Wednesday, March 31, 2010

False settler linkage denies Jewish refugee rights

Update: The Financial Times restores some balance by publishing the following letter in response to Dr Rogan's article:

Sir, In “Refugees for settlers is the way forward for Israel” (March 29), Eugene Rogan writes that the “history of Israel and Palestine has been stained by forced displacement in the past”. The author goes on to mention the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and 1967, as well as the removal of Jewish communities from Sinai in 1982 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Mr Rogan, however, completely omits the expulsion of approximately 850,000 Jews from Arab lands that took place mainly between 1940s and 1970s. Today, these Jews and their descendants constitute about half of Israel’s Jewish population.

In 2008, the US Congress passed House Resolution 185 that urges the president and US officials to ensure that any reference to Palestinian refugees in the context of the Middle East conflict must “also include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issues of Jewish refugees from Arab countries”. On February 23, 2010, Israel’s parliament passed a bill recognising the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.

The first step to solving “the refugee question, one of the most intractable problems of the Arab-Israeli conflict”, is to present historical truth which Mr Rogan, intentionally or not, fails to do.

Sasha Giler,
Boston, MA, US


With thanks: Sacha

Dr Eugene Rogan

The fixation with Israel's 'settlements' as the leading obstacle to peace in the Middle East has spawned a worrying trend: a false linkage between Israeli settlers and Palestinian Arab refugees.

In December, Ray Hanania, in his manifesto as Palestinian presidential candidate, put forward a proposal linking Jewish settlers and Arab refugees.

Now it's the turn of the director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony's College Oxford, Eugene Rogan. Rogan brightly unveils a plan, in an article for the Financial Times (28 March) Refugees for settlers is the way forward for Israel, proposing an exchange between Israeli settlers in Judea and Samaria and Palestinian refugees living in Syria and Lebanon.

While Jewish settlers would be allowed to stay in territory that will become a Palestinian state, descendants of Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon, Rogan argues, should be permitted a 'right of return' to their 'ancestral homes' in Israel proper.

"The only way forward is to put a real price on settlements that might make the Israeli government pause before expanding them," Rogan writes.

There are several things wrong with Rogan's plan. It is nothing more than a proposal to allow a Palestinian 'right of return' to Israel by subterfuge - a red line Israel has always refused to cross. Assuming that principle is enshrined in international law - a dubious proposition - why limit that 'right of return' to Palestinians from Syria and Lebanon? What about Palestinians in Jordan? Egypt? Kuwait? Chile? An influx of hundreds of thousands, largely radicalised, Arabs displacing current occupants from their 'ancestral homes' in Israel (assuming these homes still exist) would be a recipe for chaos and violence.

Secondly, Rogan assumes that only Jews moved into the occupied territories since 1967. Yasser Arafat brought thousands of Palestinians with him from Tunisia and during the Oslo years. Civil servants and administrators moved in from Jordan to run the new Palestinian Authority. Arabs built hundreds of new 'settlements' in the West Bank.

Most egregious of all, Rogan's plan ignores the fact that an exchange of refugees has already taken place: 850,000 Jews were driven out of Arab countries in the ten years following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, two-thirds settling in Israel, while a roughly equivalent number of Palestinian refugees headed for Arab countries.

This exchange has already exacted a heavy price from the uprooted Jewish refugees, whose ancient communities were destroyed. Apart from suffering human rights abuses, they forfeited Jewish-owned land equivalent to four or five times the size of Israel and lost billions in assets. They received neither recognition nor compensation from Arab governments.

While Israel is expected to pay a further price for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, 'offset' by the return of Arab refugees to Israel proper, Arab states, who rid themselves almost completely of their Jews, are expected to pay no price whatsoever.

What is galling is this blindspot to the existence and rights of Jewish refugees exhibited by Middle East experts and policy makers such as Eugene Rogan. We are entitled to expect them to have an honest and unselective appreciation of the historical facts.

An equitable solution would be to recognise that Arab refugees in Syria and Lebanon, most of whom were not even born in Palestine, should be integrated into Syria and Lebanon and granted all the civil rights currently denied to them. Compensation for their losses should be paid to both sets of refugees - Jewish and Arab.

The end is nigh for Kolkata's Jewish community

Maghen David synagogue, Kolkata

The Indian Jewish community of Kolkata (Calcutta) is on the verge of disappearing: founded by Jews from Syria, Iraq and Iran, it has dwindled from 6,000 to just 30 Jews. This CNN report, complete with slide show, makes the point that Jews did not leave out of persecution, but it is undeniable that the Jews feared being caught up in the violence of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947. (With thanks: Pablo)

Zachariah's heart feels empty like the synagogue's pews. He knows the end is near for the Jews of Kolkata. Once a thriving community of 6,000, their numbers can be counted on fingers now. Zachariah says fewer than 30 Jews are left in this bustling eastern Indian metropolis.

Many Jews began leaving Kolkata, the city formerly known as Calcutta, after Indian independence in 1947; those who remained are slowly dying off.

Zachariah, a stalwart of the dwindling community, serves on practically every Jewish administrative board. There are simply not enough people left to go around.

"Things have to be kept going," he says of the cultural burden weighing heavy on his shoulders. "We're not lying down and waiting for the sunset."

He runs his fingers over the cold outdoor oven at Maghen David that once turned out fresh unleavened bread. He peers through a window into the basement where vats of wine were stored.

Things have to be kept going. We're not lying down and waiting for the sunset.
--Ian Zachariah, 65, one of about 30 Jews left in Kolkata, India

From a wooden box, he picks up a book of prayer, the pages eaten with precision by bookworms. "I always thought someone should take these away. Too late now. They are all in terrible shape."

Zachariah's ancestors arrived in India in the 18th century from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus. Others came from Iraq and Iran. All of them came to be known as Baghdadi Jews in India.

They came to British India to trade -- in jewels, spices, textiles, tobacco, tea. They made a name as exporters and real-estate dealers and bakers. India, said Judaism scholar Nathan Katz, was one of the few places in the world that was inherently hospitable to its Jews.

In Kolkata, Jewish families settled in what was known as "gray town," the central city neighborhoods that separated the whites from the "coloreds." They built graceful buildings that lined Brabourne Road in the heart of what is today Badabazaar, Kolkata's largest wholesale market.

Jewish settlers to Kolkata eventually built five synagogues, at least two schools and a hospital. The schools are still operational, though not one student is Jewish. The Beth El and Maghen David synagogues exist today more as memorials to a former era than as functional Jewish temples.

They established a landmark bakery, Nahoum and Sons, in New Market, a favorite among Jews and gentiles alike who craved its fruit cake, cream rolls and lemon tarts. It, too, like every other Jewish institution, faces a perilous future -- the last of the family in Kolkata, David Nahoum, is 84 and frail.

"They were so well integrated into the upper class of Bengali culture," said Katz, a professor of religious studies at Florida International University who has done extensive research on the Jewish communities of India. But then came Indian independence and the birth of Israel the following year. The Jews began their exodus.

"A new social and economic order came to into being and their prospects began to dry up," Katz said. By his estimate, the 12,000 Baghdadi Jews in all of India in 1947 have now dwindled down to less than 100. In a nation of 1.1 billion people, they don't even qualify as a minority group anymore -- barely a blip.

"It was a beautiful culture," Katz said. "I find it terribly sad."

Katz said Jewish communities have died violent and forced deaths in other places. Ironically, in India, where they did not face persecution, they left of their own accord.

Read article in full

Monday, March 29, 2010

Agonies of the 1949 exodus from Yemen

As Jews prepare to mark the Biblical exodus from Egypt at the festival of Passover which begins tonight, many will recall their modern-day Exodus in the last 50 years. But the suffering experienced by the Jews of Yemen has been eclipsed by accounts of their difficult absorption into Israel. If it were not for Haim Yosef Zadok, the terrible conditions, death and disease experienced by 45,000 Jews of Yemen, as they waited to be airlifted to the Promised Land in 1949, would not have been documented. Fascinating article in Haaretz, Agonies of redemption, by Yaron Tsur.

From three Jewish diasporas in the Muslim world - Libya, Yemen and Iraq - there was a swift and complete, or nearly complete, exodus to Israel during a short period in the early years of the state, between 1949 and 1952. The closest to the "flight from Egypt" model was the immigration from Yemen, which began in July 1949. It involved nearly all the Jews living in that country at the time, some 45,000 out of 50,000 souls. When the signal was given, they left the country hastily, most of them within a period of a few months. First they went on foot overland to the Red Sea port of Aden, and from there they were flown to Israel in an aerial convoy that was given two names: "Magic Carpet" and "On Eagles' Wings."

The episode of the agonies in the desert, the diseases and hunger that afflicted the immigrants on their way has been blurred in their collective memory of the airlift, but it was recounted by the Zionist emissary Haim Yosef Zadok. In his memoir, "In the Storms of Yemen" (1957, in Hebrew), Zadok described the arrival in Aden of the chief rabbi of Sanaa, Amram Korah: "We found him sitting on a bed, leaning on a cushion, closing his eyes every minute and saying: 'A true exodus from Egypt!' ... His sole wish was to 'spare the members of our people from the terrors of the desert, and in the meantime give them swift help before they die of hunger and are consumed by diseases.'"

The immediate source of the suffering was the Joint Distribution Committee's deficient agreement with the British authorities in Aden, which was a crown colony at the time, along with its immediate environs. The Joint had operated a large transit camp there in the past, and the British allowed it to send residents to the young state of Israel at the beginning of 1949, on condition the facility then be dismantled. In its place, the organization was given a different camp, with space for no more than 500 people. This insured there would be no further opportunities to provide shelter to large numbers of Yemenite Jews wanting to immigrate to Israel.
Thus, on the eve of the great wave of immigration, there were not even minimal facilities for handling the flow of people. The immigrants were to suffer greatly in Aden, but this was trivial compared to what awaited them at the border of the British colony. The stream of immigrants began in July 1949. By September, nearly 13,000 people had crossed the border. When the British realized the extent of the influx they closed the border, possibly in consultation with people from the Joint. This meant that around 13,000 additional immigrants were stuck in southern Yemen, in desert locales, without food and water, vulnerable to diseases, natural disasters and extortion. Death, too, was rampant.

Yosef Zadok succeeded in getting through and brought some food to the stranded refugees. According to his testimony, even in those conditions it was possible to distinguish between people with means and those who were poor, among whom he found terrible distress. Inter alia, he describes "a family of six, from the town of al-Haima. They were all sick and half-naked and lying on the cold floor. They were so sick they could not utter a syllable or move a limb ... they were unconscious. Worms crawled around them and swarmed in their bodies ... Later I heard that four of them perished." (Ibid; p. 65).

Dr. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, who studies the immigration from Yemen, and is also very familiar with the story of the mass exodus from Iraq, confirms that this documentation is unparalleled in the history of the other large immigrations from that period, in terms of the shocking testimonies regarding the suffering during the journey. Zadok's testimony, however, is reminiscent of first-hand reports of the exodus from Ethiopia prior to Operation Moses (in late 1984). During the course of that operation, the suffering and the death rate were even more appalling.

The role of Moses in the biblical-style exodus from Yemen was played by David Ben-Gurion, the prophet and great leader of the Jewish departure from all Arab lands. Unlike Moses, however, Ben-Gurion played his part from afar - not in the company of the wanderers in the desert. In July 1945, on a boat to Europe, Ben-Gurion wrote "Zionism's calculation after the war" in his diary. This was a simple demographic equation, in which he calculated how many Jews remained in the world after the slaughter in Europe, and which could be brought to the nascent Jewish state.

Ben-Gurion sorted the Jews of the world into five large blocs: the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish population of Palestine), the Jews of the English-speaking countries, the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Jews of Western Europe except Britain and, as he put it, "Mizrahi Jewry [i.e., from Muslim countries]."

Among these, he assessed it would be possible to bring only the fifth bloc in its entirety - 855,000 Jews from Muslim states. In his diary he did not say how and in what time frame it would be possible to do this - but within one generation most were indeed living in Israel.

Did Ben-Gurion want the exodus from Yemen to happen the way it did? Clearly he was not deterred by such waves of immigration, and in cases when it was a matter of uprooted Jewish refugees, he saw supreme importance in bringing them to Israel swiftly, lest they recover and decide they wanted to immigrate elsewhere. In his view, the strengthening of the Jewish population in Israel demographically was the prime consideration.

However, when it came to communities that had not been uprooted, other considerations were involved in planning of the rate of immigration. Thus, for example, on the eve of the dismantling of the large camp in Aden, late in the spring of 1949, a year had passed since the creation of the state and the beginning of mass immigration. Absorption facilities in Israel were already completely full. Ben-Gurion's colleagues in the government warned of an impending collapse of the economy, the health system and welfare services if the inundation continued.

Among the veteran elite there was also a new ethnically based fear of change in the demographic balance between Ashkenazi (European) and Mizrahi Jews. The first Mizrahi immigrants to suffer from the new Ashkenazi anxiety were the Jews of Morocco - at more than a quarter of a million, the largest Jewish community among the Muslim countries. The Yemenites were less "threatening': They were known as a small, submissive, industrious community that contributed ancient traditions to the developing Israeli culture.

Nevertheless, the new Israeli leadership did not develop a plan for the immediate immigration of all of Yemenite Jewry, but rather only a gradual, multi-year plan. In May 1949 there was talk of about 10,000 a year - thus an exodus from Yemen that would spread over four or five years. At that stage an agreement had already been reached with the ruler of Yemen, Imam Ahmad, whereby all the Jews would be permitted to leave. The Yemenite "Pharaoh" was much easier to deal with than the Egyptian one in the Bible, but hardly anyone budged: The community was waiting for a signal, as the messages transmitted to them from the Israeli establishment in Aden were discouraging and called upon them not to be hasty.

There is where Zadok swung into action. Born in Sanaa, he came to Palestine in 1929 and later returned to Yemen as a Jewish Agency emissary. Upon arriving in Yemen, or perhaps even earlier, he was shocked and angry that the Jews were not leaving en masse. This did not accord with his fervent Zionist beliefs and with the image of his community as the religious complement to secular Zionism - a community whose traditional character was unblemished, which had messianic tendencies and a special sensitivity to the signs of redemption.

In the Jewish Agency files in Aden, Zadok found the explanation for the delay: the discouraging letters from the head of the office. He decided to defy them and sent the leaders of various Yemenite Jewish communities a missive with the opposite message: "Brothers, awaken and rouse the others, the propitious time has come! ... Overcome the sufferings and the agonies of the way, for without you Israel will not be redeemed. And lest the moment be missed and you are too late, arise and come at once!"

The replies Zadok cites in his memoir show that in many places, everything was ready for the great departure and the communal leaders were only waiting for the signal. It was Tzadok who gave it, thereby spurring the great and hasty Yemenite exodus.

In this case, then, the role of the biblical Moses was divided between Ben-Gurion and his young Yemenite follower. Incidentally, the documentation shows that the active role Zadok assumed in leading the Jews out of Yemen did not accelerate their immigration. He decided to embark on a mission to help the victims of the hasty departure, and during the time he spent at the border he was perceived as the head of the Jewish refugees: He assembled their leaders for consultation, took it upon himself to adjudicate disputes among them, and so on.

These were the days of the collapse of the old leadership of the communities, which appeared powerless at the start of the immigration crisis. A new, supreme leadership, totally Ashkenazi, was destined to wait for the immigrants in the promised land. In the meantime, for the Yemenites a handful of young men from their own country who had grown up in Israel and became devoted Zionists, played a fateful role - but one that was taken away from them at the end of the exodus.

Zadok was the most prominent of them, with respect to the weight of his historic role, but there were others, among them Ovadiah Tuvia and Shimon Avizemer.

The very same phenomenon seen with the Yemenite immigrants emerged in the exodus from Iraq. The role played by Zadok was undertaken in Iraq by Shlomo Hillel and Mordechai Ben-Porat. There, too, a handful of Zionist emissaries - this time, of Iraqi origin - played a crucial role in shaping the fate of their countrymen. There too the veteran leadership collapsed at the time of crisis, and the ones who ultimately determined the scope and pace of the immigration were emissaries of Iraqi origin. And they performed their roles in turning the immigration into a hasty exodus, as in the case of Yemen, despite the gritted teeth of most Israeli leaders with the exception of Ben-Gurion.

The difference is that their role was more open and publicized, and the exodus of Jews from Iraq did not include an agonizing episode in the desert. The greatest suffering occured in the promised land itself, in the transit camps; that's where the traumatic experience of uprooting was endured by Babylonian Jewry.

Interestingly, for Yemenite Jewry as well, the collective memory of trauma has been focused on what happened to them after arriving in Israel, rather than during the journey in Yemen: The terrible hunger and thirst, sickness and death en route, and in the camp in Aden, do not occupy a prominent place. Nor do the memories of the extortion by authorities or even of robberies at the hands of other inhabitants.

The saga of Yemenite suffering focuses instead on the encounter with the young state and its leaders, members of their own religion and people. It begins with memories of theft of gold and silver jewelry, manuscripts and other treasures just before the flight from Aden to Israel. It continues with recollections of cultural suppression in the immigrant camps and the cutting off of men's earlocks, and it climaxes in the claims about the kidnapping of babies from their mothers.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

The hard truths the UN does not want to hear

When David G Littman of the NGO World Union of Progressive Judaism chose to address a poorly attended session about the rights of Jewish refugees from Muslim lands at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva (sic) on 23 March, it was too much for the vice-president of the session to take: to Littman's point that there were more Jewish refugees than Palestinian Arab refugees, the vice-president blurted out his surprise: "Excuse me, sir?" and promptly cut Littman off. He allowed other delegates to have their say uninterrupted. Via Jihadwatch (With thanks: Eliyahu)

Here is most of David G Littman's text:

"Our written statement *contains full facts and figures relating to the British Partition Plan of 1922, by which more than 77% of the 1921 League of Nations designated area of Palestine [120,000 km²] became the Hashemite Emirate of Trans-Jordan, renamed The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1946. Then came the UN General Assembly 1947 Partition Plan, whose aim ** was to divide the area west of the river Jordan - covering the remaining 23 percent of the original Mandate area - into "independent Arab and Jewish States", with Jerusalem as a corpus separatum administered directly by the United Nations. This UN 'Partition Plan' was categorically refused by all Arab League countries, five of whom then invaded Israel [- a day after its rebirth on 15 May 1948].

[The major part of the Cisjordan area, designated to become an independent Arab State, was occupied during the 1948 war against Israel by the Arab Legion commanded by British General Glubb Pasha and - despite the fact that the Rhodes Agreements with Israel referred only to 'Armistice lines' at the Arab League's insistence - it was annexed and renamed by the British Foreign Office, the 'West Bank' of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Only the UK and Pakistan recognized this Jordanian land grab as legal. Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip but did not annex it, only evacuating it during the 1967 Six Days War.]

The Arab League's defiance of international legality in 1947 led to the Arab and Jewish refugee tragedy that resulted from a unilateral Arab decision to make war in 1947, rather than peace, and it was repeated in 1967 at the Khartoum Arab League Summit Conference:

["No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel, no concessions on the question of Palestinian national rights." (Rejection of UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 Nov.]

There is also the question of a return of, or compensation for, Arab refugees, resulting from the Arab war declared against Israel.

[The refusal by the Arab League, Arab leaders and the Arabs in Palestine to accept a Jewish State in any part of the biblical 'Land of Israel' (Palestine) was the primary reason for the dual tragedy of both Arab and Jewish refugees. The plight of Arab refugees took place during a Jihad war begun by five Member States of the Arab League (and the United Nations), backed by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, religious leader of the Arabs of British Mandatory Palestine (1921-1948) and of the Arab Higher Committee (1936-1948). Yet 1.5 million Arabs, Druze, Bedouin and others (20% of Israel's population) are citizens of Israel today.]

However, almost a million Jews were deliberately targeted as a religious group in Arab countries, many of which are now virtually Judenrein (religiously-cleansed of all Jews). Two-thirds of these dispossessed Jews settled in Israel; they and their descendants represent almost 50% of the Jewish population.

[The hardship endured by the great majority of these 900,000 indigenous Jewish refugees from Arab countries has never been examined by UN bodies, or the loss of their inestimable heritage dating back two and three millennium, nor their vast personal and property rights confiscated.]

This great injustice should be addressed at the United Nations, all within the context of an equitable global solution for a peaceful, international recognition of a 2-State solution. A noteworthy document was adopted two years ago by the U.S. House of Representatives, which quotes both President Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton on the question of justice for these forgotten Jewish refugees ***. A month ago, Israel's Knesset passed a bill aimed at securing compensation for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, as part of the general peace negotiations in the Middle East [23 February 2010].

All delegates should become better informed about the forgotten million Jewish refugees, whose original number from Arab lands were larger than Arab-Palestinian war refugees.
[Gavel by vice-president; speaker expresses surprise: "Excuse me sir?" - then cut off.]"

Read post in full

*[* A/HRC/13/NGO/138]

**[under GA Resolution 181 (II)]

***[1 April 2008: U.S. Resolution 185]

Saturday, March 27, 2010

'Jews not allowed to pray' in Maimonides synagogue

Jewish community head Carmen Weinstein (in the green dress) listens while a friend reads out a letter from culture minister Farouk Hosni, promising that the restoration of Egyptian synagogues would continue. But that promise does not include Jewish worship in those synagogues (Video: Yves Fedida)

More proof, if proof were needed, that Egypt intends its synagogues to be museums. Lord forbid any Jew should actually want to pray in one. From the Elder of Zion blog, via Solomonia:

Zahi Hawass, the Jew-hating general secretary of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and Egypt's top archaeologist, has announced that he will not allow any Jew to pray in the restored Maimonides synagogue in Cairo.

He told a Muslim scientific forum that "his decision to close the temple was a reaction to Israeli attacks on Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem."

He stressed that he would treat the Maimonides synagogue the same as any other Egyptian antiquities, and that the decision to cancel the opening rededication ceremony of the synagogue was to keep history and politic separated.

But he would not allow any Jew or Israeli to pray there and he would not allow the Egyptian Jewish community to administer the site. He also said that this was a reaction to "provocative practices that carried out by the Jews in their celebration which was held in the temple." He was referring to the dancing and drinking of wine, which he felt offended a billion Muslims.

He said that Egypt still intended to restore ancient synagogues, and the next one to be worked on was the Temple of the Prophet Daniel in Alexandria.

Earlier today, Palestine Today (link not available) quoted Hawass as saying that the very opening of the synagogue was a "slap in the face" of Israel, showing that Egypt is a tolerant country.

Report in the Qatari newspaper Raya (Google translation) (with thanks: Lily)

Article in BikyaMasr

Hawass: 'I gave Zionist enemy a slap in the face' (Haaretz)

Arutz Sheva article

Friday, March 26, 2010

Novel on exodus from 1956 Egypt and Hungary

Jewish immigrants from Port Said arriving in Israel in 1958 (Jewish Agency)

A new novel examines the parallel dislocation in two Jewish refugee stories of 1956, and their resettlement in Israel: one from Egypt and one from Hungary. Adam Kirsch reviews Haim Sabato's novel, 'From the Four Winds', in The Tablet:

It is billed as a work of fiction, but for its first few chapters, From the Four Winds, the new book by the Israeli rabbi and novelist Haim Sabato, reads like a memoir. Sabato begins conversationally, recounting his early memories as a young immigrant to Jerusalem in the late 1950s. In a kind of modern-day Exodus, the Jews of Egypt were expelled after the 1956 Sinai War, and they made their way to Israel by roundabout stages, passing through Italy and Greece along the way. When the Sabatos arrived, they were assigned to a housing project in a new neighborhood in West Jerusalem, which the novelist refers to by its traditional name of Beit Mazmil, though by the time he lived there it had already been renamed Kiryat HaYovel.

The hardships of the Mizrahi immigrants to Israel are more widely known today than they once were, though for American Jews, who are mostly of Ashkenazi descent, the early history of the Jewish state is still more often viewed through the eyes of Eastern European pioneers. Sabato introduces us to this hardscrabble immigrants’ world through the eyes of the child he then was, never certain that he really understood the folkways of his new country. For instance, he is bewildered by the enthusiasm of his fellow second-graders, mostly native Israelis, who are planning their Purim costumes:

I did not understand what it meant to come in costume. I looked around me and saw that everyone was excited and smiling, but I could not understand why. In those days I was not accustomed to ask about something I did not understand. What I did not understand I filled in with my imagination. I tried to equate an unknown word to a word I knew form the prayers, or from Arabic, or from what my heart told me.

Read article in full

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Yemeni families flee persecution for Stamford Hill

Musa Badani in his new home in Stamford Hill (photo: The Independent)

The Independent newspaper focuses on 49 Jews, now resettled in the ultra-orthodox area of Stamford Hill, London, following persecution in Yemen. They are calling for their relatives to join them and to be granted asylum by the British government following harassment, abductions and assault. The local MP, Diane Abbott, is supporting their campaign.

In the past five years, attacks on Jewish families have increased. Scores of women have been kidnapped and forced to covert to Islam, prominent leaders have been assassinated and notes have been pasted on doors telling the Jewish occupants to leave the country.

The Yemeni government, which is trying to halt the violence, has given refuge to 65 Jews in the capital, Sana'a, after they were expelled by the al-Houthi tribe, a rebel Shia faction fighting the government from their powerbase in the north. A further 200 or so Jews still live in the towns of Raida and Kharif, just south of al-Houthi territory.

Those who managed to escape already have headed to Israel, America and Britain. At least 49 families (sic - 49 people - ed) are known to have travelled to London where they have settled with the country's largest Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community in Hackney's Stamford Hill.

Shlomo Efraim, 29, knows all about the violence meted out to Yemen's Jews. In 2003, his father's second wife (Yemeni Jews, like their Arab neighbours, still practise polygamy) was kidnapped and forced to covert to Islam. "The next year my younger sister was kidnapped," he said as his three-year-old son Bezalal looked on. "She had left the house to go see a neighbour when she was taken. We looked everywhere for her until a local sheikh told us that she had been taken by a Muslim family. We went to report her kidnapping to the police and instead of arresting the family they locked us up in jail for the night. The only question the police officer asked us was why we hadn't converted to Islam."

The Efraim family come from Raida and lived next door to Moshe Nahari, a prominent teacher with nine children who was shot dead by an extremist in December 2008. Abdul Aziz al-Abdi, a retired air force pilot, had repeatedly ordered him to convert to Islam and when Nahari refused he was gunned down. Al-Abdi was sentenced to death last year but he has not yet been executed.

Because female members of the family were most at risk, Shlomo Efraim – with help from Haredi leaders in London – obtained Argentinean study visas for his sisters who then applied for asylum in the UK as they changed planes at Heathrow. They chose Britain because they already had family members living here. The sisters, who would normally wear a full face-veil on the streets of Yemen, had never left their village before.

Eli Low, a member of Stamford Hill's Haredi community who has spent more than a decade helping Yemen's Jews escape, went to Heathrow to meet the sisters. "When we went through Departures I spotted a friend of the family who lives in Golders Green," he said, laughing at the memory. "I'll never forget the look on his face when he spotted this Orthodox Jewish man leading a woman in an abaya (Islamic dress) and all her sisters out of the airport. They must have thought it was the strangest sight."

The Efraims now live next door to a family from Bangladesh and are slowly learning to adapt to life in a community where Muslims and Jews happily live side by side. The Yemenis that have made it to Britain have quickly settled into Stamford Hill's Haredi community, whose Ultra-Orthodox customs are closest to the type of Judaism practised in Yemen. The children have been placed free of charge in the local Jewish schools, and local Jewish families have adopted large numbers of Yemeni girls who are now fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish and English. But Stamford Hill's Jews say Britain is not doing enough to help the remaining Yemeni Jews escape. Last year, the American government declared that any Yemeni Jew wishing to travel to the US would automatically be granted asylum. The State Department even organised an airlift last summer for 150 people ( currently 62 - ed) who wanted to join family members in the States.

There was talk of Britain making a similar offer but it never materialised. Instead, each asylum application is considered on an individual basis. One of Shlomo Efraim's brothers had his asylum application refused last week and his elderly parents have spent seven months trying to secure a visa to travel to Britain.

The Hackney Labour MP Diane Abbott has called on the Government to provide blanket refugee status to those Jews left in Yemen thought to have relatives already living in the UK. "If these people do lose their lives to militant Arab extremism then the British government will stand accused of having known about the danger for more than a year but refusing to act," she said. But the Government may be finally shifting its stance. In February Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis visited Jewish families in Sana'a and Timothy Torlot, Britain's ambassador to Yemen, met some of Raida's Jews last week.

Mr Lewis told The Independent: "We are in active discussions with the President and government of Yemen about the Jewish community's safety and the possibility of relocating those families who have direct links to Britain. We hope to have some sort of decision made within the next 10 days." That will be welcome new for Rabbi Avrohom Goldman, a junior rabbi at the Yetev Lev synagogue, who joined Mr Low for a lunch of steaming flatbread and chicken soup at the Badani household.

Musa Badani, a man who appeared to be in his fifties, but said he did not know his age, regaled his visitors in Arabic with stories of how hostile al-Houthi tribesmen descended on their village after the 11 September al-Qa'ida attacks on America to tell the Jews that they were next. "They burned bonfires and fired their weapons in the air," he said. "They told us we would be put to death by the sword of Mohammad."

As Rabbi Goldman left the house he sighed. "We're not asking for much," he said. "We're talking about a very small number of people who would be quickly assimilated and provided for by the Jewish community here. The Americans accept that Yemen's Jews are in desperate need of refuge, so why can't Britain do the same?"

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Has Barak Obama got it in for Mizrahi Jews?

Eli Yishai of the Shas party

Who was responsible for making the untimely announcement that 1600 housing units would be built in northern Jerusalem? Interior minister Eli Yishai of the Shas party. Who was responsible for including the holy sites of Hebron amongst those Jewish Heritage sites the Israeli government wishes to renovate? Eli Yishai of Shas. Who let the dogs out? Eli Yishai. Right now, the 'right-wing' Mizrahi-dominated party seems to be the bete noire not just of the international media, but of president Obama himself. But the media have missed the larger story, argues Daniel Greenfield in the Canada Free Press: Obama's manufactured spat over building in Jerusalem targets Jews driven from their homes in Muslim countries.

One of the unreported aspects of Obama’s manufactured insult over an Israeli housing project in Jerusalem is the way in which the administration has targeted Jewish refugees from Muslim countries. While media reports frequently denounced Interior Minister Eli Yishai, as a “Right Wing Extremist”, for approving one stage of the planned housing project—what they did not report was the larger story. Eli Yishai is the head of the Shas party, one of Israel’s largest political parties, which represents the interests of Sefardi and Mizrahi Jews from Muslim countries. And the housing project would have benefited Jerusalem’s sizable population of Jews from Muslim countries.

In the 20th century a vast exodus took place in which as many as a million Jews from Muslim countries fled or otherwise departed, often leaving behind homes and valuables. Some came to America and Europe. Many more came to Israel instead. Today three million Mizrahi Jews live in Israel, indeed the majority of Israeli Jews are not the “immigrants from Brooklyn” derisively referred to by Israel-bashing pundits, but Jews whose families came to Israel from Muslim countries, or who spent many centuries living in Jerusalem under Muslim dominion.

They came from Yemen, Turkey, Libya, Syria, Morocco, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria. Some were driven out by enraged Muslim mobs. Others had their children stolen and their property seized by the government. Others remained behind “sand curtains”, unable to leave. The ways in which some of these Jews were smuggled out of the country through a virtual “Underground Railroad” is unknown to most. And this is a story that continues today.

Consider the story of one woman who successfully helped smuggle out thousands of Syrian Jews by bribing Syrian government officials. And though she describes the work in terms of the Holocaust, “How do you negotiate the price of human lives? I was breaking up children from their parents. It was like the 1940s – they were desperate to get their children out”, in fact the last family she saved was in 2001.

This is what a million Jews from Muslim countries escaped to begin their lives again in Israel. They left behind life in Muslim countries where they were Dhimmis, legally treated as second class citizens under Islamic law. They thought that they had turned their backs on a state of affairs where Muslims could dictate that synagogues should be built no taller than mosques, where their lives were worth less than a Muslim’s and were paid for with blood money and forced to live in ghettos. That is until Obama decided to be gravely insulted because they had decided to live in a place that he thought they had no right to live.

Some commentators have speculated that Obama’s goal by manufacturing the “insult” scandal, was to force Shas out of the government coalition, thereby disenfranchising the millions of Jews from Muslim countries living in Israel. Apologists for Obama have cloaked this in the guise of some sort of campaign against the “right wing”, but Shas, which has been part of coalitions with the Labor Party, including Yitzchak Rabin, is hardly right wing. It voted for the Oslo Peace Accords. It has been fairly open to all sorts of concessions. But its political leader Eli Yishai drew the line at turning portions of Jerusalem into a Jewish Ghetto, while reserving the remainder of the city for Arab Muslims.

And let us consider for a moment, Eli Yishai. Like so many other children of Jewish refugees from Muslim countries, Yishai was born in Jerusalem. His father, Zion Yishai, however came from Muslim Tunisia. Jews have lived in Tunisia for over 2,500 years. But where they once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, today there are hardly a thousand Jews left. The majority of Tunisian Jews now live in Israel and Europe. (...)

Tunisian Jews were forced to live in ghettos called “Haras”, subject to Muslim riots and atrocities. One in 1864 was described as follows, “Muslim fanaticism ... unleashed against our brethren on the island of Djerba… synagogues profaned and defiled. The Scrolls ... torn in pieces and burnt ... men injured and trampled ... all the women and girls raped .... My pen refuses to set down the terrifying ... atrocities ... in all [their] horror.”

In 1869, the rabbis and leaders of the community of Tunis appealed desperately to the government in Paris that “in the face of Muslim ferocity, eighteen Jews have fallen to the knives of the fanatical murderers.

Tunisian independence, celebrated by liberals as the end of colonialism, opened the door to a renewed wave of Muslim anti-Jewish violence. Today of the 105,000 Jews that lived in Tunisia in 1948, barely a thousand remain. This brief recitation of history is important because it is a reminder of what so many of the millions of Mizrahi Jews of Israel and their fathers and grandfathers suffered. And those liberals who cynically condemn Eli Yishai as a “right winger” because his party would like to provide housing for Jews in Jerusalem, rather than returning to the Tunisian ghettos are cynically exploiting the real victims of Islamic colonialism.

Obama and those in the EU who are striving to turn Jerusalem into another ghetto with areas where Jews may live and areas where they may not live, are once again inflicting the horrors of Islamic Occupation on the Jews who fled from it. It is of course understandable that Obama would sympathize with Muslims over non-Muslims due to his own extensive Muslim heritage, a fact he himself emphasized in a speech at Al Azhar Islamic University. But where Obama might have chosen to redeem his ancestors’ religion by showing tolerance to the Jewish refugees whom his family’s co-religionists had persecuted for over a thousand years, he instead chose to perpetuate their legacy of oppression by manufacturing a scandal over the “insult”. The insult being that Jewish refugees and the descendants of Jewish refugees might have actually been able to live in their ancient city in homes built on empty land. And as a result Muslim anti-Jewish riots have broken out in Jerusalem, that bear some resemblance to those in Tunisia.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Columnist takes nostalgic view of Jews of Egypt

In the unrelenting sea of official hostility and anti-Jewish hatred propagated by the Egyptian media there surfaces the occasional island of reason and proportion. Ahmed Bilal's two articles for Masry al-Youm on the Jews of Egypt are two such islands ( the original Arabic is summarised below). Sadly, one cannot say as much for readers' comments, many of which are contemptuous and hateful (with thanks: Eli; Levana).

Article of 10 March: The rededication of the Maimonides synagogue, lawsuits demanding the restoration of Jewish property, and continuing demands for the restoration of synagogues and the establishment of a Jewish Museum all demonstrate the fact that the Jews of Egypt, despite their limited presence, are seeking immortality.

Masri al-Youm reopens this thorny issue, in a serious attempt to re-discover facts we are about to forget, and to correct misconceptions.

Why open this file, and why now? The answer is that the Jews in Egypt, whether we like it or not, have a long history. Until the Forties of the last century, Muslims and Copts and Jews lived together peacefully. In those days Najib Rihani wrote a play «Hassan, Morcos and Cohen». Later, another play was written: «Fatima and Marika and Rachel».

The Jewish presence in Egypt was not born a century ago, but is as old as the Jewish religion itself. It dates back to when the family of Jacob, son of Isaac, journeyed to Egypt to escape famine. Joseph reached a senior position in the government of Egypt. The Children of Israel lived in Egypt until Moses led their exodus. The Jewish religion continued to exist and be observed in the land of Egypt. There was even a synagogue in the period of the 26th dynasty on the island of Philae in Aswan.

Throughout history figures emerged in the Jewish community played a significant role: Cattaui Pasha was the minister of finance, and transport and communications and remained a member of Parliament until his death. There was Yaqub Sanua, a pioneer playwright, the director Togo Mizrahi, Lillian Levy Cohen, an actress known as Camelia, musician Daoud Hosni, Rachel Abraham Levy, the famous Jewish lawyer Murad Faraj and many others.

Also, there was been considerable debate on the issue of property of the Jewish community in Egypt. About 3,500 lawsuits are being fought to recover sequestered Jewish assets.There is the little matter of Jewish property in Egypt, and they are demanding it back. This campaign relates to another campaign "led by the Zionist lobby in the United States in addition to Israel, to overthrow basic rights and claims to property and usurped Palestinian land, in addition to the right of return in exchange for «the right of return» of Jews and Jewish property seized by the Arabs"!

Both of these factors led us to open a «Jews in Egypt» file, at one time an integral part of the fabric of our society.

The author brings the story of the Jews of Egypt up-to-date: the tiny community of elderly Jews is led by Carmen Weinstein, without whose permission they cannot speak to outsiders. Yusuf Gaon, president of the Alexandria community, refused to talk to him without the written permission of the security services.

He then runs through the history of the community - its division into Rabbinic Jews and Karaites, native 'anti-Zionist' Egyptian Jews, Sephardim, and pro-Zionist Ashkenazim 'who did not bother to learn Arabic'.

He notes that Jews were mostly immigrants from their countries of origin, and this was especially clear in a census in 1948: about 10,000 Jews held Egyptian citizenship; 30,000 foreign nationals, and 40,000 stateless. Rabbi Haim Nahum repeatedly called for stateless Jews in Egypt to apply for Egyptian nationality. (This was not as straightforward as the author makes out -ed) According to Dr «Mohammed Oboualgar's book The Jews in Egypt between Diaspora and prosperity, Jews were indigenous Arabic-speaking Egyptians, living in the land for generations, who like other Egyptians benefited from increased prosperity and educational opportunities.

The last part of the article examines internal community politics. Cairo and Alexandria had separate community leaderships until the recent death of Dr Max Salama. It quotes a Jerusalem Post article in which his 'successor', Yussef Gaon, son of Nasser's tailor Joseph Gaon, says he did not believe his family had been expelled or forced to emigrate from Egypt. A 77-year old Jew, one of the few dozen remaining, complains: "
We prefer to be out of sight here, we do not want all our stories known because our situation is not clear. When you think of Jewish people here, the (Egyptians) always confuse Jews and Israel, and of course this hurts me, because I had nothing to do with politics. »

In his sequel of 13 March Ahmed Bilal says that the doors of some houses abandoned by the Jews had six-pointed stars in iron or carved in stone. The names of their Jewish owners were engraved on some houses, such as «Lisha Moses Lazarus 1922» who lived there when President Gamal Abdel Nasser was five years old.

The Jewish quarter of Cairo was never a ghetto; it was also inhabited by large numbers of Muslims and Christians. It was home to low-income artisans and jewellers who lived near their workshops. As soon as their financial situation improved, the Jews moved to new districts.

The Jewish quarter has 13 synagogues but only three temples are open. The temple of Moses Maimonides was built after the death of Maimonides, the medieval Jewish physician and philosopher, a close confidant of the Sultan Saladin. Inside the temple basement, visitors would come barefoot to the «sacred room», in which lay Maimonides' body for a week before being transferred to Tiberias, Palestine.

A non-Jewish resident, who requested anonymity, told us that "many Jews enjoyed the warm love of Egypt and decided to stay. Our relationship was very good, we all love each other, no one can differentiate between Jewish and Muslim and Christian, we all celebrate the holidays together, and my best friends were Jews." He then describes the Jews he knew.

He says Jews who emigrated did so willingly, and on the day of their departure, "they came and handed over to us and telling us that they were traveling».

One resident, who requested anonymity, says he acted as a 'Shabbat goy', changing lightbulbs, switching on lights or running errands for the Jews. Many were not as parsimonious as their reputation, but used to spend lavishly. One individual could spend all his earnings in the working day.

Everyone there still remembers Soso Levy, watch-maker who immigrated to Israel, and other Jewish neighbours, with affection. «We were dealing with them as neighbours, we did not think about the difference in religion, not never felt any hatred or malice on their part, nor did we feel it for them, we exchanged visits on their social occasions and on ours, and they love Egypt too».

Some came back as tourists to visit their old homes. Fathi Abdul Aziz remembers that in the late Eighties he found someone in front of his house. He was telling his two young sons, « I lived here".

" I looked at him and I asked him, was he Soso?!"
Then we embraced each other, and reminisced about the quarter before the Jews had left ».

Monday, March 22, 2010

Where does Egypt draw the line?

A restorer working on the Maimonides synagogue (Photo: Shawn Baldwin)

Michael Slackman puts his finger on the paradox that is Egypt: on the one hand, formally at peace with Israel and flaunting its Jewish heritage - on the other, trying to make a bargaining chip out of 'normalisation'. Article in the New York Times:

The restoration project, and its muted unveiling, exposed a conundrum Egyptian society has struggled with since its leadership made peace with Israel three decades ago: How to balance the demands of Western capitals and a peace process that relies on Egypt to work with Israel with a public antipathy for Israel.

The efforts to restore the synagogue but keep it quiet illustrate the contortions of a government that often tries to satisfy both demands simultaneously.

“This is an Egyptian monument; if you do not restore a part of your history you lose everything,” said Zahi Hawass, the general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, which approved and oversaw the project. “I love the Jews, they are our cousins! But the Israelis, what they are doing against the Palestinians is insane. I will do anything to restore and preserve the synagogue, but celebration, I cannot accept.”

Israel opened its embassy in Cairo just over 30 years ago. In that time, the debate over how to deal with Israel has grown more complicated, at times more nuanced, as the government and intellectuals try to navigate between a desire to preserve a cold peace while also bending to pragmatic economic, social and political realities, political analysts said.

There is no appetite in Egypt for normalization of relations. But there has never been a firm definition of where the line should be drawn, and that is where the debate often falls.

Are Egyptian reporters to be barred from interviewing Israeli officials?

Can artists show their works at a show that also showcases Israeli work?

“With regards to relations with Israel, Egyptians generally and Arabs specifically fall in the deep abyss of confusion and doubt and stagger around the boundaries of this relation, where it starts and where it ends,” wrote Salama Ahmed Salama, in the independent daily newspaper Shorouk.

The problem arose when Anwar Sadat decided to strike peace with Israel without also resolving all the other Arab issues. Egyptian intellectuals felt obligated to take a stand in support of Palestinians, so they called for boycotting normalization.

But over the years, the picture has become clouded as Egypt has made economic deals with Israel, sold it natural gas, welcomed Israeli officials and sent Egyptian officials to Israel. It also has become complicated by Al Jazeera, the popular satellite news channel that regularly covers events in Israel and the occupied territories.

Recently, two cases crystallized the public debate. Hala Mustafa, the editor of one of Egypt’s premier political journals, Democracy, was formally censured last month for having met the Israeli ambassador in her office. It was first time the journalists’ syndicate punished a member for defying a ban on normalization since the group was founded in 1941, according to the independent daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm.

Even some of her critics, who strongly disagree with Ms. Mustafa’s politics, said they were surprised at the selective nature of the condemnation. Singling out Ms. Mustafa said as much about the way the state and state-aligned institutions apply laws and rules, critics said, as it did about widespread hostility to Israel.

“Accountability here is very selective because the law does not prevail over society,” said Magdy el-Gallad, chief editor of Al Masry Al Youm. “The law is there but its enforcement is subject to personal criteria and political settlements and accounts. And this is what we saw in Hala Mustafa’s case.”

No one can say where to draw the line.

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Barry Rubin's analysis

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Egyptian Maimonides boycott leaves a bitter taste

The Egyptian government had hoped that the rededication ceremony for the restored Maimonides synagogue, attended by Jews and Israelis, would have been kept private. As soon as the news of the proceedings reached the international media, Egypt found the embarrassment of their association with a Jewish project too much to bear. Former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel writes:

Altogether 150 people attended the ceremony, among them Itzhak Lebanon, ambassador of Israel, and Margaret Scobey, the American ambassador, as well as a representative of the Spanish Foreign Ministry who read a message from Miguel Moratinos, who heads Casa de Sefarad, a cultural project concerned with Judeo-Spanish culture, history and tradition – after all the Rambam was born in Cordoba. Speeches were short and non-political; repeated thanks were addressed to the Department of Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture, whose heads were conspicuously absent. The rabbis, who had arrived on the morning flight from Israel and were to return late in the evening, prayed, sang and danced with their usual gusto, urging all present to join them in drinking small cupfuls of vodka. At the end all rose and recited the Shema.

Visitors lingered a little longer. For many, being in the very place the Rambam had taught and prayed was a moving experience. All left with the feeling of having taken part in a very special event.

Meanwhile, the Egyptians who had hoped that the ceremony could be held under wraps were in for a rude awakening. Some of the guests had given interviews to various media in the course of the event. Not many hours lapsed before a video was aired on CNN, and later on the news on Israel’s Channel 2; the Chabad Web site published dozens of photos.

The press in Cairo reacted angrily. Articles and editorials found fault with the presence of the Israeli ambassador, simultaneously bemoaning the amount of money squandered on restoring a Jewish site and declaring the fact that it was a purely Egyptian monument.

Zaki Hawas, head of the Antiquities Department, waded into the fray and declared that “‘Ben Maimon’ would not be handed over to the Jews” and that special measures would be taken to prevent Israelis from visiting in order not to offend Egyptian feelings, in view of the Israeli government’s position on the “Ibrahimi Mosque,” the name given by the Muslim to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. He added that he had been surprised by the large scale of the event, the participation of the Israeli ambassador and the fact that alcoholic drinks had been imbibed. Therefore, he said, he had taken the decision to cancel the grand opening planned for March 14.

While it would be difficult to see the logic of his arguments, there is no doubt but that he had little choice in the matter. Celebrating the renovation of what is universally known as a Jewish site without any Jewish presence would have given rise to justified criticism. The minister of culture himself said more reasonably that there would be no point in a new event since the dedicationceremony had already been held by the Jewish community.

Thus did Egypt miss a perfect opportunity to show the world that it was an open and tolerant country while reaping political and economic benefits. It chose instead to denigrate the simple and moving ceremony in order to use it as a tool to condemn Israel. True, the ancient yeshiva and the synagogue have been beautifully restored and will stand testimony to the life and work of the Rambam. Yet there is a lingering bitter taste.

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Egypt finds excuse to cancel Maimonides ceremony