Friday, March 22, 2019

Egyptian Jews: How five minutes turned into years of detention


 Hundreds of Jewish males were rounded up as 'Israeli PoWs' and imprisoned in Egypt in the wake of the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. 'Cinq minutes tout au plus' is the ironic title of a new book by Ovadia Yeroushalmy, now available in French translation from Hebrew. The authorities came to arrest Jews, promising that they would be detained for no more than five minutes. For many their stay turned into two or three years and involved torture, deprivation and abuse.

 Maurice Maleh (Association of Jews from Egypt - UK) has sent in this review:

 Ovadia Yéroushalmy was born in Cairo in 1945 to an ordinary Jewish family typical of the Arabic-speaking Jewish community in Egypt.

Between 1964 and 1967 he attended the American University of Cairo to study Economics and Business Administration.

On  5thJune 1967, his world was turned upside-down as two policemen turned up demanding that he to follow them to the police station with the excuse that  it was only a ‘simple check, with no need to bring anything, as it will take just five minutes’.

Several hundred other Jews were being detained at the same time without rhyme or reason and with no judicial review.  For Ovadia, and many others, these so- called ‘five minutes’ turned into two long years of incarceration, a cruel waste of time for a mere 22 year old and his co-prisoners.  

This book evokes the drama experienced by those arrested and describes the roles played by the state, International Institutions, other actors and personalities.  Ovadia contacted former prisoners and collected their testimonies, whilst also exploring various archives and press articles,  building up a dramatic account of this turbulent period of history affecting the remaining Jews of Egypt after the Six-Day War.

From mid-March the book has been available to order at a reduced price of 18€ plus p+p. (regular price 25€ ). Book launch in the presence of the author on 12 April in Paris, 8, rue des Tanneries, 75013 Paris. Further details
www.aspcje.fr (Email: aspcje@gmail.com , Tel: 01 45 35 29 86)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Three Torah scrolls stolen from Iran synagogue

 As we celebrate Purim, the festival marking the salvation of Persia's Jews from an evil tyrant, news has trickled out in the Jewish Journal of LA of a theft of Torah scrolls from a synagogue - all the more shocking  since the state's extensive security apparatus did not manage to prevent it.

Iranian Jewish community leaders in the U.S. have confirmed reports that on Feb. 28 three antique Torah scrolls were stolen by unknown thieves from the centuries-old Ezra Yagoub synagogue located inside Tehran’s Jewish ghetto.
While the Iranian regime has not launched any official investigation into the incident and state-run media outlets have not reported on it, a statement released by the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) indicated that their organization is unaware of any specific motive behind the theft of the Torahs.

“The Iranian American Jewish Federation is deeply concerned and anxious about this incident and will be looking closely to learn the results of the investigation by the authorities and the law enforcement,” stated Susan Azizzadeh, president of the IAJF in the statement.

Shahram Yaghoubzadeh, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York, said his group “hopes that the governmental authorities in Tehran will do the right thing and use their vast intelligence and power to ensure the apprehension of the perpetrators and return of these sacred scrolls to the synagogue”.

The modest synagogue which is a little more than 500 square feet was established 125 years ago after an affluent Jewish merchant Ezra Yagoub bequeath funds for the formation of the synagogue at his deathbed. Likewise, the synagogue’s Torah scrolls are from the same time period and encased in ornate wood and metallic cases with metallic ornaments on top called “rimonim”. (...)

The theft of the Torahs from the Ezra Yagoub synagogue is just the latest incident against Iran’s Jewish community. In late December 2017 two synagogues located in the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz were vandalized by unknown assailants who left a total of five Torah scrolls and numerous prayer books damaged or totally destroyed. Likewise, Tsedaka charity boxes were also stolen from the synagogues. The incident was never investigated by the regime’s authorities and no arrests were made in connection with the crime.

Inside Ezra Yagoub synagogue (Photo by 7dorim.com)

Moreover, in November 2012, Toobah Nehdaran, a 57-year-old married Jewish woman, was strangled, then repeatedly stabbed to death, and her body was mutilated in a ritual manner by thugs who had broken into her home located inside the Jewish ghetto within the Iranian city of Isfahan. Nehdaran’s gruesome murder was never investigated by Iranian authorities and suspects were never arrested in connection with her murder.

Also in January 2011, the Iranian student Basiji militia, of the Abu-Ali Sina/Avicenna University in the western Iranian province of Hamadan rioted outside the entrance of the Esther and Mordechai tomb and threatened to destroy it if Israel destroyed the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The Iranian state-run media news reported at that time that Basiji militia had removed the mausoleum’s entrance sign, covered the Star of David at the mausoleum’s entrance with a welded metal cover and demanded the site be placed under the supervision of the local Islamic religious authority. In the end the tombs, were not damaged nor destroyed.

Read article in full

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Jews of North Africa have their own Purim stories

Tonight begins the festival of Purim. The original story took place in present-day Iran, but  Jews in North Africa had their modern-day celebrations of deliverance. Lyn Julius reports in Times of Israel: 

 The great festival of Purim celebrates how the Jews of Persia were saved from the wicked Haman some 2, 500 years ago, but Jewish communities have had their own local festivities to mark their miraculous deliverance from catastrophe.


On November 8, 1942 (Operation Torch), American and British forces invaded Vichy- occupied Morocco and Algeria. It took the Allies just eight days to defeat the  Vichy French partners of the Nazis.


.
 ‘Megillat Hitler,’ commissioned to mark the wartime liberation of the Jews of Casablanca


The Jews saw the Allied conquest as a miracle. The Vichy regime had stripped some 330,000 Jews of their civil rights, imposed quotas,  restricted their entrance to schools and some professions and forced them back into the Jewish ghettos.
The Jewish community of Casablanca commissioned a scribe called P. Hassine to write a  special commemorative scroll called ‘Megillat Hitler.’ The scroll is now on display at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Written in Hebrew, its text echoes the original Scroll of Esther. It describes the rise of “Hitler the painter,” who rose to become the ruler of all of Germany, and who took the advice of his chamberlain Himmler to destroy the Jews.

P. Hassine, a Hebrew teacher from Casablanca, tells how Hitler’s plan to deport the Jews of North Africa was foiled at the last minute by the decision of President Roosevelt, “who could not sleep,” and so “commanded that these states be rescued and given protection.” Thus the Jews “went from mourning into happiness because the Americans established their rule.” The scroll declares that every year,“we are obligated to establish this day of rescue,” a “fixed and grand festival”.

But the Casablanca Jews rejoiced too soon:  At the same time as Operation Torch,   the Nazis retreated to Tunisia and imposed direct control: thousands of Jewish men were marched to forced labour camps. It would take the Allies another year before the Jews of North Africa would have their rights restored to them.

What happened to the Jews of Djerba  during the six months of Nazi occupation during World War II? Isolated on their island in the farthest corner of eastern Tunisia,  the Jews of that community appear to have been spared the round-ups resulting in males between the ages of 16 and 60 being sent to do forced labour.
But one incident does stick in the collective memory. At the time of the reading of the parasha of Terumah, the Nazis sent out instructions that the Jews of Djerba should immediately give them 50 kg of gold.

The deeply religious Jews of Djerba had just read the verse: “God instructed Moses to tell all Israelites whose heart so moved them to bring gifts of gold.”
On that Shabbat, the residents knew that something was seriously amiss when the chief rabbi of the island drove around in his car collecting the gold. He did not manage to fill the quota of 50 kilos.

But retribution did not come. The occupation was on its last legs. The Nazis never returned to the island of Djerba  and two months later, in May 1943, the Allies re-conquered Tunisia. And so the Jews of Djerba, too,  mark their own mini-Purim.

More Purim celebrations

 Read article in full 


Wishing all those who are celebrating Purim חג שמח!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Democratic drift towards criminalising Zionism

Alarmed at the drift of the left of the US Democratic party towards anti-Zionism, Sarah Levin* warns in the Times of Israel  that it could soon lead to fully fledged antisemitism. She draws on the experience of Jews  in Arab countries, where Zionism was criminalised. Moreover, anti-Zionism did nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians.

Earlier this month, when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar accused American Jews of dual-loyalty to the State of Israel, many former Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran recoiled, remembering the innocent Jewish lives imprisoned and lost in their countries of origin because of anti-Semitic accusations of dual loyalty. American Jews, including those from the Arab world and Iran, questioned why leaders of the Democratic party insist on keeping Congresswoman Omar on the House Foreign Affairs Committee after she repeatedly spouted the same anti-Semitic tropes that led to the oppression and ethnic cleansing of one million Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Why are they allowing a member who clearly knows so little about Israel and global anti-Semitism to sit on a committee that helps shape US Foreign Policy?
Jewish immigrants from Arab countries remember how seeds of anti-Semitism sprouted into full-fledged state-sanctioned, anti-Zionism as Arab-nationalism spread through the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century.  Upon the establishment of the modern-state of Israel in 1948, country after country throughout the region turned against their indigenous Jewish populations by passing numerous laws stripping Jews of their rights, and decrees criminalizing Zionism.

 Sarah Levin:'anti-Zionism 'othered' entire Jewish communities'. Right: Congresswoman  Ilhan Omar accused Jews of 'dual loyalty'. 
For example, in 1948, an Iraqi law was amended to equate Zionism with anarchism and immorality – a crime punishable by seven years imprisonment. A 1956 amendment to Egypt’s Nationality law stipulated that, “Zionists were barred from being Egyptian nationals.” In more severe cases, like Libya, laws were passed that completely restricted communication with individuals in Israel. Sadly, in 1961 Libya passed a law restricting citizenship to all but six Jews – leading to the ethnic cleansing of an entire Jewish community. When Ayatollah Khomeini took control of Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he promptly murdered a prominent leader in the Jewish community, Habib Elghanian (Z”L). Mr. Elghanian  was accused of being a Zionist spy and his sham trial and subsequent murder sent a very clear message to the Jews of Iran.
Zionism in the Middle East and North Africa was hardly ever defined by Arab governments and this ambiguity enabled terrible acts of anti-Semitism to happen under the color of law. Jews were denied legal representation in courts of justice and Jews throughout the region were regularly imprisoned, tortured and even hanged because of their supposed dual-loyalty and alleged relationships to the “Zionist regime.” Anti-Zionism in the Arab world contributed to the alienation and othering of entire Jewish communities – and a similar form of alienation is happening again today in the USA, but it’s perpetrators are ironically leaders in progressive movements.  This should have us all deeply concerned.
The irony of anti-Zionism laws in Arab countries is that they ultimately helped strengthen Israel. As Jews in Arab countries and Iran faced mounting anti-Semitism that was codified as part of national anti-Zionism agendas, daily life became untenable and led to the ultimate departure and ethnic cleansing of one million Jews from the region. 650,000 Jews from Arab countries fled to Israel as dispossessed refugees. This led to a population boom in Israel, and a “brain-drain” in the Arab world – the losses of which still reverberate today.
Another irony is that the anti-Zionism that pervaded the Arab world in the 20th century did nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians and this consequential story should be noted by those leaning towards anti-Zionism for the sake of Palestinian rights. Those supporting movements to isolate, boycott and divest from Israel are pushing a dangerous and divisive agenda that has proven to be counter-productive and totally ineffective. While they’ve failed to secure the rights of Palestinians, champions of BDS and anti-Zionism have excelled in exposing their anti-Semitic tendencies. Their narrow attitudes and approach seem not so dissimilar from the governments that expelled and ethnically cleansed Jews from Arab countries.
While anti-Zionist activists and leaders here in the USA continue to drum up anti-Semitic controversies, they are missing efforts taking place through diplomatic and grassroots channels to strengthen relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. It’s been widely reported, that this past winter three delegations from Iraq visited Israel, and there are a growing number of progressive groups in the Arab world eager to re-establish relationships with diverse Jewish communities around the world – including those in Israel. This is not to mention a range of Jewish groups in the US, including JIMENA, who work closely with Arab partners both here and in the Middle East. Not all of the organizations involved in normalization efforts are led by groups on the far left. We come from a diversity of backgrounds and outlooks and it’s a total fallacy to believe that only those groups and leaders labeled as “progressive” are able to lead and engage in productive normalization efforts.
Anti-Zionist leaders here in the USA could care less about diverse normalization efforts, because they are solely focused on mainstreaming the vilification of Israel and its supporters. Like Arab governments who criminalized Zionism as a means of persecuting Jews – anti-Zionist leaders here in the USA have proven time and again to center their activism more on the de-legitimization of Israel and the isolation of Jewish people, than the advancement of Palestinians.

Read article in full 

*Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA, will  be appearing on an AIPAC panel on 25 March together with Rabbi Elie Abadie, Shula Bahat and Carole Basri to discuss Jewish refugees from Arab countries. It will be for the first time that this issue is being discussed in this forum. To attend, register here.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Why do the Jewish refugees still matter?

For years the story of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands was not told by those Jewish organisations in the forefront of fighting for a truthful account of all aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That's why this background article by Pesach Benson of Honestreporting is welcome.

Why do the Jewish refugees from Arab countries still matter? Why is their story still relevant for today, rather than relegated to history books?

The number of Jews who fled their Arab homelands during Israel’s founding and early years amounts to a population exchange with the Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during the wars of 1948 and 1967. A peace agreement addressing compensating Palestinian refugees would also have to take into account Arab compensation for dispossessed Jews.
Some background is necessary to understand why.

An Iraqi immigrant working as a shoemaker at the Holon maabara in 1952.

Under Arab rule, Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims were considered dhimmis, or second-class citizens. This status meant Jews had to pay a special yearly tax, could not build synagogues or too openly practice their religion. To further reinforce their lower status, dhimmis could not build homes as tall as the Muslims, were required to dress differently, and weren’t allowed to ride horses — only donkeys. Jewish orphans were frequently removed from the community and forcibly converted to Islam. In North Africa, Jewish communities had to live in a ghetto (mellah). For better (and sometimes for worse), Arab rulers weren’t consistent on enforcing these rules.

Demonstrating the precariousness of Jews in the Arab world was the Damascus blood libel of 1840. When a Capuchin friar and his Muslim servant disappeared, a rumor began that the two had been murdered by Jews who wanted to use their blood for Passover. Several Jews were arrested, some of whom died under torture while others “confessed.” The remaining detainees were saved thanks to the intervention of Sir Moses Montefiore and others. However, Mitchell Bard explains, the affair left behind a bitter, lasting legacy:
The idea that the ritual murder case had been conclusively proved in Damascus and the prisoners only released for political reasons or because of bribery now became a key theme repeated at length in an extensive series of antisemitic journals and books,
Despite their “otherness,” Jews still managed to contribute to Arab culture and politics. Some of the notable personalities included:
By the early 1900s, much of the Arab world was ruled by the European powers. On one hand, this opened doors for Jews to advance in education, business and government. But it also placed them between the forces of European colonialism and restless Arab nationalism.

Although they were spared the hell of the German death camps in Europe, Jews in Arab countries faced their own difficulties which history has largely overlooked. The pro-Nazi Vichy French regimes of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia enacted discriminatory laws against the Jews. These including revoking the French citizenship some 110,000 Algerian Jews and sending 5,000 Tunisian Jews to forced labor camps. Nazi forces occupying Libya deported 2,000 Jews from Tripoli and Benghazi to work camps in the Sahara Desert.

In Iraq, Nazis whipped up the locals with antisemitic propaganda that led to the most violent pogrom against Jews known as the Farhud. On June 1–2, 1941, following Britain’s victory in the Anglo-Iraqi war and during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, Arab rioters killed more than 180 Jews in Baghdad, injured hundreds more, looted property, and destroyed an estimated 900 Jewish homes.


immigrants
Iraqi Jewish immigrants at Lod Airport, 1951
In the time leading up to Israel’s founding, the situation of Arab Jews further deteriorated. Arab authorities arrested Jews thought to be active Zionists. Rioting Syrians killed dozens of Jews in Aleppo and destroyed hundreds of homes, synagogues and shops, while 76 Jews were similarly killed in Aden. Iraqis boycotted Jewish businesses and hung Shafiq Ades, the Jewish community’s most prominent businessman, on trumped up charges of selling arms to Israel. Egypt passed discriminatory laws and 70 Jews  were killed in a wave of firebombings of Jewish businesses and homes.

Read article in full

Sunday, March 17, 2019

'No official policy to kidnap Yemenite children'

As the Yemenite Children Affair rumbles on, Yaakov Lozowick, former Israeli state archivist, writes in the Tablet that the staying power of  the issue has more to do with emotions than facts. The recently released archive documents, argues Lozowick, corroborate the conclusion that there was no official policy to kidnap babies from Israeli hospitals.

I chose Haim’s file at random. You read these testimonies—one, then another, then a dozen, then hundreds—and you understand why the grandchildren won’t let go. It’s heartbreaking.


Protocols of an autopsy at the Beilinson Hospital, Petach Tikva, 1953 (Israeli State Archives)
But that’s not all that’s in the files. There are lists of patients confirming who was where; and who died when; and who was buried precisely when and where. Sometimes sections of the lists are copied into the case files of individual children (in Haim’s case, here). Sometimes there are specific, individual documents such as hospital reports by doctors, or death certificates. In Haim’s case there’s a detailed paper trail, from the local clinic in Rosh Ha’ayin all the way to his grave. It includes the initial fear of polio which caused him to be sent to the hospital, various medical reports and lab results at the hospital, an official death certificate, and the specific burial license in the Petach Tikva cemetery. Since we used an advanced tagging system, the public can research by subjects, such as prohibiting visits by parents, or medical personnel.

All three investigating committees have been castigated by families and activists for being sloppy, or perhaps intentionally negligent. One can follow the investigators in their daily work, here and here, for example. So far as I could see, they seem to have worked methodically and with great professional integrity.

There are no documents that tell or even hint at a governmental policy of kidnapping children for adoption. Not one. Had there been such a practice, there would by necessity be hundreds or thousands of elderly dark-skinned Israelis who grew up in light-skinned families in the 1950s and ’60s. These people don’t exist. So, the activists claim, the babies were exported and sold to rich and childless Jewish families in America, or perhaps elsewhere. The archives contain not a shred of evidence for this claim, either.

Over the past three years I have sat in public discussions of the Yemenite Children Affair at the Knesset and elsewhere; I’ve followed the significant media attention given it; I’ve maintained personal contact with many of the main activists; I’ve watched three cabinet discussions. And while we were preparing the archives, I personally looked at hundreds of files and talked to the staff as they looked at thousands. From here on, I’m speculating, based on what I’ve seen, heard, and learned.

The stubborn staying power of the Yemenite kidnapped babies story comes from emotions, not historical data. There is none, and never was any—which is why opening thousands of files never made a dent. The activists merely moved their focus: The Big Secret must be in the Mossad’s files; or WIZO’s files; or in files that had been destroyed. As I was leaving my position a few months ago, they were speculating we had merely pretended to open everything while in reality opening only the “harmless” files.

Yet many family members will admit, at least in private, that what they are seeking is not evidence of kidnapping, but closure for the deaths of their loved ones. They want to see a grave, not a scanned image of a Xeroxed copy of a list of graves from the 1970s. They want explanations for the demeaning behavior of arrogant medical staff and bureaucrats who brushed them off, and otherwise treated them as inferiors, or at least as bothersome. If you assume—as I’m inclined to do—that the overworked staff trying to deal with a tsunami of immigrants in a poor country were normal people, and sometimes even idealists, it is also easy to imagine the callousness, and obtuseness, and even contempt, with which the young parents were fobbed off. Some of it can be explained by pressure, some by prejudice. And some, perhaps, by the need indeed to hide a secret—just not the one the activists seek.

There are more than 200 files with information about autopsies. My personal opinion is that these may contain an important key to the entire story. Admittedly, while we were working on the files I asked my entire staff to look for a smoking gun and we didn’t find it. But there is circumstantial evidence that many of the deceased infants had autopsies performed on them. The medical staff was distressed by the high death rate, which was especially high among the Yemenites, and they sought explanations. The body of an infant after an autopsy has been performed is not something one wishes to show grieving parents, certainly not religious parents from an undeveloped country who don’t speak any of your languages, and who never gave their permission for the bodies of their dead children to be cut open.

There was no crime, but there was a sin. All sides were unfamiliar to each other and overwhelmed, in different ways, by their circumstances. Those in power did their best, with scant resources—and scant regard for the emotions of the immigrants they were tasked with helping. The immigrants were also doing their best—and have bequeathed their traumas to their more confident, better-positioned descendants.

Read article in full

More about the Yemenite Children affair

Friday, March 15, 2019

Some Jewish features still remain at al-Kifl

The good news from this article in Ajam by Alex Shams (an Iranian-American who previously worked for Maan, the Palestinian News agency) is that some of the original features of the Jewish shrine of Ezekiel at al-Kifl  have been preserved and a layer of whitewash removed, although the author admits that the 'Jewish character of the site has been 'de-emphasised'. The bad news is that the ancient holy site has been dwarfed by a new Shi'a mosque. See my comment below.

In the 1300s, under the Mongol Ilkhans, a mosque was built around the site, in keeping with a widespread policy of shrine patronage around the empire. The ancient minaret at Ezekiel’s Tomb, which today leans sharply, is thought to be from that era. Its construction began under the Ilkhanid king Oljeitu, who converted to Shia Islam and was known in Persian as Muhammad Khodabandeh.
With the extension of the mosque around the front, Jewish access became controlled by mosque authorities, who collected dues from pilgrims. The economy of Al-Kifl, which had become mostly Muslim, thus became directly dependent on the Jewish pilgrimage.(...)


 A giant mosque built since 2010 in the Iranian style dwarfs the original Jewish shrine

 In the early 2010s, an Iranian company was charged with restoring the mosque.
Some initially feared that the restoration would compromise the site’s Jewish history, but in the end a compromise was reached: the outer courtyard would be restored as a mosque – which is how it was being used – while the inner sanctum, under the authority of Iraq’s heritage authorities, would be left with its Hebrew markings remaining as they have for decades since the Jews left. The Iranian company charged with preservation efforts appears to have carried out renovations on the tilework and other aesthetic features inside the sanctum, but otherwise left it as it was.

Debates over the tomb’s present and future highlight the complexities of historical preservation at sites holy to multiple communities. Preservation requires balancing respect for those to whom the site previously belonged with the interests of a community that actively uses it today. 

In the restoration of al-Kifl, however, the renovation of the shrine’s “mosque” included de-emphasizing Jewish features or erasing Hebrew inscriptions that result in more emphasized Muslim character. This was intended to make the site work for Muslims who currently worship at the site, while simultaneously preserving Jewish historical features inside the sanctum.

 Read article in full





 


The floral decoration and Hebrew inscriptions are intact but Islamic inscriptions and green coverlets are much in evidence (Photos: Alex Shams)

My comment: While it is gratifying to know that some of the original Jewish decoration and Hebrew inscriptions remain around the burial chamber, we do not know what became of the graves of the Geonim, the Jewish dignitaries, including that of Menahem Daniel. Have these been destroyed? Far from being a 'shared place of pilgrimage',  the tomb was always the subject of a battle for control between Jews and Muslims. Since the departure of the Jews in 1950 - 51, it has been increasingly islamised. Muslim pilgrims are not told about Ezekiel – this is the burial site of Dhu al-Kifl, a minor prophet in the Koran. There was never an Arabic inscription on the tomb cover until recently.

This is not a tomb where Jews and Muslims worship side by side; the Jews have been banished and the Muslims have appropriated it as theirs. The huge Shia shrine has been built since 2010 and dominates the original shrine. ‘Next Shavuot in Kifl?’ not likely while most Iraqi Jews, now Israelis, are not allowed in the country.

Although we appreciate the photos, Shams'  revisionist history of Palestine does nobody any favours.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Tunisian-born Albert Memmi gets Lifetime Achievement Award

 The American Sephardi Federation  has awarded its Pomegranate Award for Lifetime Achievement to the writer and sociologist Albert Memmi at the start of the 22nd NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival. 


Born in Tunisia into a poor Jewish family, the 98-year-old Memmi is a giant of Sephardi literature of French expression. His works include The Pillar of Salt, The Scorpion, Portrait of the Colonized, and numerous seminal sociological works.

 Memmi situated his work early on at the crossroads of Jewish, Arab, and French cultures. Seen as a “Prophet of Decolonization,” he strove toward a recognition of multiple identities, the fight against all forms of racism, and wrote about the difficulty of finding a balance between East and West. Recognized by peers, including Albert Camus, Aragon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Léopold Sedar Senghor, his work is often read in conjunction with those of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire.

 Dr. Judith Roumani, Editor of Sephardic Horizons and a translator of Memmi’s works, says “Albert Memmi’s writing as a philosopher, sociologist, novelist and poet has been revolutionary in many senses: he diagnosed the predicament of colonized peoples and in particular of the educated individual, and the predicament of Jews in Middle East countries, sharing both in the life of indigenous Muslims and in that of the colonizers, yet not accepted by either. He has perched precariously across three civilizations, but would not be complete if any one were missing. Inventor of the term ‘Arab Jew’, yet not confined by it. Recipient of many prizes, including the Grand Prix de la Francophonie by the Académie française, and the Prix de Carthage, awarded personally by President Bourguiba of Tunisia. A subtle and complicated writer in many genres, exemplifying Sephardi creativity.”

Video showing the presentation of the Pomegranate Award to Albert Memmi

Due to Memmi’s advanced age, an award ceremony was organized at his home in Paris with authors Colette Fellous and Guy Dugas, coordinator of the upcoming Memmi Centennial in France and Tunisia.

 Previous recipients of the ASF Pomegranate Award for Lifetime Achievement include André Azoulay, Senior Counsellor to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI; Enrico Macias, the Algerian-born French international recording superstar, and Erez Bitton, the award-winning Moroccan-born Israeli poet. The ASF Pomegranate Award is sculpted by the renowned Baghdad-born artist Oded Halahmy of the Pomegranate Gallery in Old Jaffa and Soho.

Who is an Arab Jew? by Albert Memmi

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Remembering four Jewish girls murdered in Syria

This time of year is the 45th anniversary of the murder of four Syrian-Jewish girls as they tried to reach Israel. Their plight, here described by Chrstopher Robbins in Israel Hayom, is emblematic of the years of horror endured by the 3,000  Jews trapped as hostages in the country until they were released in the 1990s. There is still a handful of Jews living in Syria. (With thanks: Lily)

 The four girls from the Zeibak and Saad families were raped and murdered
Those who stayed in Syria started to realize that the smaller the Jewish community became, the greater the chance that gratuitous or preplanned mob – even government – violence would visit upon its remaining individuals. At some point, the risk of violence is so high that it forces a decision. Is it better to ride out the Syrian storm or to put your family at risk on the open road in an attempt to escape?

Should we stay or should we go? These two questions are usually posed in unison. Our people have asked these questions in nearly every language we have ever spoken. The answers are often given in whispers, in dark rooms, in attics, or basements, and between anguished tears.

In 1974, the Mossad and various Jewish charities were working overtime to clandestinely smuggle Jews out of Syria. Relationships, networks and smuggling routes were established. Israeli and diaspora money was effectively deployed. Judy Feld Carr, a Canadian Jew, and her supporters, helped smuggle over 3,000 Jews out of the country. The Mossad was running constant operations as well, many in cooperation with the Israeli Defense Force.

Regrettably, the Syrians caught on quickly. They increased the number of men and arms at the border. The feared Mukhabarat was put on high alert. A Jewish boy was shot in the leg by a Syrian soldier while crossing the border with a Mossad handler. Two other boys, Natan Shaya and Kassem Abadi, seemingly vanished on their attempt at freedom.

Back at their homes in the Jewish Quarter, the Zeibak and Saad families' discussions had concluded. Now the conversation shifted to strategies and plans. Slip away at night? Or try and fade away on a trip to the market? How long before the Mukhabarat or a nosy neighbor notices our absence? What can they take with them? Family photos, heirlooms, keepsakes? Or just a small bag with cash and other items that can be easily converted to cash?

It was the fear of premature discovery, as well as their daughters' zeal to start anew in Israel as soon as possible, that led them to send the young women first. Lulu, Mazal, Fara and Eva would rendezvous with a group of smugglers. The smugglers had been recommended by two of their friends in the Jewish community. It was all arranged. Perhaps the cold and rainy weather would be a benefit, keeping border patrols to a minimum as temperatures dropped into the 20s.

We can imagine the scene as the women departed. For thousands of years, our people have often had to say goodbye in circumstances which make reunions uncertain. The family's handoff of their daughters to Syrian smugglers was an agonizing moment for the women's parents.

The trip into the mountains may have started well. As they left the confinement of the Jewish Quarter they would have passed valleys, brooks, waterfalls, caves and Roman ruins that dot the region. It may even have been possible for the women to begin to anticipate long-awaited freedom as they neared the Lebanese border. Lulu, Fara, Mazal and Eva doubtless imagined what life in Israel would be like for them. We will never know.

The women's bodies were found on March 2, 1974. They were discovered in a cave outside Al-Zabadani. They had been raped before they were murdered. Their bodies were hacked to pieces and burned by acid almost beyond recognition. They had also been robbed. A finger of one of the young women had been cut off in order to remove a ring.

Syrian police returned the women's remains to their families in burlap sacks. They cavalierly deposited the sacks in front of their parents' homes on Purim.
The bodies of Natan Shaya and Kassem Abadi were also discovered in the cave. They were likely victims of an earlier massacre. The boys were also attempting to reach freedom in Israel. While the official statement of the Syrian government is that smugglers were responsible, some people believe the atrocity was committed by Syrian soldiers.

A member of the Zeibak family said that to this day the Syrian government has concealed all facts from them.




Tuesday, March 12, 2019

How Israel brings its fallen men home

Nissim Attiyeh was a member of the Arab Section, a small group of Arabic-speaking spies sent to gather intelligence in Israel's early years. He died on a mission among the Arabs of Jaffa. A special unit in the Israeli army is tasked with finding and bringing back home the bodies of fallen men like Attiyeh. Matti Friedman, author of Spies of No Country,  reports for the Globe and Mail (With thanks: Simone):

Nissim Attiyeh: body never found

Two days before Attiyeh set out on his last mission, two of his comrades from the Arab Section were caught in the Arab city of Jaffa. Both were young Jews recently arrived from Iraq. They claimed to be Arab workers, but their cover stories were blown by perceptive members of the local Arab militia. The militiamen interrogated the suspicious pair, took them to some dunes outside town and shot them both, burying them in an unmarked grave.


 The trigger for Attiyeh’s dispatch two days later appears to have been an attack by Arab fighters on a Jewish convoy. He was supposed to pick out a route for a retaliatory raid and report back the same evening. But, like his two unlucky comrades in Jaffa, Attiyeh caught someone’s eye. His cover must have slipped. He’s assumed to have been executed in one of the nearby orchards, but no one knows for sure; he just disappeared.

Nissim Attiyeh, and the two spies killed in Jaffa the same week in December, 1947, were the first fatalities of Israeli intelligence.

 In the offices of the missing-soldier unit, known by the Hebrew acronym EITAN, there are 95 files still open from the 1948 war. A team of about 50 active researchers is tasked with closing them – a hybrid outfit of detective-historians, not regular soldiers but rather reservists called up for a few weeks a year. In their real lives, some of the researchers are academic historians. Others are policemen, or computer programmers.

The necessary personality type ranges from patient to pedantic. They might spend years on one case. The rule is that they can never give up. The unit’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Nir Israeli, told me that part of his job is keeping an open mind. He’s regularly contacted by civilians with a lead or just a hunch about where a body might be found. He gets quite a few calls from psychics. “I don’t turn anyone away,” he said.

Why persist, even long after the close relatives of the missing have died, and long after it would no longer seem to matter? In the Jewish tradition, families must have a grave where they can mourn, he explained. And they need closure. “This is a commitment we make to our soldiers – we sent this person, and we have to bring them home,” Lt.-Col. Israeli said.

 Read article in full

Reviews of 'Spies of No Country'

Monday, March 11, 2019

High Court rejects Farhud demand for compensation

 According to the Jerusalem Post, two Iraqi-Israeli petitioners suffered a setback when their demand for compensation for their suffering arising from the 1941 Farhud was rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court. The Court  denied that the Farhud was the sole  result of the direct impact of Nazism. One wonders whether the 2,000 survivors would be better off demanding Germany pay them reparations through the Claims Conference, as German radio did much to incite anti-Jewish hatred, and the Nazis supported the Palestinian Mufti and his pro-Nazi acolytes. Moroccan Jews have received compensation for wartime suffering, although they were only indirect victims of the Nazis. 


The High Court of Justice on Sunday rejected a petition submitted by Jews who were impacted by the 1941 Farhud Pogrom in Iraq that sought compensation from the State of Israel. The petitioners were asking to be compensated for their suffering and economic losses under a 1957 law designed for that purpose for Jewish victims of the Nazis.

Two Iraqi-Israeli Jews demanded compensation under the 1957 law on behalf of around 2,000 Iraqi Jews. The state had denied their claims, saying the compensation law only applied to those directly impacted by the Nazis.
The High Court expressed horror at the 179 Jews who were killed, and the thousands injured in the anti-Jewish pogrom in Iraq in 1941. It also agreed that the pogrom was partially caused by the antisemitic tone set by Germany and Iraqis aligned with the Germans. However, it said the 1957 law simply did not recognize them.

Rather, the High Court endorsed the state’s narrow interpretation of who can be compensated under the 1957 law.

The High Court implied that the Knesset could still compensate the Iraqi Jews for the 1941 pogrom, but that it would need to pass a new law.

Read article in full 

Haaretz article 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

How Chabad saved 1,800 Jewish children

A largely unknown operation to rescue Jewish children from Iran began in the spring of 1979. The children travelled without their parents and were housed with families  of the Chabad - Lubavitch community in Brooklyn, USA. One was Anna Monahemi Kaplan, now New York state senator for the 7th district.  Chabad News tells the story: (With thanks: Michelle)

It was a cold day in the spring of 1979 when 13-year-old Anna Monahemi arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. She came with a group of 40 Jewish girls—all of them from Iran, each of them alone. Her parents, like those of the other girls, had quietly bought her a ticket to Rome and sent her off, not knowing when they would see her next. There, the girls were greeted, processed and issued U.S. I-20 student visas. Five days later, they were safely in America.

From JFK, Anna and the girls were brought directly to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and placed with host families—members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community. This was not the only group of Iranian Jewish children in Crown Heights. Since the end of 1978, planeloads of Jewish refugee children had followed the same path to safety, intensifying after the January 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran and the return from exile two weeks later of the Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. By Passover of 1979, there were 1,000 Iranian Jewish children staying in Crown Heights with families, living in dorms, and studying in schools and classes established especially for them in the neighborhood.

 A group of young Jews registering on arrival in the US in 1979

Jews had lived in what was long known as Persia for 2,500 years, and at the time of the revolution, 100,000 of them called it home. They were well-established and successful. But then came the Islamic revolution, followed swiftly, 40 years ago this month, by the Islamist seizure of power. Violence roiled the streets. Threats against Jews were followed by the arrest and murder of leaders in the Jewish community. As the ground shifted under their feet, Persian Jews desperately sought avenues of escape, especially for their children.
The answer came in the form of Operation Exodus, a historic Chabad-Lubavitch effort, still largely unknown, to rescue the Jewish children of Iran. With help from the Crown Heights community and an army of volunteers, the operation was spearheaded by the late Rabbi Yaakov Yehudah (J.J.) Hecht, the exuberant executive vice president of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE), and personally approved and encouraged every step of the way by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Operation Exodus was by far the largest organized effort to rescue the embattled Jews of Iran, and by the time it wrapped up in 1981 had brought 1,800 children to the United States. While Hecht was promised financial assistance from mainstream Jewish organizations, much of it never materialized, leaving him to cover the expenses alone. When Hecht passed away a decade later, his organization was still millions of dollars in debt. Yet he never for a second regretted it; there were Jewish children to be rescued, and he had gotten it done.

Read article in full

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Tel Aviv museum showcases tribute to Jewish refugees

The Eretz Museum in northern Tel Aviv is neither fish nor fowl, a campus of 1970s pavilions housing a pot-pourri of exhibits pertaining to Israeli culture and history - from glass, ceramics, ancient wine presses and coin collections reaching back into Israelite times, to the 20th century work of the famous journalist-photographer David Rubinger. Now,  however, in a far corner of the postal history pavilion, is a new temporary exhibition devoted to the exodus of  Jews from Arab lands.

The Israeli curator of Leaving, never to return is Dana Avrish, whose grandparents came from Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Avrish lived in Morocco for two years.

The exhibition title was inspired by the words stamped on the exit certificates and suitcases of hundreds of thousands of Jews: رحلة بدون رجعة (literally: one-way trip).


As the visitor is steered past a pile of suitcases, the film Forgotten Refugees plays on a loop, while the voices ring out of individual Jews whose stories of displacement were recorded by the Seeing the Voices project. Artefacts and everyday objects, ranging from tikkim (the wooden cases housing Torah scrolls) to marriage certificates, documents, musical instruments, jewellery, ornate gowns used at marriages or circumcision ceremonies, and even a piano played on by Habiba Messica, Tunisia's famous 1920s singer, adorn 11 glass showcases, each representing an Arab country and Iran.
 Below: showcase representing the Jews of Iraq.

Above:  Annette Hemo with her brother and sister, Fez, Morocco, 1908

 From the ceiling hang 11 talithot (prayer shawls) to illustrate the stories (in English and Hebrew) of each  community - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Egypt,Yemen, Aden and Iran. Each bears a historical timeline, family photographs and a paragraph describing Avrish's own personal connection to that particular country, an anecdote or writer's quote. There are also works of art on display by modern Israeli artists of Mizrahi heritage.

The talith is the common thread linking the Jews of all these countries. Avrish was inspired to use this representation of religious continuity by an event that took place at the Giado work camp in fascist Libya during the Second World War: an officer entered a prison barracks, ran his finger over the dusty wooden beams, and threatened the 100 or so inmates with heavy punishment if the barrack was not cleaned. In the absence of anything but the scant clothing on their bodies, one man took out his talith, detached its fringes, and turned it into a cloth. And so, more than the Jews preserved the talith, the talith preserved them.

The last talith suspended beside the exhibition exit is blank, possibly symbolic of the fact that no Jews live in the Arab world anymore. The story of more than 2,000 years of Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa outside Palestine is over, but the talith remains, in all its purity and longevity.

Leaving, never to return is on at the Eretz Museum, Tel Aviv until 31 July 2019.


Friday, March 08, 2019

Reviews of Friedman's 'Spies of No Country'

' Spies of No Country' proves the point that Israel's early Arabic-speaking spies had no country to call their own own - except Israel, writes Lily Meyer for NPR:   

For half a decade, Friedman has been working hard, and publicly, to dispel easy narratives about Israel. He rose to attention — and controversy — through a pair of essays about media bias in coverage of Israel, and has remained on the beat ever since. His perspective is unusual: Israeli by choice, he clarifies his own bias in every piece but he writes to complicate, not to defend. In his third book, Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, Friedman rejects the narrative of Israel as a country filled with Europeans and their descendants, motivated by memories and guilt like my grandfather's. And he does it through a spy story.

Spies of No Country focuses on a fledgling Israeli intelligence unit called the Arab Section, and on four of its spies. The Arab Section emerged at the tail end of British colonialism, at a moment when the Palestine was filling with Jews. The British had made hazy promises, but none clear enough to prevent the war that ensued. The Jews in Palestine formed an army, which in turn formed the Arab Section, a fledgling espionage operation easiest to understand as a version of the Soviets' Directorate S. Where the USSR trained Russians to live in America, though, the Arab Section did something much murkier. It trained Middle Eastern Jews to embed themselves in the very countries they were from.

Friedman builds his story around four such Jews: Gamliel Cohen, Havakuk Cohen, Isaac Shoshan, and Yakuba Cohen. (None of the Cohens were related.) All four were native Arabic speakers. Yakuba grew up in Palestine, Havakuk in Yemen, and Gamliel and Isaac in Syria. In present-day Israeli parlance, they were Mizrahi. In the parlance of the Arab Section, they were not spies but mista'arvim, a word Friedman often uses in its full English translation: Ones Who Become Like Arabs. But it's hard to parse what made them like Arabs. "They were native to the Arab world," Friedman writes, "as native as Arabs. If the key to belonging to the Arabic nation was the Arabic language, as the Arab nationalists claimed, they were inside. So were they really...pretending to be Arabs, or were they pretending to be people who weren't Arabs pretending to be Arabs?"

The question is unanswerable, but it's far more important to Spies of No Country than any spying the four men do in the book. In the time Friedman writes about, they lived in Beirut, running a corner store and driving taxis. "Their position," he explains, "was like that of Russian agents tasked with gleaning intelligence not from Capitol Hill or Wall Street but from the sidewalk outside a public school in Queens." Imagine watching The Americans with no missions or violence. It would be a show about two travel agents' marriage. A show with spies in it, not a spy show.

Spies of No Country is a book with spies in it, not a spy book. Friedman chose the Arab Section to prove a point. My grandfather believed in Israel as a place of refuge for European Jews, but for Jews like Gamliel, Havakuk, Isaac, and Yakuba, it was more complex than that. Yakuba had no other homeland. Gamliel, Havakuk, and Isaac only had homelands outside Israel if they were Arabs, and yet Jewish and Arab identity have always been considered mutually exclusive — which is why they emigrated to Israel. They weren't alone. After 1948, Israel filled with Middle Eastern Jews. Today, nearly 53 percent of Israeli Jews have roots in the Arab world. To Friedman, understanding that fact is crucial to understanding Israel.


 This book should be required reading in every school, writes Hen Mazzig in the Jerusalem Post:

Today, many Mizrahi Israelis speak, dress and act indistinguishably from their Ashkenazi Israeli brethren. Marriages between Mizrachim and Ashkenazim have erased some of the most glaring social distinctions.

But the Mizrahi Jews that helped build Israel had not yet had the choice to assimilate.

Not only were these Jews native speakers of Arabic, the language of Israel’s enemies, but their culture, attire and identity were similar to that of those attempting to destroy the newly established Jewish state. Nobody wanted “Arab” culture.

One of the book’s heroes, Gamliel Cohen, described how hard it was to find a kibbutz that would accept him as a member due to his Mizrahi origins. Once he finally finds one, in 1940, he is frustrated that the “keepers of Israeli culture” refuse to play Arabic music.
To see short video clip of Matti Friedman speaking on his US tour click here (with thanks: Rachel W.)

I imagine that Gamliel craved the same music I grew up with and still enjoy today. I still remember how much I loved it when my grandmother played Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum’s music to me – and I still remember the pain I felt when my Ashkenazi teacher in elementary school heard about my favorite Arab artist and laughed along with my whole class.

The Mizrahi culture is a rich one, dating back thousands of years. Yet instead of celebrating it, we are told that we ought to be ashamed of it. That is what we have been told by many of these “keepers of Israeli culture,” as they celebrate Western and European culture, since the very beginning.

As a proud Mizrahi Jew, it was moving to read the stories of these heroes of the State of Israel, and I believe this book should be added to the reading list of every Israeli high school. Maybe then the next generation of Mizrahi Israeli children won’t have to experience the same pain that I’ve felt.

Read article in full 

Wall St Journal (subscription required) 

Times of Israel

New York Times

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Haddad and Kattan memoirs: Jewish dreams were dashed

In this paper comparing the experiences of the two Iraqi Jews Naim Kattan and Heskel Haddad, the academic Nadia Malinovich charts their hopes for  pluralism in the new nation of Iraq and their bitter disillusionment after the 1941 Farhud pogrom.


For both Kattan and Haddad, strong attachment to Arabic went hand in hand with unwavering Iraqi nationalism and a sense of belonging to the larger community that also set them apart from the older generation. Recalling his primary school years beginning in the mid-1930s, Haddad recalls that the Jewish adults who surrounded him all “acted as if every Mislim [sic] was an alien being. No, it was even sillier than that. Sometimes Jews of Baba’s age acted as if they were the aliens and not really Iraqis at all. Didn’t they know that there were Jews in Iraq long before Islam arrived on the scene?”26 As for himself, Haddad recalled, he easily fell under the sway of the new government’s history texts, which “were as crammed with drama and romance as any of Scheherazade’s stories . . . I was a super-nationalist,” he recalls. “When we arrived at the chapter in which Iraq gained independence, my heart pounded and I restrained a cheer only with a supreme effort of will.”27 At several points in the text, Haddad speaks of his fierce loyalty to King Ghazi, and recalls that the highlight of his early childhood was the day that the king waved back to young Haddad, “and to me alone” when driving down his street.28
Kattan opens his book with an incident that similarly illustrates the specificity of his generation’s relationship to the Muslim majority. Gathered as usual at the Yassine Café for a literary soirée, Kattan is shocked when his friend Nessim, the only other Jew in the group, begins to speak in Judeo-Arabic rather than in the standard (Muslim) Iraqi dialect of Arabic. While each religious community—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—had their own manner of speaking, Kattan explains, it was understood by all that the common language of their region was the dialect of the Muslim majority. Nessim’s bold decision, Kattan’s account makes clear, stemmed from a political commitment to an Iraqi national identity that had not existed for previous generations. Taking seriously the government’s official commitment to an inclusive nationalism that treated members of different religious communities equally, Nessim saw no need to engage in the kind of code-switching that had always been taken for granted as necessary and proper by Jews. Rather than being ashamed of the Jewish dialect, which Muslims often made fun of, Kattan asserts: “Nessim was assuming his difference. He wanted it admitted. He was presenting a fact. We were Jews and we weren’t ashamed of it . . . in a pure Jewish dialect, we had made our plans for the future Iraqi culture.”29
A New Social Universe: Breaking Down Barriers Between Muslims and Jews: Both Kattan and Haddad indicate that prior to World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Jews and Muslims lived in an ordered universe governed by well-defined relations that were both understood and respected. Growing up during the eras of both Iraqi nation building and Arab nation- alism, by contrast, the younger generation began to question these tradition- al fault lines, both evincing positions and engaging in behaviors that were shocking to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Both memoirs paint a picture of traditional Jewish-Muslim relations in Iraq as ranging from cordial to warm to hostile (on occasion), but in all cases, highly formalized: for the most part, the two groups lived in separate neigh- borhoods, attended separate schools, and interacted with each other almost exclusively in the public sphere. While it was not unheard of for Jews and Muslims to enter each other’s homes, Haddad recalls, this would only be done on formal occasions.
We didn’t “drop-in” on M’silmin [sic] as we did among ourselves, and in all her life, my mother had never met an Arab woman on a purely social basis. As for myself, I’d never held a conversation with a Muslim my own age . . . there were tacit codes of conduct which were rigidly observed.30
In a similar vein, Kattan’s memoir emphasizes the traditional separation between the Jewish and Muslim communities. Neither his mother nor maternal grandmother, he recalls, would have ever wandered into the Muslim section of the city. This state of affairs, he suggests, was the result of both fear on the part of the Jews as a vulnerable minority, as well as a tacit mutual understanding. His mother would not cross the Muslim section on foot “except when she was forced to do so, trembling with fear and uncertainty.” As for his grandmother, “it would have been unthinkable to enter the Muslim section. Besides her fear of the unknown, she did not want to open the way to a possible reciprocity and allow Muslims to have a place at the synagogue.”31 Kattan’s paternal grandmother, by contrast, lived with her son—a well-respected doctor who treated many prominent Muslim families—in a small Jewish enclave within a Muslim neighborhood. His uncle’s position translated into great prestige among the notable families of the city, and Kattan recounts his and his grandmother’s attendance at a large party thrown by Muslim friends of the family in honor of their sons’ circumcisions. Kattan’s focus in this story, however, is his feeling of being an outsider at this celebration, and he notes that he and his grandmother did not stay for the dinner, by mutual agreement.
Our hosts had not pushed their hospitality to the point of inviting us to appreciate a huge variety of dishes. Besides, my grandmother, terrified as she was by the sly and frightening behavior of the germs my uncle was always talking about, would never have allowed me to put my hand into the plates from which the dozens of guests took their portions of stuffed mutton with oil.32 

As an adolescent, Kattan, by contrast, socializes informally with Muslims, which both his parents and grandparents find shocking. Kattan recalls his mother’s anxiety as he began to spend most of his time in cafés with Muslim poets, journalists, and writers. “My mother was deeply concerned: a Jew lost among strange Muslims older than himself.”33 For his father and grandmother as well this behavior was inappropriate and potentially dangerous. In an attempt to dissuade him from continuing to frequent Muslims in this way, Kattan’s grandmother “listed the boys in the family and the neighborhood who had been led along the path of perdition by their evil associates; all had known a sad fate.”34 The kind of formalized interactions with Muslims that she engaged in, these comments make clear, is very diffferent from the kind of intimate—and in her view inappropriate—socializng in which her grandson was partaking. 

In Haddad’s case, we see a similar kind of generational divide as he recounts the scolding he received in primary school when he came home late one day after “dropping in” to see a Muslim teacher at his school. The entire family was hysterical with worry, and his explanation of where he had been only made matters worse. “His house? You went to his house?” his father yelled in shock, and admonished him never to do such a thing again.35 Haddad recalls that throughout his childhood, he felt strongly that differences between Jews and Muslims should be downplayed in favor of a common Iraqi identity. Disappointingly, however, he found that his feelings were at odds with almost everyone else’s, including most notably, his father’s. Haddad finds his father’s attitudes in this domain confusing. He had Muslim friends that he much preferred to many Jews, Haddad notes, “but I noticed that when he was with them, he wasn’t quite himself—not exactly edgy, but extra controlled, as if he couldn’t relax that one last muscle. And yet, he said that when a Mislim [sic] was a true friend to a Jew, you could trust your life to him.”36  

To his satisfaction, Haddad’s father approved of his son’s contention that “blanket statements” regarding Jews and Arabs were not true in principle. Nonetheless, his father asserted, certain barriers between the communities were real and insurmountable: “It isn’t even good or bad or right or wrong . . . . It is the different way our minds work.”37 It was partly to illustrate this point, Haddad, suspected, that his father took him to a Muslim friend’s wedding party. Heading home, contented with the experience, Haddad wondered aloud about a strange phenomenon that he had noted—that every time he and his father used a plate, the servants had separated it out from the others. His father’s explanation curdled the cake and candy in his stomach: “To the Mislim [sic], all Y’hudim [sic] are unclean— like pigs to us.” Any dish they had eaten from, he went on to explain, would go through a process of ritual purification. “Once again,” Haddad recalled, “he’d laid out for me exactly like a teacher this lesson in relations with our Arab friends. As Baba knew it would, his answer stirred up another question . . . . If friends regarded us in such a light, what might we anticipate from strangers?” 38
This experience was heartbreaking for Haddad because, unlike his father, he was growing up as a citizen of a newly created Iraqi state promulgating a vision of oneness between Jews and Muslims—a shared Arab identity. Yet his father needed to “teach” him the realities that governed Jewish-Muslim relations because he was worried that his son would fall dupe to a promise of equality and brotherhood that was more rhetoric than reality. Indeed, both Kattan and Haddad’s stories are, in a sense, tales of shattered dreams and broken promises, as their unwavering loyalty to Iraq became a kind of unrequited love story. 

Read paper in full

Review of Heskel Haddad's 'Born in Baghdad' (formerly Flight from Babylon)