Tuesday, September 03, 2013

55 percent of Israelis came as refugees

It would be something of an irony if Israelis learned the untold story of half the Jewish population of the country from the British historian Sir Martin Gilbert's 'In Ishmael's House - the history of Jews in Muslim lands' - the book's Hebrew translator tells Yediot Ahronot. (With thanks to Levana for her translation of this major feature article into English):   

Oriental Jewry lived in Arab countries for  1,400 years (minimum - ed), between wealth and persecution, between paganism and Islam. A new book describes the roots of 55 % of Israel's population. The book's translator says:  "We were refugees, not immigrants. It is  time for our children to know the history of the other half of those living in the state of Israel."

The 1400 years under Muslim rule are mapped out in the Hebrew version of the book "In Ishmael's House - The History of Jews in Muslim Lands," by Sir Martin Gilbert, who is more renowned as the official biographer of Winston Churchill (published by Keness Hafakot). It turns out that before the Islamic takeover of the Arab countries, a Yemenite Jewish king named Yusuf  in the fifth century AD made the Jewish religion the official religion of the state. Jews lived in the Arabian Peninsula long before Muhammed came to the region; and the founder of Al-Azhar University in Cairo was even Jewish.

This fascinating document - translated by the President of the Association of Jews from Egypt, Levana Zamir -  will be made into a documentary movie: a British production company has bought the rights for it.

" Khaybar, Khaybar, o Jews, the army of Muhammad will return." The book opens with this quote, shouted by Amrozi Ben Norhsin, perpetrator of the Bali bombing in Indonesia, as his court sentence was read. None of the 200 persons murdered was Jewish, but this call takes back the author to the first days of the Prophet Muhammad and his war against the Jewish tribes of Arabia, which ended in the deaths of hundreds of Jewish fighters and the surrender of Khaybar.

" Islam in Arabic means submission. Submission to Allah and his prophet. The  Jews did not submit." 

Nissim Cohen Saban, founder of the summer resort town of Rass-el-Bar, Cairo 1885.

According to Gilbert, this was the first Muslim victory in the history of the ancient Jewish minority living in the Arabian Peninsula before the dawning of Islam, apparently from the Second Temple period and even before. Ancient Jewish gravestones in Saudi Arabia, dating back 2,000 years, tell the story of the Jewish tribes in 20 cities in the land before the coming of the Prophet Muhammad .

"When Muhammad came to them, he was sure they would be the first to adopt the new monotheistic religion," says Levana Zamir. "Especially the pagans who worshiped the black stone, the Kaaba. But that did not happen."

Caliph Al Amir, who ruled Egypt in the 12th century, described the jizya (tax) as an early humiliation for heretics who would face punishment in the next world, and as an act of religious devotion. He also ordered the district administrators not to exempt anyone from this obligation, or use a third party to take the ransom, as an element of humiliation.

In addition to the financial tax, various bizarre decrees were set down, such as the obligation to wear a hat resembling a weird animal. The ban on carrying arms for self-defence remained in force until the end of Ottoman rule in Eretz Israel. So did the ban on riding a horse - only a donkey was permitted, the wearing of odd shoes and a special identifying mark on the dress or the body at all times including when entering public baths.

" This situation of uncertainty, the total dependence on the grace of the dominant ruler, characterized the lives of Jews for 1,400 years to the present day," says Zamir . Events that took place centuries ago continue to resonate in the testimonies  collected by the author of Jewish life in Muslim countries even in the 20th century. The personal story of the book's translator and her family,  is one of them.

When the child Levana became a refugee: Levana Zamir 's life could fill the pages of a book, but the moment when the spoilt child - daughter of an Egyptian-Jewish aristocratic family - became a social activist - lies sometime in Cairo in 1948, when Zamir was 10. That night  Egyptian officers broke into the family villa, vandalized and damaged their property.

" In the minutes of the Arab League meetings of that period it is written explicitly that all the Arab states plan systematic persecution of their Jews, and so it came to pass," says Zamir.

’My personal  trauma happened to me as a little girl, when I came to school one morning, a private Christian school where I studied, and the mother superior with due concern for my welfare,  told me that they had taken my uncle to prison,"  Zamir said.   "I cried and ran home. My mother tried to comfort me, and explained that my uncle was not a criminal, he was just a Jew, which made my anxiety and feelings even worse.

" He was guilty of Zionism, but he really was not a Zionist, he was simply a Jew. That was enough. They confiscated the family printing business, one of the largest in Cairo at the time, because being a Jew was a crime.  Something inside of me collapsed at the moment, and I realized that nothing would ever be the same again.  I was 10 and I felt I was a criminal, because I was a Jew. "
 Shortly after these events, Zamir's family was expelled from Egypt. The authorities confiscated their property, and allowed them to take one suitcase of clothes and 20 Egyptian pounds. Their passports were stamped with the words ALLER SANS RETOUR, in other words, deportation.

The struggle for restitution of Jewish property: The family 's resettlement, from an upmarket Cairo villa to a transit camp in Tiberias -  Ma'abara - was difficult. "Mum cried every night in her pillow, but demanded us to get an academic education and move forward in life." Zamir and her six brothers had families and integrated into the fabric of Israel. Memories from the "other life " in Cairo continued to plague the father, who paved the roads in the Tiberias transit camp until he was"promoted " to become a hotel receptionist in Tel Aviv. "He spoke languages, lucky for us."  Levana herself speaks five languages​​.

 Zamir 's father began his fight to restore the lost family property as well as the properties of many Egyptian Jews, which had been nationalized by the Egyptian authorities. Against this background, Zamir had her first meeting with the author Martin Gilbert. "It was technical. I was transporting my father to meetings and discussions at the Ministry of Justice, in order to devise a claim for restitution. But that had nothing to do with me. I focused on my career."

Only in the mid- 80s, with the death of her father did Zamir discover the legacy he left. " In his desk drawer I found seven copies of our property claims. As beneficiaries, my  father wrote the name of each one of his children. This was his will to me. His pain was that he could not leave to his descendants the family inheritance.  His message to me was very clear : "Go on - and continue my way ! " And that's what I have done since, for the last 20 years. "
  55 % of Israelis were "refugees": Zamir and her family's story is that of hundreds - thousands - of Jewish families from Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, whose descendants now comprise 55% of Israel's population - those who came here as refugees, fleeing for their lives from incarceration and abuse, while leaving all their possessions behind.

"The flourishing life of Jews under colonial rule ended when colonialism folded, and when talk began of establishing the State of Israel," Zamir said. "From the late forties to late fifties mass deportations of Jews were systematically carried out from Arab countries, along with, of course, false imprisonment, nationalization of property and street killings. We - the Jews from Arab lands - are in fact refugees."

" The first mistake was that the state did not recognize us as refugees but immigrants," she says, " even though that's exactly what we were. The Minutes of the Arab League meetings, at the same period as talk of the establishment of Israel, show that the Arab states drafted  resolutions systematically to persecute the Jews, and they did. In addition, they colluded with Nazis to build concentration camps in North Africa. Religious anger toward nationalist Jews took a turn for the worse when the submissive dhimmis suddenly developed independence.

"Our work in recent years is to raise awareness of this story, the story of 800, 000 Jews. Every year we organize hearings in European parliaments, testimonies of deportees from those years, along with our fight for international and Israeli recognition of the injustice done here to hundreds of thousands of Jews."
 In April 2008,  the US Congress - lobbied by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) -  passed a resolution recognizing the rights of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. "The  Knesset has approved on first reading a law earmarking a special day in the year when students will learn about the tragedy of the Jewish refugees and 1,400 years of related history," Zamir said. "It is time that our children should know the history of the other half of Israeli citizens in the State of Israel."

 " Bargaining chip" for Israel negotiations ? The struggle for recognition as refugees , said Zamir is a "bargaining chip" in the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians.'
This is a second mistake, they did not realize this is the most powerful bargaining chip against the claim for the 'right of return'," she says . "The Israeli Minister of Justice in charge of the negotiations rejected a meeting with us over and over again."  At Camp David ll the Americans offered to establish an international fund for mutual compensation to both sides. Unfortunately it did not happen."

 So, they do not talk about it during the negotiations ? "During Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan, he noted the equation of Palestinian refugees of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries.  MK Nissim Zeev of Shas initiated a Knesset Law, with the support of Netanyahu, that every time the Palestinian 'right of return' is mentioned during  negotiations, the Israelis have to respond immediately with a reminder of the Jewish Refugees from arab countries. But I'm not counting on the Israeli side to implement it, so we are trying to put pressure on the Americans.

"This struggle is a struggle for recognition. We did not arrive in the Maabarot as paupers, we were robbed. When I returned to Cairo after the peace agreement, I found out that our printing business had become the Egyptian National Bank. The villa where we lived is now occupied by the daughter of our concierge. This book is a condensed history of our true story,  and of the historical injustice done by a story untold. Perhaps thanks to the British man Gilbert, the Israelis will finally hear it. "

Read original article (Hebrew)


Anonymous said...

She is doing an extraordinary, endless job for us Jews from Egypt!
Merci and shokran ya helwa!
God bless you

bataween said...

And I am sure Levana is proud to be your cousin, Sultana!

Anonymous said...

That's a touching New Year message.
May we always be able to exchange our good wishes.