mofaz appears not to have suffered thus far in the Kadima race for his ethnicity or his skin tone. This may have more to do with the nature of the Kadima party than anything else."

Read article in full

Monday, August 25, 2008

Son's memoir recalls father's life as a Kurdish Jew

Ariel Sabar and his father went back to visit their family's home town of Zakho in northern Iraq in 2005. There people still remembered the Jews - but for how much longer? A remarkable new book, reviewed in The Jewish Week, attempts to reconstruct the story of the Aramaic-speaking Kurdish Jews of Iraq before it vanishes from memory.

"There are no more Jews in Zakho. Once the center of Jewish activity in Kurdish Iraq, the isolated town, a dusty vision of biblical landscape, was known as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” Residents spoke the ancient Aramaic language, which they kept alive, along with their faith and distinctive culture, for almost 3,000 years. In the 1950s, after the Iraqi government turned against the Jews, the entire community moved to Israel, as part of Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. More than 120,000 Jews were airlifted from Iraq, including 18,000 Kurdish Jews; other Kurdish Jews arrived from Syria and Iran.

"Yona Sabar was born in Zakho, and was the last boy to have his bar mitzvah there. He lived in a mud home, whose roof his family sometimes slept on in the heat, and he enjoyed meeting his grandfather in shul, where the old man sat up every night, conversing with the angels. In Israel, his once-successful merchant family was impoverished; while the Muslims and Christians in Zakho had respected them, the Kurds were looked down on as the very lowest class in the new State of Israel. Sabar, unlike most of his fellow villagers, graduated from high school in Israel (while working full-time to help support his family) and Hebrew University where he studied language with a special interest in Aramaic. He received his doctorate in Near East Languages and Literature from Yale, and now is a distinguished professor at University of California Los Angeles. His ranch-style house in Los Angeles bears no resemblance to his childhood home, where hens and customers crisscrossed the dirt floor at all hours.

"The remarkable arc of Sabar’s life is at the center of his son Ariel Sabar’s outstanding book, “My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq”(Algonquin). In telling his father’s story intertwined with the family’s tales, journalist Sabar reconstructs the little-known history of the Kurdish Jews, who lived in harmony with their non-Jewish neighbors. In Zakho, Muslims would bring tea to their Jewish neighbors on Shabbat, when the Jews weren’t able to cook. Jewish men wore the same baggy trousers and embroidered shirts as Muslims, “even if a few strands of tzitzit poked out from beneath their shirts.”

“My father had staked his life on the notion that the past mattered more than anything,” the younger Sabar writes, adding, “He sublimated homesickness into a career.”
“My Father’s Paradise” is also a deeply personal story of a distant father and son who were ultimately reconciled. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Ariel Sabar found his father embarrassing, regarding him as the uncoolest person he knew, with his unstylish clothing and beat-up car, and his passion for ancient languages rather than popular culture.

"But, after moving across the country to attend college, falling in love with and marrying a non-Jewish woman and working hard in his first reporting jobs, Sabar was drawn to write about his father after the scholar was called to consult on the television series “The X-Files,” about the language Jesus might have used. For the first time, Sabar asked his father, as he might have questioned any source, about his life in Zakho. His story in the Providence Journal, “Scholar Dad Goes Showbiz: ‘I Am the Walrus’ in Aramaic” brought him a greater response than all of his previous articles combined. He then thought that he had said everything he had to say about his father.

"Several years later, after he and his wife had their first child, a son, Sabar began seriously thinking about “fathers and sons, and what is it we inherit,” he tells The Jewish Week in an interview. “Would [his son] feel the way I did about my father? That this guy had nothing to teach me, that I didn’t care where he came from, that I was my own person? It took me back to some long-neglected questions.” Now, looking back, he’s not proud of the way he treated his father.

"Aware that his potential sources — Kurdish Jews like his father who remembered life in Iraq — were aging, Sabar felt a sense of duty to preserve their past. And, as a journalist, he sensed he was onto a great story. He quit his newspaper job and moved to Maine, where his wife returned to work as a physician; he began researching and traveling, tracking down relatives and family friends. His father still had the Kurdish sensibility, where people survived by keeping their heads down, so he wasn’t altogether comfortable about being the subject of a book.

"Collecting an impressive amount of detail, Sabar creates a compelling narrative. The Jews of Zakho had little in common with the Jews of Baghdad, who spoke Arabic, built huge synagogues and yeshivas, ran large businesses and held government jobs. In the 1940s, the remote Jews of Zakho had no idea of what was happening to the Jews of Europe; nor did they know of a deadly pogrom in Baghdad in 1941.

"Sabar conveys the life of Zakho, with its storytellers, beggars, traders, smugglers, loggers, Arab tribesmen, cheese makers, and the one dyer of fabrics, his great-grandfather the mystic. Girls didn’t go to school, but instead learned to do heavy chores and to cook specialties whose descriptions may send readers in search of a Kurdish kosher cookbook. His grandmother Miryam’s life was full of loss, including having her firstborn, a daughter, never returned by a tribeswoman who agreed to be her nursemaid when Miryam was ill. She had lost her own mother at a young age, and was married at 13 to a cousin, who proved to be kind.

"In Israel, Miryam was lost, never learning Hebrew, and even though her neighbors would sit around and speak of children, she wouldn’t mention that two of her sons were university professors, her two daughters teachers, another son a vice principal of a school and another a bank officer, for fear that boasting tempts the evil eye. The author knew her as the grandmother who coaxed him in Aramaic, “you didn’t eat anything” and ate only after everyone else finished. He learned the full and vivid story of her life there through transcribed and translated interviews he did with her as a student, while studying her language.

"In 2005, father and son traveled to Zakho together — a dangerous time for Americans and Jews in Iraq — and were greeted with kindness; many people remembered Sabar’s grandfather and could tick off the names of the Jewish families they did business with, and some spoke of missing the Jewish presence. The Jewish neighborhood was now the poorest section of town, and the shuls had become private homes. The Sabars realized that the generation that recalled Jews fondly, remembering the brotherhood they experienced, wouldn’t be around much longer."

Read article in full

Sunday, August 24, 2008

King offers London Bahraini Jews dual citizenship

King Hamad of Bahrain's audience with his former Jewish subjects in London was reported by Leon Symons in the Jewish Chronicle of 14 August. The king is riding a wave of international approval: his tiny kingdom's tolerant image was boosted by the recent appointment of a Jewish ambassador. The loyal Jews of Bahrain have always enjoyed the support of the (Sunni) royal family, but things have not always been rosy, the synagogue remains shut and today there are worrying signs of popular radicalisation. Would Bahrain pass the kippa test - ie could a Jew walk the streets wearing a kippa (skullcap) without attracting hostility?

"The historic appointment of his country's first Jewish ambassador appears to have prompted the King of Bahrain to learn more about his Jewish subjects. So last week, he came to London to meet a few of them.

"There are officially only 37 Jews in King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's island kingdom, one of whom, Houda Nonoo, has become the new ambassador to Washington. An even higher number - 45 - of Jewish Bahrainis are ex-pats who live in Britain.

"So a plan was formed that the next time King Hamad was visiting London, he would meet a group of them. Thus, last Friday, he met the business people, the authoress, the accountant and many more at London's Dorchester Hotel in an audience that lasted more than an hour and spoke volumes for one tiny Arab country's race relations.

Huda Nonoo, Victor Sweiry and King Hamad (photo: Jewish Chronicle)

"The King himself obviously enjoyed the occasion, professing pride that Bahrain was the first Arab country to appoint a Jewish ambassador to anywhere, let alone Washington. The appointment of businesswoman Mrs Nonoo, a member of Bahrain's Shura Council, the upper chamber of parliament, was seen as ground-breaking in the Arab world.

"The thing was no-one knew about Houda," said the King. "We never take notice of religion. It is citizens that count. It is nothing to do with Israel. It is our normal business with America."

"Speaking of the meeting with his ex-pats, King Hamad said it was simply business as usual: "I see it as normal. They are all Bahrainis and they like to come here to live. I came here to see them. This is the kingdom of tolerance." He gave an ever-widening smile.

"The King eschewed the traditional dish-dasha (robe) and shumagg (headdress) in favour of a tan-coloured suit, striped shirt and striped tie.

"When he arrived, the guests were ushered into a room to meet him individually. Later, flanked by his prime minister - who is also his uncle - he spoke to his guests in Arabic for about 15 minutes, welcoming them and telling them he had reactivated a law that allowed them to hold dual Bahraini-British citizenship.

"He said he was very proud of his Jewish subjects, who "have been model citizens". He expressed disappointment that Bahrain's one synagogue was not open and operating."

Read article in full

Jewish News article

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dancing Iraqi Jews: interview with Joe Balass

Glamorous, grinning couples gliding on a dance floor is not most people's idea of Iraq. Joe Balass tells Mideast Youth blog that he hopes his film Baghdad Twist, a nostalgic evocation of Jewish life in Iraq, will shatter stereotypes and build bridges ( with thanks: Esra'a):

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your childhood in Iraq?

I was born in Baghdad in 1966 but escaped with my family when I was 4 years old so I have very few concrete memories of my childhood in Iraq. Despite the fact that I was so young when we left, I still identify as an Iraqi.

Q. What inspired you to create this film?

I wanted to make a film which contrasts with the present-day images we see of Iraq. I don’t want people to think of Iraq only in terms of bombs and destruction. I want people to also think of beauty and of dancing the twist in Baghdad. I want people to think of hope.

Q. What struck you the most about the Jewish community in Iraq?

The diversity of Iraq’s Jewish community has always fascinated me.

Q. Leaders in the Arab world insist that Jews were treated with utmost respect and that no policy of discrimination was enacted upon them. What do you have to say to that?

There were official policies enacted by various governments that were discriminatory. Things happened in cycles which eventually became more and more repressive. I don’t think people themselves are naturally hateful or spiteful, they are manipulated by propaganda and government policies. By the time my parents decided to escape from Iraq, it was because of a real fear for my father’s life.

Q. What message do you hope to convey through your documentary?

I think hateful propaganda can blind people, turn them against teach other. I think it is important to try and bring folks together, to celebrate things that bind us together, to understand that historically many people of different faiths and ideals co-existed in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. We can learn from that past of co-existence and respect to try and build a happy and hopeful future for everyone.

Q. In your opinion, how much information currently exists about Iraqi Jews, and Arab Jews in general, in the mainstream media? People keep referring to them as the “forgotten minority,” are they still forgotten?

I think the notion of Arab identity should be broadened to include people of different faiths and beliefs as a step towards building tolerance. Jewish identity is also strengthened through diversity. The context of different communities and faiths originating in the Middle East is too often simplified by mainstream media.

Q. Due to this topic being taboo, your film will most likely not be heard of or advertised within the Middle East. What do you think about that? Are you willing to push it to a Middle Eastern audience, especially since they are most relevant?

I believe in bridge-building. I would very much like for Baghdad Twist to be seen all over the Middle East. I would be happy to do what I can to make that happen and hope to meet other like-minded individuals and groups.

Read post in full

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mind the gap...

Posting will be light to non-existent while Point of No Return takes a break.

Iran-born New Yorker's four-year ordeal nears end

Here is a sickening reminder (in case you needed one) of just how barbaric and corrupt the Iranian regime really is. Yaghoub Khezri, a Jew, had lived outside his native Iran for three decades, but a return visit to claim property turned into a nightmarish four years in jail. The charge? 'Womanising'. The age of the accused? 81.

A broken man, Mr Khezri is on his way home. Marc Santora tells his harrowing story in The New York Times (With thanks: a reader)

Update: Mr Khezri is being held up by red tape and is stuck in Swtizerland. Please lobby Congressman Anthony Weiner and the State department to get him home to the US.

Nearly three decades had passed since Yaghoub Khezri fled his native Iran in 1978, on the eve of the Islamic revolution, to begin a new life in Forest Hills, Queens.

It was in New York that he watched his children have children of their own, as his past receded further and further.

But the old memories kindled the faint hope that he could return one day.

So when, in 2004, some old business partners from Tehran reached out to Mr. Khezri and told him it was safe to come back and claim property that had been seized by the government, the lure — both financial and emotional — proved more powerful than any fears about what might happen if he returned.

And at the age of 81, it was most likely his last chance to see Iran.

Almost as soon as he landed in Tehran, however, Mr. Khezri found himself at the center of a nightmare. He was arrested, and at first faced charges that carried a possible death sentence. Eventually, he was convicted of “womanizing” and “immoral acts” and sentenced to three and half years in prison and 99 lashes.

On the day he was convicted, April 7, 2005, Mr. Khezri wrote a short statement on the sentencing document. “I will be in this hellhole for 42 months,” he wrote. “God help me. Death would be better than this.”

Mr. Khezri did not die.

After four years of struggle and uncertainty, tireless advocacy by his family and friends, the efforts of American officials, and an untold number of bribes, Mr. Khezri, now 86, finally was able to leave Iran and was to return to New York on Wednesday.

Even as many questions about his case remain unanswered, his harrowing story provides a glimpse into a society where notions of justice can leave an elderly man beaten so badly that he can now barely walk.

Mr. Khezri arrived in Switzerland last month. The effects of his imprisonment have left him traumatized, and his family fears that he is beginning to develop Alzheimer’s disease, his son Bijan Khezri said. He added that an interview could not be arranged.

“My mother told me this many times over the phone: Don’t be surprised when you see your father,” said Bijan Khezri, who lives in Queens. “This is not the same man. He has grown very weak, very fragile.”

Krista Errickson, a journalist and documentary maker who has known the Khezri family for years and has worked in Iran, has been involved in the effort to bring Mr. Khezri back to the United States since the spring.

“This is an innocent man who was put through hell,” she said. “Some people say you are stupid, why would you go back? Iranians miss their homeland, and sometimes they just want to go back to see it.”

Ms. Errickson, who is working on a documentary about the case, said Mr. Khezri may have been set up so that others could somehow make a profit if he were out of the picture.

Bijan Khezri said the property his father was going back to claim was probably worth a little more than $1 million.

But even before he could work out any deal concerning his property, Mr. Khezri was placed under house arrest and asked if he was a spy for Israel.

This is where the story becomes shadowy. Mr. Khezri is Jewish, although it is unclear what role religion played in his ordeal.

Some 25,000 Jews live in Iran, the largest Jewish population in the region outside of Israel.

The government insists that it makes a distinction between Zionists and Jews of Persian descent.

But the relationship between Iranian Jews and the Islamic republic is complicated, said Roya Hakakian, an Iranian writer in the United States who has delved into Jewish-Iranian issues.

While there are a number of high-profile cases in which Jews have been arrested on trumped-up charges, the discrimination is more often indirect and subtle, she said.

“They started instituting rules in favor of ideological Muslims,” she said. “That led Jews and other minorities to start losing ground.”

In 1999, 13 Iranian Jews in the city of Shiraz, one of them a 16-year-old boy, were arrested and accused of espionage. The case drew international condemnation, and 10 of the Jews were convicted on lesser charges.

Ms. Hakakian said she thought that if Mr. Khezri had been arrested because he was Jewish, he probably would have been charged with espionage.

While Mr. Khezri’s family said that his interrogation initially centered on accusations that he was an Israeli spy and a supporter of the United States, he ended up being convicted for “womanizing” and “immoral acts.”

Soon after he was convicted, he had to endure 99 lashes.

“All of the lashes are administered at once,” Ms. Errickson said. “First they whip the legs, the back, the neck, the feet, the hands. And then they turn you around and get you in the front.”

Mr. Khezri was then kept in solitary confinement for nearly a year, according to his family.

Read article in full

Iraqi-Jewish festival: an Arab view - update

Some weeks ago, Point of no Return flagged an interesting piece by the well-known author and poet Khalid al-Kishtainy in the Saudi-owned Arabic daily, al-Sharq al-Awsat after he had attended the Halahel Iraqi-Jewish festival in London in June. Why weren't the Iraqi Jews, who traditionally held leftwing, liberal views, acting as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinians? he wondered.

The piece produced an equally interesting comments thread (with special thanks to Eileen and Freddy K for kindly translating them). Some admonished the Palestinians, one praised the Jews for being intelligent and hard-working. But this comment, from Amer Ammar of the United States, stood out:

“My dear Sir, how can we confess in Iraq that we have wronged the Jews? Our fathers and us have been fed hatred against the Jews to the extent that their knowledge, their star (of David) and their dress have become our most feared things. Whereas, if we looked at the old pictures of Baghdad and the various cities then we would see that their dress and the star were present everywhere without any ill feeling towards them.

Our ancestors and their Jewish friends lived with each other and were neighbours. So what happened? What is the crime of the thousands of Iraqi Jews who loved their country and contributed towards its advancement and construction, only to be rewarded with expulsion and persecution (Farhoud). It is important that the new generation should take the first step towards rebuilding the trust and no better place to start when with our brothers who are already living in this country as it is certain that they never did commit any crimes, worst than the crimes of the past dictatorial regime or the present democratic regime.”

Amen to that.

To read all the comments scroll down the 17 July post.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Iraqi-Israeli plays Saddam Hussein in BBC drama

It may come as a surprise to learn that Igal Naor, the Israeli actor who plays Saddam in the acclaimed BBC drama 'House of Saddam', is a Jew of Iraqi origin. By assembling the cream of Middle Eastern acting talent, the casting director has set a precedent for cultural collaboration : other Israeli actors include the Iraqi-born Sasson Gabbai, who plays Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, Saddam's predecessor. There are also first-rate Egyptian, Palestinian and Iranian actors. Report by The Saudi Gazette:

"The four-part mini-series “House of Saddam”, the first episode of which was screened on BBC TV last week, gives a remarkably vivid and convincing portrayal of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his relationships with his inner circle and his family.

"The series, which runs for a total of four hours, was made jointly by the BBC and HBO of the US. It might seem surprising that Saddam is played by Israeli actor Igal Naor. And yet Naor has an uncanny physical resemblance to Saddam, and conveys his charm and charisma as well as the flaws that would contribute to his downfall. Saddam comes across as an extraordinary mixture of warmth and cruelty, idealism and megalomania. He had ambitions for Iraq on the Arab and world stage, but was sidetracked by family feuds and the threat of conspiracies.

"Naor has strong Iraqi connections of his own. His parents were Iraqi Jews who emigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951. “In my first five years I grew up as if I was in Baghdad.
I lived in a neighborhood which was inhabited mainly by Iraqis and spoke only Arabic because I grew up with my grandmother who didn’t know a word of Hebrew.” (..)

"The Egyptian actor Amr Waked plays Saddam’s cousin and aide Hussein Kamel. There was a fuss last year when it emerged that he would be performing alongside an Israeli actor. Egypt’s actors’ union criticized him for “normalizing” with Israel, and it was reported he could be banned from filming in Egypt in the future.

"Waked said: “I understand their political statement, but this is not an Israeli movie.”
Jerusalem-born Palestinian actor Makram K Khoury plays urbane Tariq Aziz. Algeria-born Said Amadis, who grew up in France, plays the heavy-set Adnan Khairallah, Sajida’s brother. Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan Al-Majid (who would later become notorious in the West as “Chemical Ali”) is portrayed by Israeli actor Uri Gavriel as having a coarse vulgarity."

Read article in full

Al-Hurra TV to show 22-part series on Iraqi Jews

The US-backed Arabic TV channel Al-Hurra is showing a 22-part series on the Jews of Iraq, a topic it has never covered before. The founder of the Babylonian Heritage centre, Mordechai Ben-Porat, Hebrew University Professor Shmuel Moreh, and Iraqi music expert Linda Menuhin were among those interviewed. The crew filmed an Iraqi hafla (party) and the Hatikva market in Tel Aviv.

An Arab poster, Wameeth, posted his reaction to the series trailer on the weblog Mideast Youth. Iraqis seemed to be guilty of double standards when it comes to Iraqi Jews and their rights, he felt.

The Jewish market was once the centre of trade in Baghdad, but since the departure of the Iraqi Jews, no-one seems to mention the Jews and their right to reclaim the property they left behind, not even since the advent of democracy in Iraq, he writes.

Abandoned Jewish property became state property. Most of it was sold off to the public over the last 30 years. According to Iraqi law, however, anyone who can prove ownership can make claims, opening the floodgates to Iraqi-Jewish claims. But the government has denied newspaper reports that many Jewish families have indeed made claims.(And as Point of No Return has commented, no Jewish claims have yet been met).

Wameeth finds it odd that "The public considers that the Jews have no rights in Iraq as they sold everything and left, but so did the Iranian Kurds and the Iranian Shi'as. They took back their property when the Saddam regime ended. The Kurds are using 100-year old documents to prove their rights in Kirkuk. So why do we deny the rights of an ethnic group of Iraqi origin? Because they went to Israel. What about those from other ethnicities who left Iraq, from the opposition and those who went to Iran, the country we had a ten-year war with?" he asks.

Read post in full

Friday, August 08, 2008

Lobby your senator to back Jewish refugees bill

Calling all US citizens!

Following the unanimous adoption of House Resolution 185 in April 2008, it is time to ensure that Senate Resolution 85 gets approved. Justice for Jews from Arab Countries are urging you to lobby your senator to support the resolution.

The resolution (see PDF), which was proposed in 2007 by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ); Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN); Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL); Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) [now retired]; Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT); Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), is due to come before the Senate Foreign Relations committee. The resolution must be approved by the committee before a vote is taken in the Senate.

S.R 85 instructs the President to ensure that in all international forums, when the issue of "Middle East refugees" is discussed, representatives of the United States must ensure:

"That any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees is matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees, as a matter of law and equity."

You are urged to telephone, fax or email your support to senators Joseph Biden, leading the Democrats, and Richard Lugar, leading the Republicans. You can fax the senators sitting on the Foreign Relations committee, listed here, together with their fax numbers. JJAC has helpfully provided a sample letter.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ronnie's story: the plight of Iraqi Jews in the 1960s

Ronnie's moving story, found on a BBC weblog, describes in detail what happened to the few thousand Jews who remained in Iraq after the 1950 - 51 Tasqueet*. Clearly, no 'Zionist bombs' or Israeli machinations could be blamed for the discrimination, persecution and sheer terror which Ronnie's family and other Jewish innocents experienced. Ronnie bears the mental scars to this day, and only began talking about what he went through some five years ago.
"I am an Iraqi Jew, who was born in Baghdad in 1953 and left in 1971. I would like to share with you my experience of growing up and living in Iraq. My father (Bless his soul) was a highly educated man, who under normal circumstances and given equal opportunities would have risen to a high and influential position. Because he was Jewish, these opportunities were denied to him. During the 1950s when there was a mass emigration of Iraqi Jews, he was threatened by his Muslim boss and told not to leave Iraq: my father was vital to the establishment of his Muslim boss's business. Eventually, my father went on to establish a thriving accountancy firm in Iraq: he was the first Iraqi to gain a UK Certified Accountant qualification, which he achieved through a correspondence course, sitting the exams at the British Council in Iraq.
"On the whole, we led a comfortable life in Iraq in the 1960s. By that time the Iraqi Jewish community has dwindled to some 2,500 – 3,000 from the original 150,000. To survive in Iraq, we learned to keep ourselves to ourselves and stayed away from any contentious issues. Throughout the Sixties we tried to keep a semblance of normal life, even though there were many restrictions placed on us. For example, with the exception of a very limited period in 1963, Iraqi Jews were denied passports or an exit visa. Even then, any Iraqi Jew who stayed outside Iraq for more than three months automatically lost their nationality and the Iraqi government confiscated their assets. Since the 1950s, Iraqi Jews were issued with a special yellow identity card to prove that they have not lost their Iraqi nationality. I still have mine to-date.

"Between 1964 to 1967, any Iraqi Jews who wanted to leave Iraq had no choice but to cross the border illegally to Iran. The favoured route was to travel south to Basra and cross the river border between Iraq and Iran. Again, because the restrictions placed on them, those who decided to leave Iraq had no choice but to leave all assets (commercial, property, …etc.) behind, like their brethren in the 1950s.
"Things took a turn for the worse after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Iraqi government turned with a vengeance on the small Jewish community (by then it numbered no more than 2,500). There were random arrests and many were in detention for long periods although not charged with any real crime or brought to court. My father's licence to practice was revoked, as well as all import licences, upon which many members of the Jewish community relied for their business activities. With jobs in the public sector and the semi-public sector denied to Iraqi Jews, the Jewish community suffered financial hardship . Iraqi Jews were denied the opportunity to liquidate financial or property assets. We were not allowed to leave the outskirts of Baghdad without special permits, and were allowed to withdraw only small amounts from our bank accounts. All of these measures were meant to harass us and remind us that we could suffer a worst fate at any moment. Alas, we did.
"However, in my mind the key single event that made the Iraqi Jewish community realise they were no longer welcome or wanted in Iraq took place in January 1969. By then the Ba’ath party has taken control and Saddam Hussein was the Deputy President. During the late summer of 1968, a sham trial took place of several Iraqi Jews accused of spying for Israel. In our naivete, we thought this would be a repeat of the usual prosecutions of Jews and nothing sinister would come of it. However, we were stunned when suddenly the Iraqi TV and radio announced that death sentences had been passed on nine Iraqi Jews in January 1969.
"I remember that we went to bed on the night of the ruling not knowing what was going to happen and whether the death sentences would be carried out. Little did we realise what was in store for us, because the following day and early morning, the nine innocent Jews were hanged and their bodies put on public display in the main squares of Baghdad and Basra. The Iraqi TV and Radio called on the masses to come out and bring their children to witness the death of the Jewish spies. To this day, I have never forgotten the scenes that I watched on TV of ordinary Iraqis dancing, playing joyful music, having picnics and mutilating the bodies of nine innocents Jews.
"I remember rounding on my parents, and accusing them of being heartless and cruel for bringing me into this world when they should have known the cruelty and savagery of the ordinary Iraqi population.
"Thereafter, my one and only aim was to survive and leave Iraq as soon as possible. My turn came in 1971 when I was smuggled out of Iraq by the Kurdish community into Iran. I eventually settled in England. Soon after, I was followed by my parents and brother. My father lost his business and left behind all his property and assets (land, financial investments, etc) and left Iraq. He had traded these financial assets in for his personal and his family's security.
"I never spoke or shared my experience of Iraq with my children. They grew up not knowing of that part of the life of their father. I only opened up slowly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Until a few years ago, whenever I used to see pictures of Iraqi citizens, I used to scrutinise them intently to see if I could recognise their faces from that fateful day in the main square of Baghdad.
"Go back to Iraq? The romantic part of me would like to take my children to witness their father’s childhood memories. The practical part of me says - never in a million years!"
*Mass exodus of 120,000 Iraqi Jews, who were permitted to leave for Israel on condition they renounced their Iraqi nationality.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The close-knit diaspora of the Jews of Aleppo

Carl Hoffman has written this long but interesting feature in the Jerusalem Post about the close-knit, business-savvy but pious community of the Jews of Aleppo, more numerous in Brooklyn than they ever were in their home town. (With thanks: Lily)

"About a 10-minute stroll from Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, at the end of a nondescript old street, is a little-known cultural treasure. Walk through a little easy-to-miss gateway at the side of a small synagogue, proceed down a short passageway, go through a door and up a flight of stairs and you have entered the rich, colorful world of Syrian Jews - specifically the Jews of the city called "Halab" in Arabic, "Aram Soba" in the Bible, and known to the world as Aleppo.

A wedding of Aleppo Jews, 1914.

A wedding of Aleppo Jews, 1914.

"Consisting of an office, a conference room with display cases and a small library, these are the headquarters of the Aleppo Jews Heritage Center. Although not well known to the general public, the center is not new. It was established 23 years ago to collect and document all aspects of the Aleppo Jewish community's long history, preserve its rich culture, and conduct and support new research.

"The center's current managing director, Ezra Kassin, 40, stresses that these activities are by no means intended solely for the benefit of Jews from Aleppo and their descendants, collectively known as "Aleppo Jews."

"The center is definitely for the general public as well as Aleppo Jews," he declares. "The Jewish people are composed of different parts. Each one together makes a beautiful picture. We want to show our part here. The Jewish community of Aleppo is ancient. It dates from biblical times, from the time of King David. Throughout our history, the Aleppo community has had many rich traditions that we want to show and share with all of the Jewish people."

Read article in full

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Key Mideast minority rights debate: 18 September

Masri Feki

An important debate on why minority rights in the Middle East are the key to pluralism and peace in the region will take place in London at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies on 18 September. The topic will be introduced by Masri Feki, a young Egyptian political scientist and author.

What we commonly think of as the 'Arab and Muslim world' is in fact a rich and varied mosaic of peoples. Over the last 50 years, many Middle Eastern minorities have been oppressed or have struggled to survive - be they national groups ( Berbers, Kurds, Turkomans, etc), religious communities (Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha'is, etc) or both (Armenians, Jews, etc). Sects, such as Shi’ites in the Gulf states and Sunnis in Iran, have not been successfully integrated within Islam itself.

Masri Feki sees minority rights as central to his vision of secular democracy. Now, more than ever, thriving minorities are the cornerstone of a healthy civil society and the key to pluralism and peace in this troubled region.

Following Masri Feki's lecture, representatives of Middle Eastern minorities are invited to take part in a debate on how best to build a new and better Middle East.

Born in Cairo, Masri M Feki is a political scientist and author of several works on the Middle East. He writes for the Turkish and Arabic press. He is the founder of a pressure group based in Paris, The Middle East Pact (MEP), which works to bring Middle Eastern communities together around a regional political pact.

The event is being organised by the London Middle East Institute in association with Harif. Please refer to the Harif website for full details.

TV proof that the Iranian regime is antisemitic

This blog does not normally focus on Arab and Iranian propaganda, but I am flagging this clip from a documentary shown on Iranian TV in May and June called 'secrets of Armageddon' : The Jewish plan for the genocide of humanity', translated by the invaluable MEMRI. (With thanks: Geoffrey, Denis)

Until now the Iranian authorities have been careful to insist that they are not anti-Jewish, just anti-Zionist. Jews in Iran have all the rights other communities enjoy, and the government affords them security and protection.

This TV programme, however, crosses a red line into out-and-out anti-Jewish antisemitism and demonisation. Note the 'Jewish plan for the genocide of humanity', not the Zionist plan. It lashes out in all directions: even Hollywood is a vulgar Jewish conspiracy. Pseudo-experts, one of whom disparagingly refers to 'Jew-boys', trot out the usual theories based on the notorious Tsarist forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This time, they suggest that the Jews, with their accolytes the Baha'is (seven have now been arrested as Israeli spies) and evangelical Christians, have a long-term plan to dominate Islam and conquer Iran.

You may laugh at the suggestion that peddlars of Harry Potter in dark alleys are spreading moral degeneration. You may comfort yourself that Iranian viewers are far too sophisticated to believe this rubbish. But that's what they said about Nazi propaganda in the 1930s.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Jewish legacy to Algeria is a kosher sausage

The sole legacy bequeathed by Algeria's exiled 130,000 Jews turns out to have been a sausage, claims Albert Bensoussan:

In his essay in Information juive (July/August 2008), Albert Bensoussan muses on what the Jews and Muslims of Algeria had in common: shared surnames - Guedj, Taieb, Touati, Khalfa, Said, Bahloul, Haddad, Tabet, Akoun, Hanoun, Bakoush, Habib. Jewish women had 'Muslim' first names - Sultana, Mariem, Mah'a. Jewish men could be named Mesod, Makhlouf, Saadia, Ichoua. Muslims were just as likely to have 'Jewish' names: Ishak, Sarah, Rahal, Lea, Yacoub. Berbers favoured Kahina ( after the Berber queen who converted to Judaism).

The Jews of Algeria continued to speak Arabic even after the French conquest. They corresponded in Judeo-Arabic: Arabic written in Hebrew characters. The Algerian Haggadah of Bensoussan's childhood, re-issued in 2001, was printed in both Hebrew and Arabic. His parents spoke French, but their mother tongue was Arabic.

Today there is not a single synagogue in Algeria. Cemeteries are wrecked and abandoned. Young people today have no idea that 130,000 Jews once lived in Algeria. The Jews left everything behind. What happened to Bensoussan's piano? His book collection? His family's everyday possessions?

Bensoussan says he was invited to take part in various seminars in Algiers. Each time, he was disinvited on one pretext or another. His stories of Algiers are in publishing limbo. It's as if the ink with which he writes his fading childhood memories has dried up forever.

One day, however, while lamenting the disappearance of Algerian Jewish life to Algerian friends, Bensoussan blurted out the expression 'cachir sausage' (not kosher but cachir), immortalised in a 1930s novel, Mouna, cachir et couscous by Fedinand Duchene. This successful novel celebrated the gastronomic union of three religions.

For the last 45 years, Algerian Arabs, who like Jews, do not eat pork, have been eating cachir sausage. Thus a sausage is all that's left to recall 2,000 years of Jewish-Berber-Arab coexistence.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Max Salama, Alexandria's last Jewish leader, dies

Interior of the Eliahou Hanavi synagogue in Nebi Daniel St (courtesy: Lucienne Carasso Bulow)

Dr Max Salama, leader of the Alexandrian Jewish community for the last eight years, has died aged 92. No Kaddish was recited for him, as there is only a handful of elderly Jews - mostly women - left in Egypt.

Born into an old Alexandrian family, Max Salama was the King of Egypt's personal dentist. In his latter years he dedicated himself to preserving Egypt's Jewish heritage. He helped restore the Nebi Daniel synagogue, repairing the roof, the entrance steps and the cemetery walls, and adding attractive grounds.

Yves Fedida, of the International Nebi Daniel Association, pays this tribute to Max Salama:

"He put the community on a firm financial footing once again. He encouraged a minyan (male quorum) to come from Israel to celebrate the High Holidays so that the community could affirm and be proud of its identity. He was able to protect the community archives from spiteful depredations, as well as the dignity of the Ark and Torah scrolls from rough handling by the official inspectors on their frequent visits. The gates of the synagogue were always open. He ensured free access to the cemeteries. He supported the ill and the needy.

It was a privilege to have known such a determined individual, in spite of his advanced years, and we salute him."

Friday, August 01, 2008

Kudos to the House for resolution 185!

Laurence Uniglicht of the Israel Hasbara Committee observes that the US House of Representatives resolution HR 185, putting Jewish refugees on an equal footing with Palestinian refugees, puts an end to the kind of 'peace' negotiations in which the Arab side can demand anything they want:

"Kudos to the U. S. House of Representatives for introducing and recently approving H. R. 185, informing a mostly uninformed nation and world that Jews, Christians, and other ethnic groups were booted out of Arab regimes over the years and forced to become refugees.

"Thus they implicitly deserve as much (if not more) recognition than so-called Palestinians who manipulate the ’R word’ as if it belongs to them exclusively. Indeed, per this honorable piece of legislation, yet to be approved, perhaps modified by the U.S. Senate and signed into law by the U.S. President, “approximately 850,000 Jews have been displaced from Arab countries since the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948.”

"Egad! That’s 100,000 more ‘refugees’ than claimed by so-called Palestinians, yet somehow, someway, all of those Jewish folks shed the self-defeating stigma of refugee status, migrated to other nations including Israel, mostly picked themselves up by their own bootstraps, worked hard, beget generations of productive children, some even becoming Nobel laureates, while those ‘poor humiliated’ Arab waifs, claiming to be tossed out of Israel albeit if truth be told mostly were persuaded to leave by Arab invaders intent on annihilating the Jewish State at her inception."

Read article in full