Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Tribute to Yom Tov Assis z"l (1942 - 2013)
Point of No Return mourns the passing on 16 June of Professor Yom Tov Assis, head of the Ben Zvi Institute, aged 71, after a long battle with cancer. Professor Assis was many things: scholar of medieval Spain, lecturer, author, rabbi, hazan, tour guide. He was born in Aleppo, Syria, and experienced the pogroms of the late 1940s. As a tribute to Professor Assis, we are reproducing an extract from the Jerusalem Post interview, in which he describes the atmosphere of violence he was forced to flee.
'I remember very clearly," Prof. Yom-Tov Assis, head of the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, says of his youth in Aleppo, "how a Syrian officer entered our home with his gun and brought a Palestinian refugee, accusing my parents of being responsible for her terrible condition and demanding that we give her money and clothing.
"I remember the attempts to break through the gates to our building, all the occupants of which were Jewish. I remember how the people used to shout in the streets, 'Palestine is ours; Jews are dogs!' Demonstrations took place daily, from the time the United Nations decided to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab parts. Clubs and synagogues were burned. Jews were attacked."
In 1949, the Assis family fled the antagonism of Syria for the tranquility of Lebanon.
"We used to spend our summer holidays in the Lebanese mountains... It was paradise," he fondly recalls. When they left, "we pretended that we were going on our usual summer holiday... but we never went back."
Like the nearly 900,000 Jews who left - or were forced from - Muslim countries shortly after Israel's independence, Assis says, his family "left behind property, left behind wealth. We left behind everything."
From Lebanon, Assis moved to Turkey, and then to London, before making aliya in 1971. Ever since, the medieval scholar has had to disabuse people of what he calls "the fallacy of Jewish happiness under Muslim rule." That's the assumption that the "Golden Age" in Andalus (Muslim Iberia and North Africa), from the mid-700s to the mid-1100s, was both idyllic and common to Islamic rule in other times and places. Not only is that not the case - although Jews were generally better off under Muslim rule through the 10th century, there were large-scale pogroms in the 11th century - but, as Assis points out, it also disregards the fallout from the invasion of the Almohads, who "destroyed Jewish life" in the latter part of the 12th century.
"They left no Jewish community intact. There were many who were killed, many who were forcibly converted to Islam, many who had to escape - including the family of Maimonides, and other famous families," Assis says. "So to suggest that there was no persecution of Jews under Muslim rule is absurd."
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