Monday, September 29, 2008

Capturing the taste of Rosh Hashana gone by

Writing in The New York Times Joan Nathan is taken by Esperanza Basson, originally from southern Iraq, on a journey into the Jewish culinary past.

The traditional dish, one her family had eaten at Rosh Hashana for generations in Amara, a city near Basra in southern Iraq, was made by stuffing Swiss chard leaves with beets, onions, rice and sometimes meat. It was simmered in a lemon sauce with sugar to mitigate the bitterness of the leaves.

Other cooks, she explained, prepare a sweet and sour sauce that combines tart tamarind with brown sugar or a syrup made by slowly cooking dates, a technique that stretches back to the Biblical period.

Mrs. Basson’s family has always called the chard dish “mahshi.” (Mahshi means “stuffed” in Arabic.) Because once Mrs. Basson couldn’t find undamaged chard leaves to make the traditional version, she decided to make the dish in layers, calling it “fake mahshi.” To her surprise, the dish tasted just as good.

As I dipped my fork into the vegetables and the meat, I felt as though I was taking a Jewish journey into the past. Jewish cooks have always varied dishes depending on where they lived and what was available. This dish, first created in Iraq or perhaps Iran, traveled throughout the centuries on the trade routes with rabbis and merchants. It migrated as far as Lithuania, where one Rosh Hashana I ate a version with grated beets, sweet potatoes and beef.

“I would say this dish is about 1,000 years old,” said Paul Freedman, professor of medieval history at Yale. “The sweet and sour probably came from Persia and went as far west as Andalusia with the traders. The mercantile and rabbinic network of Jews created an arch of tastes and food.”

As we ate, Mrs. Basson, who had come to Israel in 1951, explained that Iraqi and other Sephardic Jews have a Rosh Hashana seder. Although the Passover seder is the best known, the word refers to a traditional order of events. In the Sephardic seder observed on Rosh Hashana, a series of blessings is said over squash, leeks, dates, pomegranates, black-eyed peas, apples, the head of a fish or a lamb and Swiss chard and beet greens.

The Hebrew word for beet greens and Swiss chard sounds very much like the verb meaning “remove, throw out, or cause to disappear.” The blessing Sephardic Jews recite at their Rosh Hashana meal before eating beet greens or chard leaves translates roughly to “May it be your will, O God and the God of our forefathers, that our adversaries be removed.”

Read article in full


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Percy Gourgey, Jews of Arab lands campaigner, dies

One of the most stalwart fighters for the rights of Jews from Arab lands, Percy Gourgey, has died in London aged 84. (With thanks for obit: Geoffrey)

Percy Sassoon Gourgey, MBE, FRSA spent the last years of his life at Edinburgh House, the Sephardi home for the elderly in Wembley. He was born to Iraqi Jews in Bombay in 1923 and served as a Lieutenant in the Indian Navy during the war.

Percy spent the whole of his adult life as an activist in Jewish affairs. He served for many years on the executive of the Board of Deputies. At one time he was a vice chairman of the Board. He was a staunch supporter of the rights of Jews in Arab lands and chairman of the Jews In Arab Lands Committee. He had also been Chairman of the Socialist Societies Section of the Labour Party at the time when Socialism was fashionable in Anglo-Jewish cultural society.

Percy was an acknowledged authority on Indian Jewry, the Indian Freedom Struggle and the Indian Naval Revolt of 1946 and had written several books on these matters.

Percy was the first editor of The Scribe, the journal of Babylonian Jewry.

Edwin Shuker, president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, adds:

"Percy Gourgey was a dogged and knowledgeable campaigner and an activist on many Jewish and Zionist issues. He was never afraid or intimidated to speak his mind even when he was a lone voice, such as on the subject of The rights of Jews of Arab Countries. For decades he kept the issue alive by repeatedly reminding the public of the Forgotten Exodus. I, for one, owe Percy an eternal debt of gratitude for introducing me to the multiple aspects of that issue.

"His funeral was dignified and well-attended by many leaders of the community including Mrs Flo Kaufmann, Professor Eric Moonman, Dr Naim Dangoor and Dr Lionel Koplowitz ,the former president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews who gave a wonderful overview of Percy's public life and service to the community. Percy was a unique personality who dedicated his life to the causes he believed in. May his soul be blessed with eternal peace."

Percy Gourgey's speech on the 30th anniversary of the 1969 Baghdad hangings

Obituary in the Jewish Chronicle

Friday, September 26, 2008

Call for minorities to unite

Masri Feki lectures at SOAS (photos: Ali Noori)

The Jewish Chronicle has this report on last week's call by Masri Feki, an Egyptian political scientist, for a new Middle East recognising national diversity and religious rights.

"An Egyptian political scientist has called for a new coalition of national and religious minorities from the Middle East during a lecture he delivered in London.

"Masri Feki, who lives in France, wants to see a new regional framework in the Middle East which recognises national diversity and religious rights.

"At a talk at the London Middle Eastern Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies last week, he rejected "exclusivist" ideologies such as pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism.

"Instead, he advocated the idea of "Middle Easternism", which conceives of the region as a "fascinating mosaic of cultures and beliefs" rather than a "monolithic bloc".

"The organisation he has founded, the Middle East Pact, aims to promote "transnational solidarity" through publicising moves for democratic reform.

"It will highlight the presence of minorities such as Copts, Assyrians and others and present "non-Arabic components of the Middle East (Turkey, Iran, Israel) as legitimate and integral parts of the region".

Read article in full

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Jews of Lebanon: 'joie de vivre' in exile

A film about the Jews of Lebanon could have been rather depressing: it could have shown a bombed-out Jewish quarter, the Beirut synagogue overrun by grass and pigeons, unkept cemeteries, yet another community driven to extinction in the Arab world.

But Yves Turquier's film Jews of Lebanon (La petite histoire des juifs du Liban - 2006) is anything but. It's full of quirky characters and attractive ladies who themselves are full of joie de vivre. It's about how the spirit of the Lebanese Jews lives on wherever they have rebuilt their lives - in Mexico, Canada, France, Brazil, Israel, Italy, America.

The film, which took a year to make and features interviews with 300 people in 10 different countries, was not short on nostalgia - for an idyllic childhood spent on the shores of the Mediterranean, winters skiing on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, the food, the smells, the parties, the sunshine. But as one or two admitted from their new, spacious, exile in Canada or Mexico,' Lebanon now seems so small, and ' a bit of a hole.'

Lebanon was unique among Middle Eastern states: Jews were not just another minority but had constitutional rights, along with 17 other communities. But watching Turquier's film it appears that those rights, in many cases, did not extend to citizenship. Many Lebanese Jews, including Turquier's parents, had moved from Syria to Lebanon. Their children were born in Lebanon, but were not allowed to acquire Lebanese citizenship. A number of Jews were stateless. Apparently, a Lebanese national who married a stateless person would also lose his or her nationality.

Things began to go wrong for the Jews after the UN Palestine Partition plan in 1947. Jews were terrorised by hostile marching Muslims shouting Filistin baladna, al- Yahud kelabna (Palestine is our country, the Jews are our dogs). A few Jews were interned for a whole year while their children struggled to keep their businesses going. Jewish identity documents were stamped with the word Musawi or Israelite. The Alliance school in Beirut was blown up, killing the principal. Jews learned to bite their tongue in non-Jewish company.

Life seemed to return to normal until 1967 and the outbreak of the Six Day War. Then there were renewed disturbances and 5,800 Jews left out of 6,000. 'We understood that Lebanon did not belong to us anymore', one Jew sighed. The 1975 civil war pitted Muslims and Christians and the few remaining Jews were caught in the middle, sometimes literally in the firing line, with some unfortunates kidnapped and even killed. One woman said her young brother's first toy was a Kalachnikov, which he learned to assemble and disassemble.

But apart from the fugitives who fled penniless from the civil war, the Lebanese Jews were able to sell their property and leave with their assets to start afresh in the West.

Will the Jews ever return to Beirut? Not, says Yves Turquier, while Lebanon does not exist as a state but a collection of warring sects. Would the synagogue ever be rebuilt? Not while there was no guarantee that it would not be blown up. Meanwhile, Lebanon recedes further into the past, and to the younger generation means little more than rice in lemon sauce and hummus.

The final chapter of La petite histoire des juifs du Liban has already been written.

You can buy boxed sets of three DVDs on the Jews of Lebanon, priced at 100 Euros each. Proceeds will go to a Foundation set up to document the Jews of Lebanon. For further details please email

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Remaining Jews should 'wake up and leave Iran'

Tom Mountain's piece on the remaining Jews of Iran on Arutz sheva gets it wrong sometimes - ie he does not mention the massive exodus to California after 1979, nor the execution of the Jewish community leader, nor the false spying charges against 13 Jews in Shiraz. But otherwise, he's right: (with thanks: a reader)

( Life was good for the Jews of Persia living under the protection and generosity of Shah Reza Pahlavi, just as it had been under the previous ruler, and the ruler before that, down through the centuries. (Well not exactly - there were bad times too - ed).

Jews had occupied the highest levels of government, industry and academia in Persia since antiquity. They were among the proudest standard-bearers of the Persian nation. There was never any reason for them to gaze into the future and think otherwise. Their great-grandchildren would live peaceably in Persia just as their great-grandparents had. Life would go on.

Then one day the Shah climbed aboard his plane, flew off into the horizon and never returned. It all happened so fast. Too fast, it seemed, for the Jews of Persia to fully grasp that with the abdication of Reza Pahlavi, life in Persia had changed forever. Now they were living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, under Muslim clerics whose purpose in life was to create a Koran-based theocracy.

Some Jews saw the writing on the wall and fled immediately, usually with the help of the El Al planes that the Israeli government dispatched within days of the fall of the Shah. But the planes still left Tehran half empty. The mass exodus to Israel never materialized. The Begin government and the Jewish Agency were perplexed: Didn't these Jews realize they could be in danger? Didn't they know that Israel was there to rescue them and bring them home to the freedom to the Jewish State?

The answer was "no" on both counts. The Jews of Persia, some 80,000 strong, had always resisted the calls from Israel, even though every Muslim country from North Africa to Iraq had witnessed its Jews embark en masse to Israel. Iran was the lone holdout. But why should Persian Jews move to Israel when they could just take a round-trip flight from Tehran to Tel Aviv anytime? Such was the mentality of the Persians, pre-1979.

Yet, as happened so many times in Jewish history, the door closed shut and the Jews couldn't leave even if they wanted to. And now they wanted to. The Islamic Revolution had begun, and although the Jews could never be a part of it, they would still live in the Islamic Republic of Iran - the Ayatollah Khomeini said so. They would not be persecuted or imprisoned, and they could go about their business as a "protected" minority class. Those high-level military and government jobs couldn't be held by Jews anymore though, nor could other "sensitive areas" like banking.

Then came the war with Iraq. Every able-bodied male was needed at the front lines. And that included the Jews, expected to charge the infidel Iraqis under the banner of... Allah. Hundreds, then thousands, of Jews fled Iran any way they could. By the 1990s, with the war over and an aura of stability in the country, the 30,000 remaining Jews settled in for the long haul. They were still Persians, after all.

And the Islamic government made life nicer for them. Synagogues could function as before. Jewish property would be respected. Jews could gain admittance to universities; Jewish faculty had secure jobs. Kosher shops were open. Jewish rituals and festivities would be unhindered; the police would even tolerate the mixed dancing and liquor at such events. Sure, cinemas, night clubs and the like were shut down, but that was to ensure morality for the whole country. Jewish schools could operate, but under the supervision of the state, which meant that Jewish students would have to go to school on Saturday, as the state mandated.

And all that talk about eliminating the Zionist entity, well, that's still official state policy, but so long as the Jews never complained about it they'd be fine. (...)

The Jews of Iran, complacent in their totalitarian society as obedient submissive servants to their ayatollah masters, may soon be confronted with a shock greater than the abdication of the Shah. And that will occur when the first jets or missiles bearing the Star of David cross into Iranian airspace. Then they'll have to run for their lives to the nearest border. If they make it that far. The Jewish presence in Iran is coming to an end. How it ends will largely depend on whether these Jews wake up in time and leave Iran. Any way they can.

Read article in full

Monday, September 22, 2008

Minority rights are not just for democracies

Last Thursday, 85 people converged on the London Middle East Institute at SOAS to hear a lecture on minority rights - probably the first time one has ever been held in such a prestige setting. The lecturer was Masri Feki, a young Egyptian political scientist and author based in France. A lively discussion followed, featuring Armenians, Ahwazis, Jews, Kurds, Baha'is, Berbers and even a Zoroastrian lady. The next day, The Guardian, predictably perhaps, posted a piece savaging the idea of minority rights in the Middle East. The weblog Harry's Place has just published this guest post rebuttal:

"Once there was a Coptic Church in Egypt where the toilets were out of order. But under an old Ottoman law, repairs to churches cannot be carried out without the permission of the Egyptian President. When the exasperated priest was told that he needed the President to get the job done, he cried:” I don’t need the President, I need a plumber! “

"This story is symptomatic of the plight of Egypt’s 12 million Coptic Christians. Not only are they not allowed to repair or build churches without official permission - seldom given - but they are politically under-represented and banned from public service jobs. From time to time they are harrassed, there are kidnappings and forcible conversions to Islam.

"The beleaguered minorities of the Middle East are in a sorry state. Kurds in Syria are deprived of citizenship and not allowed to speak their language. Zoroastrians, once dominant, now down to 25,000, suffer subtle discrimination in the Islamic republic of Iran, and Christians persecuted by Islamists in Iraq are leaving in their hundreds of thousands. As for the Jews, it is too late to save their ancient pre-Islamic communities. From a million in 1948 numbers have dwindled to a mere 4,500, due to state discrimination and the repercussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"For Masri Feki, a young Egyptian political scientist and author who lectured on minority rights at the London Middle East Institute at SOAS last week, the plight of minorities is symptomatic of a Middle East with a deep identity crisis. The 15 states of the region have experimented with pan-Arabism (based on language), and now pan-Islamism (based on religion). Both ideologies are bankrupt. It is time, Feki argues, to build a new Middle East which explodes the myth of the Arab nation and includes Turkey, Iran, the Kurds ( having achieved by now their collective right to self-determination) and Israel. Currently almost all the Arab states of the region have constitutions where the principal source of legislation is Islamic (Shar’ia) law. These constitutions have discrimination against religious groups built into them.They often deny citizenship to certain ethnic groups. The new Middle East should guarantee equal rights and freedoms for all.

"All this talk of minority rights troubles Brian Whitaker writing on Comment is Free . What is the point of focusing on minority rights in Arab and Muslim countries, he argues, when the majority are oppressed? Democracies should be concerned with the good treatment of minorities. In dictatorships, where minorities are persecuted, people should forget about minority rights.

"In my view, Whitaker has it precisely backwards. Minority rights are the thin end of the wedge. Treatment of minorities is the litmus test of the health of a society. State abuse of its minorities can soon degenerate into the abuse of everybody’s rights. This is precisely what happened as soon as Arab states acquired their independence. Jews, Christians and other minorities were the first victims of hatred and intolerance. All the others had their turn soon enough, heretics and secularists, and finally, those who did not fit exactly into the nationalist or Islamist ideological mould.

Minority rights are not a luxury that only democracies can afford. After the right to life, the right to freedom of expression, culture and religion are the next most important human rights. In the Arab Middle East and Iran where so many basic rights and freedoms are lacking, the struggle has to begin somewhere. Why not with minority rights?

Read post and comments in full

Will Tsipi Livni be good for the Jews?

If she becomes Prime Minister, will the new leader of the Kadima party be good for the Jews? I specifically have in mind those Jews who were refugees from Arab countries and Iran.

Tsipi Livni's track record on this issue does not bode well. At the Annapolis conference in November 2007, as Israeli Foreign Minister, she made a fleeting mention of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, but conflated them with Jewish refugees from Europe. She did not stress that those from Arab countries had been resettled by Israel, only that they 'longed for Israel'. At the time this was at least an improvement on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He did not mention Jewish refugees at all, but empathised with 'Palestinian suffering'.

"I did not come here to argue whose cause is more just," Tsipi said."Our hands are extended in peace to the entire Arab world without exception," she continued, going on to ask Arab nations to relinquish the use of the 'Naqba' (The Disaster) in referring to Israel's birth.

"Palestinian refugees, wherever they may be," she said, "long for this nation-state ( a separate state of Palestine) just as all the Jewish refugees forced out of Europe and Arab countries longed for Israel."

What has been missing for some time is an explicit, public statement that Jews from Arab countries and Iran were victims of a monstrous injustice, proportionally bigger than that suffered by Arab refugees, and that they were resettled in Israel in a de facto exchange of populations.

This reticence is par for the course for Israel's policy-makers, for whom Jewish refugees remain something of a taboo. Jewish refugees have never been a central plank of foreign policy, in spite of the fact that two foreign ministers, Silvan Shalom and Shlomo Ben-Ami, originated from Arab countries. No prime minister has ever made clear and ringing pronouncements to the Anglo-Saxon media about Jewish refugees.

There are two possible reasons for this: first, they think that Jewish refugees are irrelevant to talks with the Palestinians. Second, they do not want to rock the boat by introducing a new element to the agenda and a possible hurdle in the way of peace.

Although Olmert's parting shot before leaving office was a leaked mention of Jewish refugees to the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee, there is little reason to think that things will change under Livni.

More's the pity.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The nightmare of trying to leave Iran in 1979

Continuing his series in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Karmel Melamed tells the story of Ruben Melamed's escape - and how it nearly went horribly wrong:

"After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, Melamed, who had not been able to find work in the United States, decided to return home in mid-1979. He hoped to resuscitate his large business, which had been inactive for months.

"Looking back on the whole event, I can say I was tricked by Khomeini's assurances that nothing would happen to those who fled Iran but wanted to come back," Melamed said.

"He discovered it was a mistake when Revolutionary Guard members came to his office, seeking to arrest him after interrogating his partner.

"They had just killed Habib Elghanian [leader of the Jewish community in Iran], and I was next on their list -- the new Islamic regime that had come to power wanted to get their hands on my assets," he explained. "So they placed a label on me that I was a Zionist who had worked as a member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran and that I had participated in the World Zionist Congress."

"His company was seized by the regime. He was forbidden to conduct any business in Iran, and he was placed on a list of people forbidden to leave the country. For the next six months, Melamed hid in the homes of both Jewish and Muslim friends in Tehran and the city of Shiraz.

"I was very tired that I had burdened these people while living in hiding with them," he said. "You have to understand that the Islamic regime had placed ads in the newspapers saying that anyone who helped or hid a person that was on the government black list would face the same punishment as the black-listed person -- so everyone that was hiding me was frightened."

"After several months of living in hiding and fear, Melamed's friends obtained a false passport for him bearing the name of "Ravin Aminpour." They urged him to leave the country illegally. Being proud and stubborn, he initially refused the false passport and unsuccessfully sought to obtain formal permission from authorities to leave Iran.

"I was so tired from all of this running around that at one point, I was even considering giving myself up, surrendering to the authorities and serving a prison term for a few years," Melamed said.

"His father-in-law convinced him to pay 250,000 in Iranian currency and to accept an offer from a Jewish man who promised to place Melamed on a commercial flight leaving Tehran without having to go through airport security.

"A few days before his flight was to leave, the Jewish man who had promised to help Melamed informed him that he would not be able to get him on board the plane. Instead, he would help him at the airport if authorities were going to arrest him.

"His friends devised a plan. Two of them would wait outside the terminal in a car with the engine running, in case Melamed had to make a quick getaway. Two other friends and a Revolutionary Guard who had been bribed would wait inside the terminal to help the businessman escape if something went wrong.

"On the night after Yom Kippur, in September 1980, Melamed dressed as a construction worker. He had grown a beard to disguise himself and carried the false passport.

"The businessman was able to get through the airport undetected, even though signs with photos of him were posted on the airport walls.

"After I boarded the plane, the engines revved up, the plane was readying to take off and I thought I was safe -- but suddenly, the plane stopped, and the engines were turned off," he said.

"Five armed Revolutionary Guards immediately stormed onto the plane and were demanding to see Ravin Aminpour -- and that was me. My heart just sank to the floor at that moment, and I said goodbye to my wife and kids under my breath as I approached the guards."

"Suspicious, the armed guards interrogated Melamed for 20 minutes on the plane. They accused him of lying about his identity as a construction worker going to Frankfurt, Germany, to have a heart operation.

"The guard asked me if I was a former military general, and at that point, I discovered they were not looking for me but rather a different person they had mistaken me for," Melamed said."

Read article in full

See other articles

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Restoration of Beirut synagogue begins next month

In 1983, Isaac Arazi and his wife, caught in sectarian fighting during Lebanon's 15-year civil war, were helped to escape by a Shi'ite Muslim militiaman. Now he is raising money from the Lebanese Jewish diaspora to rebuild the bombed-out Magen Avraham synagogue in Beirut, Bloomberg reports. The restoration, which begins next month, has Hezbollah's blessing:

Arazi figures it will cost about $1 million to restore the synagogue. Making the effort possible is the end of an 18-month crisis between Lebanon's political factions, the blessing of the Lebanese government, financial support from a downtown reconstruction project and acquiescence from the Shiite Hezbollah movement that fought a month-long war against Israel in 2006.

He so far has raised about $40,000 for the project, but has promises of more. Ten percent of the estimated cost will come from Solidere SAL, a company founded in 1994 by then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri -- later assassinated in a bombing supporters blame on Syria -- to rebuild the capital's downtown.

The company has given $150,000 to each of 14 religious organizations that are restoring places of worship in Lebanon -- about $2.1 million in all. ``We help all the communities,'' said Solidere chairman Nasser Chammaa.

The Safra family, whose Safra Group includes Brazil's Banco Safra SA and Safra National Bank of New York and which was based in Lebanon in the 1940s as part of the Jewish community, has agreed to help fund the project once work begins, Arazi said.

Joseph R. Safra, nephew of Republic National Bank of New York founder Edmond Safra, said: ``We do not comment on private matters.'' Joseph Safra heads Arview Holdings, Inc., a New York financial-consulting and advisory firm.

Two banks in Switzerland whose founders have Lebanese- Jewish roots also agreed to provide financing, Arazi said. One of the banks has pledged $100,000 toward the synagogue's restoration. Arazi declined to name the banks.

Even the warring factions in Lebanon's government have blessed the project. ``This is a religious place of worship and its restoration is welcome,'' Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, 65, said in an interview. Hussain Rahal, a spokesman for Hezbollah, said his group -- which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, and which the West considers a terrorist organization -- also supports the restoration of Maghen Abraham.

``We respect the Jewish religion just like we do Christianity,'' he said. ``The Jews have always lived among us. We have an issue with Israel's occupation of land.''

Arazi said work on the restoration is to begin next month. Meanwhile, his council is already working on plans for its next project: restoring Beirut's Jewish cemetery, where about 4,500 people are buried.

Walking among the weeds overgrowing the cemetery's tombstones, Arazi said: ``I remember my father when I come here.''

Read article in full

Same article in Jerusalem Post

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Libyan Jews demand their share of compensation

Having failed to persuade the Libyans to compensate them directly, Jews from Libya are hoping that some of the $5 billion which the Italian government is about to pay Colonel Gaddafi for the ravages of colonialism will find its way to them. Ynet News has the story:

"Are Jews who immigrated to Israel from Libya about to receive a large sum of money from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi?

"The World Organization of Libyan Jews plans to ask Gaddafi for some of the funds his country is slated to receive from Italy in compensation for the period when Libya was under Italian rule.

"The Italian government recently announced that it would pay Libya $5 billion to compensate for the occupation period. Meir Kahalon, chairman of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, recently sent a letter to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, stating that "we believe Italy owes the Jews of Libya compensation for the suffering and pain engraved into our flesh to this day.

"Libya's Jews suffered to the same extent from the damages of colonialism and from loss of humanism upon their transfer to labor camps and concentration camps during World War II," he claimed in the letter. Kahalon also sent a letter to Gaddafi, demanding that the moment he receives compensation from the Italian government part of will be transferred to Libyan Jews in Israel."

Read article in full

JTA News article

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Refugees: What did Olmert really mean?

" I join in expressing sorrow for what happened to the Palestinian refugees. But also what happened to the Jewish refugees expelled from Arab countries."

Already Ehud Olmert's words to a Knesset committee, leaked anonymously to the press, are making waves.

Olmert's sorrow is already being misrepresented as an apology and an acceptance that Israel was responsible for the Arab refugees of 1948.

People on both sides are irritated by Olmert's equating of both sets of refugees. On the one hand, Arabs are busy denying that the Jews were refugees at all. On the other hand, Jews are saying that there is no equivalence between Arab refugees who escaped a war zone, and Jews 'ethnically cleansed' by deliberate Arab state policy.

But official resolutions and peace agreements throughout the decades have always referred to a just settlement of the 'refugee problem', both Jewish and Arab. The trouble is that the Jewish refugee problem was always implied, never stated explicitly. Thus advocates for Jewish refugees are overjoyed that Olmert, at the very end of his term as Prime Minister, has actually mentioned Jewish refugees from Arab countries for the very first time.

Olmert also declared: "Under absolutely no circumstances will there be a right of return, but we are prepared to be part of an international mechanism that will work to solve the problem."

The 'international mechanism' idea is not new. One of those 'international mechanisms' will be "compensation" -- and Israel won't be the only country asked to pay it. Therefore Israel cannot be held solely responsible for what befell the Arab residents who left Palestine in the wake of the Arab-Jewish conflict in 1947-1948. Other countries -- including members of the Arab League who have perpetuated the refugee issue for the last 60 years -- will also be expected to contribute generously to an internationally administered and funded compensation package.

An international fund is also the preferred solution for the compensation of Jewish refugees.

It was first put forward by President Clinton in 2000 and reiterated by President Bush in January 2008.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made the following assertion after the rights of Jews displaced from Arab countries were discussed at ‘Camp David II’ in July 2000: (From White House Transcript of Israeli television interview):

“There will have to be some sort of international fund set up for the refugees. There is, I think, some interest, interestingly enough, on both sides, in also having a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land”.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Olmert 'sorry' for Palestinian and Jewish refugees

Ehud Olmert has made his first (and almost certainly last as Prime Minister) public reference to Jewish refugees from Arab Countries in remarks to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee: (With thanks: Edwin)

Update: according to this AP report in the Jerusalem Post we learn that Olmert's statement was not meant to be public at all, but made behind closed doors. What a disappointment !

"Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday said he was sorry for the plight of Palestinians and Jews who became refugees as a result of Israel's establishment.

"I join in expressing sorrow for what happened to the Palestinians and also for what happened to the Jews who were expelled from Arab states," the prime minister said.

Olmert made the comments before a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, apparently in his last such session as prime minister. He was speaking in reference to the key Palestinian demand for a "right of return" in peace negotiations with Israel.

"Under absolutely no circumstances will there be a right of return," Olmert declared, "but we are prepared to be part of an international mechanism that will work to solve the problem."

Palestinians have demanded that Israel accept responsibility for the suffering of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the War of Independence that followed Israel's 1948 creation.

Olmert's remark Monday fell far short of meeting this demand. But it was unusual for an Israeli prime minister to say Israel will participate in expressing sorrow for what happened to them."

Read article in full

How I was taken hostage by office revolutionaries

Sion Ebrahami, now 70, pictured with his grandson
Continuing his series for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal marking the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution and the exodus of the bulk of Iranian Jewry, Karmel Melamed interviews Simon (Sion) Ebrahami, who was held hostage by armed employees at his accountancy firm, before engineering his escape.

Sion Ebrahami: At the time, I had nine British and American partners and five Iranians of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. They included Muslims, Jews, Assyrians and Armenians.

As clients were both major corporations with international affiliations and also Iranian government institutions, I knew and worked with people at a very high echelon of the private and the government levels.

With the early signs of the revolution in 1978, the staff went on a sitting strike, and as the situation culminated into the takeover of the American Embassy compound and hostage-taking -- which I was an eyewitness to. Since our office was facing the embassy, this stimulated our staff more, and soon my partners and I were taken hostage. This situation paralyzed the firm.

With them not going to work, the cash flow started getting messed up. What they were demanding from us was to terminate them all, pay them a termination compensation of $20 million, then re-hire them. Where was the money that we didn't have going to come from, we asked? 'Your hidden bank accounts in Israel and America!' they responded.

Jewish Journal: Who were the people that took you hostage?

SE: With the passage of time, we realized that these people were from three factions within the firm, which included the Mojahedeen faction, the communist faction and there were the very fanatic pro-Khomeini faction.

And we had a few people who were still loyal to us and gave us inside information as to how these people were confronting one another. As the unrest escalated and Khomeini ended up coming to Iran, with the hostage situation happening in the embassy, my partners and I were also taken hostage by my employees.

JJ: Typically, people are terrified when they are taken hostage. What did you find humorous about the incident?

SE: The comedy side of this whole thing was more appealing to me than the tragic side, because these were not ordinary factory workers who would put the factory owners in a dark room and threaten to kill them. We had our breakfast, our kebab for lunch and our dinners; they were very polite -- it was dead crazy!

But we were not allowed to go home. They assigned each partner a guard, which came from the employee pool. They said, 'Please don't go home tonight, because we are thinking of coming up with an answer to your end of the bargain' -- and we knew then that we were hostages.

Then they came to our offices and told us, 'Please don't go home.' They were very nice, polite, civilized -- but sons of bitches!

JJ: How did you eventually extricate yourself from this hostage situation?
SE: So here I am in the middle of the hostage-taking, sitting in my office, and one of my clients, a major subsidiary of the French government, calls me. The guy was my connection, and he asked me what was happening with his case.

I thought this was a God-given thing, because they owed us somewhere around $60,000. So I asked my client to come over to Tehran, and he said, 'Are you crazy? Are you kidding me? Why don't you come here?' I said OK, and he agreed to give me the check when I came to France.

By then, my office was being run by a revolutionary committee, which was comprised of my own driver and a few other hoodlums. I called the revolutionary committee into my office and told them my clients have called me to Paris, and I was going to get the $60,000.

Now the office was in a financial mess; no one was paying their salaries, and $60,000 was a ton of money at that time in Iran. My driver -- a revolutionary committee member -- said, 'I think he's going to escape.'

And then I told my captors, 'Get the hell out of my office; make up your mind, then come back and tell me if you want me to go and get you $60,000!' Of course, the latter part of my cry worked.

They returned and asked what guarantees I could give them that I would not escape. I said, 'My family is here; I have no intention of escaping,' and they agreed to remove my name from the black list -- the list of people who were forbidden to leave the country.

I called my client and asked him for a visa. Fortunately, I had my whole family on one passport, and he arranged for a six-month visa to France. After three days of work in Paris in September of 1980, I returned to Tehran with the check, and these people were celebrating the mighty dollars and distributing it amongst themselves.

I had already packed up a few suitcases. I grabbed my family, jumped on a plane and escaped to France. The fortunate thing was that they had forgotten to blacklist me again. We came to France, we applied for a visa to come to America and eventually made it here.

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Other articles in the series

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Iraqi MP punished after visit to Israel

Hopes of normalised relations between Iraq and Israel were dashed when the Iraqi Parliament voted to suspend the immunity of one of its members following his third visit to Israel. The comments thread following this Jerusalem Post report show, however, that Mithal al-Alousi does have his supporters among Iraqi readers:

Iraqi legislators said Sunday that parliament had voted to lift the immunity of a Sunni Arab lawmaker who visited Israel.

Alusi at the funeral of his...

Alusi at the funeral of his two sons who were killed in an assassination attempt in Baghdad in 2005.
Photo: AP

The parliament has also banned Mithal al-Alousi from traveling outside Iraq or attending parliamentary sessions, they said.

Sunday's punishment was confirmed by Osama al-Nujeif, a Sunni Arab lawmaker, and Haider al-Ibadi, a Shi'ite lawmaker.

The two men said al-Alousi's trip was illegal and a humiliation for Iraqis who see Israel as a historical enemy. Without parliamentary immunity, al-Alousi could be subject to prosecution.

Al-Alousi, chairman of Iraq's Democratic Party, surprisingly arrived at a conference on terror in Herzliya last Wednesday, calling for the establishment of a joint intelligence network with Israel and the United States.

"In Israel, there is no occupation, there is liberalism," Al-Alusi said to the sound of roaring applause."

Read article in full

Reuters article

Interview with the Jerusalem Post

How Iraq turned from the Garden of Eden to hell

The Canadian Press interviews Joe Balass, who made Baghdad Twist, a film which chronicles how the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden turned into a living hell for Iraq's Jews in the late 1960s:

"The Iraqi-born director escaped from the country in 1970 at the age of four, brought out by his mother at a time when the situation for his Jewish family, as with all Jews in Iraq, became increasingly unsafe.

"His film uses family photographs and archival newsreel footage dating from 1920 to '70 to evoke a tranquil era, with images of children swimming in the Tigris River, schoolgirls playing volleyball and wedding guests in western clothes dancing the twist.

"On the soundtrack, Balass's mother answers his questions about what life was like before the population of Jews plummeted from an estimated 150,000-220,000 to close to zero today.

"I was a Jewish Iraqi - the two always went together," she says firmly, the determination in her voice suggesting great inner strength.

"I speak Jewish Arabic, that's my mother tongue."

"After the 1967 war between Israel and Arab countries, Jews faced a surge of hatred and violence in Iraq, and she decided soon after to try to save her family by getting out.

"If we stay, we are dead. If we leave, maybe we survive," she says.

"The fact that events changed suddenly for Jews is something that Balass says he wanted to highlight with his selection of images.

"People are happy, people are dancing, everything is fine - and then from one day to the next your neighbours turn against you, there's propaganda on the radio that says you're a spy, and things just can go completely upside down," he says."

See other articles about Baghdad Twist here and here

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Demonstrators highlight Jews from Arab lands

The campaign to draw attention to the destruction of the Jewish communities of Arab Countries hit the streets of California when a dozen women, dressed in black, picketed this year's annual Arab Cultural Fair (via Blue Truth blog):

"With recent attention on the Jews from Arab lands, the organizers of the 14th Annual Arab Cultural Fair still seemed angry when a dozen activists showed up in Golden Gate park in San Francisco bearing signs describing the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab lands. The group, Oakland Women In Black decided that the time had come to bring public awareness to the forgotten refugees of 1948, the Jews expelled from Arab lands.

Oakland Women in Black describe themselves as Jews and allies who stand against injustices tolerated by others, rejecting the notion that some people are worthy victims. They have broken off from the other Bay area Women in Black groups in their belief that all people, not just a select few, have the right to security, home, education, justice and freedom.

There had always been a Jewish presence in the Arab world. Since the expulsions of the indigenous Jews, this important thread is missing from the rich cultural tapestry of the Arab world. The Oakland Women in Black prepared informative signs showing the numbers of Jews in respective Arab countries before the expulsions and at present.

Tunisia 1948 Jewish population: 105,000 2008: 1,500
Algeria 1948 Jewish population: 140,000 2008: 100
Egypt 1948 Jewish population: 75,000 2008: 100

The group maintained a solemn vigil, dressed in black and bearing silent witness to the destroyed Jewish communities of Arab land. And, true to form, festival organizers called the police.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Libyan Jewish leader Raffaello Fellah dies

Raffaello Fellah, a leader of exiled Libyan Jewry, has died at the age of 73, JTA News reports.

Fellah, a Tripoli native, died last weekend in Rome. He and about 6,000 other Libyan Jews fled widespread persecution in 1967. Most moved to Israel, but Fellah was among about 2,000 Libyan Jews who settled in Italy.

A businessman, Fellah was a prominent figure in Italian Jewry, a past president of the World Organization of Libyan Jews and a member of the World Sephardic Federation. He also was a co-founder of a group aimed at promoting "trialogue" among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

My grandparents' narrow escape from Iran

Karmel Melamed (centre) with his grandparents

It is thirty years since the Iranian revolution and the start of the exodus of some 75,000 Jews. Continuing his commemorative series in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, Karmel Melamed tells of his grandparents' narrow escape, and his unlikely part in getting them safely to the USA:

"My grandfather, Esmaeil Khorramian, who was in his 50s at the time, and my grandmother, Pari, who was in her early 40s, saw their seemingly peaceful and very affluent lives in Tehran overturned in 1983 on Tu b'Shevat at services in their synagogue. That night, friends urged them to leave the country, because some of their tenants were Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and word had leaked out that they were planning to arrest my grandfather in order to seize his assets.

"After 26 years of building my near-perfect life, one day I realized that I had to dismantle that life and leave Iran forever," my grandmother related. "My home in a high-end neighborhood of Tehran was like a small castle, and everyone who saw it would say it was incredible."

"Escape would not be easy. My grandparents faced the problem of fleeing Iran, which had closed its borders during the Iran-Iraq War. However, a greater challenge was how to bring along my grandfather's 92-year-old mother, Sara. She insisted that she would not leave Iran under any circumstances.

"With few options, my grandparents turned to smugglers, who agreed get them out of Iran and into Pakistan for a fee. However, they demanded an extra 2 million in Iranian currency to also smuggle out my great-grandmother.

"One night I went to sleep, and the next day, Feb. 8, 1983, I left my house, my belongings, my entire life behind, and left with only a handbag in my hand," my grandmother said in tears as she recalled the departure.

"My grandparents had to lie to my great-grandmother to get her to leave the house, telling her that they were all going on a vacation.

"The smugglers were also taking a Baha'i woman and her young daughter. The Baha'i woman was a doctor, and she had been released from prison by a guard who recognized her as the doctor who had treated his child.

"The five got into a van and were driven to a tent in the middle of the desert, near the Pakistani border. By this time, my great-grandmother had realized that they were not headed for a vacation but instead were fleeing Iran, and she began loudly protesting.

"The smugglers became upset with her and wanted to leave her behind. However, the Baha'i woman suggested slipping Valium into her food to put her to sleep.

"We were simply terrified at this point," my grandmother said. "The smugglers told us that in the morning, we would cross the Iranian border into Pakistan at noon, when there were noon prayers, and also told us, 'We're glad you're Muslims and not Jews, because if you were, we would kill you immediately.'"

"The next day, they crossed undetected into Pakistan during prayers.

"It was dangerous, because not only were we illegally leaving the country, but we were also sitting on large containers of heroin that were also being smuggled into Pakistan by the smugglers," my grandmother explained.

The group entered the notoriously dangerous Pakistani border town of Queta via a very narrow and winding road, where only one vehicle at a time could pass.

"When we arrived at the checkpoint, the guard asked us all where we were coming from and what we were doing in Pakistan; we just looked at him and said nothing," my grandmother said, explaining that they were following instructions of the smugglers to pretend that they couldn't speak. "He then asked my mother-in-law, Sara, the same question, and she shouted at him, 'What's wrong with you? Don't you know we just escaped from Tehran?'"

"Everyone was furious with Sara, and the smugglers said they were going to kill her for betraying them, the interviewer was told. One of the guards demanded a bribe of 400 rupees.

"The angry smugglers told us that they would not pay the bribe, and that we had to pay the bribe ourselves or be arrested," my grandmother recounted. "We had no other choice, so we and the Baha'i woman each paid a share of the bribe from money we had hidden in our belongings, and they let us go."

Karmel Melamed, then a five-year old at a US kindergarten, tells how he was able to help his grandparents and great-grandmother leave Portugal where they were stranded:

"At the time in 1983, I was a 5-year-old kindergarten student at Temple Beth Am's day school. My grandmother told the interviewer that at school, I told my teachers, "Mama is in Portugal" several times, because that is what I had heard my own mother saying many times at home.

"My teacher asked my mother what I was talking about. She told them about my grandparents and great-grandmother who were stranded in Portugal with no contacts and little money.

"Then Temple Beth Am's Rabbi [Jacob] Pressman got involved and told my daughter he would help find a Jewish contact in Portugal that would help us," my grandmother said. "Thereafter, my son called the rabbi's Jewish contact in Portugal, and the man took us to a better hotel and helped us find a lawyer."

"I honestly didn't remember what I told my teacher at school until my grandmother told the interviewer about my part in her story -- that as such a young boy, I was directly responsible for helping her in her time of need."

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Jews of Iran - thirty years after the revolution

It is almost exactly thirty years since a repressive theocratic regime took over in Iran and plunged the lives of millions of Iranians - and thousands of Iranian Jews - into turmoil. Three-quarters of the community fled for Israel or California, where many built successful new lives. But some were not so lucky: Karmel Melamed, whose family escaped Iran when he was a baby, tells the harrowing tale of the executed community leader Habib Elghanian in the first of a series of articles Melamed wrote for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal:

"The new theocratic regime eliminated practically overnight many of the freedoms and civil liberties once taken for granted by Iranians -- including the country's Jews, who under the shah's reign had experienced one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in their long history in the region.

"A day perhaps best remembered in the United States is Nov. 4, 1979, when regime operatives took over the American Embassy in Tehran and held captive 52 Americans in a reign of terror that would last for 444 days -- the rationale for this act, in part, was retaliation against the U.S. government, which had granted the exiled shah permission to be treated for cancer in America.

"The new regime's henchmen also quickly executed several prominent Jewish community leaders, accusing them of sympathizing with the fallen monarchy or "spying for Israel and America." For fear of what calamity might befall them, many Jewish families rushed to abandon their homes and businesses and fled the country -- often under cover of night. Others lost everything they owned, as millions of dollars in assets were confiscated by the new fundamentalist Islamist Iranian government.

"Under the shah's rule, Iran's Jews, as well as other religious minorities in Iran, had become accustomed to being treated with respect, albeit as separate, distinct cultures. Now they were second-class citizens, and the atmosphere of hostility led thousands of them to flee the country.

"Looking back, the trauma of that flight has left deep wounds within my community. Many Iranian Jews continue to live in disbelief at what transpired.

"It was unbelievable, unfathomable for us Jews to believe anything would happen to us in Iran because of the incredible power of shah and his government," Ebrahim Yahid, a local Iranian Jewish activist, now in his 80s, told me in a recent interview. "Nobody in our community believed of the calamity we would face under the new regime of Khoemini."

"Jewish flight from Iran began in earnest, most community members agree, in May 1979, when the new regime's revolutionary guard executed 66-year-old "Haji" Habib Elghanian, a philanthropist and the leader of Iran's Jewish community. Elghanian's younger brother, Sion, who now lives in Los Angeles, recently spoke to me about his brother's execution, the first time he has spoken publicly about it.

"Haji was in America, and 10 to 15 days before Khomeini returned to Iran, he returned to Iran," said Sion Elghanian, who is now retired and in his late 80s.

"The older Elghanian had been in the United States temporarily, hoping to weather the chaos of the early days of unrest, which had brought the country to a standstill through nationwide strikes.

It was expected that Habib Elghanian might become a target, because he was the wealthiest Jew in Iran and the leader of Iran's Jews.

"Everyone, including the late Israeli Prime Minister Begin, asked him not to return to Iran, but he said, 'I was born in Iran, I love my country, I have treated all Iranians -- Muslims and Jews alike -- with compassion, and I have not done anything illegal,'" his younger brother remembered.

The Islamic regime arrested Habib Elghanian on Feb. 17, 1979, and falsely charged him with being a Zionist spy, along with other trumped-up charges of treason against the state. He was executed on May 9, 1979, after a sham trial by the revolutionary Islamic court, which lasted just over an hour and consisted merely of a proclamation of the verdict, without presenting any real evidence. While he was in prison, family members and friends were able to get some messages to him and receive his replies.

"Haji knew that they were going to kill him," Sion Elghanian said. "Before he was executed, he requested that that he be given his tallit and kippah to wear. He recited the 'Shema' ... and then they shot him by a firing squad.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Senate now considering Jewish refugees resolution

Front Page magazine spotlights Senate Resolution no. 85, currently being considered by the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Its backers hope that the call for full acknowledgement of the destruction of the Jewish communities of the Middle East embodied in the Resolution will pave the way to a just and lasting Middle East peace.

The expulsion of Middle Eastern Jews from their traditional homelands in the Arab world has long been one of history’s less recognized tragedies. But thanks to several prominent pieces of legislation, that historical wrong may soon be righted.

The Senate is currently considering a landmark bill that would call attention to the plight of nearly one million Jews who were forced to flee the Arab world in the twentieth century. The bill seeks to bring global visibility to these forgotten refugees, and to lay the foundation for a Mid-East peace based on mutual recognition and a full acknowledgment of history.

In the twentieth century, the ancient and sizable Jewish communities of nearly every Arab country were all but completely destroyed. Repressive and racist Arab regimes, together with large-scale anti-Jewish mob violence, were responsible for terrorizing and uprooting nearly a million indigenous Jews across the region. While this tragic chapter in history has remained relatively obscure—buried by its perpetrators and ignored by the international community— the new legislation seeks to bring this forgotten exodus to the center of the world stage.

In 2007, a number of Senators and Congressmen introduced resolutions into both the House and the Senate that they hoped would balance the unjust and counterproductive tendency to focus on Palestinian refugees while ignoring their Jewish counterparts. House Resolution 185 passed unanimously in April 2008, while Senate Resolution 85 is currently being considered by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Senate Resolution 85 has been spearheaded in a bi-partisan effort by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Norm Coleman (R-MN), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Trent Lott (R-MS) [now retired], Joe Lieberman (D-CT), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). The bill calls attention to the wholesale human rights violations faced by the Jewish minority of the Arab world during the twentieth century, and affirms that the integrity of any comprehensive Mid-East peace agreement is contingent upon "recognition of, and redress for, the uprooting of centuries-old Jewish communities in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf."

To that end, the bill instructs representatives of the US in all international forums to ensure that "any explicit reference to the required resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue" is matched by "a similar explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish, Christian, and other refugees." Those backing the bill are hopeful that a full acknowledgment of history will pave the way towards a just and lasting peace.

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How to lobby your senator on SR. no.85

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The gains and losses of exile, by an Iranian Jew

Gina Nahai was lucky: her parents chose to leave Iran. But thousands more Jews were driven out after the fall of the Shah in 1979. Here in the Jewish Journal of LA she muses on the gains and losses of exile:

"I don't know what will become of the legacy of Iranian Jews outside of Iran, how history will judge us in the context of the opportunities we had and the extent to which we helped make the world a better place with what we were given.

"I don't know what our kids will think of us 30 years from now; how we'll define ourselves in retrospect.

"When I'm feeling particularly glib, I think that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did us all a favor by causing us to leave the country once and for all. But I also know that I'm being presumptuous and perhaps unfair when I say that exile has been good for our community.

"It is true that hardly a day goes by when I don't thank God and my parents for the good fortune of living in this country. I thank my parents because they had the courage and foresight, years before the Islamic revolution, to up and leave Iran for America when I was 13 years old.

"It was the heyday of the shah's reign; the Jews had never had it so good. Money grew on trees, and you could sleep at night with the doors unlocked.

"Yet even then, my parents could see the cracks in the wall, imagine the limits of what was possible in Iran. They forsook home and country, family and friends, 2,000 years of roots and put their faith in the idea of America. I thank God they did, but I realize there's an immeasurable difference between the path that my parents took -- leaving on their own terms -- and the road onto which so many other Iranian Jews were forced.

"It's a testament to those Jews' powers of invention and resilience, their adaptability and courage, that they have managed, in just three decades, to succeed so relatively well in their personal and professional lives here. Still, if you were to ask me what I think Iranian Jews have gained as a result of the Islamic revolution and what I believe we have lost, I could only give the most subjective and personal of answers.

"What have I gained and lost, thanks to the "troubles" -- that's what people called the revolution in the beginning -- of 30 years ago?

"I gained the good fortune of having a community of Iranian Jews being born here overnight, filling the loneliness and alienation I had felt in the first years of my life in Los Angeles, when hardly any Iranians lived here and hardly any Americans gave us a chance at establishing a friendship. They nodded to us politely in passing, then looked away. If they stopped long enough, it was to ask where Iran was on the map and whether people rode camels to the grocery store in Tehran.

"I gained the great good fortune of witnessing our community transform for the better with each passing decade, easing up on the misogyny and intolerance that were byproducts of Islamic and Jewish practices (because Persian culture, when freed of the influences of religion, is actually quite progressive and broadminded). I gained the possibility of speaking my mind without fear, questioning tradition without shame, writing what I believe to be the truth."

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A masterful work on the Jews of Libya

This book on the Jews of Libya, published earlier this year, should become standard reading for scholars, writes Michael Rubin in his review of The Jews of Libya: Coexistence, Persecution, Resettlement, by Maurice M. Roumani in the American Enterprise Institute magazine.

In 1948, 36,000 Jews lived in Libya. Today, none do. Roumani, a Ben-Gurion University political scientist born in Libya, has created a masterful account of the last decades of this vanished community.

In 1911, the Italian army conquered Libya. The resulting Italian administration approached the Libyan Jewish community through its experience of Rome's positive relations with its Jewish community. There were marked differences between the two communities, however, leading to tumultuous relations for the ensuing two decades. Libyan Jews resisted both Italian rabbis and the reforms they sought to oversee as they fought to preserve their identity. Italian society did influence Libyan Jewry, however, catalyzing Zionism, for example. Hebrew classes became a fixture in Libyan Jewish communities in the 1920s and 1930s. Bad accompanied good, though; as anti-Semitism grew in Italy during the fascist period, anti-Jewish incidents increased in Libya, and as the Axis oriented its foreign policy toward the Arabs, Italian leaders privileged Libya's Arabs over its Jews. As the Axis solidified in the late 1930s, Rome imposed anti-Semitic race laws on both Italy and Libya. Libyan Jews were interned in local labor camps, deported, and, in some cases, transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

As postwar Arab nationalism grew, anti-Jewish rioting and pogroms worsened. Arab hostility increased as independence neared, forcing Libyan Jews to choose between emigration to Israel or Europe or life under a hostile Arab government. Most chose the former, but a hardy core remained. Here, Roumani's detail is stellar. Exploring archives from Jerusalem to Rome to New York, as well as contemporary Arabic and Hebrew newspaper accounts, he recounts the organizational involvement of international Jewish agencies comprehensively and without sacrificing readability.

Roumani's final chapter, tracing the Libyan Jews who chose to remain in their country after Israel's independence, is one of the best case studies of Arab nationalist intolerance. Tripoli closed Jewish schools, forced Jews with relatives in Israel to register, and even placed the Jewish community's administration under Muslim trusteeship. Jews could not vote, serve in public capacities, or purchase property. Violence was commonplace. On the first day of the Six-day War in June 1967, Libyan mobs destroyed 60 percent of Jewish communal property. The Libyan government placed Jews in protective custody in a detainment camp from which they were quickly evacuated by air and sea. With Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi's rise two years later, the final nail was put into the community's coffin.

Libya had a Jewish community for millennia. Within a matter of years, it collapsed. The Libyan Jewish community may not have been the Arab world's largest or most prominent, but The Jews of Libya, nevertheless, should become standard reading not only for students of Jewish history but for those professing expertise in modern Arab or North African history as well.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Move anywhere but Israel, Iran tells Jews

Iran has opened another front in its war against Israel by demanding that Jews leaving the country make a promise not to immigrate to Israel, Ynet News reports:

Several weeks ago, some 40 Jews arrived in Austria from Tehran in a bid to immigrate to the United States after receiving the required permits and visas. The American authorities are delaying the documents, while the Iranian Jews are stranded in Vienna.

The Jewish community in Vienna and the Jewish Agency suggested that the Iranian Jews immigrate to Israel instead of waiting for the required permits to enter the US, but the Jews refused, saying they promised the Iranian government they would not immigrate to Israel. (...)

According to estimates, the Jews stuck in Vienna will receive their visas in the coming days and will be able to begin their new life in Los Angeles.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Film-maker examines Egyptian history and identity

Nadia Kamel (photo: The National)

Nadia Kamel is an Egyptian with Jews, Muslims and Christians in her family. Her controversial documentary Salata Baladi uses her multicultural ancestry to examine Egyptian history and identity. However, Kamel denies accusations that the film, which includes a dramatic reunion between her mother and the Israeli branch of her family, favours 'normalisation' between Israel and Egypt. The Gulf newspaper The National has this profile:

"The documentary Salata Baladi (An Egyptian Salad) has not yet received the approval of Egypt’s censors, nor has it had a commercial release. But it’s won several awards at film festivals, and its director, Nadia Kamel, has screened it 20 times at private, improvised venues in Cairo and Alexandria.

The film is structured around the story of Kamel’s own multicultural family, which she uses to mount a critique of Egyptian nationalism and what she sees as a rising tide of close-mindedness and intolerance in Egyptian society. “I want to reclaim my Egyptian diversity,” she says. “I want to tell the story of how we are real Egyptians too.”

Earlier this summer, after a screening in the theatre of a Cairene high school, a young, veiled woman rose from the audience to ask Kamel what exactly she was trying to say about Egyptian identity. Her tone was one of umbrage muffled by politeness. Kamel, a small, energetic woman with a mane of greying hair, responded by launching into a long, fluid discussion of Egypt’s “identity paralysis” – its inability, as she sees it, to openly discuss and critique its own history. She wants Salata Baladi, her first feature-length film, to combat this paralysis by starting a conversation about troublesome, oft-avoided historical subjects, including: the flight of Egypt’s Jews before and after the 1952 Free Officers’ Coup; the effectiveness of the Arab boycott of Israel; and, ultimately, the notion of a singular Egyptian identity.

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Los Angeles Times blog