Sunday, January 31, 2010
Margaret Thatcher, elected British Prime Minister in 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran, has a reputation as one of the most pro-Jewish of politicians; Jimmy Carter has acquired a reputation as one of the least pro-Israel of US presidents. Newly-released documents show the roles are reversed: the 'Iron Lady' rebuffed Carter's appeals to her to protect the Jews of Iran, denying that they were being persecuted. Yet over the next decade, more than two dozen Jews were executed, several jailed for spying, and four-fifths of the community have since fled the country. (With thanks: Frank)
In May of 1979, according to the files, which go online on Saturday on the Thatcher Foundation Web site, Carter appealed Thatcher for "urgent private representations" to Iranian authorities to assure the safety of Iranian Jews.
Thatcher refused, saying the British Embassy did not believe Jews faced organized persecution, and that intervention "could indeed make their position less secure."
The papers also showed that the former British premier had also refused a more demonstrative response to the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, saying it would do more harm than good.
The files cover the first eight months of Thatcher's 11 years as prime minister, giving glimpses of her embarking on an ambitious domestic agenda to revive the economy and curb the unions, and engaging with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4.
They were made public by the Thatcher Foundation under rules that allow for keeping documents secret for 30 years.
On Nov. 14, Mr. Carter asked in a cable for "the strongest possible remonstration or action" to pressure Iran, suggesting that Britain consider reducing the number of diplomatic staff in the country.
Thatcher responded a week later that Britain had withdrawn some staff, "but we have not hitherto believed it wise to make a political point of any reduction, partly because we doubt whether the Iranians would be much impressed and partly because of the risk of retaliatory action against those remaining."
Read article in full
Preparations for a public spectacle were made at night, just after Baghdad radio broadcast the verdicts on the defendants. Speakers were placed in the streets of Baghdad about a hundred metres of each other, people from the countryside began swarming into the capital. People took their places near Liberation Square to watch the executions. Thirteen bodies hung in the square in the end, eight of them Jews. Another Jew was executed in his hometown of Basra.
"Two weeks before, Israel had launched an appeal for help to the world," declared a Ha'aretz editorial on 28 January 1969, following the hangings. "It was known then that death sentences had been issued against three Jews accused of treason and espionage; that out of seventeen defendants facing the same charge, eleven were Jews; that the risk of death hovered over the heads of more than three Jews and that the Iraqi government was planning to pass more sentences of this type. Today we have to state that our darkest fears have been realised."
"The trial", explained the (Ha'aretz) newspaper commentators, "was merely a revenge campaign against Israel dressed up in legalities": it was revenge for the Israeli air force attack on the Iraqi Army on the Jordan border after it had shelled agricultural settlements in the Jordan Valley.
The bodies of five non-Jews hanging on the gallows were removed from the square, leaving the bodies of Jews displayed there. (..)
The next day the celebrations subsided. In Israel flags were lowered to half-mast and there was an outburst of condemnation worldwide. Iraq officially announced that the espionage trials would continue and more executions by hanging were to be expected. The Iraqi Information Minister at a press conference expressed the widespread fear of retaliation by Israel.
For a long time the Iraqi minister tried to explain to journalists that in fact there was no persecution against the Jews: "The Jews executed were hanged not because of their Jewishness but because they were found guilty of spying for Israel." (..)
Israel demanded international intervention to stop the death sentences. The Iraqi Minister of Education declared to the crowd that "this was only the beginning". The Iraqis, on the other hand, said it was "purely an internal matter."
The British Foreign Minister said that he could not formally intervene as the executed were Iraqi citizens. On Baghdad radio the Chief Rabbi of the small Jewish community in Iraq, numbering around 3,000 people, said (obviously under duress - ed) that he "does not question the justice of the Revolutionary Court in Iraq."
Read article in full (Hebrew)
Note: It is thought that only 10 (including 8 Jews) were hanged in Baghdad (Saht Al-Tahrir) while the other three (including one Jew) were hanged in Saht Um Al-Broom in Basra. The Jew was Ezra Naji Zilkha, the Christian was Zaki Zeito and the Muslim was Haji Jetta Baie Kokel.
Update: Samir Zeito, son of Zaki Zeito, contacted Point of No Return to say that he believed his father was hanged in Baghdad, not Basra. He and his family have since moved to Sweden. He was four at the time and still seeks to know why his father was murdered.
Remembering the horror: names of the Jewish martyrs
Friday, January 29, 2010
This week, the most momentous news to come out of the Middle East in a long time slipped out, virtually unnoticed: Canada's decision to stop funding the Palestinian refugee agency UNWRA. If other western nations follow suit and UNWRA is forced to cease operating, Arab states will be forced to sette the Palestinian refugee problem one way or the other - either by jihad or resettlement. Hopefully it will be the latter, and the Jewish refugee issue will be thrust to the fore as a model of integration. Jonathon Narvey blogs at the National Post:
We learned this week that Canada is the first Western nation to pull the plug on UNRWA, the United Nations-run relief operation for Palestinian refugees of the West Bank and Gaza. The government has been quick to clarify that relief is still on the way. It will now be dedicated to specific projects like food aid; hopefully with enough oversight to prevent mismanagement and inadvertent support to a terrorist organization.
The government’s move is also a not-so-subtle indictment of a broken refugee support program that has arguably only perpetuated Palestinian misery and held up the Middle East peace process. As we look forward, the international community might take a lesson from the other side of the border from the UNRWA camps to Israel, which may fairly take the title of most successful refugee camp in modern history.
It might be considered by some as a symbol of Palestinian “resistance” or solidarity, but for a group of young, hip US Jews, wearing a keffiyeh – especially one with blue embroidered Stars of David – is just as much their right as anyone else’s.
“We did have some negative comments [about the keffiyeh] when we initially sent it out to our mailing list,” Erez Shefar, founder and director of Shemspeed, a Jewish music label and promotion company that started selling the traditional Arab headdress about two weeks ago, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“I think people tend to view Jews as Eastern European and often forget that 'Arab' Jews are also a massive part of our nation,” continued Shefar, a.k.a. Rapper Diwon, whose family on one side originates from Yemen and Ethiopia and on the other from Brooklyn, and pre-state (Israel) .
“Jews indigenous to the (Middle East) , such as my family, have worn some variation of the kefyah [cap/kippa] and keffiyeh [head/neck scarves] for thousands of years,” he said.
“The original purpose of the scarves was to provide protection from the sun and sand. When it comes to religious observance, the Muslim tradition of head covering originates from the Jewish tradition,” Shefar said.
However, he is not oblivious to the fact that this new “Israeli keffiyeh,” which has been selling fairly well, has already engendered controversy among some who feel it might be inappropriate for Jews to use it as a pro-Israel symbol.
“We have had some Arab friends take offense to our new scarf-remix,” acknowledged Shefar. “We have some Muslim rappers who have taken part in our Hip Hop Sulha series, which is a Jewish and Muslim reconciliation concert series featuring Hip Hop groups from around the world. We are having a concert in February and one of the performers has actually backed out because of these scarves.”
In an attempt to put people’s minds at ease, Shefar this week released a press statement to clarify the historical facts and to provide some context.
“As a Jew, I am not offended by the pope who wears a ‘kippa,’ and in the same respect, I don’t feel there is any reason for anyone to take offense to a Jewish person wearing a version of the keffiyeh, which they also identify with,” he said in the statement.
Read article in full
Thursday, January 28, 2010
To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Deputy Prime minister Sylvain Shalom explains in this Jerusalem Post report how his family in Gabes suffered under the Nazi occupation of Tunisia. At least 160 Tunisian Jews were deported to the European death camps. Shalom is pressing the case for compensation for North African survivors.
"Every family knows the pain, and my family included - my wife's grandfather and grandmother and seven of their eight children were taken away and murdered. Paula, my wife's mother, may her memory be blessed, succeeded in escaping into the forests and joined the partisans, which saved her life.
"My mother also succeeded in escaping from the Nazis. When the Germans invaded Tunisia, they very quickly arrived at the town of Gabes where my forebears had lived for many generations. The community in Gabes was required to provide forced laborers every day. The Germans set up an improvised labor camp near the airport. My mother's uncles were also taken there.
"My family's story is similar to many other stories of Holocaust survivors in Poland and in Austria, and of course also in Tunisia and Libya. Fortunately for us, the Germans did not succeed in activating SS forces in Tunisia for the extermination of the Jews and the total destruction of the communities and their institutions.
"However, they did start to implement the horrific process of the Final Solution. Seventy-seven transports left Tunisia for the Auschwitz, Sobibor and Buchenwald extermination camps. We now know the names of at least 160 Jewish victims from North Africa who were on these transports and there are many others whose names and traces remain unknown.The Nazis planned to exterminate all the Jewish communities in Tunisia and Libya by the same methods that we know they used in Auschwitz.
" That they were unable to carry out their plans was not due to kindheartedness or humanity but only because they had to transfer some of their forces in Tunisia to reinforce the German forces fighting on the Russian front, and in particular for the Battle of Stalingrad. Had the Germans won at Stalingrad and at El Alamein, they would no doubt have also returned to complete their crimes in Tunisia.
"On Sunday, at a meeting of the cabinet we marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day and it was decided to establish an interministerial committee to deal with anti-Semitism. At the meeting I asked the prime minister to include in the committee's terms of reference the subject of dealing with recompense and compensation for North African Holocaust survivors.
"International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not a case of just paying lip service. The resolution regarding this day is a dramatic turning point in the world's attitude to the Jewish people, to its past and its future. But there is more. We must view this day as an opportunity not only for remembrance but also for steps that we take here in Israel regarding the Holocaust survivors."
Read article in full
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Why are Arab governments busy restoring Jewish sites and preserving Jewish culture? Lee Smith asks in The Jewish Tablet in a piece intriguingly entitled They dig us. Smith correctly identifies the need to appear tolerant to outsiders. But there are other reasons (as I try to unpack in my post below). One can equally argue that Jewish sites are threatened with destruction, and I find far-fetched Smith's theory that Arab governments are restoring Jewish sites in deference to Israel in its new role as superman saviour of the Arabs in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat. (With thanks: Eliyahu; Sacha)“Where’s the synagogue?” I ask a young soldier in a beret. A member of the large security detail guarding the Lebanese prime minister’s residence, he is leaning against a jeep and cradling an automatic weapon in one hand. He pulls on a cigarette and regards me warily. I am a foreigner asking directions to a place of Jewish worship from a soldier too young to know Jews as anything but warlike neighbors to the south. He jabs his thumb to the left of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s new mansion, Beit al-Wasat, which was built on land worth tens of millions of dollars, right beside the Maghen Abraham synagogue, the center of a Jewish community that no longer exists.
It’s strange seeing the synagogue’s Hebrew letters in the middle of Beirut. Hezbollah billboards near the Southern border sometimes bear propaganda translated into Hebrew, and there are Hebrew letters on the tombstones of Beirut’s Jewish cemetery. But Maghen Abraham is a different story, a Jewish house of worship being rebuilt in an exclusive Beirut neighborhood with the blessing of the Lebanese government. It would be a symbol of rebirth, if not for the fact that no one is likely to worship there, certainly none of Lebanon’s five and a half million Jewish neighbors in Israel, with which the Beirut government is officially at war.
“It’s a vanished community in what was a vanished neighborhood,” says Nada Abdelsamad, author of an Arabic-language novel, Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories of the Jews of Lebanon, named after this onetime Jewish district. The book’s first printing sold out quickly. “People were interested to know something about the subject,” Abdelsamad explains. “Some people didn’t know we used to have an active Jewish community.”
Aside from Israel, Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country in which the number of Jews increased after 1948. It wasn’t until the civil war that started in 1975* that Jews began to leave the country in large numbers. The chief rabbi of Lebanon left in 1978. “The Jews left in silence,” Abdelsamad says. “They didn’t try to contact their old friends. So the Lebanese still don’t know what happened.”
A more pertinent question might be, what’s happened to make the Lebanese, and other Arabs, so interested in Jewish cultural remains like Maghen Abraham? In Cairo, the Egyptians are restoring a synagogue in a neighborhood called the Alley of the Jews. In Baghdad, officials are demanding the return of the books, manuscripts, and records of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, which American forces retrieved in the early days of the invasion from a building belonging to the Iraqi intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat.
“Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity,” the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, Saad Eskander, told the Associated Press. “To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multiethnic.” Or, as Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in a New York Times interview, “What we are doing now is not for the Jews. It is for us, for our heritage.”
These restoration projects, as Arab officials like Eskander and Hawass have attested, are not meant to revive the Jewish communities of the Middle East. They are meant to convince the world of Arab tolerance. The Cairo synagogue renovation coincided with Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny’s bid to head UNESCO, a post he failed to win in part because of his apparent sympathy with Holocaust deniers and his anti-Israeli remarks. Tolerance of Jewish cultural remains can be exchanged for Western goodwill and aid without necessitating any messy engagement with actual Israelis. The mufti of Syria explained to a visiting delegation of American academics that the conflict with Israel was a war not against Jews but against Zionists.
And yet if you listen closely there is a deeper and more important subtext to the Arabs’ strange and sudden fascination with the remains of the vanished Jewish communities of the Middle East. These restorations of Hebraic antiquity are not simply a safe way of acknowledging the longevity, and thus legitimacy, of the Middle East’s oldest surviving religious community. They are also the means by which Arab governments have begun to recognize that community’s influence and power over their fates. For it is Jewish warplanes, not Jewish remains, that have Arab princes and presidents captivated. Nowhere has this been made more explicit than in the recent valentine to Mossad chief Meir Dagan published in Egypt’s semi-official daily newspaper Al-Ahram, calling him “the Superman of the Jewish state.” Dagan is worthy of Cairo’s love insofar as he “has dealt painful blows to the Iranian nuclear program.” Thus the only question Egyptians ask a visitor from Washington: When will the Israelis finally bomb the Iranian nuclear program?
*false: most Lebanese Jews actually left by 1967
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Are we witnessing a new vogue in restoring Jewish sites in the Middle East? The renovated Maimonides synagogue in Cairo will be officially inaugurated in March to much fanfare. The Maghen Avraham Synagogue in the heart of Beirut is being rebuilt. Across Morocco and Tunisia, holy sites and synagogues are getting a facelift.
What is going on?
Nobody can pretend that these restored sites are ever going to be working synagogues. Like Hitler's project for a Jewish Museum in Prague, they are monuments, perhaps not to an extinct race - most Jews escaped with their lives - but an extinct Jewish civilisation and way of life in Arab countries, predating Islam by a thousand years. Once spruced up, these synagogues will be nothing more than symbols. They will never again become the beating heart of a revived Jewish community. Fewer than 50 Jews live in the whole of Egypt; mostly old ladies married to Muslims or Christians. Ditto in Lebanon, the home of Hezbollah and Bourj al-Barajneh, where anyone openly identifying as a Jew risks life and limb.
There are two main reasons why Arab countries might suddenly show an interest in their Jewish heritage.
First, synagogues are good public relations for the regime in power. The unsuccessful candidate to head UNESCO, Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni, played on the restoration of the Maimonides synagogue to distract from his antisemitic slips-of-the-tongue about burning 'Israeli' books.
No matter if the country has no more Jews, a synagogue restoration project advertises 'Arab tolerance' and pays lip service to pluralism. "Look, we even have Jews here!" it proclaims. "Tolerance of Jewish cultural remains can be exchanged for Western goodwill and aid without necessitating any messy engagement with actual Israelis," as one journalist puts it.
The second reason is that Jewish sites bring in tourist dollars. Money spent on the Maimonides synagogue will be money well spent: Maimonides is set to become a top Cairo attraction, alongside the Ben Ezra synagogue, home of the famous Geniza.
The Spanish, who unceremoniously rid themselves of their Jews 500 years ago, have already cottoned on to the fact that a Jewish heritage can be a nice little revenue earner. Jewish centres, with very little about them that is Jewish except the odd weatherbeaten Hebrew tombstone and star of David, seem to have sprung up in almost every town in Spain.
There is something rather cynical in the fact that Arab governments who threw their Jews out, stole their assets and destroyed their cultural and religious sites - or let them go to rack and ruin - are ready to make money out of a Jewish heritage they consider belongs to them. And the height of chutzpa, it seems to me, is that they are prepared to go cap in hand to Jewish communities abroad asking them to fund restoration projects out of their own pockets.
The Adda synagogue today houses Egyptian government offices (Mohammed al Dahshan)
In fairness, the Egyptian authorities are sinking substantial public funds into the Maimonides synagogue. But this project is exceptional. A Jewish philanthropist in Geneva donated one million dollars for the restoration of the Art Deco Cairo synagogue in Adly Street. The Egyptian Antiquities authorities only contributed a small sum towards a facelift for the synagogue's 100th anniversary. Another one million dollars was given by a Jewish donor in the US to pay for the restoration of the Ben Ezra synagogue.
Lebanese developers are only contributing ten percent of the cost of renovating the Maghen Avraham synagogue - the rest must come from private Jewish donors.
I once argued with a well-known British journalist that donations from Jews to restore synagogues in Arab lands were a kind of modern-day jizya or polltax, extracted from dhimmis by their overlords. She retorted that, jizya or no, it was better that a synagogue building should testify to the fact that a Jewish community once existed - and often thrived - in these countries. If synagogues were not restored, she said, there would be nothing to tell people that Jews ever lived there.
For every restored synagogue, dozens have fallen into disrepair, are being used as gyms or offices, or are being converted to mosques.
At the end of the day, I suppose she is right.
The world yawns as Ezekiel's tomb in Iraq is being desecrated, but it's just the latest in a long line of Islamist outrages committed against non-Muslim minorities. Where these non-Muslim minorities have been 'ethnically cleansed', such desecrations are against their memory. Clifford May writes in the San Angelo Standard Times:
SAN ANGELO, Texas — In 2001, the monumental sixth century Buddhas of Bamiyan were dynamited on orders from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The United States and other Western governments issued protests. Afghanistan’s Islamist rulers shrugged them off.
In 2010, Al-Kifl, the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel, near Baghdad, is being desecrated. On the tomb are inscriptions in Hebrew and an ark in which a Torah was displayed centuries ago. Iraq’s Antiquities and Heritage Authority, under pressure from Islamists, is erasing the Hebrew words, removing the Hebrew ornaments and planning to build a mosque on top of the grave.
So far, we’re hearing protests from almost no one. But this is not just another “Where is the outrage?” story. The larger and more alarming trend is that in a growing number of Muslim-majority countries a war is being waged against non-Muslim minorities.
Where non-Muslim minorities already have been “cleansed” — as in Afghanistan and Iraq — the attacks are against their memory. Ethnic minorities also are being targeted: The genocidal conflict against the Black Muslims of Darfur is only the most infamous example.
Connect these dots: In Nigeria last week, Muslim youths set fire to a church, killing more than two dozen Christian worshippers. In Egypt, Coptic Christians have been suffering increased persecution including, this month, a drive-by shooting outside a church in which seven people were murdered.
In Pakistan, Christian churches were bombed over Christmas. In Turkey, authorities have been closing Christian churches, monasteries and schools. Recently, churches in Malaysia have been attacked, too, provoked by this grievance: Christians inside the churches were referring to God as “Allah.” How dare infidels use the same name for the Almighty as do Muslims!
Many Muslims, no doubt, disapprove of the persecution of non-Muslims. But in most Muslim-majority countries, any Muslim openly opposing the Islamists risks being branded an apostate. And under the Islamist interpretation of Sharia, Islamic law, apostates deserve death.
Not so long ago, the Broader Middle East was a diverse region. Lebanon had a Christian majority for centuries but that ended around 1990 — the result of years of civil war among the country’s religious and ethnic communities.
The Christian population of Turkey has diminished substantially in recent years. Islamists have driven Christians out of Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank; almost all Christians have fled Gaza since Hamas’ takeover.
There were Jewish communities throughout the Middle East for millennia. The Jews of Iran trace their history back 2,700 years but about eight out of 10 Iranian Jews have emigrated since the 1979 Islamist Revolution; only about 40,000 remain.
The Jews of what is now Saudi Arabia were wiped out shortly after Muhammad and his followers established a new religion and began to build a new empire in the 7th century A.D. But Jewish communities survived elsewhere until after World War II when Jews were forced to abandon their homes in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and other countries.
In many cases they were driven out by Muslims furious over the establishment of the modern state of Israel. But how odd is it to protest the creation of a safe haven and homeland for Jews by making your own Jewish citizens homeless and stateless?
(Rudolph) Dana said he is not sure when he will return to the country where his grandparents settled at the turn of the 20th century, and where he was born and has lived for most of his life.
Dana's deep Haitian roots are part of the country's long Jewish history.
Back in 1492, Luis de Torres, Christopher Columbus's interpreter, was the first known Jew to step foot on what is now Haiti. Brazilian immigrants of Jewish ancestry settled there in the 17th century, though many perished in the slave revolts at the turn of the 19th century that ultimately established Haiti's independence from France.
Then came a small wave of Jewish immigration to Haiti from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt - the influx that brought Dana's grandparents - during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Many of these Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants made a living importing and selling textiles, and they sent their children to the local Catholic schools.
The island's Jews were joined during the 1930s by about 100 European Jews who came to Haiti fleeing the Nazis. The Haitian Jewish community peaked mid-century at about 300 members, many of whom left for larger, more established Jewish communities in the United States, Argentina and Panama.
Archaeologists have also found evidence of a Crypto-Jewish, or Marrano, community that once existed in the western Haitian city of J'amie.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Jews who grew up in and around Port-au-Prince remember how the community would import matzah for Passover and would gather together, 50 to 60 people strong, for High Holy Day services.
"Services were held in one of the largest homes; men sat in the front and women sat in the back," said Vivianne Esses, 76, who lived with her family in P'tionville until she was 13, before moving to Bogota, Colombia, and, later, to Brooklyn, N.Y.
In J'mie, where Marie Mizrahi grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, hers was one of only a couple of Jewish families in town. Although she and her family weren't particularly observant, they managed to observe Jewish traditions. ?We ate chicken and beef, but never shrimp or pork," she said. "I have five brothers, and they were all circumcised."
Both Esses and Mizrahi fondly recalled the sweetness of Haiti's mangos, the fruit that remains one of the country's main exports.
Today, Haiti - a country of 9 million people, where the dominant religions are Catholicism and Vodou - has an estimated 25 Jews. Most of them live in Petionville, a relatively affluent enclave situated in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Some of the country's Jews are among the wealthiest residents of the island nation, where about 80% of people live in poverty.
Haiti has no rabbi and no synagogue. Dana can't remember the last time local Jews were able to gather a minyan. There is a Torah, which is kept in the home of Dana's cousin Gilbert Bigio, the Haitian business magnate with interests in the steel, telecommunications, banking, petroleum, and food sectors.
One of Haiti's wealthiest citizens and the de facto leader of the island's Jewish community, Bigio owns the land on which Israel recently set up its military field hospital, according to Amos Radian, Israel's Dominican Republic-based ambassador to the nations of the eastern Caribbean.
Read article in full
Monday, January 25, 2010
The surprise statement follows a storm of publicity raised by Professor Shmuel Moreh, Chairman of the Academics from Iraq in Israel. The news, spread by the blogosphere (including Point of No Return) and Israel Army Radio, that workmen had done 'irreversible damage' to the shrine, plastering over ancient Hebrew inscriptions, seems to have embarrassed the Iraqi government into a damage-limitation exercise of their own.
On Saturday, Iraqi TV and al-Arabiyya TV broadcast a film to show that the tomb itself was not damaged. The Iraqis are hoping that "there will be no more exaggeration about this issue."
Professor Moreh wants the Iraqi authorities to transfer control over the restoration and reconstruction of Ezekiel's shrine to UNESCO. It is not clear when this transfer will happen.
The Iraqis may feel that they have deflected international attention for the moment. Unless the world remains vigilant and holds the Iraqi authorities to their word, and international pressure is kept up, the Iraqis may just quietly continue destroying the original features of the shrine.
Please write to Mrs Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, urging her organisation to take immediate control of Ezekiel's shrine. http://www.unesco.org/webworld/portal/processing/forms/contact/en/form.php (UNESCO website)
http://www.bokova.eu/?page_id=66 (Mrs Bokova's personal website)
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Eyewitnesses have now confirmed Israeli press reports that irreversible damage has been done to the Jewish character of the ancient shrine of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel at al-Kifl south of Baghdad. Workmen have painted over age-old Hebrew inscriptions.
Professor Shmuel Moreh, chairman of the Association of Academics from Iraq in Israel, who raised the alarm, received the following message from a friend:
" The tomb is safe. However, the Hebrew inscriptions were removed not by intention, but as a result of building and reconstruction in the tomb itself. The unskilled workers are unaware of the significance of these inscriptions, so they cover them with paint or build upon them. In such case the damage and our loss is great and irreversible."
Following articles on Ur News, Point of No Return here and here, in the blogosphere, in The Jerusalem Post and Ynet News, Iraqi TV News showed (old) footage of undamaged upper inscriptions and blamed Saddam's Ba'ath regime for whitewashing the lower part of the Hebrew inscriptions. However, it seems that the upper inscriptions have also now been covered over.
Professor Shmuel Moreh is trying, besides raising a worldwide media campaign, to find a way to reach the Iraqi authorities. He wishes to ask them to investigate the damage and urge that the reconstruction of the tomb be entrusted to UNESCO in order to stop further damage. " The world can't stay indifferent towards the destruction of one of the oldest and most sacred and important shrines in the world," he says. To contact the Director General of UNESCO, Mrs Irina Bokova, please write to her at 1, rue Mollis, Paris 75732, France or fill in the contact form at her personal website http://www.bokova.eu/?page_id=66
When Iraq still had a Jewish community, the shrine of Ezekiel was one of the most important Jewish sites in Iraq. Some 5,000 Jewish pilgrims used to visit the prophet's tomb at Passover. They would stay in accommodation adjoining the shrine. Thousands of Jews lived and owned land in the town of al-Kifl.
On a visit to the tomb in 1910, David Solomon Sassoon wrote in his diary: "the lovely building over the grave is extremely old, built from very big stones said to be the work of King Jehoachim. Above the doorway was a plaque dated 1809/10, which has inscribed on it – ‘this is the tomb of our master Yehezkel the prophet, the son of Buzi the Kohen, may his merit shield us and all Israel. Amen."
"The room with the grave is very high and has flowers painted on the walls and the names of important visitors to the grave. It is mentioned that my grandfather David Sassoon repaired the building in 1859. The grave is very large: 12 feet 9 inches long, 5 feet 3 inches wide and 5 feet 1 inch high. It is covered with a decorated Parochet, which was sent by David Sassoon from Bombay. It is also written on the walls of the visit of Menahem Saleh Daniel to the grave in 1897/8 and his donation to redecorate the grave. Nearby, another room has five tombs of Geonim (Sages)."It is feared that unless action is taken at once, UNESCO may feel that damage to the shrine may become too extensive to declare it a World Heritage site. This happened in Babylon, not far away from al-Kifl, where Saddam erased priceless traces of the ancient site when he built his modern palace.
This photo taken in 1910 shows the original medieval floral designs on the walls where the tomb is housed. All are believed to have been painted over.
Haaretz: Iraqi workmen erase Hebrew from Prophet Ezekiel's tomb
"Iraq maintains that the damage was done unintentionally by untrained workers. Professor Morre, however, is skeptical. "I urge UNESCO to supervise the renovations and to have them carried out by professionals and not simple workers," Morre told Army Radio.
"Every year, scores of Babylonian Jews ascended the tomb. It's the holiest site for the Jews of Babylon," Morre said.
According to Army Radio, the Iraqi government dispelled claims the damage was done on purpose, and asserted that it sees the Jewish sites as assets important for tourism. It maintains that the incident isn't only damaging to Jewish history, but is also harmful to the interests of the Iraqi government."
Read article in full
This picture shows the walls of Ezekiel's tomb stripped down to the bare brickwork. The Hebrew inscription has now been plastered over (AFP/Getty Images)
The Muqata blog: Israel Army Radio report
Thursday, January 21, 2010
A new comedy film called The Infidel is creating a sensation in the British press: it is about a British Muslim who, in a matter of minutes, discovers he was adopted and that he was born Jewish. Why is the film considered so controversial, even outrageous? In the West, Jews and Muslims are seen as polar opposites, eternal adversaries. To put them both together in the same script seems guaranteed to offend members of both religions.
In fact a Muslim who discovers he's a Jew is not as outlandish as it sounds. There is the case of the Jew from Kuwait. The Jewish girl brought up by her Muslim neighbours after her family abandoned her in their chaotic exodus from Egypt. The Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, whose Jewish grandmother makes him a Halachic Jew. Mixed families are known to live in Kurdistan, Egypt and Lebanon. Thousands of Muslim Yemenis are dimly aware of their Jewish roots. One Jewish convert was even President of North Yemen.
Traditionally, the two communities kept apart in the Middle East, and intermarriage has always been rare. But the mass flight Jews from Arab countries has left behind a number of Muslim-Jews in the no-man's land of identity.
In Iraq, only seven or eight bona fide Jews remain. Baghdad-born Shmuel Moreh, emeritus professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been quoted as saying: “There are others, but they barely know that they are Jews; in many cases, their parents did not tell them." The rest have become Muslim or are in hiding for fear of being murdered by terrorists if they do perform some outward act of Judaism, such as embarking on a Jewish pilgrimage.
Firas al-Hamdani thinks that his family was among the last Jews to leave Baghdad. He managed to move to Holland in 2007. He contacted Point of No Return for information about Jewish relatives.
"My family and I tried to stay as long as possible in Iraq, because we didn't want to leave our country. We had our work, life and social network. Every year we promised ourselves, next year life will be better. We were threatened a lot by terrorists and they always wanted to kill us, because we were Jewish. Two years ago we couldn't be safe anymore and we lived in real terror. We couldn't sleep at home, moved from friend to friend. They tried to kill me three times, but thanks to God, I'm still alive.
Firas's story is the heart-breaking tale of a split family. His mother, who was born in 1943, was apparently separated from her mother and sister.
" My mother was always teling us this story," he told Point of No Return. "She says she was six years old when she last saw her mother, Sarah Jacob. Her father used to take my mother, Suad, to my aunt Naima's home. My aunt (Sarah's daughter from a first marriage to a Jew) at the time was married with three children: Ferial, Farid and Widad Habib. They used to play together almost every day. When my mother asked about her mother, they sometimes told her she went on a trip and will return; at other times, they told her she was in hospital.
"And then she started losing all her loved ones. They all left, one after the other. In the end when she became a young woman and her father died, she was more eager to find out what had happened to her mother, but nobody knew. Some thought she had gone to Israel. Others said she had died."
Firas' mother Souad Awad would have been six at the time of the great airlift of 1950 - 51 to Israel, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. According to the latest information Firas has received, Suad's mother had left for Israel with her own mother, sister and her sister's family. Why did she abandon a daughter of six, Suad, and another daughter, Muna? The explanation seems to lie in the fact that they planned to be reunited in Israel. Sarah's second husband, a Muslim, although non-practising, would, they imagined, join her later. He apparently sold gold and sent money illicitly to Israel to support her. Sadly, he became ill with heart problems and died in 1957. But his daughter Suad passed on to Firas the awareness that he was Jewish.
Firas appeals for information about his relatives in Israel, but so far his inquiries have led to nought. His mother's cousins Ferial, Farid and Wihad, who would be in their 60s by now, may have changed their names.
Meanwhile in Holland, Firas is engaged to be married to a Dutch girl and the couple are expecting a baby. He has tasted freedom as a Jew, and wears his Magen David with pride.
Video courtesy of The Nebi Daniel Association.
The Jewish Community of Cairo is to mark the inauguration of the newly-restored Maimonides (Rambam) synagogue and yeshiva with a three-day celebratory programme of events, from 7 - 9 March. Roger Bilboul and Yves Fedida of Nebi Daniel write:
"The Rab Moshe complex as well as another nine synagogues in Egypt are historical heritage sites which fall under the aegis of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. Through an extensive restoration programme the Supreme Council of Antiquities, with the help of the Jewish Community of Cairo, will have completed the renovation of the Maimonides complex.
The Yeshiva included the consulting room of Rab Moshe in the New Cairo of the 12th century where he taught and discussed points of religion with his students and where, upon his death, his body lay for seven days before being transported to Tiberias for burial.
The rooms have niches where, until recently, sick people of all faiths, men or women, would spend the night praying for recovery or fertility. The Synagogue adjacent to these rooms was built in the early 19th Century. The Yeshiva suffered from recurring flooding from underground water and the Synagogue was badly hit by the 1992 earthquake. The restoration has been a painstaking effort returning the compound as faithfully as possible to its original splendour .
In addition to the Dedication of the restored Rab Moshe Synagogue and Yeshiva, the three-day programme will include:
- Dinner in the communal centre of the main Synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim, an imposing building built in the early 20th Century which has also been faithfully restored and where visitors can admire the richly decorated interior with marble and gilded patterns.
- Visit to Fostat (Old Cairo) where the oldest remaining synagogue in Egypt stands, believed to have been first built around 340BC. The pre-Islamic Ben Ezra Synagogue which has also been perfectly restored was the synagogue where Rab Moshe prayed and held services as the head of the Jewish Community of the time. The famous Geniza Papers were found at the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the new Geniza museum in the Ben Ezra complex has a number of reproductions of these papers
- Visit to the also recently restored Moussa Dar’i Synagogue built by the Karaite community in the 1920’s. It is a superb building and features Art Deco lotus flower columns and an imposing dome.
- Finally, a visit to the Jewish cemetery at Bassatine, in the southeast outskirts of Cairo, a vast site that has not been easy to maintain. The Jewish Community of Cairo has made heroic efforts to defend it against a highway overpass and squatters’ buildings which have encroached on the territory itself. Most of the marble tombstones have been stolen in 1967 so that the majority of the tombs are today unidentifiable. However, the Cairo Community has built a perimeter wall and continues to landscape the cemetery and guard it against vandals. It maintains a list of a number of tombs that have been identified."
Places limited. By invitation only. To attend the celebrations please email Carmen Weinstein of the Jewish community council: at:firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
In June 1967, Regina Waldman received a call from her mother telling her not to come home from work. Waldman’s family lived in Libya, part of an ancient Mizrahi Jewish community that had resided in Libya for more than 2,000 years. That changed in 1967, when the Six Day War broke out between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
“My mother called me at work to tell me that thousands of people had taken to the streets rioting and burning Jewish properties,” Waldman recalled. “She begged me to find a hiding place, because it was too dangerous for me to return home. Killing people, rampaging and burning Jewish properties went on for days.”
Waldman, who was 19 at the time, hid in the home of a Christian British engineer for a month before returning to her family.
“All Jews were expelled,” Waldman said, “and their property, including their bank accounts, were expropriated by the government.”
Waldman’s family barely made it out of Libya and fled to Italy, where they still live. Waldman’s experience, however, transformed her into an activist, leading her to advocate for human rights in Argentina, fight for the freedom of Jews in the former Soviet Union and to call for recognition of the plight of Jewish refugees.
“It was almost like an epiphany for me to realize that I could actually use my history as an example to show what intolerance could do to people,” she said.
Waldman has taken it upon herself to help gain recognition for the “900,000 Jewish refugees, dispossessed and uprooted from their homes throughout the Middle East and North Africa.” She heads an organization called Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), based in San Francisco.
“Very little is known about this particular area of history,” Waldman said, “so we find that people are not just fascinated by the ... narrative of Middle Eastern Jews and what happened to us, but also because they’re so completely surprised that Jews themselves don’t even know about it.”
Waldman said there is very good reason why this history has remained buried for so long.
“Israel had a huge number of refugees from the camps in Germany and people who had suffered horrendous experiences through the Holocaust,” she explained, “so when the Jews from North Africa arrived, there was this sense of ‘oh, don’t say anything about what happened to us, we cannot begin to compare ourselves.’”
Waldman also believes that the Israeli government “felt that if they recognized the Jews from these other countries as refugees, then they would have to turn around and also recognize the Palestinians as refugees, which they do today, but they didn’t then.*”
The result is that these histories have had little recognition.
“The issue of the Jewish refugees was not really properly recorded, neither by historians, nor by political figures, nor was it ever recognized by international organizations,” she said.
Waldman’s work has been paying off. She has been asked to speak on the behalf of Jewish refugees at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Wellesley, Stanford and Berkeley. In 1992, she was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. In addition to these accomplishments, Waldman testified before the United States Congress in 2007 as an expert witness on the experiences of Jewish refugees.
Waldman has also worked with filmmakers to produce a documentary on the history of the Jewish refugees, The Forgotten Refugees, in which, among other stories, she relates her first experience with hatred: a math teacher asking her class, “If you have 10 Jews and kill five, how many do you have left?”
Although some might consider her controversial due to her position that Jewish refugees deserves recognition just like Palestinian refugees, Waldman doesn’t feel that’s the case.
“The fact that we were absorbed successfully either by Israel or by the countries that hosted us shouldn’t make our plight a lesser plight,” she said. “It is to our credit and to the credit of Israel that, without a single penny from the West, we got absorbed but, nonetheless, we should be recognized as a group of refugees and we were not.”
*Here I would differ with Gina. The Jewish plight was buried for so long not because the Israeli government did not recognise the Palestinian refugees, but because it did not recognise Jews from Arab countries as refugees, preferring to see them as Zionist immigrants - Ed.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Far be it for me to show disrespect to a man of God, but hardly anything the Mufti of Syria tells a delegation of American visitors to Damascus stands up to scrutiny. My comments in italics follow the Mufti's statements as reported by Haaretz (with thanks: bh):
Syria's foremost Muslim leader declared on Tuesday that Islam commands its followers to protect Judaism, according to Army Radio.
Classical Muslim view of Jews as subjugated 'dhimmis'. Under sharia law, Jews surrender their rights to self-defence to Muslims, buying their safety through payment of the poll tax or jizya.
"If the Prophet Mohammed had asked me to deem Christians or Jews heretics, I would have deemed Mohammed himself a heretic," Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, the Mufti of Syria, was quoted as telling a delegation of American academics visiting Damascus.
Hassoun, the leader of Syria's majority Sunni Muslim community, also told the delegates that Islam was a religion of peace, adding: "If Mohammed had commanded us to kill people, I would have told him he was not a prophet."
During his own lifetime Mohammed turned on three Jewish tribes in Arabia, massacring the men and selling the wives and children into slavery.
Asked if religious wars were the result of politics infiltrating systems of faith, he said, asking:
"Was Moses of Middle Eastern or European descent? Was Jesus a Protestant or a Catholic? Was Mohammed Shi'ite or Sunni?"
Well the Mufti may not know it, but two out of the three were Hebrews.
According to the Mufti, the conflict between Israel and its Arabs neighbors has nothing to do with an Islamic war against Judaism.
I doubt if Hamas, Hizbollah and al-Qaeda would agree.
"Before you got American citizenship, and I got Syrian citizenship, we were all brothers under the dome of God," he said.
It is not different citizenships which make enemies of people.
Jews had once lived in Syria peacefully and with fair treatment, he added, explaining that his own grandfather had a Jewish partner.
Laws placing restrictions on Jewish businesses were introduced in most Arab countries after 1948, forcing Jews into partnership with Muslims. Not a show of tolerance, but an attempt to 'arabise' the economy.
"Jews lived in Syria for years and they still have a role in Syrian society," he said.
Yes, the Jews lived in Syria for over 2,000 years, but the good Mufti neglects to point out that almost no Jews live there now. One wonders how 'significant' a role Jews may play in Syria when there are no more than 50.
Read article in full
What the Mufti of Syria hopes you don't know (with thanks: Michelle)
Q: What was your background? Your pen name, Bat Ye'or, means "daughter of the Nile" in Hebrew ...
I was born into a comfortable religious Jewish family in Cairo. My father was Italian and my mother French. My father managed the fortune he had inherited. After the proclamation of the Italian racial laws, my father had asked to be Egyptian: he lost his Italian nationality.
I owe my mother my love of reading because our apartment was filled with books she bought. I soon discovered my vocation as a writer which drew me out of my bourgeois milieu to become an iconoclast.
My parents were open enough to tolerate my refusal to follow the religious practices and prejudices around me.
However, I felt very close to the struggle of Palestinian Jews. We talked among ourselves with great caution for fear of accusations and arrests. Indeed, during the Second World War, the pro-Nazi fascist parties and the Muslim Brotherhood did create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. We knew that the Arab masses were pro- the Axis forces.
Q: How did the situation of Jews in Egypt develop after 1945?
By 1945 the struggle of Egyptian nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood against Zionism and the British led to mass street protests. The crowds were shouting anti-Jewish slogans, they ransacked shops, attacked destitute Jewish neighborhoods, robbed, raped and burned schools and community assets.
The situation worsened with Israel's war of Independence, or First Arab-Israeli war in 1948. A wave of violence broke out, accompanied by killings, expulsions, arrests and sequestrations, my father's property included.
With social unrest endemic, the unpopularity of King Farouk and the humiliating defeat of five Arab armies against Israel led to the Free Officers' revolt in July 1952 and the abolition of the monarchy in 1953.
In 1954, Gamal Abd al-Nasser seized power in Egypt and took in many Nazi criminals who became part of the government.
In 1955, my Egyptian passport was not renewed. Despite this, I felt even more Egyptian than Jewish.
Violence, evictions, imprisonment, killings and confiscation of property worsened with the Suez War in 1956.
But such excesses were also linked to the political situation, especially the hateful fanaticism fomented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini.
The population in general, were they the lower or educated classes, remained friendly, are were often against these excesses. Jews were saved by Muslims during demonstrations where they could have been killed.
Q: How did your family live through this dramatic time?
As a former French national, my mother was put under house arrest and could not leave the apartment for some time. So was my English brother-in-law, who was later expelled.
Humiliating regulations were proclaimed, banning Jews from certain professions, public places, clubs and cinemas. It was impossible to stay. In a few months a community 3,000 years old disappeared. I felt that I was living through and witnessing an extraordinary event. Many Jews left secretly without saying goodbye for fear of being detained. From 1948 to 1957, approximately 60, 000 Jews out of 75,000 to 80,000 left Egypt.
Our departure had been delayed by my mother's taking a fall.
Then, in 1957, it was our turn to leave secretly with the laissez-passer issued to the stateless, the contents of our two permitted suitcases each were repeatedly emptied on the ground by Egyptian police while they showered us with abuse. We were searched thoroughly, the plaster cast encasing my mother's leg broken and my allowance of 50 Egyptian pounds confiscated. The Dutch airliner was held up for a long time. The crew were waiting, arms folded, shocked by the treatment of two people who could barely walk - my father was disabled - and myself, a young girl.
We had difficulty obtaining a visa to England where my mother wanted to join my sister and her family. As for me, I intended to go to Israel, but with two invalid parents, I had to put off my plan. All four generations of my family were scattered around the world.
The whole community was affected; nuclear families imploded, a lifestyle and social life vanished.
Q: How did you come to England?
In London, we coped with help from a Committee for Jewish refugees. I obtained a scholarship to study at the Institute of Archeology, University of London. There I met David G. Littman in 1959 while studying the archeology of the land of Israel. We were married a few months later.
I found that I came from a world different to that of my fellow students: that of self-censorship and threats. Their carefree attitude and freedom made me aware of a behaviour particular to the dhimmitude that I later described.
Two years later, I found these same attitudes among Jews and Christians during my travels with my husband in Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon. Because I came from their world, a world of vulnerability and fear, I could read their feelings, but because I had changed myself, I could also now recognize them for what they were.
It was also in London, going through trials of poverty and exile, that I understood and decided that I definitely belonged to the Jewish people.
Q: How did you get interested in dhimmitude, a concept that you coined?
I did not get interested in dhimmitude, I discovered it during my research on Christians from Muslim lands, in my discussions with them, my observations and analysis.
It is a conceptual tool that I coined when I was working on an English translation of an expanded edition of my book The Dhimmi. At the request of my Christian friends, I had inserted a large number of historical documents about them and this concept allowed me to embrace a wide range of related areas. I dared not use it in my writing, considering that some people showed malice against my books and articles that not only openly proclaimed my Zionism, but also introduced a critical analysis of Islamic tolerance.
As one of the founders of WOJAC (World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries) in 1974-75, I campaigned for the almost one million Jewish refugees from Arab world, and was fighting racism toward them.
My stance drew me many enemies, Jewish and non-Jewish. They ridiculed my analysis of the dhimmi and Zionism. Their objections expressed many unconscious prejudices and a paternalistic attitude toward Oriental Jews.
The refusal to accept the Judeophobia of Islam may be explained in the context of the State of Israel's efforts to make peace - the suffering still fresh a few years after the death camps - and the magnitude of the Holocaust, certainly the greatest crime committed against the Jewish people and humanity itself. Christian anti-Semitism had been well documented and studied. The same was not true of the condition of dhimmi, which had been abolished under colonialism. The terrible events of the Holocaust, the stories of survivors, were focusing the interest of the Jewish world.
My husband was much more sensitive than me to criticism and always supported me.
I often talked about dhimmitude with my Christian Lebanese friends, relatives of (the Lebanese president) Bashir Gemayel. We wanted a word to define this particular status and the word dhimmitude seemed the best, but I hesitated to use it.
Only when Bashir Gemayel mentioned it in his last speech before his assassination, did I feel brave enough to use it myself in the sense of an existential condition defined by Islamic theology and jurisdiction.
I thought that Christians would now accept the word. But I was wrong, only a very small minority did and the word made people ostracise me even more.
Read interview in full (French)