Monday, May 20, 2019

Stop tainting Israel as an extension of Europe

A western trend positioning Israel as a colonialist aggressor rather than a haven for all Jews fleeing oppression erases the history of Mizrahi Jews like Hen Mazzig, who now form the majority of Israeli Jews. Must-read in the LA Times:

Along with resurgent identity politics in the United States and Europe, there is a growing inclination to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of race. According to this narrative, Israel was established as a refuge for oppressed white European Jews who in turn became oppressors of people of color, the Palestinians.

As an Israeli, and the son of an Iraqi Jewish mother and North African Jewish father, it’s gut-wrenching to witness this shift.

I am Mizrahi, as are the majority of Jews in Israel today. We are of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Only about 30% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi, or the descendants of European Jews. I am baffled as to why mainstream media and politicians around the world ignore or misrepresent these facts and the Mizrahi story. Perhaps it’s because our history shatters a stereotype about the identity of my country and my people. Jews that were expelled from nations across the Middle East have been crucial in building and defending the Jewish state since its outset.
Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, was not established for just one type of Jew but for all Jews, from every part of the world — the Middle East, North Africa, Ethiopia, Asia and, yes, Europe. No matter where Jews physically reside, they maintain a connection to the land of Israel, where our story started and where today we continue to craft it.

The likes of Women’s March activist Tamika Mallory, Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill and, more recently, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) falsify reality in their discussions of Palestinians’ “intersectional” struggle, their use of the term “apartheid” to characterize Israeli policy, and their tendency to define Israelis as Ashkenazi Jews alone.

I believe their misrepresentations are part of a strategic campaign to taint Israel as an extension of privileged and powerful white Europe, thereby justifying any and all attacks on it. This way of thinking signals a dangerous trend that positions Israel as a colonialist aggressor rather than a haven for those fleeing oppression. Worse, it all but erases the story of my family, which came to Israel from Iraq and Tunisia.

For most of history, the Mizrahim have been without sovereignty and equality in the Muslim world. In Iraq, despite being “equal citizens” on paper, my family experienced ongoing persecution. The first organized attack came in 1941, the brutal Farhud, a Nazi-incited riot that claimed the lives of hundreds of Jews and forced the survivors to live in fear. My great-grandfather was falsely accused of being a Zionist spy and executed in Baghdad in 1951. My mother’s family was permitted to emigrate that same year, but with only one suitcase.

Iraqi Jews arriving in Israel
Any erasure of the Mizrahi experience negates the lives of 850,000 Jewish refugees just like them, who, even in the successor states to the Ottoman Empire of the early 20th century, were treated as “dhimmis,” an Arabic term for a protected minority whose members pay for that protection, which can be withdrawn at any time. Demographic ignorance also works to deny the existence of almost 200,000 descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were threatened by political destabilization in the early 1990s and airlifted to Israel in a daring rescue operation.

Read article in full

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ezekiel's tomb feared lost to Jewish heritage

The future of Jewish culture and heritage in Iraq will be on the agenda at an international two-day conference in Israel on 20 and 21 May 2019*.  But for age-old synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish shrines, it may well be too late to save them.

Speaking to a reporter from Israel National News (click here for video),  Dr Zvi Yehuda of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center at Or Yehuda, which is hosting the conference jointly with Bar Ilan University, said that  2,600 years of Jewish heritage was being wiped out altogether.

Of 33 synagogues in Baghdad, only one remains. It is almost permanently shut. Although the new Jewish cemetery - the old one was destroyed under the Qasim regime in 1958 -  still exists in Baghdad, Dr Yehuda has received eye-witness reports that other cemeteries have been destroyed and built over. In one instance, a school was erected on Jewish graves.

A huge mosque now envelops the Jewish shrine of Ezekiel

Concerning Jewish shrines, Dr Yehuda deplored what has happened to Ezekiel's shrine, which was the most important of Jewish pilgrimage sites prior to the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq in 1950 -1. A huge Sh'ia mosque, built in 2016 -7, now encircles the burial chamber and adjoining synagogue of the Biblical prophet.

Ezekiel's burial chamber with its Hebrew inscriptions on the walls is still intact, but the tomb is now said to be that of Ali, the founder of Shi'ism

This means that no Jew will be able to visit the shrine, as no Jew is allowed access through the mosque. Sh'ites consider  non-Muslim najas, or unclean. While for centuries Muslims attributed the shrine to the obscure Muslim prophet Dhu al-Kifl, the new Sh'i'a mosque has been rebranded as the burial place of Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and the founder of Sh'ism.

For 1,000 years the Jewish character of the shrine had been preserved.  Even Saddam Hussein had not dared to touch the shrine, Dr Yehuda said, and until recently the Iraqi authorities contemplated preserving the shrine in order to attract Jewish tourism. They feared international pressure**, especially from the US government. At a meeting with Unesco in Paris in 2014, Professor Shmuel Moreh had sounded warnings that the Iraqi Wakf (religious endowment) intended to build a mosque, but he was told not to meddle in the matter. The Wakf went ahead regardless. Professor Moreh died in 2017.

Read article in full (Hebrew)

* To book email or tel 03 - 5317959.

**Point of No Return's petition to preserve the shrine drew over 1,000 signatures.

Eurovision hosts boast Middle Eastern roots

From left:  Assi Azar, Lucy Ayoub, Bar Refaeli and Erez Tal

It is a tribute to Israel's diversity that all four presenters of the Eurovision Song Contest extravaganza of 2019 have some Middle Eastern or Sephardi roots. Presenter Eretz Tal's father is from Algeria, while Assi Azar is of Bukharan and Yemenite descent. Lucy Ayoub's parents are Christian Arab and Ashkenazi Jewish. Even Bar Refaeli has one Sephardi (Italian) grandparent.

All four of the past Israeli winners of the Eurovision song contest have Middle Eastern roots: Netta Barzilai is of Moroccan-Libyan parentage, while Dana International, Gali Atari and Izhar Cohen all descend from Yemenite Jews.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Rabbi appointed to head UAE Jewish community

 The first new community of the United Arab Emirates is to have a 'chief rabbi'. But the duties of Rabbi Yehuda Sarna will not be pastoral, they will be to foster 'interfaith dialogue'. JTA reports (With thanks: Boruch):

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the New York University chaplain, will be the first chief rabbi of the Jewish Community of the United Arab Emirates.

David Weinberg, the international affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League, made the announcement Tuesday at an event co-hosted by the ADL and the UAE embassy on interfaith tolerance.

Rabbi Sarna retains his post as chaplain to New York University, but will travel to Dubai four times a year

Sarna told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the position is unpaid, and that he will travel four times a year to Dubai, where worship services have been taking place in a private home. He said he will stay on as chaplain at NYU and as the executive director of the university’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life.
“What we see is the first emergence of the first new Jewish community emerging in the Arab world for centuries,” said Sarna, who says there are hundreds of Jews in the UAE from all over the world to take advantage of employment opportunities.

He said his hope is to nurture a structured community so that paid staff, including a full-time rabbi, could one day take over.

A Jewish Council of the Emirates official told JTA that Sarna’s role would not be pastoral. Sarna’s “primary role” will be “pursuing interfaith dialogue and building the office of the JCE Chief Rabbi.”

Read article in full 

Haaretz article 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Palestinian antisemitism spilled over into Arab world

The Jewish world is justifiably in an uproar about comments made over the weekend by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). In an act of monumental chutzpah, Tlaib has made the claim that the Palestinians helped create “a safe haven” for Jews fleeing the Holocaust—a thought, she said, that gave her a “kind of calming feeling.” Not only were Palestinians allied with the Nazis,  they spread the anti-Jewish hatred against Jews in Arab countries, writes Lyn Julius in JNS News: 

Scholars and journalists have rebutted her revisionism by drawing attention to the  pivotal role the the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, played in Arab politics, to the Arab-Nazi alliance he spearheaded, and to the anti-Semitic propaganda he broadcast during the four years he enjoyed Hitler’s hospitality in Berlin. They have pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs were Nazi sympathizers; the Arabs pressured the British to curtail Jewish immigration into Palestine that could have saved millions of lives. The Arab leadership led an anti-Semitic campaign within Palestine as early as the 1920s.
But few critics of Tlaib’s words have observed that the mufti, as well as other Syrian and Palestinian nationalists, began to sow the seeds of virulent anti-Semitism outside Palestine as early as the 1920s. The result was the mass displacement of 850,000 Jews from the Arab world, most of whom resettled in Israel after 1948. Does this forced exodus, directly attributable to Arab anti-Semitism, also give Tlaib a “calming feeling”?

Wherever the mufti went in the Arab world, persecution and mayhem against the local Jews followed. In 1921, Yemenite Jews in the Yishuv claimed it was due to Palestinian Arab pressure that the decree forcing Jewish orphans in Yemen to convert to Islam was reinstated. This, they said, had come about after a Palestinian Arab delegation had visited Yemen to demand that the Imam stop all immigration to Palestine. The Orphans’ Decree, argues scholar S.D. Goiten, was the single most important reason Jews were desperate to flee Yemen.

In the 1940s, visits of Palestinian Arabs to Aden (then a British crown colony) became more common, and so did the expression of anti-Jewish sentiments.
From December 1931, when he convened a World Islamic Congress in Jerusalem, the Mufti ceased to speak of Zionists, and instead spoke of Jews. All Arabs were exhorted to treat the Jews of their countries “as the Jews treat the Arabs of Palestine.”

The congress was followed by anti-Jewish violence in Morocco—in Casablanca in 1932, Casablanca and Rabat in 1933, Rabat and Meknes in 1937 and Meknes in 1939. In Tunisia, an entente between Tunisian nationalists and the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee sparked violence in Sfax in 1932. The Algerian ulema (religious scholars) declared a boycott against Jews in 1936, obeying the mufti’s instructions.

British reports noted the intense propaganda in Yemen. Jewish refugees tried to make for British-controlled Aden. In 1939, a crowd was incited against the British and the Jews when they were shown fabricated photographs of Arab children hanging from telegraph poles. Other newspapers mendaciously reported that thousands of Arabs had been killed and bombs thrown at the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. In addition to his relentless his efforts to encourage pro-Nazi officers in Iraq to seize power, the grand mufti of Jerusalem incited the Farhud pogrom in Iraq by inciting the local Arabs against the Jews during his two-year exile in Baghdad.

Palestinian and Syrian exiles played a key role in inciting anti-Semitism in the Arab world. They could be credited for laying the groundwork for the Farhud, the brutal massacre of Iraqi Jews on 1 and 2 June 1941—seven years before Israel was created—in which at least 179 Jews were murdered. The 1941 Farhud against the Jews of Iraq could be termed the first deadly skirmish in the Palestinian Arab war against Jews, not Zionists. By the time the Farhud broke out, there were more than 400 such emigre families in the country. They exerted an influence far beyond their numbers. They were doctors, teachers and intellectuals who had mainly been exiled from Palestine with the mufti after 1936 and were to join him in Berlin as Hitler’s guests after 1941.

However, a contingent of disappointed exiles from Syria and Palestine had arrived as early as 1920. They had accompanied Emir Faisal when he arrived in Baghdad to become the British-installed king. Their aspirations to rule a pan-Arab kingdom from Damascus had been thwarted by the French. At their head was the Syrian ultra-nationalist Sati al-Husri, who became Director General of Education of Iraq and turned it into the “Prussia of Arab nations.” Al-Husri engaged in vicious anti-Semitism, doing his best to undermine Iraq’s first finance minister, the Jew Sir Sasson Heskel.

Al-Husri founded the nationalist Muthanna club. From this club sprang the ringleaders of the wartime Farhud pogrom. Al-Husri was later joined by the Syrian Fawzi al-Quwukji (who fought in the 1948 war against Israel) and other virulent anti-Semites. Some took matters (literally)  into their own hands: Palestinian doctor Amin Ruwayba was accused of throwing a hand grenade at a Jewish club in 1936.

Al-Husri promoted Arab nationalism through education. In 1930s’ Iraq, the strident pan-Arab nationalists who surrounded the king had already ensured that there was really no place for Jews within political parties.In Iraqi schools, the teaching of Hebrew was banned and the school curriculum was “Nazified.” In 1937, the director-general of the Iraqi Ministry of Education, Fadel Jamali, was warmly welcomed in Germany and invited to send a delegation to the Nuremberg Nazi Party congress in 1938. The pro-Nazi government under Rashid Ali in Iraq in May 1941 cemented the only official alliance between an Arab country and the Axis powers.

The Palestinian Darwish al-Miqdadi returned to Iraq from studying in Germany and became leader of the pro-Nazi youth brigade, the Futuwwa. The Futuwwa went around daubing the houses of Jews with red khamsas prior to the Farhud in order to indicate to the mob which were the Jewish homes.

Exclusionary Palestinian nationalism, fathered by the mufti, was a hybrid creature of racial and religious anti-Semitism. The strands became impossible to disentangle. Almost from the start, the hostility to Jews at the core of Palestinian nationalism spilled over into the Arab world and was aimed at Jewish citizens.

Read article in full 

Same article at Algemeiner

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Don't call Ashkenazim 'privileged whites'

Ashkenazi Jews themselves must not fall into the trap of treating Ashkenazi Jews as 'privileged white people', argues Sarah Katz (who is half Ashkenazi/ half Mizrahi herself) in the Times of Israel:

As the Islamic world and western left continue to frame Israel as a European colonialist outpost in the Middle East full of “white Jews” seeking to oppress “non-white Arabs”, an alarming chunk of the global Jewish community has fallen into the trap of divide and blame. Namely, provided the financial and political success of majority Ashkenazi Jews in the US and Israel, many Mizrahim and non-Jews have come to conflate Ashkenazim with white Europeans, almost a sort of ‘false Jew’ or, at the very least, Jews who are too removed from Israel and the Middle East to be considered legitimate or even at risk of oppression.

This categorization of Ashkenazim as “privileged white people” is not only dangerous, as any kind of divide among the already minuscule world Jewish population facilitates the goal of those wishing to victimize us – furthermore, such a label is also inaccurate. After all, the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, PA,[2] and Poway, CA,[3] within the past year alone targeted communities of majority Ashkenazi Jews. In neither case did the white supremacist assailants choose to spare these Jewish individuals because of their skin tone or their ancestors’ residence in Europe. Moreover, the Jewish caricatures included in the recent Belgian street parade[4] specifically targeted Ashkenazi Jews living in Belgium, complete with the long-held stereotype of the large hooked nose, a physical trait also commonly observed throughout western media when portraying Arabs.[5] Unfortunately, however, the western left has taken to labeling Ashkenazim as “occupiers” and “fake Jews”[6] to claim indigeneity to the Levant, accusations that Mizrahim typically do not experience, despite the latter two groups’ proven common ancestry.[7]

All that being said, we cannot deny the existence of Ashkenormativity in the US and Israel – the former due to the majority of American Jews being Ashkenazi, while the latter stems from the fact that most of Israel’s original founding fathers in 1948 were also Ashkenazim. Therefore, despite such Ashkenazi dominance in these circles, this tipped scale has everything to do with history and nothing to do with skin tone, especially since not all Ashkenazim have fair skin – two of the most notable examples being the well-known Ashkenazi actors, Jeff Goldblum and Oded Fehr.

Top: Oded Fehr, above: Jeff Goldblum, both Ashkenazi actors

Thus, an issue arises when Mizrahi Jewish influencers such as Hen Mazzig* strive to paint all Ashkenazim as a lump sum of Jewish privilege. When faced with the threat of white supremacy, the entire Jewish community worldwide – along with Muslims, such as the victims of the Christchurch atrocities[8] – must stand in solidarity, rather than creating victimhood hierarchies based on Diasporic discrepancies and perceived similarity to “white” Europeans.

Read article in full 

Ashkenazi Jews are Middle Eastern too 

*There are no white supremacist Jews (Hen Mazzig) 

More articles by Hen Mazzig

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Tales of the spiderweb building in Cairo

By a strange coincidence two things unite journalist Peter Kessler and Egyptian Jew Albert Bivas. They both lived in an Art Deco building in Cairo Kessler nicknames 'the spiderweb building', seventy years apart. Kessler had twin daughters, Bivas had twin sisters. Writing in the New Yorker, Kessler tells the story of the spiderweb building, which the Bivas family owners were forced to abandon in the 1950s. (With thanks: Boruch)

 The Bivas children at the spiderweb building (Photo: A. Bivas)
The oldest photograph that Albert Bivas sent me was dated June 11, 1933—when his maternal grandparents held a groundbreaking ceremony for the spiderweb building. In the picture, Betty Bassan and Léon Bassan stand next to a foundation stone. Betty is tapping the stone with a hammer. Around them, a crowd of people are dressed in European-style clothes, while a large Egyptian man in a white galabiya is helping to hold the foundation stone.

The next photograph is from the inauguration of the finished building. A small group of men stand in front of the webbed balcony that, eight decades later, would lead to the room that I used as an office. In the picture, there are signs for the various groups that contributed to the construction: the contracting firm, whose name is Italian, and Schindler, the German company that installed the elevator.

Albert and his family had lived in that same ground-floor apartment. He was born in Cairo, in 1941, and after him his parents had four girls. The identical twins, Betty and Danièle, were born in 1944. In photographs, the baby twins are beautiful, with curly hair and enormous eyes, and in several images they sit on the balconies. The details of these scenes—the metal spiderwebs, the patterned floor tiling—are exactly the same as in photographs of my own twins.
Albert’s grandparents lived on the floor directly above. Like all of Albert’s known ancestors, they were Sephardic Jews who, at the end of the fifteenth century, fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. They settled in Constantinople, which was welcoming to Jews at the time. Albert’s grandfather Léon was born in Turkey, but as a young man he moved to Egypt.
At the time, such a move was relatively easy, because Turkey and Egypt were both part of the Ottoman Empire. A number of Jewish families had moved during the late nineteenth century, when the opening of the Suez Canal created business opportunities in Egypt. For a while, Léon taught at a French-language school, and then he became an importer of supplies for tailors. In Cairo, he joined a vibrant community of Egyptian Jews. Some families had been in the city for centuries, and a number of Jewish activists had been prominent in the Egyptian-nationalist movement that resisted British imperialism in the early nineteen-hundreds.

For Léon, identity was many-sided. He and his wife communicated in Ladino, a form of Old Spanish that incorporated words from Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages. It’s also known as Judeo-Spanish, because the tongue was carried across the Mediterranean and sustained for centuries by the Sephardic Jews who had been driven out of Spain. Léon also knew Turkish from childhood, and he learned Egyptian Arabic. He loved writing poetry and essays in French, which had been the language of his education.

None of his writings were published, but they were collected in journals preserved by the family. Léon’s voice is witty, curious, and intensely observant. He was an outsider who came to consider himself Egyptian, at a time when the country was full of such people—Jewish Egyptians, Greek Egyptians, Italian Egyptians. In Arabic, Cairenes refer to their country as “um al-duniya,” “the mother of the world,” and Léon describes the place as a melting pot. “The fashions of all the countries and all the times cross each other in Cairo,” he writes, in April, 1934. “It is a crossroads of all the races; you hear all the languages. And every person betrays his origin by the way he walks and by the way he is dressed.” He describes the “nervous” walk of the Europeans, who move quickly but say little. In contrast, l’autochtone—“the aborigine,” or local—walks slowly, to preserve his strength. But he isn’t silent. “He speaks loud and laughs very loud,” Léon writes. “He is poor like Job and nevertheless happy to live.”

In the journals, Léon takes pleasure in the organized chaos of the Cairo streets. He likes the professional female mourners who are hired for funerals and who, “in between their wailing, slip in some low-class jokes.” He also admires the beggars, especially the ones who are small-time scam artists—“the false blind, the false deaf, the people who have no arms but actually have hidden arms, the people who act like cripples but actually can run with their strong little legs as soon as the shawish [a junior police officer] is following them.” He gently mocks the discomfort that such figures inspire in Western residents, who have a tendency to label any irritation “the eleventh plague of Egypt.” Sometimes the eleventh plague is the beggars; at other times, it’s mosquitos. In the early thirties, the eleventh plague was revolutionary student activists. “These students, when they are demonstrating, imitate what people do in civilized countries,” Léon writes. “They break streetlamps, burn tramways, ransack shops, and knock off the hats of passersby while screaming in favor of this or against that.”
For a long time, Albert Bivas and I exchanged e-mails and telephone calls, and then I went to meet him, at his home in Palo Alto. He was a trim man in his seventies, with bright blue eyes of a shade that I had never seen on an Egyptian. He showed me his grandfather’s journals and old photographs, and he often laughed at the quirks and complexities of the culture in which he was raised. He remembered that his other grandfather read a newspaper written in Aljamiado, which used Arabic script to transcribe Spanish. The first time that Albert attended a Christmas party as a boy, it was hosted by a Muslim family who had decorated a tree and invited Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students from the local French lycée. The school was directly across the street from the spiderweb building.

“We took one class about the history of France, and another class about the history of Egypt,” Albert said. “There were contradictions between these classes—sometimes we joked that we didn’t know if our ancestors were the Gauls or the pharaohs!” He continued, “The same as when we were doing Passover in Cairo, and we would read the story about how we were slaves in Egypt. And now we were here! But how can we have servants here, if we were slaves? As children, we were very amused by this.”

Albert’s father was a stockbroker who founded a textile factory, and the family was prosperous. They had servants to clean the apartment and to cook, and the doorman, an Upper Egyptian named Mohammed, doted on the children. The family parked their Citroën sedan in a garage in the garden. When Albert and I talked, he sketched out the layout of the building, and he confirmed that the spiderweb gate had been designed for automobiles. His family hadn’t needed a ramp to reach the street, since a sidewalk had yet to be built. I wished that I had had this piece of historical evidence when my neighbor confronted me about my construction project.
The strange little world of Albert’s family—the island in the Nile, the mixed languages, the spiderweb building, with its combination of Art Deco, classical, and Islamic architecture—began to seem increasingly fragile in the nineteen-forties. The neighborhood experienced frequent blackouts, as it did during the political turmoil of the Arab Spring, but in the forties the cause was war. In June, 1941, Léon Bassan wrote a poem titled “Black Out”:
Close your shutters and turn off the lights
There goes the happiness of our dear homes
There are lines going through the sky, of pirate airplanes
In Egypt, German and British forces fought at Al-Alamein, on the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria, but Cairo was relatively unaffected. Many Egyptian nationalists were sympathetic to the Nazis because of their hatred of British imperialism. But, for an Egyptian Jew, the fear of Hitler was visceral, and the name often crops up in Léon’s poems:
Satan is Hitler himself
Göring is the angry tiger
Goebbels is the cursed snake
And Himmler the vulture walking toward the prey
One of Léon’s sisters had got married and moved to France. After the war, Léon learned that his sister had been sent to Auschwitz, where she died. He never mentioned the death to his grandchildren, although even as a young boy Albert could tell that something was changing in Cairo. Once, he went to the cinema with his father to see a French movie, and when a Jewish character appeared onscreen, people in the audience shouted, “Kill the Jew! Kill the Jew!” On November 29, 1947, after the United Nations passed a resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews, angry mobs gathered in downtown Cairo. Albert’s family was out in the Citroën, and his father, whose name was also Léon, yelled at the children to duck, in case people caught a glimpse of them in European dress.

Léon Bivas had named his textile company Albitex, after his only son, and his dream was that Albert would someday take over the business. But, in 1952, as protests against the Egyptian monarchy intensified, Léon Bivas sensed that the regime might be toppled. He took his wife and children to France that summer, with the expectation that they would return after things stabilized. In July, when Nasser and the other army men who became known as the Free Officers carried out their revolution, the Bivas family was living in Paris.

Albert’s mother was pregnant with their last child, and she wanted to give birth in the country that she considered her homeland. By December, Léon Bivas believed that the situation was safe because the new President, Mohamed Naguib, was known to be friendly to Jews. So the family returned to the spiderweb building. But post-revolution Presidencies have a way of ending abruptly, and, after less than a year, Naguib was unseated by Nasser. Nasser’s feelings about Jews had been hardened by his military experience in the Arab-Israeli War of 1947, when the Israelis had routed the Egyptian forces. In 1956, the year that Nasser won the Presidential election with more than ninety-nine per cent of the popular vote, the Bivas family went to France again. This time, they packed as much as they could in their luggage.

Léon Bivas returned to Cairo alone, to deal with the factory. In July, Nasser seized the Suez Canal, and the resulting war, in which Israel fought alongside the British and the French, represented the end for Egyptian Jews. Nasser’s government arrested hundreds on the suspicion of espionage and other crimes, and a new exodus began. In the span of three months, at least ten thousand Jews fled the country. A number of former Nazi officials had sought refuge in Egypt after the Second World War, and some of these men reportedly helped Nasser’s government design anti-Semitic laws. Egyptian nationality could be revoked from anybody who was declared to be a “Zionist,” a term that was never defined. Soon, Jewish Egyptians were limited to a single piece of luggage on departure. Anybody carrying significant funds out of the country could be arrested.
By this time, Albert’s grandparents were elderly, and they were allowed to leave on one-way passports—the documents specified that they were good for only a single journey. They left in such a hurry that they didn’t sell the spiderweb building. In France, the passports of Albert, his mother, and his four sisters expired, and the Egyptian Embassy refused to renew them. France classified the family as stateless. In less than a year, they had gone from prosperous residents of a family-owned building to refugees.

In Cairo, Léon Bivas was trapped in the ground-floor apartment. The government refused to grant him travel documents, and he was placed under house arrest. Outside the webbed gates a guard was stationed, and he escorted Bivas to the textile factory every morning. Bivas ran the factory as a virtual prisoner for more than a year. It was nearly impossible for an Egyptian Jew to sell a significant asset, because buyers knew they could just wait for things to get worse. Finally, the factory’s Egyptian foreman bought the business at a steep discount, which presented Bivas with a new problem. He couldn’t carry or transfer cash out of Egypt. But he had an idea. He bought two pairs of roller skates and mailed them to the twins.

 Read article in full

Monday, May 13, 2019

Albert Shaltiel's hair-raising tale of escape from Iran

The tale of how Albert Elay Shaltiel evaded Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is not for the fainthearted. In Jewish Journal Deborah Danan tells how the 17-year-old Persian Jew avoided conscription into the Iranian army and risked his life to escape over the border with Pakistan :

 Albert Shaltiel: thrown into a 'coffin'

 It was 1987 and the 17-year-old Persian Jew knew he had to make his escape before being forcefully conscripted into the army and sent to war with Iraq. 

Leaving his parents at home in Tehran, Shaltiel embarked on a treacherous journey to the tripoint border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was smuggled among the cargo of a truck that included weapons, opium and hoards of cash. The Revolutionary Guard seized the truck and Shaltiel was held captive for about three weeks.

Placed in solitary confinement, he was given just enough food to keep him from dying. He was routinely beaten and kicked and was made to wear sackcloth over his head. He defecated and urinated in his pants and was given no extra clothes to shield himself from the freezing desert air near the Iranian city of Zahedan.  

Sometimes his torturers would connect his fingers to a box that sent electrical currents through his body in an attempt to force him to give up the names of his smugglers. The only name Shaltiel knew was that of a Jewish family friend who organized his escape. However, he also knew revealing the name would place his friend and his children in peril. “I was ready to die in order to keep this secret,” Shaltiel said. 

The days and nights blurred together and the haunting call of the muezzin for daily prayers was the only way Shaltiel could mark time. Eventually, he was thrown into a coffin-like box and hauled into the back of a van to be transported back to Tehran. But along the way, the van crashed and the coffin was hurled outside. Shaltiel subsequently was transferred to something resembling a field hospital. There, he met and made friends with a group of around 15 Baluchi tribesmen who also were being held captive by the IRGC. 

One morning, Shaltiel awoke to the sound of gunshots. Their kinsmen were rescuing the Baluchi. They took Shaltiel with them and he lived with the Baluchi for close to a month. 

Shaltiel maintains the Baluchi are part of the 10 lost tribes of Israel and said that during his time with them he witnessed a circumcision, men wearing tzitzit and women lighting candles on Friday night.

Shaltiel eventually escaped two months later via Karachi in Pakistan. He sought asylum in Austria and from there traveled to the United States. He remained in America until he made aliyah in 1998. In Israel, he met his future wife, Yael, who was born in the same year and in the same Tehranian hospital as Shaltiel. 

In 2005, after years of infertility, Yael gave birth to a baby boy, Ilai. In honor of their “miracle child,” they set up the ILAI Fund. The nonprofit has helped more than 1,000 children with special needs from difficult socio-economic backgrounds gain access to the tools and therapies they need. Each year, Shaltiel takes part in the ceremony organized by Yad Vashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, laying a wreath to honor the 280,000 disabled victims killed by the Nazis. 

Read article in full 

A tale of horror and escape from the Ayatollahs

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Refugee exchange accepted in India ; not in Palestine

 In this piece in comparing India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine, Lyn Julius finds some similarities, but also some key differences: While India and Pakistan accepted the flows of refugees in either direction as a permanent exchange, the Palestine Partition is unfinished business when it comes to refugees.

There is another key difference: Hindu and Muslim leaders in India were dismayed at the increasingly barbaric intercommunal killings, while in many cases Arab leaders deliberately incited violence against Jews. The mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries, who had no part in the 1948 war in Palestine, was an egregious consequence of state-sanctioned collective punishment of non-combatant citizens. It was as if Muslims in Bradford or Sikhs in Toronto were persecuted and forced to flee merely for sharing the same religion as Muslims or Sikhs in India.

When it comes to refugees, the Palestine Partition is also unfinished business. While both Indian and Pakistan accepted the exchange of refugees, only Israel absorbed Jewish refugees, while the Palestinian refugee problem has been left by the Arab side to fester. The Palestinian leadership perpetuates the conflict by clinging to its ‘right of return’ to Israel proper.

But Partition in the Indian subcontinent has not brought peace and reconciliation. Relations between India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, have been plagued by hostility and suspicion.

In both cases, Partition has created an imbalance on either side of the divide. Israel and India today are prosperous and pluralistic, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories have a history of bad governance and contempt for minority rights. Israel’s population is 20 percent Arab, India’s is 14 per cent Muslim. On the other side, a terrorist group rules Gaza where there are hardly any Christians. The Palestinian Authority has not held an election for ten years or more, and its Christian population continues to decline. Pakistan has been governed by a succession of military dictatorships; Islamist groups are tolerated in Pakistan’s tribal lands. A mere two per cent of its population is Hindu; both Christians and Shi’a Muslims suffer grievously. Pakistan has betrayed its own flag – green for Islam, white representing minorities.

For this deplorable state of affairs, one can hardly blame nationalism, or the British, or colonialism.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Tunisian Shoah survivor lights independence torch

With thanks: JIMENA

1:13 minutes into the video recording Israel's celebration of its 71st birthday, 93-year old Marie Nachmias brought the audience to their feet as she lit one of 12 torches.

Marie Nahmias is a Holocaust survivor from Tunisia. Mari was born in Tunis, a former French colony occupied by the Nazis in World War Two. The Jews of her town were forced to wear a yellow star and subjected to anti-Semitic laws. Thousands sent to forced labor camps.

As a teenager, Marie Nahmias was smuggled out of her home and taken pre-state Israel to the northern town of Afula, where she married and began rebuilding her life. Along with her husband Avraham, who would spend many years as the senior X-ray technician at town’s Ha'emek Hospital, the couple had eight children of their own with Marie always busy cooking, cleaning, sewing and creating.

When most of her own children had grown up, feeling she had more love to give, Mari and Abraham opened their home to foster children. Many came from broken homes, some with special needs and disabilities. Marie also cared for children who had terminal illnesses until they passed away. Now aged 93, still full of energy for life, she has fostered 52 children.

Thirty nine years since Jewish-Iranian leader was executed

 In order to trigger a community's  exodus, there is nothing more effective than to execute its wealthy and respected leader. This is what the Iranian regime did when it hanged Habib Elghanian 39 years ago this month, thus sparking the flight of four-fifths of Iran's Jews. But many US Jews consistently underestimate the Iranian regime's deadly antisemitism. Karmel Melamed writes in the Jewish Journal:

As President Trump today announced the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Deal, May 9th will mark a very painful day for many Iranian Jews worldwide who will remember the unjust execution of their community leader, Habib Elghanian 39 years ago at the hands of the current Iranian regime.

While many American Jews may not remember or even know who Elghanian was, for my community of Iranian Jews, he was a remarkable leader whose execution sparked a mass exodus of Jews from Iran. Elghanian’s brutal execution has left a painful scare in the hearts and minds of countless Jews who fled Iran after the current Islamic regime took power in the country. After more than 2,500 years of living in Iran we, the Jews were suddenly and violently uprooted in massive numbers after receiving news of Elghanian’s execution by the new regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini. With many of America’s Ashkenazi Jews supporting former President Obama and other prominent Democrats who backed the disastrous Iran Deal three years ago, the time has long passed for the American Jewish community to wake up and realize that this regime in Iran is seeking a second mass genocide of the Jewish people.

The time has come for us as American Jews to remember Elghanian’s shameful killing by the Iranian regime and see it as the best example of the regime’s undying hatred for Jews and that it cannot be trusted with nuclear technology nor nuclear weapons.

Habib Elghanian was among the most affluent industrialists in Iran and the leader of the Jewish community in Iran. He, along with his business savvy brothers, pulled themselves up by their own boot-straps out of the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in Tehran to become successful captains of industry in the country. He was not only a proud Jew but an even more proud Iranian nationalist who believed in helping the nation of Iran grow and prosper during its 20th century age of modernizing. He not only built the first modern high-rise in Iran in the early 1960s, but hired thousands of Iranians of all faiths in his many industrial companies.

Along with his business success, Elghanian was quite philanthropic towards Iran’s Jews and non-Jews. He even contributed financially to the building of a mosque in Tehran which was in the midst of construction and the builders had run out of money! For nearly two decades I have interviewed scores of friends, family members and colleagues of Elghanian who swore that he had an unconditional generosity to anyone who sought financial help from him for a worthy cause or a person in need.

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Thursday, May 09, 2019

Sephardim pioneered the return to Zion

It is a common misunderstanding that Zionism was a 19th century movement pioneered largely in Europe by secular Jews. In fact Sephardim pioneered the return to the Land of Israel centuries before, and Zionism is  woven into the fabric of Jewish history and tradition, argues Ashley Perry in JNS News. (With thanks: Imre)

Perhaps one of the most remarkable Zionist movements before the modern era was that led by the Sephardi heroine Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi.
Born in 1510 in Lisbon and known as Beatrice de Luna during her early years in a family of Aragonese Anousim (Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism but remained Jews in secret), Dona Gracia was 300 years ahead of Theodor Herzl in conceiving a movement whereby Jews would once again take possession of their homeland.

During the height of the Ottoman Empire, Dona Gracia (pictured) used her powerful influence to gain autonomy for the Jews in parts of the Land of Israel. Encouraged by the Sultan, she started building Tiberias, in an effort to renew the ancient city of the Sanhedrin and make it a home for Jews. Thus, Dona Gracia paved the way for a return to Zion.

According to Andree Aelion Brooks’s The Woman Who Defied Kings: the Life and Times of Dona Gracia Nasi, “In Tiberias, the newcomers were soon taking over abandoned structures, renovating deserted houses, restoring gaping roofs, clearing the rubble and quarreling in typical Jewish fashion. By 1564 the revival was sufficiently far along that yet another traveler recalled that the scent from the date palm, orange and pine trees was so overpowering that it was almost suffocating. Yet another talked effusively of a wilderness turned into a Garden of Eden. Almost all of the residents, noted one of these travelers, were former conversos from Spain and Portugal.”

Although the Tiberias community went into decline after Dona Gracia Nasi passed away, there are some Jews living in Israel today who can trace their residency in the Holy Land back to this aliyah, known as the Old Yishuv.
Dona Gracia was also known for her benevolent funding of the growing community of Sephardi exiles in Tzfat. These returnees experienced a material and spiritual flowering such as the Jewish community in Israel had not enjoyed since the period of the Mishnah. This community gave rise to some of the most important intellectual achievements of Jewish history—of which the most enduring are the Shulhan Aruch and Beit Yosef of Rabbi Joseph Karo, which today remain two of the pillars of the Jewish legal tradition; and the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, which revolutionized Jewish mysticism.

Tzfat’s intellectual renaissance began in 1524 with the arrival of Rabbi Jacob Berab, one of the leading Spanish scholars of his generation. Rabbi Berab, like almost all the great rabbis in Tzfat at the time, was not just interested in spiritual pursuits but also to take practical action towards regaining Jewish sovereignty in Israel. He sought to reinstate the ancient Jewish legislative-judicial body, the Sanhedrin, which represented the most concrete expression of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for many generations.

The Jewish mysticism which sprouted primarily among the Sephardi community in Israel also inspired Rabbi Yehuda Solomon Alkalai, who was born in the Sephardi community of Sarajevo in 1798 but studied in Israel.

Rabbi Alkalai had the idea, echoed later in the endeavors of Theodor Herzl, to get various nations to give the Jews a homeland, just as they had, at about that time, assisted the Greeks and others. In Raglei Hamevaser he wrote, “The salvation of Israel lies in addressing to the kings of the earth a general request for the welfare of our nation and our holy cities, and for our return in repentance to the house of our mother … our salvation will come rapidly from the kings of the earth.”

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Iraqi Jew:' Israel is the only country we have'

Today Israelis celebrate their country's independence day, Yom Ha-atzma'ut. Here is a pertinent and moving story by Sarah Ansbacher, who manages the Aden Jewish Heritage Museum:

In these hours as we transition from the somberness of Yom Hazikaron, a week after Yom Hashoah, to the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, let me tell you a pertinent story about a man who was born in Baghdad, Iraq.

He was looking at the Sefer Torah we have on display in the museum and became a little emotional. He told me it brought back memories for him. Then he then caught sight of the little Eliahu Hanavi chair and started singing me a song he remembered from his childhood that was sung at the brit (circumcision) of a baby in the shul in Iraq. And he cried.

The little Eliyahu Hanavi chair at the Aden Jewish Heritage Museum

His family had a good life there until the Farhud of 1941, a pogrom against the Jewish community which was in part influenced by the Nazis. After that, everything changed, and as a result of the hardships that followed, his family moved to Basra, and a few years later to Abadan in Persia (Iran).

He’d heard stories of Israel and it captured his imagination. But his father, who was a merchant, was not interested in moving there. He’d rebuilt his life in Abadan and they had quite a comfortable life with a house in the city, and a little summer house by the sea. But the boy never settled or felt he belonged. He was still a Jewish refugee from Iraq.

In 1953 at the age of just twelve and a half, he decided to move to Israel. On his own. He ran away from home without telling his parents. He took a train, by himself, across the country from Abadan in the south to Tehran in the north. Once there he looked for signs of Jewish life. He found a shul where he spoke to one of the members and told him he was originally a refugee from Iraq and wanted to move to Israel. They hid him in the basement, together with several other children. After three days, a shaliach arrived. They were taken by truck on a long journey from Tehran to Alexandria in Egypt.

Three weeks after running away, he arrived by ship in Haifa, Israel and from there, he was taken to a kibbutz. The first thing he asked to do was send an express letter to his parents to let them know he was OK and where he was. They had been frantic with worry, not knowing what had happened to him and they feared he was dead.

His parents were relieved, but at first, also furious with him. They eventually forgave him and a few months later they packed up their lives and moved to Israel to join him. They were housed in a ma’abarah (camp for refugees) in Or Yehudah, first living in a tent and then a hut. It was hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. It was hard, but they rebuilt their lives again here.
I asked him if he ever regretted what he had done in coming here?

"Not for a minute! "he replied. He told me that not only had he fulfilled his army service, but he chose to do miluim (reserve duty) for six years past the standard age, into his fifties. I asked him why? And he said: "Because I love this country. It is the only one we have."

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

The forgotten Jewish-Arab battle of Constantine, 1956

Following yesterday's post revealing Mossad involvement in Algeria, this is a detailed account by Jessica Hammerman of a little-known episode in the Algerian war for independence from France in May 1956: a two-day battle between Jews and Muslims in the city of Constantine. Encouraged by undercover Mossad agents, armed Jews 'defended themselves' against terrorism in the absence of the French police. But much to the agents' embarrassment, self-defence seemed to degenerate into a lethal anti-Muslim riot. (By kind permission of the author).

In August 1934, a Jewish man insulted several Muslims, propelling many Muslims to attack the Jewish community. Terribleriots, and gruesome murders ensued; twenty-eight Constantine civilians were killed—twenty-five Jews and three Muslims. The existence of such tension stemmed from manipulations by the colons. Among Jews in Algeria and France, “the 1934 riots became a subject of instant retelling and commemoration.” The dark moment of 1934 was etched into collective Algerian-Jewish history. 

The aftermath of the 1934 Constantine pogrom

In May 1956, there were twice as many fatalities—all of them Muslim. By their own admission, perpetrators were Jewish. Yet the event is nowhere to be found in the Information juive, Algeria’s Jewish newspaper; it’s only briefly mentioned in Jewish narratives of the French-Algerian War. Nonetheless, both Muslim and Jewish witnesses were haunted by the May 1956 battles, the first instance of urban warfare in the war for liberation.

Small rivalries had erupted occasionally between Jews and Muslims since the 1934 events. Many Constantine Jews accepted fact that the Jewish quarter needed its own armed defense team. They reasoned that the French police were unreliable. The disdain of their European neighbors meant that Jewish neighborhoods were not only segregated from European ones, they were less secure. The French authorities did not offer sufficient protection for the Jewish Quarter, provoking conflict between Jews and Muslims, as in 1934. In the following decades, this skepticism toward French authorities led Constantine Jews to take matters into their own hands, purchasing their own handguns. At least 900 Constantine Jews had gun permits in 1956—a significant percentage when considering that not all gun-owners held a permit. It was easy for French citizens to obtain weapons, though Muslims were not permitted to buy them, a law that had been fiercely contested since the nineteenth century. This fact alone created an atmosphere that was more dangerous for Muslims than it was for either Jews or Europeans. 

Even the respected lawyer André Chouraqui betrayed his enthusiasm for armed self-defense among Algerian Jews. “Security for our communities above all else,” he intimated in a 1955 letter, “let’s give self-defense to all possible vic- tims.” He related a telling anecdote from his youth: “I remember the joy of Yom Kippur in September 1934 [a month after the riots], when all of the men met at the synagogue carrying revolvers under their prayer shawls.”
When Israeli officials heard about regular bombings of Jewish cafés in 1956, they ordered a group of undercover agents to go to Constantine to organize self-defense. These Israeli agents, called Misgeret (‘framework’ in Hebrew), for- malized Jewish self-defense and recruited younger fighters. Its leaders wanted to prove that Jews would not be defeated easily. One community leader told a high-ranking French officer, “I want to make sure that you know that if we die, we do so standing up.”

Israeli agents were already in action in Tunisia and Morocco, helping Jewish refugees from those areas to evacuate toward Israel. In Constantine, where they entered undercover as Hebrew teachers, their goal was simply to protect local Jews where the French army and police did not (or would not). About 100 members trained with the Israeli envoys. Two of them—Avraham Barzilai and Shlomo Havilio—had served in Egypt, where they had similar secretive cells, which “destabilized Nasser’s government by arming Jewish Egyptians.” A third Israeli operative, code-named “Ibrahim,” directed the troops on the ground in Constantine. His report on May 12 and 13 is the most detailed source of the infamous battle.

Early in 1956, random attacks in the Jewish quarter were increasingly common. In March, a grenade exploded under a table in a Jewish café, disfiguring the legs of ten Jewish people. Early in April, terrorists again placed a bomb under a table at the Bar Nessim, another Jewish bar. Victims sufffering lacerations, unconsciousness, and broken bones caused widespread panic (although only eight men were injured seriously). A large crowd of Jewish civilians pursued the two perpetrators, cornering them in a nearby Muslim café, and “lynched” a few men. Increasingly, civilians carried personal weapons with them. As one journalist explained in late April, “People avoid certain indigène neighborhoods unless they are personally armed.” 

A few weeks later, after the murder of a policeman, French police (with help from throngs of local Europeans and Jews) went through the city’s central street, rounding up all Muslim men—a total of about 40,000. Constantine had fallen into a terrible pattern: “Terrorism, counter-terrorism, repression, suspicion, fear.”Europeans (and many Jews, too) supported a strong military response to these attacks on civilians. On May 8, 1956, a crowd in Algiers shouted at Governor-General Robert LaCoste, “No More Reforms! Repression!” After a military parade, the mob chanted, “Long live the army! The Army to power!” Jews felt neglected by the army, but all French citizens (Europeans and Jews) felt that the government ignored their situation. Ibrahim reported that in the spring, after several café bombings, “the rage of the Jewish people peaked.”


Israeli undercover agents reported that they had a premonition that there would be an attack on the Jews on Saturday, May 12. It was the last day of Ramadan (Eïd), and Shabbat. As Constantine Jews—Ibrahim and his wife among them—were leaving synagogue for a drink, they heard a huge blast. Misgeret squads were active and armed; they rushed toward the damage. It was
a grenade, which had exploded in the Café Mazia, this time injuring thirteen people.

News reports of the attacks were muddled. It is nearly impossible to conclude who was responsible for the grenade. Officials claimed that a “terrorist rebel gang” fighting for Algeria had infiltrated Constantine; women handed  the grenades to male insurgents who would bomb targets around the city.

 The London Times reported that the attack came from uniformed rebels, implying that they were an organized force from elsewhere. Another source said that the rebels hid uniforms underneath their clothing. Le Monde reported that the grenade attack was coordinated with a second raid on the city. Adding to the confusion over who attacked the Jewish café, the FLN’s new publication El Moudjahid recounted that the original grenade-thrower was “dressed as a European” and, after throwing the bomb into the café, he fled toward the Jewish quarter. The implication was that the attacker was a French civilian (either Jewish or posing as such), and he planted the bomb to provide an excuse to attack local Muslims. It is also important to note that Jews and Europeans were presented as incompatible—that a Jew could disguise himself as a European and deny something ‘true’ about himself. On the other hand, Ibrahim noted that the perpetrators were “Arabs”—a term that French and Algerian newspapers were uncomfortable using. The Misgeret was importing the term from Israel, just as other Algerian-Muslim activists were cozying up to Nasser’s idea of Arab nationalism and Jewish-Israel conspiracies. 

“I ordered [our men] to hurt the Arabs and to rescue and evacuate those [Jews] who were wounded,” Ibrahim reported. A Misgeret squad arrived immediately, chased down the perpetrators, trapped them, and killed them in a barbershop. At the order of a Misgeret commander based in Paris, the squad invaded neighboring Muslim cafés, opened fire, and murdered as many as thirty Muslims that day. “Our men penetrated the neighboring Arab cafés and caused them serious losses,” reported Barzilai in 2005. They “shattered” a Moorish café “with sub-machine gunfire.” Another source states that after the four perpetrators were killed, gruesome combat took over the main streets of the city. Sources are vague about whether the victims were Jewish or Muslim.

Ibrahim was sure to document that it took twenty minutes for French officers to arrive at the scene of the bombing, justifying the necessity of a separate Jewish unit. He explained that the police were proud of (what they saw as) a random group of Jews for taking such swift action. One officer asked, “So, was Ben Gurion with you today?” Of course, French officers had no idea that the Misgeret had organized the action. 

After the initial rebels were defeated, Ibrahim wrote, “I kept getting news that a Jewish [armed] mob was planning on breaking into the Arab quarter. I didn’t want things to escalate.” He frowned on the civilians’ “chaotic” system of self-defense. While one Misgeret unit sought after the Jewish mob, another monitored the perimeter of the Jewish quarter. Other squads searched for Muslim rebels inside. 

Ibrahim saw the Misgeret’s role as a pacifying one—primarily guarding Jews from “Arabs” (because the French soldiers did not do enough), while protecting Muslims from wayward Jewish mobs. He feared that impulsive violence could escalate into a civil war, especially considering the widespread use of personal weapons. Ibrahim described “middle-aged” and “elderly” Jews who were shooting anyone who looked “Arab.” 

In these early years, criminals were known as “rebels,” “assailants,” or “out- laws” (hors-la-loi). Muslims were known as “Muslims,” or inhabitants of the Casbah. After all, a good percentage of Algerian Muslims were not Arab, but Berber. Calling them Arabs, Ibrahim thus imposed categories from the Middle East onto the Algerian context.

Well into the afternoon Saturday, Misgeret operatives and civilians rounded up Muslims, and barricaded them into their own shops, smashing windows and doors and emptying cash registers. The manic search continued through the streets lined with Muslim-owned shops, pulling people from their stores and shooting at them. Civilians shot randomly. According to Ibrahim, no Jews were hurt until the French army jumped into action, and began to help in the looting of Muslim businesses and destruction of homes. He calculated that the Misgeret killed twenty Arabs and injured another ten. Le Monde contended that twenty-five Muslims had died, and fourteen “Europeans” (Jews included) were injured.
Onlookers knew nothing of the Misgeret’s presence, though many intuited that Jews were involved in the repression. Many French sources elided a specific mention of Jews by stating that the bombing’s location was the Jewish quarter. 

Others denied any Jewish involvement. A New York Times article claimed that “the Jews themselves took little part in the vigilante shooting that cost thirty-five Arabs their lives.” The London Times described a battle between “the police” and terrorists, “with the civilian populations joining in;” the location of the chaos happened to be in the Jewish quarter. An American- Jewish worker reported that the French army actively recruited jobless Jewish men, one strategy that provoked Jews to attack Arabs. 

Rationales for the grenade attack also change according to source. The London Times explained that the attackers went to Café Mazia because its owner would not “subscribe funds toward the rebellion.” The Paris-Presse Intransigent reported that the rebels had heard Jews were organizing in commando groups. Stanley Abromavitch, who was working on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee, contended that local “Arabs” were angry with local Jews because they believed that Jews were working with French police. Local Muslims demanded loyalty; bombing the café was a harsh warning. Abromavitch revealed that the French authorities had turned Jews and Muslims against one another.

We cannot know the exact rationale for this particular attack, but it is clear that bombing cafés in Constantine’s Jewish Quarter had become a common occurrence in the preceding months. What was new about Saturday’s events was the organized retaliation, resulting in between twenty and forty dead.
By the end of the day, Ibrahim reported, Jewish morale was very high. He was not shy about claiming a victory—he said that the Misgeret leaders were surprised by their own success. The next day, his pride dissolved into utter shame and embarrassment on behalf of local Jews. 


Sunday’s story is more difficult to piece together. “It started with the elation of the day before,” Ibrahim wrote, a sense of excitement that was nonetheless accompanied by “edgy” nervousness. By the afternoon, “all was back to normal and the city was crowded,” but “you could feel the tension.” Sometime late that afternoon (accounts difffer: 4:30, 5:30, or 6:00 PM), an offfcer stopped a man who was milling outside an ice cream shop in the Jewish quarter. Many customers thought he was carrying a bomb (no source verified whether this was true). A second officer killed the suspected assailant. The FLN newspaper claimed that the two shooters were not officers, but “French civilians” who encouraged their friends to leave the ice cream store so that they could begin another killing spree, as they had the day before. At the same moment, a second group of “French civilians” approached from a neighboring restaurant, and shot twice: “Le voilà! Le voilà!”The purpose of the shots, according to this theory, was to “create a panicky climate.” 

When investigators arrived at the ice cream shop—located in the center of the Jewish quarter—they found six Muslim cadavers and eleven injured bystanders, two of whom were Jewish. According to Ibrahim, most Jews assumed the town’s Muslims were taking revenge for Saturday. The noise of gunshots set off a chaotic shooting spree in which civilians shot at Muslims all over the city, with casualties between 16 and 100. The two Jews who were injured were struck by friendly fire. 

In retrospect, some reporters explained Sunday’s attack by describing a “tense” and “nervous” atmosphere. A journalist in Le Monde wondered why the Europeans had been so quick to shoot; “Fear certainly played a part,” was their clipped observation. Another observer attributed the battle to a generalizable
feeling: “At the slightest suspicious move, people draw arms and shoot. A man pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket can be shot by a suspicious passerby who is afraid that it may be a gun or bomb.” 

The Muslim-Algerian author and activist Mouloud Feraoun described a devastating shift in the attitudes of the police and soldiers by mid-May 1956. “I hear that people are shot almost anywhere, and that the only effficient form of justice is a quick justice,” he wrote in his journal. “What is the life of a Muslim worth? For the time being, it is worth the burst of a sub-machine gun.” The Jewish mob was following the pace established by French soldiers that month. Muslim lives were simply not worth as much as ‘French’ lives. 

There was no denying that Jews were the central perpetrators on Sunday. But Misgeret leaders distanced themselves from Sunday’s events. Even Ibrahim, an undercover agent known only by his nom de guerre, believed there had been a Jewish conspiracy. Ibrahim suggested that some of the city’s Jews were attempting to seize control; he was mired in a power struggle. 

“Some Jewish opportunists were trying to encourage fear,” he hypothesized, “inflaming anxiety in the name of self-promotion. They wanted to gain the main posts in the Jewish leadership.” The Jewish Chronicle acknowledged that Jews were “quicker on the trigger” than Muslims.As opposed to Saturday, when squads were reacting to the detonation of a grenade, Sunday was an embarrassment for Ibrahim, and the Jewish population at large. He absolved himself of responsibility, however, blaming “the irrational reaction by a Jewish mob.”

Many onlookers were aware of the role of the Jewish community in Sunday’s counterterrorist action. Even Constantine’s chief rabbi, Sidi Fredj Halimi, made an appeal for the Jews to calm down. “It’s our religious duty to declare that we disapprove of violence, from whatever quarter,” he declared. He knew that many Jews were seeking revenge. Ibrahim thought that Sunday’s overreaction could teach the Jewish community “that they needed to leave defense . . . in an emergency to the professionals.” He vowed that more work remained, and that Misgeret offfcers would be much more careful in the future. 


In response to the weekend’s events, French authorities took action in three ways: they issued a strict warning to Constantine’s Europeans; they prohibited individuals from carrying weapons; and they cordoned off the Jewish quarter. Furthermore, Constantine was placed under martial law, a decision that was likely popular among many Europeans, given their demands for more repres- sion and less reform earlier that month.

New York Times photo showing Arabs rounded up and forced against a wall by French soldiers after they had sealed off the Jewish Quarter in the wake of the Constantine battle in May 1956  

The French government was infuriated by the Jewish reaction, but authorities did not reprimand Jews separate from Christians. An army general warned all of Constantine’s Europeans against “falling prey to counter-terrorism” and “blind vengeance.” That day, authorities scoured the streets to confiscate individually owned weapons, a form of public punishment, which amounted to a wristslap when compared with the roundup and relentless murders of the city’s Muslims.
When the French military enclosed the Jewish Quarter, were they protect ing or punishing the Jews? Guards forbade pedestrian and vehicular trafffc,
“except to its inhabitants.”
A New York Times article  headlined “French Cordon Jewish Quarter of Algerian City,” featured a photograph showing French offfcers lining up “rebels,” clearly Muslim. “The [military cordon was created] to prevent any repetition of . . . Saturday and yesterday,” the reporter indicated. “A number of European vigilantes had staged retaliatory attacks following an abortive terrorist raid.”
Isolating the Jewish Quarter was not rationalized. Is the reader to assume that the army positioned itself to guard the Jewish neighborhood? Or were the offficers protecting Muslims from the Jews? Ibrahim noted that security was increased both “within” and “around” the Jewish Quarter. Were the Jews victims or suspects? 
Apparently, others had the same question. Later in the week, The New York Times hedged: “The object [of the cordon] is not to punish . . . inhabitants of the [Jewish] quarter, but to protect them against terrorist infiltrations.” It is worth noting that in 1934, the police did not seal off the Jewish quarter, and twenty-eight people died. This was a subject of debate, and would have clearly been on the minds of the authorities in 1956.

From 'A Jewish-Muslim battle on the world stage: Constantine, Algeria 1956' by Jessica Hammerman in The Jews of Modern France (ed Kaplan and Malinovich, Brill)

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Exhibition will reveal Mossad's rescues of oppressed Jews

An exhibition  revealing the truth about Mossad's secret rescue missions in the Arab world is being planned at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center. Story in the Jerusalem Post Magazine: (With thanks: Ruth)

It was the only incident of the era in North Africa and the Middle East where a Jewish community was attacked by an organized armed group, but the Jews were ready and fought back.

Constantine, Algeria

For 25 minutes on May 12, 1956, there was an all-out battle in Constantine, Algeria.With the help of Mossad agent/advisers like Ibrahim Barzilai – a legend who was at the forefront of bringing around 80,000 Jews to Israel from foreign lands over a nearly 60-year career in intelligence – the Jews not only avoided a massacre, but won.

Speaking to the Magazine recently at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center (IICC), Barzilai went into detail regarding that battle and multiple incidents in which he and the Mossad smuggled to Israel not merely individual Jews but whole Jewish communities that were in danger.

The conversation with Barzilai took place against the backdrop of the IICC kicking into high gear to build a major 250-square-meter exhibition dedicated to telling the stories of Israeli intelligence operatives saving Jews.

The central theme of the exhibition, which is being shepherded forward by Yochi Erlich – who runs many IICC projects and is a retired major from IDF Intelligence – will be “See you in Jerusalem.”

It will emphasize that the Jewish state is the only place “in the world to give the intelligence community the job of bringing large groups” of a specific population sector to another country to save them from persecution.

Erlich said the exhibition will describe how the special mission “to reach Jews as a group and not to help just one person” dates back to David Ben-Gurion. It will feature ex-Mossad agents as tour guides, and interactive and updated hi-tech features and work stations to better tell the stories of the Jews and the various countries they came from.

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