Thursday, May 24, 2018

How Habiba Messika created a Maghreb sensation

 Murdered aged 27 by her lover Eliahyu Mimouni, Habiba Messika had a short but scintillating career as one of Tunisia's superstar singers and actresses (She was known as the second Sarah Bernhardt). Chris Silver, who collects North African Jewish music, writes that she recorded a staggering number of records between 1924 and her death in 1930. (with thanks: Elbie)

‘Never before in Tunisia’, noted the worried French Protectorate’s Director of Public Security, ‘has such a funeral taken place’. The cause of his concern was the funeral of North Africa’s first superstar, held in Tunis on 23 February 1930. By half past twelve, thousands of people had gathered on the Avenue de Londres, the main artery leading to Tunis’ Jewish quarters. They had come to mourn the singer Habiba Messika, who, aged 27, had been brutally murdered two days earlier.

In French-occupied Tunisia, this was an unusually large ‘native’ gathering and it gave the authorities cause to worry. Messika’s death had not only brought Muslims and Jews together, but it had also attracted Destourians, Tunisian nationalists. Members of the Destour – a political party founded ten years earlier with the aim of reclaiming Tunisian sovereignty – had long regarded Messika as a fellow traveller. Her records, especially her interpretations of pan-Arabist songs made for the Baidaphon record label, had recently been found in the possession of Destour supporters.

From the Avenue de Londres, some 5,000 people began a two-and-a-half kilometre procession to the city’s Jewish cemetery. At the funeral, the celebrated theatre director Bechir Methenni delivered an impassioned eulogy. Habiba Messika’s murder, he told the mourners, ‘was stupid and sadistic’. But neither her memory nor her music would be forgotten. He then addressed the deceased:
Alas dear comrade, your voice may no longer be with us but rest assured that its memory remains etched in our minds. When our children listen to your records, it will be with tears in our eyes that we will tell them about your life, about your generous spirit, and that we will instill in them the idea that no one was ever the equal of your genius.
His words were not empty. In the aftermath of Messika’s death, her records circulated rapidly across North Africa. A French intelligence report described Messika’s shellac discs as having the potential to ‘provoke unrest in the Muslim milieu’. Speaking to her fans from beyond the grave, the French authorities thus moved to silence her.

The brief but extraordinary career of Tunisian Jewish superstar Habiba Messika is little known, even among those familiar with her music. Between 1924 and 1930 Messika released a staggering number of phonograph records – close to 100 – for the Pathé, Gramophone and Baidaphon record labels. She was an accomplished actress, heralded as the ‘Second Sarah Bernhardt’ by her 21st birthday. Her style and looks also earned her a coterie of (male) fans known as the ‘soldiers of the night’, an ‘army’ which included Habib Bourguiba, who would become the first president of independent Tunisia in 1957. That Messika achieved so much, so quickly and did so at such a young age meant that her interwar funeral constituted one of the largest and most significant Tunisian gatherings of the early 20th century.

In the aftermath of her murder, Habiba Messika’s memory was kept alive by the recording industry that she had helped shape. Her records flowed across Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco in huge numbers, outselling anything else released in the Maghreb since the birth of the recording industry at the turn of the 20th century. Messika’s death also inspired recorded outpourings of grief by half a dozen Tunisian and Algerian artists. Those laments, made in Tunis and Algiers and distributed transnationally across the Maghreb and beyond, included songs like ‘Moute Habiba Messika’ (‘The Death of Habiba Messika’), recorded by Tunisian-Jewish vocalist and dancer Flifla Chamia for Gramophone in December 1930. Chamia sang from the perspective of the slain Messika, asking – in rhyme – what strange (ghriba) and unprecedented (ʿajiba) events had befallen her (Habiba). The song is made available here for the first time in nearly a century.

Despite the fragility of the shellac on which Habiba Messika’s history was inscribed – and the years of war, movement and displacement to which its owners were subjected –many of her records survive. Messika’s oeuvre allows us to examine the largely overlooked North African and Middle Eastern soundscape, in which a burgeoning trade in Arabic-language records animated fans, fanned French fears of subversion and were passed from hand to hand for decades. More than a mere echo of the period’s politics, narrating a history of the greater Middle East through its records challenges many of the most basic assumptions about the region’s history – of the ephemeral quality of music, of an unravelling Jewish-Muslim relationship and even of the exclusivity of emerging nationalist movements.

Habiba Messika’s story is that of an Arabic-singing Jewish star, as comfortable in her blended identity as her mixed audiences of Jews and Muslims. Her legacy is that of an interwar Tunisian nationalist who was equally at ease playing the role of Romeo on stage as she was dressing as a flapper off it.

Marguerite Habiba Messika was born in Tunis in 1903. Like many North African musicians of her era, she descended from a musical lineage. And, like many associated with music-making in the countries of the Maghreb in the early 20th century, Messika was Jewish. At the outset of the last century, just as the phonograph began to be widely used in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, a striking number of indigenous Jewish vocalists and instrumentalists, record label concessionaires, record-store owners, proprietors of cabarets and musical impresarios began to play a prominent role in the production of Arab music. Among these music-makers was Messika’s father, an amateur musician, who may have recorded a small number of discs. But it was Leïla Sfez, Messika’s aunt, a staple of the café-concert scene of Tunis and among the country’s first artists to record for French Pathé in 1910, who provided her entry into the music industry.

Pathé’s Tunisian record catalogues in the early 20th century were filled with Jewish artists like Sfez and the label’s local artistic director was an Arabophone Jew. When Messika began recording for Pathé a few years after being discovered in 1918, she would do so under the direction of Tunisian-Jewish virtuoso pianist Messaoud Habib.

Acoustic recording to flat, shellac disc began in Algeria and Tunisia during the earliest years of the 20th century, as it did in many parts of Europe. Pathé, for example, started recording in Algeria as early as 1904. The English Gramophone Company began its operations there and in Tunis in the same year. The French subsidiary of the German Odéon label soon followed. In French Algeria, indigenous Jewish impresario Edmond Nathan Yafil not only served as interlocutor for the labels but directed their efforts on the ground. By hand-picking which musicians were brought to the recording studio in the coming years, Yafil himself would be largely responsible for the construction of a burgeoning North African music scene based around an overwhelmingly Jewish group of music-makers. By the outbreak of the First World War – when recording around the world ground to a halt – a half dozen labels operating in the Maghreb boasted deep catalogues of mostly Jewish artists performing Arab music.
The postwar period was an auspicious time to embark on a career in music in North Africa. After the First World War, public concerts recommenced. The 15-year-old Messika, ‘discovered’ at the war’s end, soon headlined thousand-plus seat venues across Tunis, Algiers and further afield. ‘More than 1,500 people applauded the return of our talented and incomparable Tunisian star, Mademoiselle Habiba Messika,’ the Tunisian newspaper Le Petit Matin reported of a concert at Le Palmarium in Tunis in September 1921. Messika garnered similar responses in the capital’s grand Municipal Theatre.

Municipal Theatre, Tunis, c.1910.
Municipal Theatre, Tunis, c.1910.

As with the concert circuit, the record industry picked up where it had left off just before the war. Pathé resumed its activities in the Maghreb, as did Gramophone, which began recording again in Tunis in 1921. By 1925, Messika had begun recording with Pathé and appeared, heralded as a ‘superstar’, on the cover of its Tunisian catalogue for that year.

Messika made dozens of records for Pathé, including some of the era’s most popular and ribald Egyptian songs, such as Sayyid Darwish’s ‘Harrag Alaya Baba Ma Rouhchi Cinéma’ (‘My father didn’t let me go to the cinema’) and ‘Cham el Cocaine’ (‘Snorting Cocaine’), Tunisian folklore and the lighter pieces of the Andalusian repertoire, a classical genre inspired by Islamic Spain. Her voice – crisp, clear, smooth and sensual – captivated her audiences. She became known as the ‘queen of musical ecstasy’. Habib Bourguiba and other ‘soldiers of the night’ were infatuated with the young Jewish superstar, though they were taken by more than just her voice. The few surviving headshots of Messika show a young Tunisian woman who dazzled in black and white. She was a flapper, the likes of which few in the region had seen before.

Messika was also among the most sought-after theatre actors of her generation in North Africa. Throughout the 1920s, she committed herself to demanding roles. These included Romeo in an Arabic-language staging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette in Tunis in 1924. In assuming the male lead, Le Petit Matin proclaimed that Messika was conjuring ‘Sarah Bernhardt in the role of l’Aiglon’ – Edmond Rostand’s six-act play about the child emperor Napoleon II. When Messika later played Napoleon II in Tunis, the comparison to the ‘divine’ and ‘fantastic’ Sarah Bernhardt – the pencil thin, Jewish actress who conquered the fin-de-siècle French stage in traditionally male roles –was cemented. Both the press and her peers began referring to Messika as ‘the second Sarah Bernhardt’.

Between 1925 and 1928, Habiba Messika continued to record for Pathé while also recording for Gramophone. In a world of exclusive contracts, which bound musicians to a single label, Messika was among the first North African artists to record for multiple labels simultaneously. Similarly, when most of her peers were paid only for their initial recording session, Messika demanded – and won – the right to her royalties. In 1928 Baidaphon, established by the Baida family in Beirut and since headquartered in Berlin (a centre of the global recording industry), began operating in full swing in the Maghreb. Theodore Khayat, recently installed in Casablanca as head of North African operations, made contact with Messika. By April 1928, the Tunisian superstar was heading to Berlin to record with the label.

In a letter written to the executives at Baidaphon, Messika regarded her recordings for the label as ‘better than anything I have recorded previously’. She was especially taken by Baidaphon’s foray into electric recording, which, unlike acoustic techniques, allowed for the unparalleled reproduction of her voice and multi-tonal sounds of her instrumentalists. But recording in Berlin had another advantage: she could do so away from the watchful eye of the French authorities. While she continued to make records with suggestive titles, like ‘Ala sirir el nom’ (‘On my bed, spoil me’), she also recorded a number of marches dedicated to King Fuad in Egypt, King Faysal in Iraq and the Bey of Tunis, Muhammad VI, as well as anthems extolling Egypt and Syria.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

US to share Holocaust archives with Morocco

With thanks: Lily, Shulamit
 
The wartime sultan of Morocco

The exchange of WW2-era information with Morocco continues apace. First Jewish documents held in France were handed over, now the Holocaust Museum in Washington is following suit. (With thanks: Lily, Shulamit)

WASHINGTON, DC -  On May 7, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., signed a cooperation agreement with the Archives of Morocco to share archival materials on the Jews of North Africa during the Second World War held by each institution. The agreement will expand the Museum’s archival holdings on this understudied aspect of history and will enable scholars from North Africa, Europe and around the globe to conduct research both in Morocco and at the Museum.

The agreement follows a meeting in Morocco in October 2017 between Prince Moulay Rachid and a Museum delegation that included Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield. The participants discussed the importance of Holocaust education both as a way to memorialize the victims and to help educate people about the dangers of extremism and hatred today.

“The signing of this agreement with Morocco is an important step in the Museum’s work in collecting archival documentation from North African countries and making them available for research,” said Tad Stahnke, the Museum’s Director of International Outreach. “The Museum signed an archival sharing agreement with the Moroccan National Library in 2008, and Morocco remains the only Arab nation with which we have an archival agreement. We are extremely pleased that this relationship will benefit our understanding of how the Holocaust touched the North African region.”

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Did the media do more to mention Jewish refugees?

The 70th anniversary of the state of Israel has given Jews,  Israelis and their supporters cause for celebration. But the media are always scrupulously careful to 'balance' the story of the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish state with the catastrophic nakba in which 700,000 Palestinian refugees lost their homes.

In past years, the parallel story of the Jewish refugees seldom got a hearing. Has this year been any different?

Nurit Greeger in her Jerusalem Post blog told the story of two refugees - one Jewish and one Arab - while Emily Shrader on Politics Web wrote about the Double Nakba.

In his forensic account of how the Palestinian refugees have been uniquely indulged by the international community,  Efraim Karsh makes only an incidental reference to Jewish refugees. Moshe Arens writing in Haaretz did not mention them at all. Even the BBC website did better.

This year, the media should have been paying even more attention to the Jewish refugees when Hamas declared the Great March of Return  - its ultimate objective being to seek to breach the border with Israel in order to allow Gazan refugees to exercise their 'right of return' to Israel proper. Joseph Puder writing in Front Page magazine unveils their real agenda.  But his mention of Jewish refugees from Arab lands is still a cursory one and he fails to explain how a political accommodation might be reached.

By far the biggest surprise of the 70th anniversary/Nakba coverage has been Jeff Jacoby writing in the Boston Globe. Jacoby devotes most of his piece to the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. This is an important milestone: the story is getting into the mainstream.

Jewish refugees made their debut on Simon Schama's BBC radio programme

Another first was the historian Simon Schama's BBC  Radio 4 programme Israel at 70: a personal reflection, in which Lyn Julius, author of Uprooted, was given several minutes to describe the plight of Jewish refugees (her segment starts from about 9 mins 54. The programme, first broadcast on 18 May,  may be heard until 18 June 2018.)

Elsewhere, the media and public events did their customary best to focus on Palestinian refugees and ignore the Jewish refugee issue. Writing in The Australian, Vic Alhadeff slammed the Sydney Writers' Festival for its failure to mention the greater number of Jewish refugees.

Even the Jewish Chronicle gave space to a Palestinian, Ehad Naser. It was left to readers like Lyn Julius to point out the omission of the 'Jewish Nakba:' Her letter was published in the 18 May issue (no link). She wrote:

"More Jews than Arabs were made refugees and robbed of their property and ancient heritage. Hundreds were murdered. Many Arab cities - Baghdad was once a quarter Jewish - are today Jew-free. Mizrahi refugees and their descendants today comprise over half Israel's Jewish population.

The Palestinian leadership must be held to account, not just for dragging the Arab League into war with Israel, but for inciting violence - such as the 1941 Farhud pogrom in Iraq - against Jews in Arab lands.

No solution can be found to the Palestinian - Israeli conflict unless a permanent exchange of refugees is recognised to have occurred."

Hen Mazzig went further, and in his Jerusalem Post op-ed The Nakbas, drew parallels between the Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and other victim peoples of forced Arabisation and exile.

Conclusion: while there are notable signs of progress, the story of the Jewish refugees has still to make further inroads into public discourse.






On the 77th anniversary of the Farhud, a Holocaust event

The holiday of Shavuot is now past. It is an occasion to remember the gruesome events of the Farhud, the pro-Nazi pogrom which devastated the Iraqi-Jewish community over Shavuot 1941. Tiffany Gabbay's father was nine at the time. She writes in The Rebel (with thanks: Lily, Shulamit): 

 Tiffany Gabbay

There are few chapters in history that have ever revealed the face of evil or wrought more human suffering and degradation than the Holocaust. What many don't realize, however, is that the poisonous barbs of Hitler’s final solution were not confined solely to Europe, but stretched far beyond to the Middle East where Arabs, even more practiced in their anti-Semitism, were eager to commit a genocide of their own. Leading the charge was Palestinian-icon, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

During the Shoah, notorious "Palestinian" Jew-hater, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, sought to realize his long-held goal of purging the Middle East of its Jewish communities. Believing that what the Nazis were orchestrating in Europe could also be successfully implemented in the Arab world, the mufti began his courtship of Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and other prominent Nazis. Steadfast, the mufti traveled to Germany requesting the practical and material support required to "solve the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and other Arab countries."

After all, he reasoned, “the Arabs were Germany’s natural friends because they had the same enemies.”

While Hitler never publicly declared his support for al-Husseini, he did fulfill his promise to furnish the Arab nationalist with "practical aid to the Arabs involved in the same struggle” and help facilitate the "destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere.”

One of the most significant gifts the Nazis bestowed on al-Husseini were the tools needed to conduct successful propaganda campaigns — ones far more sophisticated than the Islamic world were privy to before. Their pilot program began in Iraq, where a pro-Nazi government had already been successfully established.

By the late 1930s, Nazi-Arab momentum had gained considerable steam and the German embassy in Iraq was headed by Nazi diplomat Fritz Grobba. Under his stewardship dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda material increased markedly. By purchasing Arab newspapers and translating Nazi content into Arabic, soon Iraqis were feasting not only on their own brand of Quranic anti-Semitism, but also a Western equivalent that validated their already-held, twisted beliefs.

In fact, one such newspaper, al-Alam al-Arabi (The Arab World), published the first Arabic-language translation of Mein Kampf. Likewise, Grobba ordered German Nazi broadcasts to be translated into Arabic and aired across Iraqi radio. The German embassy also spurred the creation of al-Fatwa, the Muslim counterpart of Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth).

To illustrate how effective Nazi-Arab collaboration was, consider that al-Fatwa's rallying cry invoked Hitler's perceived grandeur. Historian Edwin Black documented that a delegation of al-Fatwa members even attended a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1938. Upon their return they'd often be heard chanting in Arabic, "long live Hitler, the killer of insects and Jews."

Needless to say this was fertile ground for anti-Semitic atrocities to take place and soon the Arab street became more dangerous than ever for Jews who'd called Iraq home, in some cases, for millennia. With the environment primed, the mufti's next step was to organize a full-fledged pogrom.

On June 1, 1941, Jewish families in Baghdad were home preparing meals in anticipation of Shavuot, a holiday that marks the gifting of the Torah (Bible) by God to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai. By all rights it is a festive occasion and although members of the Jewish community were aware Arabs were conspiring against them, they were assured by local leaders that they would remain safe.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.

As the holiday commenced, Jewish homes and businesses were marked with a bright red hamsa, or “hand of God," to single them out for attack. And, with the mufti's plan in place, a violent mob of Iraqi Muslims took to the streets armed with swords, axes, knives, guns, torches and pipes. They killed every Jewish man, woman, and child they could find.

No one was spared, neither young nor old. Jewish women were raped in the streets while their infants were murdered before their eyes. Jewish men were hacked to death with axes. Even bearing in mind the long history of Islamic Jew-hatred, the massacre that took place on Shavuot, 1941, was bloodier and more gruesome than anything that had occurred, to that point, in modern-day Baghdad.
My father was there. He recalled the savagery in complete and utter detail for the duration of his life. And although he was only a child no older than nine, the situation demanded he become a man. As the oldest son, my father felt an onus to stand by his father and protect his family.

Somehow numb to the fear that should have overwhelmed anyone such tender age, he resolved to fulfill his duty and positioned himself on the roof of his house, poised with metal buckets brimming with scalding hot cooking grease, heavy stones, bricks, a knife and a metal pipe. My grandfather, meanwhile, remained below with his guns — a rare commodity back then, but one he was fortunate enough to have.

As the rampage continued, savages stormed the grounds of my family’s home and my father launched his defensive, emptying the pails of cooking grease and hurling projectiles from on high. Once he'd depleted his reserves he ran downstairs to fight the attackers off with knives while my grandfather fired his shots with precision. The attackers were wild with rage but ultimately, dispersed. How many of them were wounded or if any were even killed, remains unknown. Also unknown is how my family managed to stave off that violent mob and certain death, at all. Such are the mysteries of life.

In the end, British forces intervened to disperse the rampaging mob and restore some semblance of order, but it was too little too late. The Babylonian Heritage Museum estimates that 800 innocent Iraqi Jews were killed. In addition, an estimated 1,000 Jews were injured, nearly 600 Jewish businesses were looted, and another 1,000 Jewish homes ransacked.

The bloody, two-day massacre was called the “Farhud,” Arabic for “violent dispossession.” It came to be known as the forgotten pogrom of the Holocaust.
It was also the beginning of the end of Iraq’s 2,700-year-old Jewish community.
Shortly after the Farhud my father fled to Israel, but the rest of my family, along with approximately 130,000 Iraqi Jews, would remain another ten insufferable years until most were ultimately rescued by Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Their homes, businesses, money, jewelry, even photographs and birth records were confiscated. It was the price to pay to escape living under Islamic authoritarianism.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Bernard Lewis, giant of Middle East scholarship, dies

The death of Bernard Lewis just short of his 102nd birthday is a great blow to Middle East scholarship. Speaking and reading twelve languages including Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew, he had a remarkable grasp of Muslim history and politics, and was uniquely insightful and lucid in his prodigious writings.

Martin Kramer, an expert analyst of Middle East politics, and one of Lewis's disciples, writes: It will be a long time, perhaps generations, before the study of Islam and the Middle East will invite and admit another genius of his caliber."

The author of many books, Lewis turned his attention to the status of Jews in Jews in Islam and explored the impact of Nazism in Semites and Anti-Semites. He  wrote this passage in the 1970s, well before the emergence of the Taliban and ISIS:

"Is a resurgent Islam prepared to tolerate a non-Islamic enclave, whether Jewish in Israel or Christian in Lebanon, in the heart of the Islamic world?’

"Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim world view it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone. Others may receive the tolerance, even the benevolence, of the Muslim state, provided that they clearly recognize Muslim supremacy. That Muslims should rule over non- Muslims is right and normal. That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offense against the laws of God and nature, and this is true whether in Kashmir, Palestine, Lebanon, or Cyprus. Here again, it must be recalled that Islam is not conceived as a religion in the limited Western sense but as a community, a loyalty, and a way of life— and that the Islamic community is still recovering from the traumatic era when Muslim governments and empires were overthrown and Muslim peoples forcibly subjected to alien, infidel rule. Both the Saturday people and the Sunday people are now suffering the consequences."

Bernard Lewis, a giant of Middle Eastern scholarship
 
 The Wall St Journal reports: 

Once upon a time Western scholars of Middle Eastern culture and history were known as Orientalists. That label is now considered politically incorrect, like so much else, but we can safely say that the last of the great Orientalists was Bernard Lewis, who died Saturday at age 101.

Lewis taught at the University of London but moved to Princeton University in 1974. His fame grew beyond academia as his deep learning helped him to foresee and explain the turmoil that has dominated the Middle East in recent decades. His books were especially valuable after 9/11 in explaining what animated radical jihadists.

 In “What Went Wrong?” in 2001 and other works, he distinguished between Turkey under Kemal Atatürk, who attempted to adopt some Western practices, and Arabs who blamed the West as the cause of their own technological and economic backwardness. Yet by 2010 he was predicting that Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan would turn to Islamic rule while Iranians would tire of political Islam and embrace secular nationalism. So far he’s been right about Turkey.

Though Jewish and a friend to Israel, Lewis was also deeply sympathetic to Arabs who had to live under fanatic or dictatorial rule. He liked to note that pro-American regimes that were dictatorial often had anti-American populations, but anti-American regimes like Iran had pro-American populations.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

To understand Israel, listen to its music

When  Mizrahi singer Sarit Haddad does a cover of a classic Israeli song, you know that Mizrahi music is now the dominant genre. Matti Friedman explores Israel's cultural revolution in The Globe and Mail:

 Sarit Haddad: 'musical ISIS'

The division between Jews from Europe and from the Islamic world remains one of Israel’s most painful fault lines, and it has played out in pop music. For many years, the Mizrahi sound was scorned by the curators of Israeli culture and kept on the margins. In record stores, you’d have a section for “Israeli” music, meaning mostly music by artists of European ancestry and orientation, and a separate section for “Mizrahi” or “Mediterranean” music, even though this music, too, was in Hebrew and produced in Israel. There was a time when you could barely get Mizrahi music played on the radio, and anyone who wanted to keep up with the latest hits had to go to a cluster of scruffy cassette shops around the Tel Aviv bus station. That reality was an expression of the broader disenfranchisement of Israelis from the Islamic world, who were rarely spotted in the academy or in the corridors of power.

 Recent years have seen a reversal. Mizrahi music is now the country’s leading pop genre. When the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot published a list of the most-played songs of the year in 2017, the paper’s political reporter Amihai Attali remarked on Twitter that all 15 of the artists were Mizrahi: “Anthropologically, it’s an incredible statistic,” he wrote. These days, it’s Mizrahi performers who fill the biggest venues. Stalwarts of the old music scene line up for collaborations with stars such as Ms. Hadad, which would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago.

The Israeli army’s official 70th anniversary song (yes, there is such a thing), released in early March and sung by a military entertainment troupe, is also a cover of an Israeli classic, Don’t Worry, a comic number popular after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the song, a soldier at the front writes to reassure his girlfriend that he has plenty of time to rest “between bombardment and barrage,” and asks her to send fresh underwear. The original is very much a product of the style and sentiment of the young Israel. But the new cover makes it a product of the present by adding a reggae beat and a Mizrahi twist, featuring two up-and-coming Mizrahi singers doing their mandatory army service, and adding warbling Mideastern-style vocals.

 Not everyone loves this development, or what it signifies. Asked last month for his opinion of a different Mizrahi cover by Ms. Hadad, this one of a 1974 hit by the beloved Israeli rock band Kaveret, band member Efraim Shamir called the new version “a musical ISIS” – that is, a particularly Middle Eastern kind of desecration. He was echoing an infamous comment from Tommy Lapid, a late politician and Cabinet minister born in Yugoslavia : Asked for his take on a Mizrahi song, Mr. Lapid joked, naming a Palestinian city, that “we didn’t conquer Tulkarm, Tulkarm conquered us.”

The contentious politician responsible for this year’s anniversary celebrations – and for Ms. Hadad’s cover – is the Culture Minister, Miri Regev, a combative voice known for railing against the old cultural elites. Ms. Regev, who is of Moroccan descent, belongs to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, whose political base has traditionally been heavy on Israelis with roots in the Islamic world. Ms. Regev regularly stokes nationalist sentiment and is reviled on the left; the liberal daily Haaretz has called her “Trump in high heels.”


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More from Matti Friedman


Friday, May 18, 2018

Remember the other nakbas

 In this seminal piece in the Jerusalem Post timed to coincide with the nakba, Hen Mazzig wishes that all the people who have sympathy for the Palestinians showed an ounce of it to the victims of Arab, Persian and Turkish imperialism - Jews, Berbers, Assyrians, Copts.

 Commemorating the Armenian genocide (Photo: Reuters)

Indeed, much noise is made around the world about the “sexy” Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians (the Arab community at the time) and their advocates are extremely vocal. But lost in the debate over what happened or didn’t happen to the Palestinians in their catastrophe are the stories of the tens of millions – yes, tens of millions – of victims of genocide, expulsion and forced assimilation (cultural genocide) from Arab and Turkish imperialism.

My family are Berber Jews on my father’s side and Iraqi Jews on my mother’s. Both were expelled from their lands, and because of this persecution I came to learn about these largely untold stories. Over time I have learned that many other groups were persecuted, en masse, without any restitution or “right of return,” and the global community is (and was) silent. Why the double standards? In the last 150 years, “nakbas” occurred to those indigenous to North Africa, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The approximate number of victims from genocides one rarely hears about include: The Assyrians (300,000 from 1914-1920); Armenians (1.5 million from 1914-1923); Kurds (50,000-180,000 from 1986-1989); Greeks (450,000-750,000 from 1913-1920); Yazidis (10,000 in 2014 alone, other numbers unknown); and the Sudanese in Darfur (300,000 from 2003-2009).

The victims of expulsion and persecution leading to emigration include: Lebanese Maronites (eight million-14 million Lebanese in the diaspora, and four million in Lebanon); Assyrian Christians (15 million in the diaspora and in Syria); and the Armenians under the Turkish Empire (11 million in the diaspora today).

In Lebanon and Syria, both states deliberately created nationality laws that would bar Christians from returning, ensuring a Muslim Arab majority in these countries.

From North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities, 850 000 Jews were expelled or forced to flee North Africa and the Middle East. Additionally, one million Copts have left Egypt.

But even where expulsions or emigration did not occur, widespread persecution did.

Who hears about the forced assimilation of the Berbers, Kurds and Sudanese? Since the 1960s, these communities have been suffered under forced Arabization in schools and government institutions. For example, Berber only became an official language in Algeria in 2002; prior to 2002, Kurdish was forbidden in Turkish media; and apartheid laws against Jewish communities in Yemen dictated that Jewish children be taken from their families and given to Muslims in forced conversions. There are numerous similar examples against Jewish communities throughout the Middle East – even in the late 20th century. To this day, no restitution has been made by the persecutors of these heinous crimes.

As I noted in the opening, these are not stories you will hear in the newspaper, or in the universities, or at chic parties in London or in Paris and certainly on Al Jazeera, AJ+, Turkish television and sadly, even in the mainstream international media.

INSTEAD, CNN, BBC and Middle Eastern studies faculties around the globe will tell you that the Middle East is Turkish, Arab and Iranian since the dawn of time. These same journalists will wax eloquent about how these peoples have been the victim of European and Zionist aggression, all the while ignoring the histories of every other group in the region.

If that’s not enough, when presented with the historical realities of how the Turks and Arabs have oppressed communities all over the Middle East, they will whitewash these crimes of colonialism by claiming the Arab, and later Ottoman Turkish Empires, were peaceful and tolerant, allowing minorities to flourish, even going so far as to say how Europeans led the Turks and Arabs to violence.

They sought independence separate from the empires. This was true for the Armenians, Georgians, Assyrians, Kurds, Jews and Lebanese Christians. And before them, even the Greeks and the Serbs. And yes, many of these smaller groups of peoples appealed to Western Europeans for help.

In response to the national awakening of these smaller groups in the late 1900s, the imperialist nations, the Turks, Arabs and Iranians not only sought to preserve their power but even claimed the land of these nations in a process called irredentism. In a narrative flip, these imperial peoples of the region (particularly the Turks and Arabs) claimed the nations seeking independence were stealing land from them and used violence to retrieve it.

From the 1880s until 1923, The Pan-Turks not only sought to unite the various Turkish peoples, but they were also central in claiming the places that Turks had conquered as settler colonialists like Armenia, parts of Greece and the Assyrian parts of present-day Turkey. They were also instigators of genocides in these areas when groups subject to their rule showed any sign of pursuing independence, including the Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians.

Turks ensured the Kurds and Assyrians who remained would be subjected to forced assimilation and they expelled all of the Greeks and Armenians from Turkey.

Pan-Arabs, who were also active from the 1880s, claimed areas where Arabs had settled under settler colonialism in the Middle Ages and sometimes later, as original Arab homelands. In aiding the British in overcoming the Ottoman Empire, Arab leaders positioned themselves to take over multicultural countries and pursue their own imperialistic goals.

Thus, Pan-Arabs forced Arab culture and customs upon the Assyrians, Berbers, Maronites and Egyptian Copts. By the 1940s, they had created the Arab League and tried to Arabize all of North Africa and the Middle East. In fact, Pan-Arabs – even more than the Pan-Turks – were different from the Pan-Germans, for example, in accepting the assimilation of non-Arab peoples as Arabs in principle, even though in practice they still viewed them as different.

Hence, the policies of Arabization and forced assimilation.

In fact, all of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East – from the Kurds to the Assyrians, to the Jews and the Maronites, many already diminished by mass murder – were present at the Versailles Treaty and called for their national self-determination.

Of all of these people, only the Jews and the Armenians (both under the rule of rival empires, the Jews under the British and the Armenians under the Russians) were able to obtain independence.


Read article in full

More from Hen Mazzig

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Allies delayed restoring rights to Algerian Jews

Clear evidence that the Allies delayed restoring full rights to the Jews of Algeria is to be found in this JTA report dated 7 June  1944. The liberation of North Africa by American troops began in November 1942 with Operation Torch, but over  18 months later, Jews still did not have their citizenship (under the Cremieux Decree)  or property restituted to them.  One reason given is that the (antisemtic) Vichy officials were still in post and dragged their heels on this issue (With thanks: Malca)

 Jews in a synagogue in Algeria

Property confiscated from Jews in North Africa during the Vichy regime has not yet been restored to them, although it has been more than a year since Gen. Henri Giraud announced that all Vichy legislation was invalid, and despite the pledges by Gen. De Gaulle and the French Committee of National Liberation that such property will be returned to its owners.

Authoritative circles here admitted today to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that opposition to restoration of Jewish property has been expressed by persons who benefited from the seizures, but they added that the Committee of Liberation is expected to take action shortly to return Jewish property.

Another sore point troubling Algerian Jews is the lack of clarity concerning the status of the Cremieux Decree. Although to all practical purposes, the decree has been restored, the Jewish community here objects to the fact that the De Gaulle regime has never specifically annulled Giraud’s order of March 14, 1943, abrogating the decree.

The legal situation concerning the Cremieux Decree, as explained to the JTA today by Elie Gozlan, Secretary General of the Committee of Jewish Social Studies, is as follows:

When Giraud abrogated the Cremieux decree he stated that the specific terms government the annullment would be issued within three months. No such provisions were ever promulgated. Therefore, on October 21, when the Committee of National Liberation voted to restore the law, it did not issue a decree cancelling Giraud’s order, but announced that since the terms of the Giraud order had never been promulgated, the Cremieux Decree remained valid.
What the Algerian Jews want now, Mr. Gozlan said, is a forthright statement by the Committee announcing unequivocally that the Giraud abrogation of the decree has been cancelled. This, they say, will prevent the possibility of any “misunderstandings” in the future concerning the status of Algerian Jews.

Read article in full 

Useful timeline

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Israeli MFA sets up Facebook page for the Iraqi public

With thanks: Niran

A wave of nostalgia for their ex- Jewish citizens is sweeping the middle and intellectual class in Iraq.A young man called Taj claims to speak for all Iraqi Musims. He salutes his ' beloved Israelis' and calls on the Iraqi government to fulfil their ' legal and moral responsibility ' to compensate Iraqi Jews who were stripped of their rights for no other  reason than they were Jewish.


Taj, an Iraqi Muslim, greeting an Israeli audience. Click here to see clip


Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has  launched a new Facebook page, specifically dedicated to engaging and creating a dialogue with the Iraqi public.  The page, called “Israel in Iraqi-Arabic”, will serve as a digital bridge between the two peoples.

The new page focuses on content of interest to Iraqi audiences, such as touching stories about the large Jewish-Iraqi community that previously lived in Iraq and today lives in Israel, as well as similarities between the Israeli and Iraqi cultures. The Facebook page will also introduce the diversity and achievements of Israel to the Iraqi audience.

Yuval Rotem, Foreign Ministry Director-General, noted, “The Facebook page is intended to address the growing interest of the Arab world in Israel. Social networks allow us to reach this audience – our neighbors – and to introduce them to the true face of Israel in ways that were not possible before.

Beyond our general Arab-language accounts on Facebook and Twitter (@IsraelArabic) we chose to dedicate a page to engaging with Iraqis in light of the glorious history of the Iraqi Jews (who today live in Israel), and the rising interest of Iraqi citizens in our story in recent years, something we became aware of after receiving many positive comments on our existing social media accounts from Baghdad and across Iraq.

We believe this Facebook page will promote a positive, fruitful dialogue that will lead to a closer acquaintance between Israeli society and Iraqi society in all its components - Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other populations.”

Read article in full

Monday, May 14, 2018

Jewish refugees: the counterpart to Palestinian refugees

The 14th May, the anniversary of Israel's Declaration of Independence, is traditionally a day when articles appear in the press lamenting the plight of the Palestinian Refugees. You will struggle to find any mention of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Point of No Return is reproducing extracts from this Huffington Post article by Lyn Julius, which contains the main talking points. Read article in full

Advocates for Jewish rights do not seek to delegitimize Palestinian claims. But it is a feature of the prevailing discourse that Jewish refugee rights are dismissed as an impediment to peace, denigrated or ignored, while Arab rights — including the much-vaunted ‘right of return’ — are put on a pedestal. Only Arab refugees may enjoy the exclusive support of the UN agency UNWRA. Only Arab refugees may pass on their refugee status from generation to generation so that, exceptionally amongst the world’s displaced peoples, five million people can now claim to be Palestinian ‘refugees’.
For precisely these reasons Jewish and Arab refugees must be compared. 
It is beyond dispute that there were two sets of refugees in 1948. It is not a suffering competition, but the rights of refugees carry no statute of limitations. What about the human rights of these Jews who fled violence and persecution with one suitcase ? Would they or their descendants ratify a peace referendum that ignored their rights?
Recognizing the narrative of 50 percent of the Israeli population who descend from Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries could well be the key to reconciliation.

What have Jewish refugees got to do with the Palestinians, critics ask? The current negotiations are between Israel and Palestine, not Israel and its neighbors. 
The conflict has linked Jewish refugees with the Palestinians since the 1930s when the Palestinian Arab leadership became complicit in victimizing Jews in Arab countries and dragged five Arab states into the 1948 war against Israel. This war resulted in the displacement of some 40,000 Jewish refugees from Jerusalem and the West Bank, in addition to the 850,000 forced to leave Arab states.
Arab states themselves cemented the link when they criminalized Zionism, persecuted their innocent Jewish citizens as ‘the Jewish minority of Palestine’ and stole their assets. 
More proof of such a link is the fact that the Arab League plays an active role in the present ‘bilateral ‘peace talks. Moreover, Arab states such as Lebanon, Syria and Egypt hosting populations of Palestinian refugees have an essential role to play in solving the refugee problem. A good start would be for the Arab League to rescind the 1950s Law prohibiting Palestinians from becoming citizens ‘to avoid the dissolution of their identity’.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Another Mizrahi Eurovision winner: Netta Barzilai


Mabrouk to Netta Barzilai, Israel's winning contestant in the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest. From her surname, Netta is of Mizrahi origin. She is the latest of a string of Mizrahi entrants.

Israel won in 1978 with the song  AbaNibi performed by Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta; in 1979 with the song Hallelujah performed by Milk and Honey and in 1998 with Diva perfomed by Dana International.

 Since the introduction of semi-finals  in 2004, Israel has managed to qualify for the final seven times. In 2005,  Shiri Maimon and Hasheket Shenish'ar was placed fourth. In  2008, Boaz and The fire in your eyes came ninth. In 2015 Nadav Guedj came ninth with Golden Boy. In 2017 Imri Ziv represented Israel in Kiev in the Ukraine. The song came 23rd out of 26th in the final.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

'To find the Jewish quarter of Sidon, follow the swaztikas'

The erasure of the Jewish heritage of Sidon in Lebanon proceeds apace: it is as if Jews never existed here. A keen Lebanese amateur historian of the Jewish community of Lebanon, Nagi Georges Zeidan revisited the city. Here are his findings, as told by Isaac Choua in HaSepharadi:

The Jews of Sidon believe that their community dates back to the first arrival of Israelites ; roughly 1000 BCE) and their synagogue to the Second Temple period (Josephus, Jewish Wars 1:422). They even have a tradition that the tomb of Zeḇulun the son of Yaʿaqoḇ (yes, one of the members of the twelve tribes) is buried there and a mausoleum stands in his honor. “Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore; He shall be a haven for ships, and his flank shall rest on Sidon.”

When the Jews lived in Sidon, they kept only one day of yom ṭoḇ because of its close proximity to Jerusalem. Though only a small amount of information exists, Sidon probably had a small Jewish community at the time of the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. In the twelfth century, Spanish traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentions that twenty Jews (perhaps twenty families) lived in Sidon, which he called a large city.”

 In the nineteenth century as Beirut became more metropolitan, many of the Jews spread throughout Lebanon flocked to Beirut. Nagi Georges Zeidan, an amateur historian on Lebanese Jewry, posted on his Facebook page (followed by many of the Lebanese Jews around the world) on April 23rd, 2018:Though there is nothing inherently wrong with the term “el-Quds” (one of Jerusalem’s names in Arabic), the erasing of the Haret el-Yahoud” is strictly political. This is not the only change going on in Sidon: on April 20th, 2018 Nagi reported that the “west wall of the cemetery that separates the old seaside is completely demolished by excavators.” “These machines are well inside the Jewish cemetery, in fact they… damaged and partially destroyed tombs.”

In 2016, Nagi (who has been collecting everything he can find on the Jewish community in Lebanon since 1996) returned to revisit the remains of the Jewish community. When Nagi could not locate the Jewish Quarter, he was advised to 'follow the swastikas' in order to find the location – the place had been renamed from Haret el-Yahoud” to Haret el-Ghaza.”

This is not the first time the Lebanese government has demolished the Jewish community and their physical history. In Deir el-Qamar, the Jewish community lived amongst Druze Prince Fakhr-al-Din ibn Maan and were permitted to build a synagogue in 1638. My family helped build it. Sadly, instead of being preserved as a museum by the Générale des Antiquités (General Directorate of Antiquities) it has been destroyed in order to be turned into a dance studio.

Play being staged in the former synagogue of Deir el-Qamar (Photo from November 2017)

A friend of mine visited Lebanon in the summer of 2017 and reported back to me the shock he found in the place that was once my family’s synagogue: "they had no idea it was a synagogue… it was terribly heartbreaking… I would not have thought that this was it if three old ladies hadn’t insisted so, and if it didn’t match the photos you sent earlier… they have erased any trace of what this place was."

Star of David seen in 2012 on the wall in the Deir al-Qamar synagogue, now a dance studio and theatre

Read article in full

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Never have so many Mizrahim been on television'

Although she churlishly accuses Netanyahu of abhoring Mizrahim and not doing enough to give them real responsiblity, Carolina Landsmann writes in Haaretz that under his watch Israel's socio-ethnic fabric in the public domain has changed beyond recognition. (With thanks: Lily):

The Moroccan Miri Regev and the half-Iraqi Ayelet Shaked (centre) are two Mizrahi ministers in the Netanyahu government

Poet and social activist Shlomi Hatuka excitedly summed up the torch-lighting ceremony: “I’ve never seen so many Mizrahim on television.”
Indeed, it’s hard to deny that under Netanyahu, the gates that kept Mizrahim excluded have been breached, and their visibility is undeniable, much to the chagrin of the Ashkenazim. But contrary to Lula (The disgraced Brazilian president), who fought passionately his whole life for the workers, the poor and the blacks – Netanyahu and his wife seem to genuinely harbor a hatred for the poor. Netanyahu is not being persecuted, he is the political persecutor. Netanyahu cannot take credit for the liberation of the Mizrahim. He uses the Mizrahi cause to incite and conquer, not to remedy an imbalance or to build a common, equal and just ethos.
Even though Netanyahu has acted cynically, can one ignore the fact that under his governance, the socio-ethnic fabric of the public domain has changed beyond recognition? That Miri Regev is the culture minister and it wasn’t Yariv Levin or Yuval Steinitz who took over for the prime minister when he was under anesthesia? It’s easy to scoff at the status the premier has given to Regev, but isn’t the dismissal of a formal role a form of covert racism: She is the deputy prime minister only because he is not in mortal danger? When Regev is culture minister, does that position not carry the same kind of weight as it would if given to an Ashkenazi? Is it really of no importance that the 70th Independence Day festivities were designed just as she pleased, or that the Mizrahi narrative has become the bon ton when it comes to political correctness today?
Netanyahu has groomed only the “professional representatives” of Mizrahim and not those with genuine talent. To the former, he grants at most the job of filling in, but never of really being in charge. And he threatens to make the heads of the latter roll whenever they dare to truly do their jobs – out of loyalty to the public and not to Netanyahu – as is the case with Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh. This also explains the conflicted feelings many on the Ashkenazi left have for Netanyahu: They hate him for advancing the Mizrahim, but admire him for blocking them with a glass ceiling.
And herein lies the hope: Alsheikh symbolizes the Mizrahi distancing from Netanyahu and perhaps also the birth of a new historic narrative in which – against his will, and completely contrary to his political intentions – the prime minister has acted as the donkey of the Messiah of the Mizrahi revolution.

Read article in full

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Mind the Gap!

Point of No Return is going travelling to America and Canada. Postings may be sparse - or just not as regular as usual.

Monday, May 07, 2018

How an Iraqi-Israeli inflitrated the Muslim Brotherhood

 Zvi Yeheskeli went undercover as Sheikh Abu Hamza to investigate the Muslim Brotherhood

Zvi Yehezkeli is a fairly well known face around Israel. He's a fluent Arabic speaker of Iraqi-Jewish origin. For more than 15 years, the journalist and religious father of five has appeared on Channel 10 News, reporting on the Arab world. But for a couple months over the past two years, Yehezkeli became someone else entirely: Sheikh Abu Hamza. He used this identity –  to film an in-depth series on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the streets of Europe and the United States. See profile in the Jerusalem Post: (With thanks: Lily)


The five-part series, titled “False Identity,” began airing ( in February 2018) on Channel 10.

In the first installment, Yehezkeli – or Abu Hamza, wired with secret cameras and microphones – explored the mosques, schools and bookstores of the Muslim community in Paris.

“The Western world isn’t always reporting on these things because they don’t understand their significance,” Yehezkeli said in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post. “I think the job of a journalist is to report on the things we don’t understand.”

Yehezkeli set out to show the infrastructure and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Paris.

“I think people should see their doublespeak, their approach to mosques and schools,” and attempts to control the Muslim community in France and elsewhere in Europe, he said.

The upcoming episodes, said Yehezkeli, will show additional footage from France as well as his journey posing as a Syrian refugee traveling from Turkey to Germany. The final two episodes, which the journalist said basically make up a free-standing documentary, focus on the United States.
In this episode, he surveys the scene in France. One of the startling things he is told is that the French authorities are preparing for a civil war within the next decade or so.

Read article in full 

Click here to see episode on the 'quiet jihad' in France




Sunday, May 06, 2018

Jewish museum plan in Tunis runs into controversy

 
The Bardo Museum in Tunis: 'Judaica no longer displayed'

A Jewish Museum is to open in Tunisia.

According to a report on the CRIF website, the organisers have called for documents, books, ritual objects and souvenirs for the new museum in Tunis, which is to be sited in the historic Jewish quarter. A meeting is to be held on 22 May in Paris to discuss the project and to set up an association for the preservation of Tunisian-Jewish heritage.

They argue that young Tunisians are unaware of that an ancient Jewish community lived in the country until recent times: Taking its cue from Moroocco, the only Arab country to-date with a Jewish museum, the Tunisian museum would go some way to raising awareness of the historic contribution of the Jews.

However, the proposed museum is not without its critics. Jean Loup Mordekhai Msika has written to one of the prime movers, Lucette Valensi, pointing that Tunisian customs officials confiscated personal objects from Jews forced to leave the country. He himself wanted to take his grandmother's cheap enamel teapot out of the country. The customs official bellowed,' this stays here!'

"Defenceless citizens, they  could neither enjoy security not freedom, as the country wanted to take revenge for  the failure of the Arabs to throw the Jews into the sea," Msika's letter said.

Msika reminded Mme Valensi that under president Ben Ali, there was a room displaying Judaica in the Bardo museum. The Judaica was no longer on display  once Ben Ali had been deposed, Msika claimed.

"The first priority," Msika wrote,"should be for Mme Valensi to find out what happened to these objects." If the Tunisian government wants to project an image of democracy and tolerance,  he continued, it should account for seized objects.
Msika, an architect,  has been working on his own project for a Jewish museum of Jews from Arab countries in Jerusalem.

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Saturday, May 05, 2018

Moroccan Jews mark hillula of Shimon Bar Yochai

Last week, observant Jews across the world marked the Hillula, or anniversary, of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the greatest teachers of Jewish law and ethics. Bar Yochai lived in Palestine at a time of religious persecution by the Romans. Pilgrims flock to his grave at Mount Meron in the Galilee.



The former Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel, R. Shlomo Amar, composed the lyrics to a piyyut in honour of Bar Yohai, which is performed in the video above by the great contemporary Moroccan-Israeli payytan, R. Maymon (Meni) Cohen. Below, a contrasting version by Itsik Eshel.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Lag Ba'Omer pilgrimage passes off without incident

Thousands of people participated in an annual Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia’s famed Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia, which ended Thursday night without incident under heavy security. Report in the Times of Israel:

For two days, pilgrims prayed and sang in Hebrew as they lit candles and placed votive eggs in a cave below Ghriba, Africa’s oldest synagogue, on the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia.

About 3,000 people took part in the first day of the festivities, a police official told AFP.
Cheering and dancing, worshipers completed the pilgrimage by leaving the “Menara,” an object of worship mounted on a cart for the ritual procession, at Ghriba’s closely monitored outer gate.



French Jewish women write their wishes on eggs that will be placed in a cave under the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s Mediterranean resort island of Djerba on the first day of the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue on May 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)

The joyful march usually makes a tour of other synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods on the island before returning to Ghriba, but in recent years, celebrations have been confined to Ghriba for security reasons.
According to Rene Trabelsi, co-organizer of the annual pilgrimage, nearly 400 Israelis took part in this year’s festivities.
Organized every year on the 33rd day of the Omer, the traditional counting of the 49 days separating the Jewish festivals of Passover and Shavuot, the Ghriba pilgrimage has long been a central tradition for Jewish Tunisians.
The day is called Lag B’Omer, and is also celebrated in Israel and throughout the Jewish world with bonfires and pilgrimages.

Read article in full

Djerba Jews at the El-Ghriba Synagogue on Tunisia's southern island. (photo credit:upyernoz via CC/JTA)  

Reuters report (Israel Hayom - with thanks: Lily)

More articles about al-Ghriba

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Abbas?

 With thanks: Lily, Yoram

Mahmoud Abbas has denied that pogroms occurred  during the 14 centuries that Jewish communities existed in Arab countries.  If he read Point of No Return he would be fully au fait with the true history.



Non exhaustive map of anti-Jewish massacres before 1948.  Click on the picture to enlarge (T. Karfunkel)

Abbas's  outrageous statement is of a piece with Abbas's Holocaut denial. His thesis as a PhD student in Moscow vastly minimised the numbers of Jews murdered by the Nazis. The Zionists' Ha'avara  agreeement to rescue Jews from Hitler's Germany in the 1930s is maliciously construed as 'collaboration' with Nazism.



 Haaretz reports: 
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday that Jews in Europe were exposed to pogroms not because of their religion, but because of their social role and financial matters. 
Speaking during the National Palestinian Council in Ramallah, Abbas attributed the claim to Jewish scholars and said that factually, "such pogroms did not take place in Arab nations, which had Jewish communities."
Abbas stirred controversy in his doctoral thesis in Moscow University when he examined connections between the Zionist leadership in Israel and the Nazi regime in the 1930s. In it he dealt with the claims of Holocaust deniers such as Roger Garaudy regarding the correct number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust. Israeli officials have dubbed Abbas a Holocaust denier, but he has refuted the accusation.

Read article in full

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The US must stop returning stolen property to Arab states

By signing Memoranda of Understanding with Middle East governments and drawing up Red Lists,  US  institutions have become complicit in the theft of the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples of the Middle East and this rubs salt in the wounds of their ethnic cleansing. The most blatant example of this is the US government's pledge to return the Jewish archive to Iraq, a collection of books and documents belonging to the Iraqi Jews in exile. Carole Basri and David Dangoor write in The Hill:


 A 1815 Zohar found in the Iraqi-Jewish archive

This cultural appropriation is taking place because of the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004, as amended effective April 30, 2008. Similarly, memorandums of understanding have been signed and enacted as recently as February 2018 for Syria, Egypt and Libya, where Jewish property, history and assets are being appropriated and stolen.

In Yemen, where Jews long have lived in second-class status with the threat of death by senior officials, all but a few Jews have fled the country. Some who fled grabbed what they could, such as religious possessions, but even these ultimately could be returned to Yemen. 

On Jan. 31, 2018, the International Council of Museums released a Red List for Yemen that directly targets Hebrew manuscripts and Torah finials. The Red List notes, “Yemeni authorities will ask for the retrieval and the repatriation” of these items. Frequently, issuing a Red List is the first step in a process to hold public hearings and ultimately pass memorandums of understanding between the United States and foreign governments that blockade art and cultural property, denying U.S. citizens the rights to their historic heritage.

With regard to Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, no such decisions, laws or memorandums of understanding should be made with states where Jews were subjected to ethnic cleansing and state-sanctioned anti-Semitism. In Iraq, Nuremberg-like laws led to ethnic cleansing.

The United States can stop aiding and abetting the theft of property, assets and culture. The Iraqi Jewish Archive should return to the private and communal Iraqi Jewish owners, who were not consulted on the expropriation of their property or the agreement to return the property to Iraq. 

Additionally, the United States should reverse its policies on the return of personal and communal Jewish assets to countries where Jews are not welcome. Before it is too late, Washington should stop the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the government of Yemen. This is not only a matter of law; it is above all, a matter of justice.

Read article in full

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Hen Mazzig: a gay Jew of colour- with designer glasses

There is no room for pro-Israel Mizrahi 'Jews of colour' in the Ashkenazi leftist purview. 'When these same elitists fight for the rights of people of Arab descent, it’s only for the Palestinians; if they find out that you are Jewish, you just don’t matter,' writes Hen Mazzig, an Israeli Jew of Berber and Iraqi descent in this hard-hitting article in The Forward (with thanks: Michelle)

Hen Mazzig: saved hard to buy his designer glasses

Being gay, Mizrachi, and pro-Israel means being politically homeless.

It’s amazing that American Jewish leaders of the left participate in smearing me as a “hasbaraist” while out of the other side of their mouths extolling the virtues of intersectionality. Many American Jewish liberals would like me to criticize Israel more, because that is what a “good progressive” does: bash Israel.

But my style is different. Going through the challenges life has thrown my way, from growing up in a family living paycheck to paycheck to having grandparents who barely spoke Hebrew to being part of a society in which my background was not celebrated (to put it mildly), all of this gave me a certain perspective on life.
There was even racism in my school and in my community. It was the racism of Ashkenazi elitists who believed that they are the better stream of Jews, superior to the African and Middle Eastern Mizrahi Jews.

Today in Israel, this type of racism is not as prominent as it was in the past. Nevertheless, it is still very much alive in the Israeli Ashkenazi Left — and yes, their American counterparts.

And it’s this racism that I hear echoing in the smears against me from the left. When these leftists call me a “hasbarist,” their accusations emulate the stereotypical Ashkenazi elitism that does not accept the self-determination of Mizrahim.

This racism is rooted in the ideology of white supremacy that we don’t discuss, wherein many elitists believe that Mizrahi Jews should just stay where they are socially and economically. When these same elitists fight for the rights of people of Arab descent, it’s only for the Palestinians; if they find out that you are Jewish, you just don’t matter. They pick who they care about based on their race and ethnicity.

Examples of this elitism abound, like just last week, when the senior communications advisor of a large progressive non-profit told me that I should stop using my “POC (Person of Color) posturing” because I have designer glasses. She called me a “well-off Tel Avivian.”

Indeed, I have designer glasses, that I bought for myself with money I worked hard to save. I do live in Tel Aviv (with a roommate) in a rented apartment and I hope that one day I will be able to save enough money to buy my own place (probably not in Tel Aviv as prices are insane). But all of this is beside the point. Can you imagine a left wing American Jewish leader telling a Black person to stop their “POC posturing”? Can you imagine her telling a Palestinian with a good job to stop the pity party? Why, then, is it acceptable for a leader in the American Jewish left to say this about a Jewish POC?

 Read article in full

More from Hen Mazzig


Monday, April 30, 2018

Ethan Katz muddies the waters of Muslim antisemitism


Ethan Katz is to give the Maurice Freeman Trust lecture at the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College in London on 1 May. He is a history professor at the University of Cincinnati and the author of Burdens of Brotherhood, a study of 100 years of interaction between Jews and Muslims in North Africa and contemporary France. In italics I am reproducing  the blurb advertising Katz's lecture. I have interspersed my comments.
Headlines from France suggest that Muslims and Jews have renewed an age-old struggle. But the past tells a different story.
Academics like Katz have come under fire for 'whitewashing' Muslim antisemitism. They are accused of muddying the waters and confusing the reader/student  with 'complexity' where actually, matters might be quite simple. The 100-years war in Palestine it is not a struggle between Muslims and Jews, but a Muslim/Arab struggle against Jews. Prior to the colonial era in the Maghreb, Muslims had power. Jews were a defenceless minority  in an Arab/ Muslim majority country.  All Jews were eventually forced out.There is no equivalence between the two groups.


The past Katz work refers to is the comparatively recent past. It fails to delve into the dhimmi status of Jews in the Maghreb before French rule - a history of subjugation and even forced conversion. Then Jews were confined to ghettoes - for their own protection against a hostile population. Jews and Muslims were never brothers - Muslims always assumed they were superior and entitled to wield power over non-Muslims. Both Jews and Muslims in Algeria were offered French citizenship by the 1865 Senatus-Consulte, but the Muslims refused, because it would have meant compromising their personal status.  The constitution of independent Algeria discriminates against Jews, for only a person with a Muslim father or grandfather is entitled to Algerian citizenship. Non-Muslims would never be accepted as part of the Algerian nation, even those who had supported the FLN nationalists.

In this talk, Ethan Katz discusses the findings from his prize-winning book, The Burdens of Brotherhood. He traces the simultaneous development of coexistence and conflict among Jews and Muslims in France across the twentieth century and up to our own time. Katz takes us inside little known relationships between individual Jews and Muslims around common culture and shared interests cafes, concert halls, neighbourhoods, and athletic clubs.
The prominence  given by post-modern academics like Katz to cultural and socio-economic factors over people, historical events and politics has served to falsify the history of Jews from Arab countries. No matter how many cups of coffee they shared with their neighbours, even the most 'arabised' of Jews, such as the Jews of Iraq, were eventually driven out. Friendships between Jews and Muslims did not remain immutable - they could turn to enmity at the drop of a hat. 
At the same time, he shows how the defining events of the past hundred years - from the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, to the French-Algerian War and decolonization, to the Israeli-Arab conflict and the rise of global jihad - have become increasingly difficult to escape and have had a far-reaching impact on the interactions and mutual perceptions of Jews and Muslims in France.
The underlying assumption is that Jews and Muslims lack any kind of agency, and are buffeted about by external forces beyond their control. However,  the driving force behind the Israel-Arab conflict, for instance,  has always been Arab rejectionism. The  global jihad is the product of an ideological,  anti-modern and antisemitic movement in the Arab and Muslim world. Some ten Jews have been murdered by Muslims in France in the last decade. No Arabs have been murdered by Jews. These murders did not just happen in a vacuum, and cannot be blamed on French colonialism, or economic, civil or social grievances.

To book for Ethan Katz's lecture Jews, Muslims, Frenchmen: The Promises and Perils of Fraternity click here.
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