Thursday, February 28, 2019

Can Israel-Arab peace be built from the grassroots up?



Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “breaking bread” with Arab leaders at the Warsaw conference on Middle East security was a warming and unprecedented sight. But no sooner had a video been leaked online of a friendly interaction between Netanyahu and the Yemen foreign minister than it was deleted. This is symptomatic of the push-me, pull-you relationship between Israel and its Arab “frenemies.” Two steps on the road to normalization, two steps back.

In February, an Iraqi poet who had written about the Jews of his country was murdered. At about the same time, Egyptians complained that the Israeli ambassador had attended the Cairo Book Fair, albeit he had queued to buy an admission ticket like other members of the public. “If we had known, we would have beaten him up,” they wrote on social media.
A few years earlier, the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem found that his career took a nosedive after he had traveled to Israel and written about his experiences there. Contact with Israel, or advocating normalization, are most definitely the “kiss of death.”
The late Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, ostracised for travelling to Israel

On the other hand, since the Arab Spring, a startling revolution has been taking place regarding Arab attitudes to Jews and Israel. “The seeds are unmistakably sprouting,” says broadcaster, author and Middle East specialist Joseph Braude. As well as a top-down strategic rapprochement in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat, social media is penetrating from the outside in. The Arabic Facebook page of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has 1.7 million followers from all over the Arab world, with more joining all the time. The Arabic page of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous from the Middle East and North Africa) has 5,000 new followers every week. The Dove Flyer, Eli Amir’s novel set in 1940s Iraq, has been translated into Arabic, as has Lucette Lagnado’s Egyptian memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. 

Braude sees an unprecedented opportunity to foster change. He views culture as fluid. The new subculture is driven by revulsion at Islamist terrorism, fear of Iran and its nuclear designs, and recognition of the Holocaust. Reversing the thinking that peace is a prerequisite for cultural change, the United States could help build a coherent policy on a peace between peoples. In his monograph Reclamation, Braude pulls out a tool kit of instruments that America might use to encourage partnership between Arabs and Israelis.

Morocco is an anomaly worthy of emulation. There, the monarchy has fostered a culture of moderation towards Israel, and in the face of powerful counter-currents of rejectionism, has caused an anti-normalization bill in parliament to be shelved.

Such optimism is not shared by Israeli researcher and commentator Edy Cohen. The road to better relations is littered with empty promises. The Arabs are in distress. As soon as it is no longer expedient to do so, they will drop Israel like a hot potato. “If we haven’t learned from past experiences, let us at the very least read the present situation correctly,” he writes.

Braude is realistic enough to know that decades of anti-Semitic brainwashing in Arab mosques, media and schools, now reinforced by Iranian and jihadist propaganda, will not dissipate overnight. Nasserism and Islamism weaponized anti-Semitism. For every positive current, there is a backlash. Political opponents are excoriated as “Jewish stooges.”

“It’s an unfair fight,” he acknowledges. But many of the tropes now current in the discourse were imported into the Arab world from Europe. Two generations ago, in a more liberal atmosphere, Arabs remembered the good relations they had with the 800,000 Jews who were driven from the Arab world. At one stage, Zionism was not the dirty word it is today. Accommodation with Zionism was the “road not taken.”

But Arab expressions of sympathy remain rare. As long as individual advocates for normalization with Israel put their careers—or even their lives—on the line, the price of significant change will remain too high. Can American pressure make the price for intimidation and ostracism even higher? It’s worth a try.

Read article in full 

 'More and more Arabs are positive towards Israel'

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Friedman: the narrative of European Israel is wrong

Fascinating interview by Calev Ben-Dror in Fathom with Matti Friedman, author of a new book on Israel's 'Mistarav' spies. They are emblematic of  Israel's unacknowledged character as a Middle Eastern state whose dominant narrative is that of the Jews expelled from Muslim countries. (With thanks: Lily)

Matti Friedman:westerners struggle to understand Israel 
Calev Ben-Dor (CB-D): Your new book Spies of No Country tells the story of four young Jewish men from the Arab world who form the beginnings of Israel’s spy network. What drove you to focus on this?
Matti Friedman (MF): The book follows four of Israel’s first spies through the 1948 War of Independence. The main characters are young men on the margins of the Zionist project who are recruited by a small, ad-hoc intelligence outfit within the Palmach called the Arab Section, which encourages Arabic-speaking Jews to cross enemy lines and gather intelligence in the Arab world. They actually don’t call themselves agents, but Mistarvim, which means ‘ones who become like Arabs’ and it’s a term used today, made famous by the TV hit Fauda. At its height at the onset of the war, the section was no more than 20 agents, only half of whom survive. Their mission expanded to attempted assassinations of Arab leaders, and in Haifa they carried out a pre-emptive attack on a garage where the Arab militia was preparing a car bomb in the spring of 1948. And then when Haifa fell to the Haganah in 1948 and the Arabs begun to flee, the people in charge of the Arab Section realised that they have an opportunity to insert their agents into the Arab world by disguising them as refugees. They ran away to Lebanon and spent the first two years of Israel’s existence as Palestinian refugees, so the way they experienced the birth of the state is radically different to most of the stories people have heard about at that time.
For many years, I have had the feeling that the stories we tell about Israel no longer explain the country; nor are they useful as a map for navigating the country in 2019. Israel has always told its story in a very European way, about socialism, Theodor Herzl, the Holocaust, the Kibbutzim. That is very important if you want to understand how the country was founded, but it doesn’t explain the society that we live in. So I was looking for other stories that would explain the state of now, particularly from the Middle Eastern perspective, which reflects the fact that half of Israelis today actually come from the Islamic world rather than from Europe. In 2011 I met a 90-year-old former spy, Isaac Shoshan, who lives in a small working class suburb of Tel Aviv with whom I had a series of fascinating conversations. Isaac told me a story about the founding of the state that I hadn’t heard before. He experienced 1948 as a Palestinian refugee, which was his job as part of the very small, embryonic intelligence outfit that as part of the Jewish military underground and that story struck me as worth telling.
CB-DI recently interviewed Yossi Klein Halevi about his book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbour and one of the things he emphasised was how he wanted to tell a 21st century Zionist story. You touched on this earlier, in that the story often told is overly Euro-centric – the narrative begins with the pogroms in Russia and ends with the Holocaust. Your book, which is different in many ways, has a similar idea in that if we are to tell the story of Israel today – both to Israelis and outsiders – we need to make it more accurate to include a Mizrachi component.
MF: People still tell the story of Israel as: When the Jews of the Islamic world moved to Israel they joined the story of the Ashkenazim – so the story of Israel is the story of the Jews of Europe. But having thought about this, and having lived here for 23 years, it is clear to me that what actually happened is much closer to the opposite. The remnants of the Jews of Europe come to the Middle East and inserted themselves into the story of the Jews of the Islamic world. The State of Israel is shaped by our contact with Islam and Jews who have lived here for centuries. The dominant narrative of the European Jews is wrong.
Looking ahead, telling Israel’s story in the 21st century will have a lot less to do with the Warsaw Ghetto than it will with Kurdistan and Aleppo. And Western observers find that difficult. But if we want to understand Israel, we are going to have to make an effort to move our centre of consciousness to the Middle East because that’s where we are. (....)
CB-DSomething that struck me while reading is the how the story of the Jews from Arab lands end. You remind readers that these Jews had survived a lot of crises – they had been present before the conquest of Islam, and even before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. There is nothing inherently to suggest that they shouldn’t also have been able to survive the establishment of the State of Israel. Yet now, when we look back, we see it as inevitable that they would not be able to continue to live in the Arab world. But in 1947, for the heroes of the story, it was far from clear that we were approaching the end of Jewish presence in Arab lands after 2,000 years?
MF: In 2019 it is clear to us that if the state of Israel exists then the Jewish presence in the Arab world isn’t going to exist. This was a world of about a million people in the 1940s – almost every major Arab city has a Jewish quarter, with some estimates putting the Jewish population of Baghdad as a third. The idea that this was going to suddenly disappear at the time was crazy. And we should remind ourselves of the fact that it did vanish is crazy. If you grow up in a Western Jewish community you’re very much aware of the loss stemming from the Holocaust, but less aware and appreciative of the loss of the smaller and much older Jewish world in the Middle East, which was alive and well into the 1940s.
The remnants of that world are largely here in Israel and they and their experiences are a very important part of the life of the country. It’s one of the things that makes this county different to a Western Jewish community, and why Westerners sometimes who struggle to get their heads around the country. These spies are a way of talking about all of that. They see it collapse. When they leave Palestine in 1947, they still see that world intact, but when they return to the State of Israel in the 1950s that world is doomed. That collapse of that world has both incredible significance for the Middle East and huge impact on the development of the State of Israel.

THE ARAB MUSLIM WORLD ERRONEOUSLY VIEWS ISRAEL AS A WESTERN IMPLANT

CB-D: In addition to Israelis and Westerners having to shift their perception about Israeli society, there is a third component you mention in your book that needs to be shifted, namely those within the Arab/Muslim world who view Israel as a Western implant rather than a country populated by people indigenous to the region. You talk about a mural in Egypt showing Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 and facing blond Israeli soldiers. You point out that Israelis are generally not blonde, but it helped the Arab world to see Israel as a European story.
MF: There are two main reasons why the Arab world has tried so hard to portray Israel as a colonialist implant: the first is that it help plays on European guilt for what happened in the Second World War; the second is that it obscures their own responsibility for why over 800,000 Jews, most of whom came to Israel, lost their homes in the Islamic world. Once you understand what happened, you will have a lot of criticism of Arab states for what drove out the Jewish population, so in order to make that go away, the Israelis have to be portrayed as blonde. Rather than blonds, many of those soldiers fighting the Egyptians on the Suez Canal looked like Egyptians (in fact some were originally from Egypt). So this a purposeful attempt by the Muslim world to erase that history, which suggest their own culpability in this story.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Disappeared children still seeking answers

The New York Times examines the still unresolved Yemenite children affair,in which hundreds of families arriving in Israel in 1949/50 were told that their babies had died - when they had been taken away for adoption. But suggestions that there was a conspiracy by the authorities to abduct the children remain unproven. 

ROSH HAAYIN, Israel — Ofra Mazor, 62, had been looking for her sister, Varda, for 30 years when she submitted her DNA samples to the Israeli genealogy company MyHeritage in 2017. Her mother, Yochevet, who is now deceased, said that she got to breast-feed her sister only once after giving birth to her in an Israeli hospital in 1950. She was told by the nurses that her newborn daughter had died. Ms. Mazor’s mother didn’t believe the nurses and had her husband demand their child back. He was never given the child. A few months after submitting her DNA, Ms. Mazor received the call she’d been waiting for: A match had been found. Last January, the sisters were reunited. Varda Fuchs had been adopted by a German-Jewish couple in Israel. She was told at a young age that she was adopted. The sisters are part of a community of Israelis of Yemenite descent who for decades have been seeking answers about their lost kin.

Ofra Mazor and Vera Fuchs were reunited after a DNA match found that they were sisters

 Known as the “Yemenite Children Affair,” there are over 1,000 official reported cases of missing babies and toddlers, but some estimates from advocates are as high as 4,500. Their families believe the babies were abducted by the Israeli authorities in the 1950s, and were illegally put up for adoption to childless Ashkenazi families, Jews of European descent. The children who disappeared were mostly from the Yemenite and other “Mizrahi” communities, an umbrella term for Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. While the Israeli government is trying to be more transparent about the disappearances, to this day, it denies that there were systematic abductions.

  Read article in full

Monday, February 25, 2019

'If Jews return, Egypt will build them synagogues'

The Jerusalem Post has more about last week's historic meeting between American-Jewish leaders and Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El Sisi. While his call to Jews to return to Egypt - there were once up to 100,000 Jews in the country - is a sign of progress, it must be stated that Jews will never return to Egypt while the general atmosphere remains deeply antisemitic. (With thanks: Lily)

 
American-Jewish leader Ezra Friedlander shakes hands with President Sisi of Egypt

If Jews are interested in establishing a Jewish community in Egypt, the government will build synagogues and other communal institutions, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told a US delegation during a two-hour meeting last week. The delegation was made up of the Anwar Sadat Congressional Gold Medal Commission that advocated the granting of the US Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to the slain Egyptian president who made peace with Israel. Its members traveled to Egypt to invite Sisi to the ceremony in the fall, when the medal will be given to Sadat’s wife, Jehan. The group was headed by the founder of the commission, Ezra Friedlander, an ultra-Orthodox consultant and lobbyist from New York who spearheaded efforts to have the award granted to Sadat. This required the passage of a bill that needed to be sponsored by two-thirds of Congress and was signed by US President Donald Trump in December.

“President Sisi spoke fondly not only of Egypt’s past vibrant Jewish community, but also said that should there be a resurgence of the Jewish community in Egypt, the government will provide every religious necessity required...  that was a very warm embrace,” he said. “He [Sisi] basically said that should there be a resurgence of the Jewish community, the government will build synagogues and other related services.”

Read article in full

Sisi authorises Bassatine clean-up

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sisi authorises Bassatine Cemetery clean-up

Some good news at last: Following a historic meeting with two dozen American Jewish leaders, President Sisi of Egypt has given the green light to the cleaning up of Bassatine Cemetery in Cairo: The American Jewish Committee (AJC) commends Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's decisions to clean and protect the historic Jewish Bassatine Cemetery in Cairo and to make available the country's Jewish Communal registers.


AJC, the global Jewish advocacy organization, has long called for these and other measures to preserve the heritage of the Egyptian Jewish community, which once numbered more than 80,000 and today is estimated to be fewer than 20. Egypt's commitment to preserve Jewish sites and records is vitally important," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC Director of International Jewish Affairs, who has visited Cairo.

AJC also has raised these issues in meetings with Sisi in the past. Sisi's announcement this week followed his meeting with a delegation of Orthodox Jews visiting from New York. Bassatine Cemetery, which dates to the ninth century, contains thousands of Jewish graves. Neglected for years, most of the inscribed headstones have been looted and squatter's apartments cover much of the original site. Broken walls leave it unprotected, and garbage is strewn throughout the cemetery. One day after Sisi's announcement bulldozers and other equipment were dispatched to the cemetery to begin the clean-up process.

 The Communal Registers contain important personal data, including births, deaths and marriages, of the Jewish Communities of Cairo and Alexandria. "For many Egyptian Jews these are the only formal records which might otherwise be inscribed in civil records. And there are cases where they are very important in proving a person's Jewish identity, for burial or for marriage," Baker said.

 Access to this official documentation is important to the religious life of Egyptian Jews and their descendants around the world. AJC, together with the Nebi Daniel Association of Jews from Egypt, the Jewish Community of Cairo, and the Consistoire of France, has called for a copy of the registers to be deposited with the Chief Rabbinate of France. AJC expects that Sisi's decision will lead soon to implementation of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture's unfulfilled promise to AJC in May 2017 to allow the registers to be copied.

Read article in full 


Vosizneias blog quotes a report on the meeting with President Sisi (with thanks :Boruch):



Drawing on the Jewish people’s ancient links to Egypt, Henry Manoucheri, a leader in Los Angeles’ Persian Jewish community, told Sisi that Egyptians and Jews are linked by a common historic bond that connects their souls. Manoucheri said that he found Sisi to be positive, emotional and clever, blessing him with a long life and many years in the Egyptian presidential palace.

Sisi politely refused Manoucheri’s offer to cover the cost of much needed repairs to Egypt’s dilapidated Jewish cemeteries.  Two hours later, the requested work was already underway at the cemeteries, reported New York City’s City Planning Commissioner Joseph Douek, a member of Brooklyn’s Egyptian Jewish community who was also part of the delegation. “Representatives of what is left of the local Jewish community told me that shortly after our meeting, they received a call from the municipality saying that the work had started and that the local Jewish community would be called in to inspect their efforts,” said Douek, the great nephew of Egypt’s last chief rabbi, Rabbi Haim Moussa Douek.

 Douek also spoke with Sisi about the return of several Torahs and archived documents that are being held in Egypt but was told that those items would remain in the country. “He told me that they were all being well maintained and well preserved, something that I know for a fact to be true,” said Douek.

“He offered to make us the best possible copies of any documents but insisted that the originals were part of Egyptian heritage and history.  While it wasn’t the answer I wanted, he was honest and forthright and I respect his response.”

 Lebanese born Rabbi Elie Abadie, rabbi of Manhattan East Synagogue, head of the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan and president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, conversed with Sisi in his native tongue, inviting him to Washington to see the Congressional Gold Medal and explaining its significance.

 “I told him that we appreciate his strategic alliance with Israel and his friendship with the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Abadie.

 “After discussing Egypt’s Jewish heritage sites, I gave him the special blessing that is said for heads of government. It was all in Arabic and he responded in kind saying ‘Āmīn, Āmīn’, the Arabic form of ‘Amein.’”

 Ezra Friedlander said that the meeting surpassed all of his expectations and that he was grateful for the opportunity to be able to demonstrate American Jewry’s staunch support for Sisi and the pivotal role that he plays in the Middle East and in addressing terror worldwide. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Ashkenazim are as much 'people of colour' as Mizrahim

It is a mistake to confront charges of “white Jewish colonialism” or accusations that Jews are 'white',  with the response is that Israel is majority Mizrahi , ie made up of 'people of color'. This new variant of anti-Semitism doesn’t need to target all Jews: only those who are perceived as the “most threatening” to anti-Semites. Dani Ishai Behan explains why in this important article in the Times of Israel: 

Today’s generation of Jews are experiencing an anti-Semitism renaissance. Although Western reckoning with the Holocaust temporarily forced overt Judenhass underground, anti-Semitism was far from finished. It began its slow, steady climb back into mainstream consciousness by the late ’60s, and is now acceptable in polite society once more.

'White' Ashkenazim such as champion swimmer Mark Spitz (above) and actor Jeff Goldblum have been 'stripped' of their Levantine identity

Anti-Semitism has undergone yet another mutation. At the heart of this newly revitalized anti-Semitism is anti-Zionism, a self-professed “anti-imperialist” ideology aimed at dismantling the State of Israel. Dressed in hip social justice frippery, anti-Zionism has proved to be an effective conduit for anti-Semitism, simultaneously appealing to old school anti-Semites while seamlessly adapting itself to modern cultural sensibilities, thus resonating with younger generations and bringing many new converts into the fold.

 Anti-Zionism’s core belief is that Israel, the very first nation-state built by a historically dispossessed indigenous people, is an illegitimate “colonial” project built on the bleached white bones of “indigenous people of color.” In this narrative, Ashkenazi Jews (i.e., Jews who wound up in Central/Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, and were the vast majority of Israel’s fighters in 1948) are cast as “white European” interlopers whose only claim to the land is a Bible and a gun. Zionism, by extension, is framed as the Jewish version of Manifest Destiny, ennobling the broader Arab and Islamic crusade against Israel as a righteous struggle against “imperialism.”

 It certainly makes for a romantic story, one that manages the nearly impossible feat of appealing to oppressed peoples throughout the world, while also reeling in classic racists with a familiar villain. It is, however, quite false. What Zionism DID do is uproot centuries-old power structures, restoring a native people back to its land and overthrowing a 1,000+ year old colonial occupation. It not only gave one of the most abused and widely despised minorities in the world a sizable chunk of its land back, it gave them power. And in the eyes of anti–Semites, Jews are not supposed to have either of these things.

 As with other successful liberation movements (e.g., feminism), the resistance against Zionism has been, and continues to be, ferocious. Anti-Semites on both ends of the spectrum — and both ends of the globe — have made it more than clear that they will stop at nothing to see Israel destroyed, and the Jews restored to their rightful place at the bottom of the totem pole. And they decided that only way to do this would be to re-ignite anti-Semitic passions throughout the world (or at least, bring them out of hiding) and recruit them to their cause.

But the times have clearly changed, and the old anti-Semitic rhetoric involving the foreign, non-white, conniving, sinister, bloodthirsty Jew was in dire need of a contemporary makeover. In today’s climate, it is no longer acceptable (or wasn’t, until just a few years ago) to openly advocate white supremacy or advance the “inferiority” of people of color. These views are now (rightly) considered retrograde, chauvinistic, and morally reprehensible. Instead, the locus of what is considered undesirable and abhorrent has shifted to white supremacy, along with all of its trappings.

 Jews, having been traditionally despised as primitive, static, Oriental “outsiders,” can no longer be seriously harmed by these arguments. Right-wing anti-Semites would remain on board (as they would have anyway, since their values haven’t really changed much), but the center-left, progressives, and other minorities would have immediately rejected it. If anything, it would have increased their sympathy for Jews (and thus, their sympathy for Israel). A change was obviously needed.

 To this end, Jews have been stripped of their indigenous Levantine ethnic identity and reduced to a religious faith, whose adherents are merely: “Slavs, Germans, Italians, Arabs, and Berbers who just so happen to practice Judaism.” Ashkenazim by extension are situated as “white Europeans” who — despite their “very unfortunate” experiences throughout history — are recast as part of the white European ruling caste. And from there, Zionism is delegitimized as a “European colonial movement,” since political Zionism was born in the European exile, and Ashkenazim were arguably the driving force behind Israel’s re-establishment.

 In this current epoch, wherein white supremacist power structures are grappled with on more of a mainstream level, Jews (Ashkenazi Jews in particular) are once more cast as the villain, if not “the brains” behind it all. This is in spite of the fact that these very same structures have, and still do, harm Ashkenazim — and Jews more broadly.

 Reframing Ashkenazim as “white Jews” in the 21st century carries an array of benefits to the anti-Semite — many of which I have written about previously — that simply weren’t available decades ago.

 1. It implies that Ashkenazim are not really ethnic minorities at all, thereby robbing them of the critical protections that such a status would accord. For example, a “white Jew” who complains of anti-Semitism or otherwise gets too uppity can be swiftly shut down with “you’re white, stop centering yourselves.” This is why you’ll often hear ludicrous claims like “the Holocaust is a white on white crime,” thereby diminishing its overall significance in the social justice arena.

 2. It has the effect of bleaching out their indigenous Middle Eastern roots. Stripping a people of their entire identity, history, and lived experiences by conflating them with their captors and oppressors is both dangerous and morally unacceptable. That should go without saying, and it stands to reason that few, if any, would consider whitewashing Arabs, Natives, or (hypothetically) Africans in this way. But this is done to “white Jews” on a regular basis. Labeling the vast majority of Israel’s founders “white European” reaffirms the premise of anti-Zionism (that Zionism is essentially a settler-colonial enterprise), thereby leaving Zionism vulnerable to attack. This, I assume, is the entire point of the term “white Jews,” and accounts for why the term is so vigorously defended.

 3. As a result of 1, anti-Semites can vent their anger by specifically targeting “white Jews,” whom they are more likely to see as “representative” or “emblematic” of world Jewry (since anti-Semitism was born in developed in Europe, and therefore centered on Ashkenazim). By doing so, they can strike at the Jews without actually striking directly at all Jews. To give an example, whenever one starts screaming about “white Jewish colonialism” or accuses “white Jews” of being “fake Semites,” our usual response is to remind them that Israel is majority Mizrahi and call it a day. But what they fail to understand is that this new variant of anti-Semitism doesn’t need to target all Jews: only those who are perceived as the “most threatening” to anti-Semites (and we all know who those are). Moreover, anti-Semitism that targets Ashkenazim only is STILL anti-Semitism. It’s not a game of hot potato where we can address the problem by handing it off to another group of Jews, and it isn’t something that can (or should) be answered with “oh, that’s okay, because these non-Ashkenazi Jews are legit.”

 4. Minority anti-Semites get a free-pass. In other words, it can be excused away with “they have no institutional power, which white Jews have in abundance” (more on this below). Anti-Semitism then becomes a form of “punching up.” In summary, the term “white Jew” renders its target completely and utterly vulnerable. That’s why the debate over Ashkenazi “whiteness” (or lack thereof) has become such a hot-button topic. The conception of Ashkenazim as “white Europeans” (and Jews more broadly as “just a religious faith”) is at the very heart of the anti-Zionist movement, and of America’s contribution to this millennia-old prejudice. It is not an innocuous debate by any means. It is simply the latest battle in a very old war.

Anti-Semites of today NEED Ashkenazim to be “white” because anti-Semitism cannot flower otherwise.

Read article in full

Thursday, February 21, 2019

London Sephardim mark 50 years since Baghdad hangings

It was a moving, yet dignified ceremony at Europe's oldest functioning synagogue, Bevis Marks. Dignitaries joined congregants and relatives of the dead to  recall the hangings 50 years ago of nine innocent Jews executed in Baghdad and their bodies suspended in Liberation Square. The day was declared a national holiday as half-a-million Iraqis came to sing and picnic under the suspended corpses. Over 40 Jews were executed, murdered or disappeared in the years to follow. Jenni Frazer writes for Jewish News:

The names of the men and women murdered by the Iraqi regime 50 years ago rang out in the crowded congregation of Bevis Marks on Tuesday night.
And many of those in the centuries-old synagogue, the families of the dead, wept as they paid tribute to their loved ones, hanged, murdered while in custody, or simply missing, their fates unknown. One of the key results of the killings — which began in January 1969 with the public hangings of 15 men, nine of whom were Jews — was the fleeing of the majority of the Iraqi Jewish community (Only 3,000 of a 150,000 -member community remained by the late 1960s - ed). Many of them began new lives in Britain.

In an emotional keynote address, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi community, recalled the glory days of the Iraqi Jewish community, the cornerstone of diaspora Jewish scholarship for hundreds of years, and “part of the national psyche of the Jewish people”. For centuries, he said, “we not only survived in Arab lands, we thrived”. He spoke of the “glory and grandeur of Jewish life in that country”, but, while acknowledging the pain and suffering of the loss of that life, urged the community to “stand taller, not slouch, be stronger, not sad. Lift up your hearts”.

The evening began with a candle lit by the S&P Sephardi community president, Sabah Zubeida, in memory of Ezra Naji Sion Hesqel Zilkha, and his own father, Daoud Sassoon Zubeida. The January 27 1969 hangings had been “the beginning of the end” for Iraqi Jewry, he said, a “terrifying time, in which Jews were the easiest target”.The bodies of the nine Jews hanged on that January day 50 years ago were returned to the Jewish community for burial. But many more, who died at the hands of the regime in prison or were simply rounded up and killed, were never seen again, never buried — but always mourned.

In tears, Samira Elias lit a candle in memory of her brother Hesqel Salih Hesqel and her sister Suad Kashkush; Faiza Saigh lit one in memory of her brother, Daoud Ghali Yadgar, and Nouri Dallal lit a candle in the name of his brother Daoud Hesqel Barukh Dallal. Other candles were lit by Chef Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who recited Psalm 137; Rabbi Abraham Levy, who had, as a young man, led a demonstration against the hangings outside the Iraqi embassy in London, but who today also rejoiced in the contribution made by Iraqi Jews to Britain’s Jewish community; Bishop Graham Kings, representing the Church of England; Lord Pickles, the UK’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues; and Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, who spoke of Iraqi antisemitism and its echoes today, in “vile tropes on social media, relating to dual loyalties and undue influences”.

The actor and musician Noa Bodner linked the event with a series of readings outlining the terrible events of January 1969. A memorial prayer was led by the rabbi of Lauderdale Road Synagogue, Rabbi Israel Elia, while Rabbi Dweck recited kaddish.
R-L: Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Senior Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Ambassador Mark Regev, Rt Revd Graham Kings, Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark (Church of England), The Rt Hon. the Lord Pickles, United Kingdom Special Envoy for post-Holocaust issues, David Dangoor and Sabah Zubaida. (Credit: MART Photography-Tammy Kazhdan)
Read article in full

Jerusalem Post article 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Rediscovering the Sephardi greats of Judaism

 There is more to Sephardi culture than cuisine and music: their vast intellectual contribution to Judaism is slowly being recognised. Article in Hasepharadi by Henry Aharon Wudl:

Before the demise of the Jewish communities of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions in the middle of the twentieth century, their migration away from their countries of origin, and their resettlement in the West and Israel, the Sephardic ḥakhamim and intellectuals produced an immense literature that spanned the whole range of traditional Jewish learning: Biblical exegesis, Talmudic commentary, halakhic treatises and responsa, musar (ethics), philosophy, Kabbala, grammar and poetry.

It is known that this literature’s history extends back to the early Middle Ages, to the era known as the ‘Golden Age of Spain’ (more specifically Al-Andalus), when the Muslim Middle East was the world center of dynamic intellectual creativity, in which the Jews were engaged as much as their Muslim and Christian neighbors, and out of which came such luminaries as Maimonides, Seʿadia Ga’on, R. Yehuda HaLevi, and Bahya ibn Pakuda, whose works have become Jewish classics and are well-known and studied to this day.

What is less well-known is that, while the ‘Golden Age’ may have gone into decline, intellectual creativity never ceased in the Sephardic world, and continued down to modern times- contrary to the perception of Sepharadim which prevails in today’s Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish world, according to which Sepharadim are, almost by definition, conservative, tradition-bound, patriarchal, and entirely lacking a coherent response to the challenges of modernity; the latter, it is assumed, they never experienced prior to their emigration to North America, Europe or Israel.

The ancient Etz Hayim library, founded in 1639 by Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam (Photo: Jessica Spengler)

R. Moshe HaKohen Khalfon’s powerful writings on charity, social justice, and world peace (written in the wake of World War I), firmly and yet creatively grounded in Jewish thought, are almost inaccessible to most. Jewish thought that engages creatively and insightfully with modernity, we are given to understand, has been the exclusive preserve of Ashkenazi intellectuals.

 Most Jews today who have received a decent Jewish education know of figures such as R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig etc. But very few have heard of R. Yiḥya Qafiḥ of San’a, who strove to revitalize his community by promoting the classical rationalist Jewish thought of Maimonides and Saʿadia Ga’on, writing sustained and intense polemics against Kabbalah, and opening a school which taught science, mathematics, Arabic, and Turkish alongside Bible and Talmud.

Not many know of Shadal (Shemuʿel David Luzzato), the head of the Rabbinical College of Padua, who promoted academic methodology for the study of classical texts in the seminary and opposed both Kabbalah and rationalist philosophy of the Maimonidean sort – or of Umberto Cassuto, a product of a similar rabbinical college in Florence, who saw no contradiction between being a strictly observant rabbi and a critical Bible scholar. Few have seen the responsa of Moroccan rabbis like R. Yoseph Messas and their fearlessness in attempting to synthesize halakhic solutions to some of modernity’s most pressing challenges, their permitting the use of electricity on Yom Ṭov, their inclusive approach to converts (including those who convert for the sake of intermarriage) and their encouragement of women who wished to study Talmud.

 The Tunisian R. Moshe HaKohen Khalfon’s powerful writings on charity, social justice, and world peace (written in the wake of World War I), firmly and yet creatively grounded in Jewish thought, are almost inaccessible to most.

 Read article in full
 
-->
Before the demise of the Jewish communities of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions in the middle of the twentieth century, their migration away from their countries of origin, and their resettlement in the West and Israel, the Sephardic ḥakhamim and intellectuals produced an immense literature that spanned the whole range of traditional Jewish learning: Biblical exegesis, Talmudic commentary, halakhic treatises and responsa, musar (ethics), philosophy, Kabbala, grammar and poetry. It is known that this literature’s history extends back to the early Middle Ages, to the era known as the ‘Golden Age of Spain’ (more specifically Al-Andalus), when the Muslim Middle East was the world center of dynamic intellectual creativity, in which the Jews were engaged as much as their Muslim and Christian neighbors, and out of which came such luminaries as Maimonides, Seʿadia Ga’on, R. Yehuda HaLevi, and Bahya ibn Pakuda, whose works have become Jewish classics and are well-known and studied to this day. What is less well-known is that, while the ‘Golden Age’ may have gone into decline, intellectual creativity never ceased in the Sephardic world, and continued down to modern times- contrary to the perception of Sepharadim which prevails in today’s Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish world, according to which Sepharadim are, almost by definition, conservative, tradition-bound, patriarchal, and entirely lacking a coherent response to the challenges of modernity; the latter, it is assumed, they never experienced prior to their emigration to North America, Europe or Israel. R. Moshe HaKohen Khalfon’s powerful writings on charity, social justice, and world peace (written in the wake of World War I), firmly and yet creatively grounded in Jewish thought, are almost inaccessible to most. Jewish thought that engages creatively and insightfully with modernity, we are given to understand, has been the exclusive preserve of Ashkenazi intellectuals. Most Jews today who have received a decent Jewish education know of figures such as R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig etc. But very few have heard of R. Yiḥya Qafiḥ of San’a, who strove to revitalize his community by promoting the classical rationalist Jewish thought of Maimonides and Saʿadia Ga’on, writing sustained and intense polemics against Kabbalah, and opening a school which taught science, mathematics, Arabic, and Turkish alongside Bible and Talmud. Not many know of Shadal (Shemuʿel David Luzzato), the head of the Rabbinical College of Padua, who promoted academic methodology for the study of classical texts in the seminary and opposed both Kabbalah and rationalist philosophy of the Maimonidean sort – or of Umberto Cassuto, a product of a similar rabbinical college in Florence, who saw no contradiction between being a strictly observant rabbi and a critical Bible scholar. Few have seen the responsa of Moroccan rabbis like R. Yoseph Messas and their fearlessness in attempting to synthesize halakhic solutions to some of modernity’s most pressing challenges, their permitting the use of electricity on Yom Ṭov, their inclusive approach to converts (including those who convert for the sake of intermarriage) and their encouragement of women who wished to study Talmud. The Tunisian R. Moshe HaKohen Khalfon’s powerful writings on charity, social justice, and world peace (written in the wake of World War I), firmly and yet creatively grounded in Jewish thought, are almost inaccessible to most.. Read more at: https://hasepharadi.com/2018/03/25/on-republishing-the-works-of-sephardic-scholars/

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Is the Moroccan Jew happier outside Morocco?

How do Moroccan Jews feel about their country of birth and their new countries? In this fascinating paper by Emanuela Trevisan Shemi in HaSepharadi, the author concludes that Jews who moved to Israel are more likely to be nostalgic for their country of birth; Jews who left for France, Canada or the US less so. My explanation is : in Israel, a country of Jews,  citizens accentuate their roots and ethnic differences,  whereas in the West, new immigrants are drawn into assimilating into the majority culture.
. Read more at: https://hasepharadi.com/2019/02/17/from-heritage-to-the-construction-of-a-collective-memory-of-the-moroccan-jewish-diaspora/?fbclid=IwAR2xOiOdfg5EKQmK22cX9tiSPA_hHJJch4z_mZ5_dYNlRPsOZKUptlGsf4E
From Heritage to the Construction of a Collective Memory of the Moroccan Jewish Diaspora. Read more at: https://hasepharadi.com/2019/02/17/from-heritage-to-the-construction-of-a-collective-memory-of-the-moroccan-jewish-diaspora/?fbclid=IwAR2xOiOdfg5EKQmK22cX9tiSPA_hHJJch4z_mZ5_dYNlRPsOZKUptlGsf4E
(With thanks: Isaac)

Jewish quarter in Fez

Moroccan Jews that have emigrated to Israel often evoke images of separation and amputation from the motherland, feeling as if they belong to two cities, that of birth and that of death. Both cities are joined by the same golden threads, to a life divided by exile in the homeland, ruled by feelings of sobriety and tenderness; and exile in Israel, ruled by intoxication and excitement, culminating in an indelible love for one’s city of origin, like an infant being nurtured by its mother. Conversely, the writers that did not emigrate to Israel typically dwell more on the traumatic event of the departure itself and less on any nostalgic feeling for the city of their birth. For instance, David Bensoussan, originally from Mogador, who later emigrated to Canada, reconstructs in his historical novel, The Rosette of King Solomon, the generational line of Jews living in Morocco.

He connects the Jews of Morocco directly to King Solomon, symbolized by a six-petal rosette. Each of these petals represent a generation who descended from Solomon, portraying their own unique story, handed down from generation to generation until our own times. Mogador, the author’s birthplace, receives great attention, as does the story of the fifty martyrs of Oufran, a tale of violence and abuse towards Jews in a small settlement in the south of Morocco. Only the Jews have retained a memory of what occurred there and carried that memory wherever they went. The question of why the Jews left Morocco, which is still a matter of scientific debate, is a thorny and complex issue.

 In an attempt to provide some answers, Bensoussan has two young men, one Muslim and one Jewish, converse. From this conversation their differing stances are expressed. In their exchange, feelings of nostalgia are attributed above all to the Muslim, who feels the shadows of the Jewish past weigh on him, “the past of our town haunts us”: “I can conceive that the French have returned to their home country,” says Mounir. “But why have the Jews left the town? They felt at home and lived in friendship with us!” “They have nonetheless gone back to their homeland”, says Elika, “but how can we speak of homeland? They had lived on Moroccan soil for more than two millennia. The past of our town haunts us,” declares Mounir. Many of our elders talk of nostalgia of the town “at the time of the Jews.” Your ghosts gnaw in our walls. (p.230)

As with Bensoussan, the next writer expressed ambivalence towards his hometown. Jacob Cohen, a writer born in Meknes in 1944 and a resident of Montreal, Berlin, Casablanca, and Paris, tells in his novel The Danger of Climbing onto the Terrace  of the kidnapping of a little girl, whose kidnappers try to convert her to Islam. In a novel that touches upon this delicate and controversial theme of the 1960s and 70s, the author grasps the opportunity to express his own nostalgia for Meknes: “Did people live in peace in Meknes?” “Well, to tell the truth … it was peace in fear but nonetheless peace … it was also more cheerful, warmer … and in this vapid life (in Israel) … even the parties had no taste. Have you forgotten Meknes? The clandestine departures, the humiliations…” (p.12).

Accordingly, as someone who did not emigrate to Israel, Cohen expresses criticism of the migratory experiences of Moroccan Jews towards their mythical homeland: They had left the mellah because we had nothing to expect from the Muslims, despite the fine words, except to find themselves in a similar situation, openly exposed to the sarcasm of humorists and politicians. The Moroccans again lowered their gaze, this time before other Jews who believed in Western superiority… “The portrait of the colonized” described him, well fitted, this has become an intrinsic part of his being. Ashamed of his origins, he would say he was from Marseilles. (p. 35)

The Jewish Quarter in Meknes: For Ruth Knafo Setton, who was born in Safi and emigrated as a child to the United States at the end of the 1960s, her past is colored black but splashed with color: “When I look back into our past as Moroccan Jews, it’s dark, like the mellah. A dark line, broken by glimpses of sun”. In the novel, written in English, Setton revisits the story of Sol Hatchuel, known to Muslims as Lalla Suleika (“Holy Lady Suleika”), the girl from Tangiers who in 1834 chose martyrdom rather than surrender her faith. In the novel, it is a return journey to Morocco which recounts the weight of family memory. The environment described is that of the Moroccan Jews belonging to the upper class, who remained in Morocco after many left in the 1950s and 60s. In this context, anyone who stayed behind maintained a disillusioned vision of Israel, which no longer corresponded to that of a mythical country dreamed of for centuries. The only people who continued to dream were the older generation, subjugated by a still memory and image.

This feeling of disillusionment is evident in the writings of Daniel Sibony, a French psychoanalyst born in Marrakesh in 1942 and later relocating to Paris. Sibony exhibits feelings of belonging to his native city. These emotions fed on the roots of the Diaspora and were built on the hopes surrounding the imminent departure from Morocco: As for me, I’m back in my native city where I never felt at home and here I once again have the impression of only feeling “at home” when I’m due to leave; throughout all my childhood I have felt it within my body… it is one exile which takes over from another, where we were not at home. In Marrakesh we were deeply “rooted” and these roots were made of exile, just by the fact of being there. It was exile which, although represented as a delightful, festive act, remained nonetheless an exile: “our exile was of those which are made of uncertain little acts of home-building and are delightful, festive, radiant havens (p.15).”

 The narrator objects to those Jews who stayed in Marrakesh when they declare themselves satisfied and lacking in nothing; a nothing that has permeated throughout their entire lives: “We have everything here (tbark llah  ̶  thanks be to God); we lack nothing.” Yet the nothing lacking seems to have invaded everything. The emptiness I encountered was filled by our presence ̶ our gestures, our bustling activity, our arguments, our parties and our desire to leave. (p.144)

In conclusion, it would seem that the phrase uttered by Bensoussan, “How happy within himself is the Moroccan Jew and how infinitely happier he is outside Morocco,” may be true above all for those Jews who have left Morocco for Europe, Canada or the United States and less so for the Jews who emigrated to Israel. The feeling of a double sense of belonging, on the one hand to one’s city and country of origin and on the other to the country of arrival, as described, are noticeably present among those who have emigrated to Israel.

 There is an ideology of denying the memory of the past, denying the Arab language and culture, or put simply denying the possibility of having a dual Jewish-Arab identity. Despite this, the past seems even more ready to rise up in the generation that left Morocco as children or adolescents, and contribute to a diaspora identity within Israel, forming a “Little Morocco” in Israel.

 Read article in full


Moroccan Jews that have emigrated to Israel often evoke images of separation and amputation from the motherland, feeling as if they belong to two cities, that of birth and that of death. Both cities are joined by the same golden threads, to a life divided by exile in the homeland, ruled by feelings of sobriety and tenderness; and exile in Israel, ruled by intoxication and excitement, culminating in an indelible love for one’s city of origin, like an infant being nurtured by its mother. Conversely, the writers that did not emigrate to Israel typically dwell more on the traumatic event of the departure itself and less on any nostalgic feeling for the city of their birth. For instance, David Bensoussan, originally from Mogador, who later emigrated to Canada, reconstructs in his historical novel, The Rosette of King Solomon,6 the generational line of Jews living in Morocco. He connects the Jews of Morocco directly to King Solomon, symbolized by a six-petal rosette. Each of these petals represent a generation who descended from Solomon, portraying their own unique story, handed down from generation to generation until our own times. Mogador, the author’s birthplace, receives great attention, as does the story of the fifty martyrs of Oufran, a tale of violence and abuse towards Jews in a small settlement in the south of Morocco. Only the Jews have retained a memory of what occurred there and carried that memory wherever they went. The question of why the Jews left Morocco, which is still a matter of scientific debate, is a thorny and complex issue. In an attempt to provide some answers, Bensoussan has two young men, one Muslim and one Jewish, converse. From this conversation their differing stances are expressed. In their exchange, feelings of nostalgia are attributed above all to the Muslim, who feels the shadows of the Jewish past weigh on him, “the past of our town haunts us”: “I can conceive that the French have returned to their home country,” says Mounir. “But why have the Jews left the town? They felt at home and lived in friendship with us!” “They have nonetheless gone back to their homeland”, says Elika, “but how can we speak of homeland? They had lived on Moroccan soil for more than two millennia. The past of our town haunts us,” declares Mounir. Many of our elders talk of nostalgia of the town “at the time of the Jews.” Your ghosts gnaw in our walls. (p.230) As with Bensoussan, the next writer expressed ambivalence towards his hometown. Jacob Cohen, a writer born in Meknes in 1944 and a resident of Montreal, Berlin, Casablanca, and Paris, tells in his novelThe Danger of Climbing onto the Terrace 7 of the kidnapping of a little girl, whose kidnappers try to convert her to Islam. In a novel that touches upon this delicate and controversial theme of the 1960s and 70s, the author grasps the opportunity to express his own nostalgia for Meknes: “Did people live in peace in Meknes?” “Well, to tell the truth … it was peace in fear but nonetheless peace … it was also more cheerful, warmer … and in this vapid life (in Israel) … even the parties had no taste. Have you forgotten Meknes? The clandestine departures, the humiliations…” (p.12). Accordingly, as someone who did not emigrate to Israel, Cohen expresses criticism of the migratory experiences of Moroccan Jews towards their mythical homeland: They had left the mellah because we had nothing to expect from the Muslims, despite the fine words, except to find themselves in a similar situation, openly exposed to the sarcasm of humorists and politicians. The Moroccans again lowered their gaze, this time before other Jews who believed in Western superiority… “The portrait of the colonized” described him, well fitted, this has become an intrinsic part of his being. Ashamed of his origins, he would say he was from Marseilles. (p. 35) The Jewish Quarter in Meknes For Ruth Knafo Setton, who was born in Safi and emigrated as a child to the United States at the end of the 1960s, her past is colored black but splashed with color: “When I look back into our past as Moroccan Jews, it’s dark, like the mellah. A dark line, broken by glimpses of sun”8. In the novel, written in English, Setton revisits the story of Sol Hatchuel, known to Muslims as Lalla Suleika (“Holy Lady Suleika”), the girl from Tangiers who in 1834 chose martyrdom rather than surrender her faith. In the novel, it is a return journey to Morocco which recounts the weight of family memory. The environment described is that of the Moroccan Jews belonging to the upper class, who remained in Morocco after many left in the 1950s and 60s. In this context, anyone who stayed behind maintained a disillusioned vision of Israel, which no longer corresponded to that of a mythical country dreamed of for centuries. The only people who continued to dream were the older generation, subjugated by a still memory and image. This feeling of disillusionment is evident in the writings of Daniel Sibony, a French psychoanalyst born in Marrakesh in 1942 and later relocating to Paris. Sibony exhibits feelings of belonging to his native city. These emotions fed on the roots of the Diaspora and were built on the hopes surrounding the eminent departure from Morocco: As for me, I’m back in my native city where I never felt at home and here I once again have the impression of only feeling “at home” when I’m due to leave; throughout all my childhood I have felt it within my body… it is one exile which takes over from another, where we were not at home. In Marrakesh we were deeply “rooted” and these roots were made of exile, just by the fact of being there9. It was exile which, although represented as a delightful, festive act, remained nonetheless an exile: “our exile was of those which are made of uncertain little acts of home-building and are delightful, festive, radiant havens (p.15).” The narrator objects to those Jews who stayed in Marrakesh when they declare themselves satisfied and lacking in nothing; a nothing that has permeated throughout their entire lives: “We have everything here (tbark llah ̶ thanks be to God); we lack nothing.” Yet the nothing lacking seems to have invaded everything. The emptiness I encountered was filled by our presence ̶ our gestures, our bustling activity, our arguments, our parties and our desire to leave. (p.144) In conclusion, it would seem that the phrase uttered by Bensoussan, “How happy within himself is the Moroccan Jew and how infinitely happier he is outside Morocco,” may be true above all for those Jews who have left Morocco for Europe, Canada or the United States and less so for the Jews who emigrated to Israel. The feeling of a double sense of belonging, on the one hand to one’s city and country of origin and on the other to the country of arrival, as described, are noticeably present among those who have emigrated to Israel. There is an ideology of denying the memory of the past, denying the Arab language and culture, or put simply denying the possibility of having a dual Jewish-Arab identity. Despite this, the past seems even more ready to rise up in the generation that left Morocco as children or adolescents, and contribute to a diaspora identity within Israel, forming a “Little Morocco” in Israel. . Read more at: https://hasepharadi.com/2019/02/17/from-heritage-to-the-construction-of-a-collective-memory-of-the-moroccan-jewish-diaspora/?fbclid=IwAR2xOiOdfg5EKQmK22cX9tiSPA_hHJJch4z_mZ5_dYNlRPsOZKUptlGsf4E

Monday, February 18, 2019

More and more Arabs are positive towards Israel

 Are we witnessing a sea change in Arab attitudes to Israel? In spite of continued antisemitism and widespread rejectionism, there could be an opportunity to encourage Arab-Israeli partnership, argues Joseph Braude in Mosaic.

In the Arab Middle East, known, deservedly, as a global hub and disseminator of anti-Semitism, something is astir of immense interest and importance.
First, the bad news—which is hardly news at all. Even as some Arab leaders are visibly warming toward Israel and Jews, the widespread culture of rejectionism and anti-Semitism persists at key levels of their societies. Ingrained over generations through Arab media, schools, and mosques, and more recently reinforced by Iranian and jihadist propaganda, it permeates Arab establishments and much popular sentiment alike.


 A cartoon from the Israeli MFA's Arabic Facebook page

As Israel’s “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan has abundantly shown, official treaties do not, on their own, ameliorate this culture of animosity. And though a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could substantially mitigate the problem, prospects of achieving such a settlement are themselves obstructed by it. From North Africa to the Gulf, opposition to an accommodation with the Jewish state amounts to a check on any rulers inclined toward signing a treaty.

 Click here to see a lively Washington Institute discussion of Joseph Braude 's new book Reclamation (With thanks: Doug)

But then there’s the new news: across the region, seeds of an effort to challenge Arab rejectionism and anti-Semitism have unmistakably been sprouting. Beyond official circles, a growing number of Arabs not only view Israel and Jews in a positive light but espouse, openly, a “peace between peoples.” For their part, Israelis and some Jewish activists in the West have developed means of engaging in Arab public discussions, breaching historical barriers to such communication and holding out the promise of forward movement.

Between the spread of positive Arab sentiment and a modest opening for its public expression in Arab media lies the potential for a more coordinated effort to complement and reinforce the warming taking place at the topmost level of international diplomacy. This is an opportunity begging to be seized.

Consider the Israeli foreign ministry’s Arabic Facebook page, “Israel Speaks Arabic” (Israil Tatakallam al-‘Arabiya): a daily diet of infographic and video posts by a small Israeli digital-outreach team that has attracted 1.7 million followers in the Arab world.

Read article in full

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Film is set in former epicenter of Syrian-Jewish life

 'Roma', the film which won a BAFTA award and is a frontrunner to win an Oscar, is set in district of Mexico City once inhabited by Syrian Jews. Alan Grabinsky reports in Times of Israel: (With thanks: Paul)

During those early decades of development, the neighborhood became a stage where the global architectural trends of the early 20th-century — gothic, neogothic, and later, art nouveau and art deco — were given a tropical twist. Initially conceived for a European-influenced aristocracy, the neighborhood eventually became home to an emerging middle class, after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. That’s when Syrian Jews started to move in.

Mexico City’s Syrian Jewry is unique in that it was divided in the 1930s into two separate communities, those who were initially from Aleppo (the “Maguen David” community) and those who came from Damascus (the “Monte Sinai” community). Both communities thrived in Roma, according to a specialist on Mexico’s Jewish neighborhoods, Monica Unikel.

From the late 1920s to the 1950s, Roma was the epicenter of Syrian-Jewish life. The second oldest synagogue of Mexico City, Rodfe Sédek — colloquially known as Cordoba, after the name of its street, and which now houses a library and archive documenting 100 years of Jewish life in Mexico — is a small replica of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, and was established by the Maguen David community in 1931.

 Inside the 'Cordoba' synagogue in 1945. It was modelled on the Great Synagogue of Aleppo

“By the 1930s, the tight-knight community of Syrians coming from Aleppo were already reproducing the habits of their homeland in Roma with their very own bakeries and shops,” Unikel told JTA. “As a matter of fact, Arabic could be heard in  Roma up until the late 1930s.”

Eventually, schools that catered to both Syrian communities were established in the area, and a series of temples where built to cater to their religious needs. (The Maguen David community was more rigidly Orthodox than the Monte Sinai.)
By the mid-1950s, at a time when the sister Condesa neighborhood was becoming the center for Ashkenazi Jewish life, a Syrian-Jewish exodus from the Roma neighborhood began. Scaling further up in society, Syrian Jews moved into the up-and-coming Polanco neighborhood and, by the early ’70s — the time when Cuaron’s movie is set — few Jews lived there anymore.

In 1985, the Roma neighborhood was devastated by a massive earthquake that cost the city billions of dollars, and for a couple of decades the area remained run-down. But over the past 10 to 15 years the district has been revived as Mexico City’s epicenter of cool: Today la Roma, as it is called in everyday slang, is one of Mexico’s trendiest neighborhoods, full of hipster cafes and boutique fashion stores on every other block. It caters to many international tourists.

 But despite the geographical distance, some older Syrian Jews are committed to keeping Jewish Roma alive. Every Saturday, a group of 10 to 20 Jews drives up to an hour to attend Shabbat morning shacharit (or shajarit, in Spanish) prayers in Roma’s Monte Sinaí Synagogue — colloquially known as Queretaro. Although it wasn’t finished until 1953 (due to a shortage of supplies during World War II) the massive building, which seated up to 900 people during the High Holidays, was for many years the center for Damascus-Syrian Jewish life.

Read article in full

Saturday, February 16, 2019

How did Israel's Mizrahi food become mainstream?

Mizrahi influences have now made Israeli haute cuisine mainstream and Israeli restaurants among the trendiest. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Claudia Roden, who played her part in popularising Sephardi and Mizrahi cuisine, traces the rise and rise of foods once considered low-class and backward.

While Turkish, Lebanese and other Middle Eastern restaurants serve the same traditional standard menus, that never vary, of grills and mezze, Israeli chefs feel free to pick elements from all the cuisines of Mizrahi and Sephardi communities and to do their own personal take on tradition. Their cooking is pan-Mediterranean because it spans the entire Mediterranean basin all the way to Spain.

How did Israel, where visitors always complained about the food and only praised Arab restaurants, most of which were kiosks at the back of petrol stations, get to be a food destination? I first went to Israel in the 70s when my Book of Middle Eastern Food came out in Hebrew. The publishers said they didn’t expect it to sell because the food of Mizrahi Jews was not appreciated. I realized only recently that they had changed the Hebrew title to A Book of Mediterranean Food.

    Nor was Ashkenazi food appreciated. The Diaspora and its foods was then something to be forgotten and left behind. Ashkenazi dishes smelt of persecution, Mizrahi and Sephardi foods were seen as low class poor food from backward cultures. Food itself was a matter of embarrassment, was not something to talk about.

When I told people I was researching the food they said things like. “Please don’t write anything bad’. They joked about chopped liver made from aubergines, apple sauce from courgettes, semolina pudding simulating whipped cream - the fake foods from the time of austerity and rationing that lived on. They described the unidentifiable compressed fish mixture called ‘fish fillet’ imported from Norway and the non-descript cheese called “white”.

A few years later at a gastronomic conference in Jerusalem, I was in the kitchen with cooks from Poland, Georgia, Bukhara, Morocco, Iraq, and other countries. We were preparing our cooking demonstrations and tastings of Jewish festive dishes from our communities.

The first discussion, in Hebrew, was whether there was such a thing as Jewish food? Eastern European food was considered “Jewish”, the food of all those who were not Ashkenazi was labelled ethnic, and the local foods such as falafel, hummus, babaghanoush, and shakshouka were considered street foods. The only food identified as purely Israeli - not shared with neighbouring countries - was turkey schnitzel. Food writers talked of creating a distinctive national cuisine using biblical ingredients such as honey, figs and pomegranates, indiginous ingredients like prickly pears, chickpeas and herbs that grew wild on the hills, and new Israeli products such as avocado, citrus and cream cheese that the government was promoting.

The kitchens of the land, from the army, schools and hospitals to restaurants and hotels, recruited their staff from the working class population of Mizrahi Jews from countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Iraq, Kurdistan and Yemen, as well as Israeli Arabs. All young men who went into cooking, went in through the army, and trained in the army catering school, Tadmor. A catering contractor who had taught at Tadmor told me: “The cooks rejected their mothers’ cooking because they saw it as part of a humiliating backward culture. But after learning the basics, they fell back on what they vaguely remembered from home. They were given ingredients that the nutritionists decided soldiers should eat and together they concocted a mishmash.”

Top restaurants served French cuisine and there were also Chinese and Italian restaurants. The big hotels that catered for tourists, where the executive chefs came from Switzerland, Austria and Germany, offered chicken soup with kneidlach, gefilte fish, pickled herring, chopped liver, tzimmes and lockshen pudding. Since the 1960s a few restaurants opened that did what Syrian, Bukharan or Iraqi Jews cooked at home, but they quickly closed because of lack of custom.


Moshe Basson, chef owner of the famous Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem was one of the first to open a Mizrahi restaurant. He had Arabs from a nearby village to bring their own home cooking, and the village bakery to send local specialities. When I was there he had a young Syrian woman making fried kibbeh. My friend Ella told him I was a food writer and he brought out my book and showed me the recipes he was using, including the pudding we were eating - balouza made with corn flour and water, to which he had added his own rose petal jam.

His story is like that of many first generation chefs. His family came from Iraq and his early years were spent in a refugee transit camp in Talpiot until his father was able to buy a small house with a piece of land near the camp close to the Arab neighbourhood of Baka. When the family moved, they left their first home, an enlarged shack, to Basson and his brother who turned it into a restaurant.

When Basson served at the Suez canal, most of the cooks were Sephardi or Mizrahi from Arab lands. There was a kitchen book with recipes written in Hebrew which the head cook could not read so he telephoned his Moroccan mother and asked her for recipes. The lowest grades in the army were cooks. Whilst being in the army was greatly admired, Basson said the stigma of being a cook in the army continued outside. Being a chef was the lowest thing to be.
Ronit Vered, who has a prestigious food column in Haaretz, says that things began to change in the 1980s. A mini revolution took off in the upmarket Israeli kitchen when the economy and the security situation made it possible to enjoy eating out. At that time intensive attempts were being made by the government to restore the lost pride of ethnic communities by reviving and disseminating their cultural heritage. Womens’ magazines and radio presenters asked people to send in family recipes.

A third generation of immigrants, who didn’t have the complexes of their parents and grandparents about culture and identity wanted to rediscover the tastes of their ancestral cuisines. Chefs, mostly of Mizrahi origin, went to train in top restaurants in Europe and America and returned to develop a modern Israeli haute cuisine with the techniques they had learned, and inspired by ideas of innovation.

Read article in full 

From Jerusalem ma'abara to trendy restaurant

Friday, February 15, 2019

Magda: 'my goal is to rehabilitate Jewish memory'

Magda Haroun, the leader of the four-member Jewish community of Cairo, was in the US for a conference at the end of January. There she found time to answer questions from Viviane Levy at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Later, she made a fundraising appeal at the University of Pennsylvania.  See comments below by Levana Zamir, head of the organisations representing Jews from Arab countries in Israel.

Magda was with her colleague, Sammy Ibrahim, of the Association of the Drop of Milk, and Professor Yoram Meital, who is on a sabbatical at the University of
 Top: Carmen Weinstein, former head of the Cairo Jewish community. Above: Magda Haroun, the present head.

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia from Ben Gurion University.  

When her predecessor Carmen Weinstein managed the Jewish Community in Cairo, she had never set foot in the rooms where the official records and documents of the community were kept, according to Magda.  Only Carmen's assistant (she called him "the gigolo") entered these  rooms to look for documents. Again, according to Magda, it appears that this gentleman, instead of making photocopies, just tore out pages, scattered everything on the floor and never put the books or documents back in place.


 So, after Carmen's death, and that of Magda's older sister, Magda herself finally decided to take matters into her hands and went to inspect these document rooms. Everything had been turned upside down. Magda did not know where to start, so when the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities offered her help, she accepted their proposal to put all the documents and registers in the building housing the Egyptian national Archives . "Everything there is watched and guarded, with cameras on 24 hours a day," she said. "I was afraid that if I had kept the documents in the office, anyone could have come in and set fire to them!"


She gave assurances that the Egyptian government has enshrined in their constitution that the Ministry of Antiquities must protect synagogues and documents. In case of a change of government, and the arrival of another (Islamist) Morsi,  she said, "As long as it's in the Constitution, everything is protected."

Only four Jews remain. In spite of this, the Ministry of Antiquities insists on taking on the restoration of the 12 synagogues of Cairo. The Ben Ezra synagogue was restored in the early 2000s. The Rambam synagogue has been restored.  They hope to finish repairing Sh'aar Shama'im  (Adly Synagogue) and to reorganize all the books and put them in the basement of the synagogue to make a small museum.

Professor Meital explained that he has just finished his expert's report and detailed plans of the twelve synagogues, including that of Daher, the Hanan synagogue, the Karaite, the Meir Bitton synagogue and the Ashkenazi synagogue. All the details have just been given to ARCE (American Research Center of Egypt). In mid-February the plans will be uploaded and accessible on  the Internet. According to Magda, the synagogues will be designated "Historical Monuments of Ancient Egypt" /"Historical Monuments for Egyptian Antiquities." 

The next priority is to clean up the Bassatine cemeteries in Cairo. Magda and Sammy  are seeking to put the cemeteries under the protection of what they call "World Monument Fund," like the cemeteries in Alexandria, she claimed.

When asked point blank how many Torah scrolls and other Jewish artefacts are in the synagogues, and why they are not shared with the Egyptian Jewish community all over the world, Magda was taken aback. She claimed that all but a dozen were pasul (non-Kosher). She balked at the suggestion that any scrolls be shared out with synagogues outside Egypt, or even Jewish museums.


When asked if she might visit Israel, Magda shrugged her shoulders and said, 'one day'. 'It is difficult to fight from within the country. My goal is to rehabilitate the memory of the Jews of Egypt, so that people in Egypt and around the world do not forget us.'

Levana Zamir comments: Slowly but surely all our holy sites and private property are becoming Egyptian property.  Magda -  she is the only witness to the mess she claims the community's archives were in - has turned over all the community's documents and registers to the Egyptian authorities. The Alexandria community did the same. The Nebi Daniel Association has been fighting to obtain copies of the Jewish registers for 16 years. This is important for those who need to confirm their identity as Jews. But Magda, and Carmen before her, flatly refuse to release photocopies, and this is very sad. (Sixteen US senators  have sent a letter to President El-Sisi, so we live in hope.) American money has been donated for the preservation of antiquities - Pharaonic, Coptic or  Jewish -  and the Egyptian government has the right to spend it as it wishes. Magda's fundraising drive is unnecessary, as  private Egyptian donors  are ready to help preserve and restore Jewish sites.

See Preserving traces of Egypt's lost Jews - but for whom?