Monday, August 31, 2020

Street named after Umm Kalthum causes controversy

With thanks: Veronique

In the summer of 2020, the city of Haifa caused a furore when it announced that it would rename a street after the famous Egyptian diva Umm Kalthum.

The journalist Eldad Beck fulminated that  the renaming would be to 'commemorate one of the greatest enemies of Israel, who wanted to wipe out the state.'

In 2011,  an Umm Kalthum street was named in east Jerusalem; there is also one in Ramla. The Haifa municipality thought that naming a street in the city where Umm Kalthum performed in the 1930s would go down well with the israeli-Arab community, 10 percent of the residents. It  would also reflect the city's ethos of Arab-Jewish coexistence.

Umm Kalthum had such an influence on the Arab world that her friend, the journalist Mustapha Amin, said that only the Koran was more important than her. "No singer could match her, no voice could epitomise the soul of a people", he declared." She was virtually canonised, not just in Egypt, but in the entire Arab world."
Egyptian stamp commemorating Umm Kalthum

When Umm Kalthum was buried in 1975, three million Egyptians turned out for her funeral, almost as many as attended the funeral of President Nasser five years earlier. 

So popular was Umm Kalthum with the Jews of the Arab world that they invited her to sing at their parties. Her concerts and films were screened in Jewish-owned cinemas. The Jewish liturgy was recited in Sephardi synagogues to tunes which she made popular.

Even today, her repertoire is played by Israeli musicians,  such as Tom Cohen, conductor of the Jerusalem East-West Orchestra, and singers such as Zahava Ben, Nisreen, and even Sarit Haddad, who has performed one of Umm Kalthum's greatest hits, Enta omri.

However, there was a dark side to Um Kalthum, one sometimes omitted in documentaries about her life. During the Six Day War she was co-opted by Nasser's regime to boost Egyptian morale with these blood-curdling lyrics, broadcast over the radio in Cairo and Damascus :'Cut, cut, cut their throats, hurl their heads into the desert, cut, cut, cut their throats as much as you please, cut the throats of all the Jews and you will be victorious."

Two years later, she expressed her wish to join fighters for Palestine with these lyrics, written by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and set to the music of Abdel al Wahab: " now I have a rifle, take me to Palestine with you...I want to live and die with the men, I have been with the revolutionaries from the day I carried my rifle, Palestine is only a few metres away..."

But plenty of Jews are ready to  excuse as patriotism the bloodlust of the 'fourth pyramid of Egypt'. Sephardi Jews grew up with Umm Kalthum. They are prepared to forgive her inciteful words.  Since her death, Egypt has signed a peace treaty with Israel, and in 2005 Egyptians and Israelis gathered together to perform her music.

One wonders if she would she have approved.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

School culture wars rage in California

Western universities already ignore, or distort, Mizrahi-lived experience, unless Mizrahi Jews can be weaponized against Zionist Ashkenazim. Now they are in danger of being erased from school curricula, warns Lyn Julius in her JNS News column: 

Ethnic studies curriculum in California schools iddentifies Jews as 'white'

A battle has been raging over the hearts and minds of Californian schoolchildren. A draft curriculum introduced in 2019 met with vigorous opposition from Jewish and other minority groups when the section on Middle Eastern peoples only referred to Arab Americans. Yet 60 percent of the state’s schoolchildren with roots in the Middle East hail from non-Arab minorities – Coptic Christians, Assyrians, Armenians, Berbers – and Jews.

 Indeed, the non-profit representing Mizrahi Jews - JIMENA - has been vocal in its criticism, claiming that that the draft not does adequately represent California’s Jewish community, including Middle Eastern Jews. These mostly came to the USA as refugees from Arab and Muslim antisemitism. To draw attention to any form of antisemitism against Mizrahi Jews in the Arab world is branded ‘Mizrahi washing’ – a distraction from Israel’s supposed crimes against the Palestinians.

 In this topsy-turvy world, the mere mention of Arab and Muslim antisemitism invites accusations of racialization or ‘Islamophobia.’ The battle over the Californian schools curriculum is a microcosm of the culture wars being waged in the West, where postmodernism now dictates that only ‘people of colour’ can be victims.

 But not only are non-Arab and non-Muslim Middle Eastern minorities pointedly not deemed worthy of consideration, but the latest iteration of the curriculum aims to include a module on the history of the assimilation of Jews and Irish people into ‘whiteness’ in the US. Jews are therefore being considered as white Europeans, despite their origins in the Levant and their bitter history of antisemitism in Europe. Clearly, the curriculum drafters have absorbed current absurd categorisations based on purported power structures, race and gender.

 Most Jewish immigrants came to the US  as huddled masses fleeing European oppression. Past generations fought long and hard for acceptance and opportunity in US society, while relatives who remained in the Old Country were brutally murdered in the Holocaust.

Such is the current vogue for identity politics, however, that Ashkenazi Jews in the US are being gaslighted into identifying as ‘white’ if they personally have not experienced marginalization and discrimination.

 The majority Ashkenazim have been made to feel guilty for ‘Ashkenormativity’ and unconscious bias towards ‘black’ Jews and ‘Jews of colour’. But infighting between sections of the Jewish community, real or imagined, pales before the experience of Mizrahi Jews, driven from the Arab and Muslim Middle East. Their oppression is the key to understanding the main drivers of the conflict with Israel – an Arab and Muslim inability to tolerate difference, to co-exist with minorities, and an abhorrence for any exercise of Jewish power. Yet teaching about Arab and Muslim anti-minority bigotry is taboo.

 In the Western progressive mind, bound into the postmodern conceptual straitjacket, only Palestinians can be victims. The Mizrahi Jews are airbrushed out of public discourse.The lived experience of Mizrahi Jews has already been erased from universities, unless they can be weaponsied against Zionist Ashkenazim. Now they are in danger of being erased from school curricula.

The war over the Californian curriculum is not over. Let's hope truth and common sense will prevail.

Read article in full

Friday, August 28, 2020

What happened on 20 August 1955 in Morocco?

With thanks: Ariel and Jean-Pierre

The 20th August 1955 marked two years since the sultan of Morocco, the future Mohamed V, was deposed. The period leading up to Moroccan independence in 1956 was one of great turmoil and hostility to the French, the colonial power.  According to the historian Robert Assaraf, the entire French population of 50 in Boujade was massacred; 14 French technicians working at the mines of Aït Ammar were also murdered.

The unrest spilled over against the Jews. At Oued Zem, five Jews died and six were injured, five homes were set on fire and two shops looted. In Ouezzane, demonstrations for the return of the sultan took an anti-Jewish turn and four Jews were injured, and 20 homes and shops burnt and looted. At Kenitra the Alliance school was demolished and at Boujad, an old man was killed in the street. There were even disturbances in Agadir. In Mazagan, a Jewish woman was knifed to death by an Arab rioter, the Alliance school was attacked  and 20 houses in the mellah were set on fire and looted. The entire panic-stricken population of 1,500 Jews was evacuated from the mellah the following day, and rehoused in a sports hall.

At Safi, which did not have a mellah, 12 homes were attacked and looted. Soly Azran remembers those fateful days well. His father Raphael had already gathered planks of wood and steel bars, and other material for self-defence. He and his two eldest sons had begun fortifying the house, fearing a massacre. They hammered in nails and steel joists into the front door and pushed up heavy furniture to block the entrance to the inner patio.

View of Safi

They also barricaded the windows. "My father explained to Jacky, my 11-year-old brother and myself, all of nine years old, how we should protect the girls and the baby in the house. He armed us with an iron rod and a leather belt to use on its reverse side.

As shabbat fell, our defences had been completed and we felt quite secure. Raphael was very calm but the situation was tense, precarious,  and we really feared for our lives. But my father, with his Israeli past, knew how to fight back and not necessarily panic. Child that I was, I understood he meant business against  anyone who dared approach our house."

The family observed the Sabbath at home, as it was too risky to go out to the synagogue. Outside there were screams and curses against the  French protectorate. More noise on Saturday morning as people ran this way and that. Stones were hurled at the house.Two neighbours decided to stand guard outside, until the trouble was over.

Raphael refused to open the door to the French police, who came to inform him that his shops and workshop had been burnt down. He would not go down with them to salvage what was left - it was Shabbat.

When Shabbat was out, Jacky and Soly were left proudly in charge at home while Raphael went to investigate the damage. Soly soaked his shirt with tears of relief when he heard his father returning home.

Out of the wreckage of his businesses Raphael produced from his pocket his war booty, a pair of tailor's scissors."I found my scissors," he announced." I have my hands, I'm alive,  my family is with me -and I didn't break Shabbat! We will rebuild it all!"

Soly still has the scissors.

From the 'Généalogie des juifs marocains'  Facebook page.

More about Safi

Thursday, August 27, 2020

My James Bond-style escape from Iraq: Part 3

Desperate to leave Iraq under the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein,  in November 1970 Lisette Shashoua Ades was finally given the opportunity to escape the country with the help of Kurdish smugglers, and out to freedom in Iran. Here is the third, and final part of her story. Click here for Part I and here for Part II.

I owe my freedom to the family of Haim and Amal Rejwan who accepted to take me with them as they fled. I owe even more to my dear Aunty Marcelle Shamash ( Bekhor) who persuaded my Dad that she would protect and take me under her wing. That helped appease my Father who saw how more desperate I was becoming everyday by lingering on.

Aunty Marcelle and I went to al Naher Street to buy ourselves the black abbaya to blend with the locals ...I had to shorten mine. Our escape luckily was an easy one with a little snag. Haim Rejwan left on the 5th of November 1970, the reason being, if he got caught; We the women and the kids would not be hurt.

That day, Aunty Marcelle and I went with my father to the Khalastchi house (Amal ‘s parents) where Amal, Salman, Yasmeen and baby Frank were waiting for us to leave together. At the Khalastchis, someone mentioned that there was an abortive coup d’état in the north of Iraq (whether that was true or not). It was enough for my dad to halt the whole operation and we all went back to our homes.

Upon my return home that day, a letter had arrived from Canada informing us about the birth of baby Tamara to my sister Hilda and her husband Freddy Rejwan; a new niece to both myself and to Haim Rejwan, since Freddy was Haim’s brother. Tamara was born on  23 October  but since we had stopped using telegrams to avoid any misinterpretation by the censors, we only got the news two weeks later by mail.

 I did not expect my dad to allow me to leave the following day.  I still see it asyet another miracle that he did. It  must be because he saw Amal and Aunty Marcelle’s determination.

 The following day was a different setup. I again said goodbye to my parents and grandmother, really not knowing when and if I would ever see them again. My mum's last words of advice which she stoically gave me with a brave smile, was: “Always wear Lipstick” “and “Always stand straight”. I managed to follow her first recommendation, but I must admit that I am still trying to master the second !

 I left with my driver s license, my University ID, a small suitcase and my abbaya. I only had 60 dinars with me because my dad was afraid that if we got caught and they found too much money on us they would know that we were escaping.

 Our wonderful, albeit temperamental, driver Samuel took me to a Nafarat taxi station. We had to arrive at the exact time that a particular taxi driver was scheduled to leave the station to drive to Erbil because he was one of the people helping us escape.

 When I got out of our car I must have been wearing Aunty Marcelle’ s abbaya since it was too long and I was tripping all over it. I could barely see what was around me - then someone from behind touched my shoulder and told me, “go to the right, the black car”.

I still do not know who it was. I felt like I was in a James Bond movie! Luckily,  I saw Amal talking to someone by a big black car and proceeded to join her. In the meantime, an army officer was about to join us in that taxi, had it not been for sweet baby Frank crying loudly. The army officer, upon hearing the cries, ran off  to take a quieter car, to the relief of all of us, including the taxi driver. This time,  our taxi driver took matters into his own hands: he recruited a big Kurdish man to ride along with us. Thus the unsuspecting Kurd appeared to be the head of our family, sitting up front, and we women and kids sat in the back.

 We knew we had to cross eight checkpoints before we arrived in the safety of Kurdistan.When we reached  the first checkpoint, bristling with army militia, baby Frank was still crying. They had one peek at the car, heard the hollering and let us go.  Amal, Aunty Marcelle and I thanked God and prayed. At the second checkpoint, our lucky charm baby Frank was asleep angelically across our laps this time. Again they waved us through.  We prayed gratefully again.  At the  third checkpoint they only asked the men for their ID papers: the taxi driver and the unsuspecting Kurdish papa. Each time we passed a checkpoint, all us ladies in the back would pray in gratitude!

 We finally arrived in Erbil four hours later. The nervous taxi driver told us that we were safe now, and that he was taking us to his house until we were picked up.  Trembling, he told us how he was wishing he could fly the car during the whole four-hour drive! In his shack,  he introduced us to his timid wife and children.

 His wife prepared chicken swimming in some greasy oily broth for us. I was always a fussy eater at home, yet this time, I was so grateful for their help that I closed my eyes and nose, and ate to show my gratitude and appreciation. Amal and Aunty Marcelle could not eat!

 I later sang a few lullabies to the driver’s children while rocking his son. I finally earned some smiles from his scared wife.

Since no one had 'phones in the north, the driver had no idea if and when Kader was ever coming to pick us up. He told us that it might be a few hours or maybe days. He kept pacing back and forth. I realize now that it must have been this driver 's first time working with Kader, who was a more experienced and confident smuggler. Kader arrived around 9 pm, five long hours after we got to Erbil.

We were relieved to see him. He told us that he was taking us to Haim Rejwan, Amal's husband.  Haim had been worried sick because we had not arrived the day before as we were scheduled to,  and there was no way to communicate that to him. Once we got in the car, Kader gave us Muslim names in case we were questioned: “you are Fatima”,  “you are Khadija “, ” you are Ahmad.“ He gave the kids Muslim names too and kept quizzing all of us with the new names.

 We drove a while and arrived in Kurdistan where Haim was. I believe he was staying with Massoud El Barazani Junior (future president of Kurdistan) at the time. Haim was really distraught because of our delay and the Kurds were trying to appease him by saying, “we told you they were coming “we told you not to worry.” “Here they are, see, they are safe and sound! “

 Azoury Attar was with Haim waiting for us too. We all got into a jeep along with Kader while a Pesh Merga fighter was driving. There was no road and no lights, it was dark wilderness, and since there was no satellite navigation, at some point Kader and his partner lost the way in the wilderness. Lo and behold an Iraqi army car appeared.  They seemed to know Kader. They asked him what he was doing so late at night.  He told them that he was taking the family for a spin! Phew  - another narrow escape ...prayers again. Eventually they took us to a hotel with no tiles on the floor; they gave us clean blankets.

We all slept fully dressed on cushions on the floor and were woken up around 2 am.  We were taken to Darband and to the khashba, a log of wood we had heard about in Baghdad marking the border between Kurdistan and Iran. To us, this log represented our freedom. We got to the border, and the huge log I had imagined was nothing but a thin tree branch that a man pushed over with one hand. Freedom was beckoning just beyond that branch.

But they soon sent us back, telling us hat the proper authorities and the sochnut (Jewish Agencyin Iran should first be informed about our arrival before we could cross. Luckily it only took a few hours and we were back before dawn. This time,  the tree branch (khashba)  had been moved aside. wow, what a thrill! FREEDOM just a few feet away.

It was time to send the code back to Baghdad to say we arrived safely. The code was  a note worth a quarter of a dinar torn in two halves. My dad kept one half and once we arrived, Amal was supposed to send the other half with Kader to take back to my Dad. But it was dark and windy, so the quarter dinar note flew away. Amal wrote a message saying that the quarter note  had flown away and that a baby boy was delivered easily (meaning it was an easy crossing). If she had written” a girl was born”, it would have meant that it had been  a difficult crossing!

We finally crossed to Iran and arrived at  Khana. At once we saw pictures of the Shah of Iran and the beautiful Farah Diba. In spite of that, Haim needed reassurance that we were actually in Iran He broke down in tears when we were told,” yes, you are now in Iran.”

 I left Iran for Israel on 2 January 1971. On the flight to Israel, who do I find myself sitting next to on the 'plane? None other than the founder of our Baghdad school, Mr Frank Iny himself and his lovely wife Mouzly.  What a coincidence! We attended Frank Iny school without ever knowing what he looked like (unless you were detained at the Principle’s office and maybe caught a glimpse of  what we thought was his picture).

 Frank Iny left Iraq soon after he opened the school in 1951. His children and grandchildren grew up in Europe and the United States : they never attended the school their father had built. Ironically, neither Frank Iny’s immediate family, nor the tightly-onded family of at least 1, 000 students and alumni of Frank Iny School got to know each other ! On the short one hour flight, I found Frank Iny to be a giant of a man, yet kind and gentle. Tomy delight, he even knew my parents well! I learned my first Hebrew word from him when we touched down in Israel: bahnou  - meaning, we arrived! We had arrived in Israel.

Lisette resettled in Montreal and became a flight attendant with Air Canada.

Epilogue:  It was ironic how I could fly anywhere in the world, but I could not go back to Iraq to see my parents since I was now denationalized, like every Iraqi Jew living outside Iraq.

 I often had terrifying nightmares of going back to Baghdad just to see my parents on a 24-hour layover and getting stuck trying to find a family to escape with again. Now now there was no one left to flee with anymore, since almost all the Jews had left.

Finally a miracle took place after a ten-year war with Iran ended. Iraq lifted the ban on travel and even granted passports to the seventy remaining Jews. My parents, who resisted escaping in order to remain Iraqi nationals in the futile hope of salvaging even a few of their properties, decided to apply for a passport  and come out to visit us.

The first time I heard them on the 'phone, after twenty long years, I could not recognise my own mother or father’s voices! They came to London and were visiting us in Montreal with the intention of going back to Iraq. They truly believed that everything was going to open up, in the same was as the ban on travel from Iraq had been lifted.  Saddam, however, had other plans: he invaded Kuwait and the rest is history ...

The war on Iraq, Desert Storm, broke out. This time, w put our collective foot down and insisted that our parents forfeit all they owned and not go back. My dad Menashy was eighty years old when he came to Canada. His entire wealth remained frozen in Iraq! None of the children of my grandfather Shaul Shashoua nor those of my equally wealthy grandfather Eliahou Meir Heskel Haim were able to enjoy their families’ fortunes.

Not only did my parents come out with nothing,  they missed out on every happy occasion in our family for more than twenty years. They were not able to attend any of their daughters’ weddings nor enjoy the births of any of their four grandchildren. They were still stuck in Baghdad at all the Bar- and Bat Mitzvahs of my nieces and nephews. They only got to meet their grandchildren, Kevin, Carol, Tamara and Dan, after they became teenagers. The tragedy was that they were strangers to each other:they had to get acquainted.

 We survived Iraq and the humiliations and persecutions, but our emotional and financial suffering did take a toll on our family.

Yes, there was one more happy occasion my parents were able to attend. On 3 August 1993, they actually walked me down the aisle when I married Albert Ades, who was accompanied by his parents Suzette and Jacques.

Lisette and Albert Ades on their wedding day

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Moroccan prime minister rejects normalisation with Israel

Update: Moroccan prime minister walks back his anti-normalisation comments (Times of Israel)

In the wake of reports that Morocco might be next to make a peace accord with Israel following the momentous announcemnent of peace with the UAE, the Moroccan prime minister has moved to scotch the rumours, according to this i24 News report. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo is due to visit the region. 

Saad Dine el Othmani: no peace with Israel

Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Dine El Otmani on Sunday rejected the prospect of normalizing ties with Israel, shooting down rumors his state would be one of the next to ink an agreement with Jerusalem.

“We refuse any normalization with the Zionist entity because this emboldens it to go further in breaching the rights of the Palestinian people,”

El Otmani told his Islamist PJD party as cited by Reuters. Morocco has been one of the Arab nations rumored to normalize relations with Jerusalem, following the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) steps.

“Both states have extensive tourism, and trade and economic relations,” an unnamed UAE advisor told Hebrew-language daily Israel Hayom after the Israel-UAE deal was announced.

Read article in full

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

NY Times features artist with a longing for Iraq

It might not be art, but it's a good stunt. Long feature in the New York Times capturing the nostalgia of one American artist with Iraq-Jewish roots for a country where he has never been. Michael Rakowitz made an artwork called Return out of his grandfather Nissim Daoud's import-export business. 

The American-led invasion of Iraq, in 2003, had a momentous effect on him. “I was split down the middle,” he told me. “The place that my grandparents had fled from was being bombed by the place that they had fled to.”

As coalition bombs fell on Baghdad, he recalled his teen-age experience of the 1991 Gulf War—how, during a run of CNN programming, his mother, Yvonne, had remarked, “You know, there are no Iraqi restaurants in New York.” The comment stuck. In 2001, during the invasion of Afghanistan, New Yorkers had showed solidarity by lining up at an Afghan café called Khyber Pass; at the onset of the Iraq War, two years later, there was no comparable place to go. This absence seemed to touch on a deeper cultural invisibility—one that had made it easier to initiate the attack and harder to heal its wounds.

Rakowitz's Lamassu (winged Assyrian protective spirit) made of date cans, erected in Trafalgar Square, London

In response, Rakowitz enlisted Yvonne and launched his first culinary intervention, “Enemy Kitchen,” cooking Iraqi dishes and teaching recipes. The more he explored Iraq as a subject, the more his art drew on his associations with it. The following year, he and Yvonne had a series of intense conversations about his grandfather. Nissim Daoud had died when Rakowitz was young, but the two shared a deep bond. “They were like one heartbeat,” Yvonne recalled. Rakowitz’s first playthings were Daoud’s worry beads; when he was a teen-ager, his mother gave them to him, along with Daoud’s electric razor. “His hairs were in there,” Rakowitz told me. “I was breathless. It was an instant memorial.

 When Rakowitz reopened Daoud’s import-export company, in 2004, he was interested in the human dimensions of trade with a war-torn society. “I wanted to show how a system worked, but I didn’t feel like I needed to be an objective, disembodied voice,” he said. His title, “Return,” hinted at a personal yearning. The items he shipped had, like him, never been in Iraq; could one think of them going back?

“Return,” which began as a rented mailbox in Queens, grew into a career-defining project. One day in 2006, Rakowitz was in Brooklyn, shopping in Sahadi’s, the grocery on Atlantic Avenue where his grandparents had shopped, when he encountered a can labelled “Second House Products Date Syrup.”

 He was intrigued. His grandfather had made date syrup with a mortar and pestle; later, his children bought it imported. When Rakowitz took the can to the register, Charlie Sahadi told him, “Your mother’s going to love this. It’s from Baghdad.” Rakowitz looked at the label: “Product of Lebanon.” Baffled, he asked how that could be, and Sahadi explained that it was a marketing deception, begun before the 2003 invasion, to circumvent sanctions.

Dates—once Iraq’s second-largest export—were smuggled across the border, labelled, then shipped onward. After Saddam’s fall, the practice continued amid wartime restrictions. Rakowitz wondered if he could use his grandfather’s company to import the dates and sell them with their identity unmasked. The fact that Iraq had a barely functional government and was mired in war only made the idea more alluring; the shipment would have to overcome the obstacles that people faced.

He returned to Sahadi’s, seeking advice.“It’s really bad business,” Charlie Sahadi said. 

“I know,” Rakowitz said. “But it’s really good art.”

Monday, August 24, 2020

The UAE needs Jews as a bulwark against Islamism

This Jewish Chronicle article by the Emirati ambassador to the UK,  Mansoor Abulhoul, emphasises that a common front against Iran is not the only motivation behind the peace accord with Israel. The UAE needs to build a 'tolerant' and pluralistic society including different faith communities to serve as a bulwark against Islamism.  (But as this article by Michael Bassin shows, the philosemitic Emiratis only make up 17 percent of the population).  (With thanks: Lily)

The UAE and Israel flags flying in the city of Netanya (Photo: Flash 90)

 Last week’s announcement of a peace treaty between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is an historic event and momentous step on a path towards peace that the UAE began many years ago. Peaceful, normal relations will benefit both countries, as well as stopping the annexation of land in the West Bank, thus keeping alive the possibility of a Palestinian state.

One of the benefits is to help move the Arab world away from a relentless focus on fighting those who are of different faiths or backgrounds from our own.

A similar change has taken place in the position of the Jewish community within the UAE. Although Jews have been coming to live and work in the country for many years, they have kept a low profile. There was a hesitation even to reach out to other Jews, such was the uncertainty about whether they could fully celebrate their faith and identity. Things are changing fast.

Last year Celebrating Tolerance, a book edited by Andrew Thompson, canon of the UAE’s Anglican church, told the story of the UAE’s fledgling Jewish community. A chief rabbi has been appointed to administer to the Jewish community. As that Rabbi, Yehuda Sarna, has written elsewhere, he has “represented the Jewish community among other religious leaders in the region; participated in research-action groups on violent extremism; shot videos for the Ministry of Culture; dialogue with the architects and designers of the Abrahamic Family House and spoke at a National Day of Prayer addressing the pandemic. ”

All of this is happening with the strong support of the UAE’s leadership, which celebrated 2019 as our official Year of Tolerance. This philosophy was central to the outlook of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, one of the architects of the UAE. Without it, he said, “no rapport can be maintained between friends and brothers”. Intolerant ideology has given us nothing but the ruin and violence that wracks parts of our region.

Indeed, the presence of thriving religious and ethnic communities living among us helps us to ensure our young people are not lured by the embittered supremacism of the Islamist cause.

Emiratis are brought up to be well-rounded individuals who revere their own traditions whilst appreciating all others. They feel entirely at home in a place like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a universal museum where the products of all civilisations and different faiths are displayed together. And they will be proud of the Abrahamic Family House, an extraordinary new national monument that is due to be finished by 2022. An interfaith complex like no other, it will be a beautiful garden containing Jewish, Muslim and Christian houses of worship. The synagogue will be completely unlike the low-profile one that has operated behind anonymous walls in Dubai.

Located on prime land next to the Louvre, this new synagogue is intended to be seenf. And it will soon be joined, if all goes well, by an Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi.

The path towards normalisation will not be straightforward. There is much left to negotiate. The rights of the Palestinian people must be secured. We will continue to fight for their statehood and dignity.

But in spite of our disagreements, we view peace and dialogue as the means to achieving a more stable and secure Middle East. If we can raise our children in peace and tolerance, the Middle East can escape from its dark period of conflict and crisis and we can together build a better future.

Read article in full

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Iranian Jews who joined the Islamic revolution

Lior Sternfeld, author of "Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran” (Stanford University Press, 2018) is not best pleased with Tehran, the new Israeli Netflix series, because it shows a Jew putting family before loyalty to the Iranian revolution. The downfall of the Shah of Iran, he tells Ofer Aderet of Haaretz, was supported by 'a great majority' of Jews. It is true that Jews have always been active in revolutionary movements (the Russian revolution, the FLN in Algeria, etc) but Sternfeld is in danger of exaggerating Jewish support of for change -  and whitewashing the oppressive antisemitism of the Islamic revolution. (Sternfeld has form here). The revolution caused untold suffering to Jews, claimed the lives of dozens, dispossessed them of their property and forced the great majority into exile without bothering to establish what their politics were.

Protesters attacking the offices of El Al in 1978

On the eve of the revolution they saw themselves as an integral part of the Iranian nation and identified with the people’s struggle for democracy, independence, freedom and equality. Sternfeld describes how many of them experienced the shah’s tyranny and his dictatorship as Iranians, not only as Jews.

 From there the way was short to their integration in diverse political groups and organizations, whose common denominator was their opposition to the shah’s authoritarian monarchic regime. This was the background to the establishment of the organization of Jewish intellectuals in Iran in 1978, which gave expression to the Jews’ dissatisfaction with the monarchical regime.

The organization immediately started to cooperate with other revolutionary factions, including Muslim activists. “We formed this group in order to show the rest of the people in Iran that we Jews were not woven from a different fabric of society than other Iranians, but that we also supported goals for democracy and freedom,” Said Banayan, one of the organization’s founders, told Sternfeld.

The author sees this as an example that illustrates well that the Jews “stood shoulder to shoulder with their compatriots and placed the national need ahead of the needs of the community.”

Aderet:   There is an irony here. It was the shah who drew the minorities, including the Jews, closer to Iranian nationalism, and then they joined the 1979 revolution in order to topple the regime. Accordingly, you title the chapter dealing with this “Unintended Consequences.”

 “Correct. The shah’s nationalism project scored a success to the point where the Jews were able to think of themselves first of all as Iranians, and to go into the streets in protest against the situation of the Iranians, and not only to think about relations between the shah and the Jews. The great majority of the Jews were against the continuation of the monarchy and supported the looming revolution.” There were also Jews who participated actively in the fighting, though their exact number is unknown. Some of them did so within the framework of their activity in Iranian professional organizations or in explicitly Jewish organizations.

Others were active in organizations that were almost wholly Muslim and that supported the revolution. One of those organizations was Mujahedin-e Khalq (People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran). One of the Jewish activists in the organization was Edna Sabet, who was born in 1955 to a Tehran Jewish family from the urban middle class, and many of whose relatives were engineers and industrialists who acquired their education in the United States.

 During her years of study at Ariyamehr Technical University in Tehran, Sabet began to become involved in political activity. Subsequently, in the wake of her Muslim husband, she joined the Mujahedin and became a prominent figure in the movement. The members of the movement fought alongside the revolutionaries against the shah’s oppressive regime, but after the revolution they were denied the right to take part in the elections and they opposed the new regime and were persecuted by it.

Among those who suffered that fate was Sabet: She was arrested and executed in 1982, at the age of 27. What was a left-wing Jewish woman doing in an Islamic revolutionary organization in the first place? “Despite her tragic end, her story illustrates another aspect in the complex weave of identities and loyalties that characterized many of those from her generation,” Sternfeld says.

Read article in full

Friday, August 21, 2020

Beirut blast caused superficial damage to synagogue

Point of No Return exclusive

 The massive blast which has devastaed the Beirut port area has caused superficial damage to the recently-restored Maghen Avraham synagogue, a mile away. These photos taken recently show that chunks of plasterboard fell from the ceiling, door frames and some window panes were blown put and there is dust and debris on the floor. (With thanks: Nagi)

Synagogue reportedly damaged in explosion

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The mystery of the persecuted Yemenite Jews unravelled

With thanks: Nomann

Update: Russian chief rabbi  was instrumental in arranging the al-Nati family's flight (Chabad)

In July, a story surfaced in an online Egyptian medium about Houthis in northern Yemen harassing and dispossessing Jews. The case was raised with a UK government minister by the Board of Deputies.

The story was hard to believe as they are so few Jews left in Yemen. It could have been propaganda to discredit the pro-Iranian Houthis.

On 8 August, another story surfaced, about a Jewish family from Yemen who were reunited in Abu Dhabi with members of their family from London in Abu Dhabi, at the emirate's expense. The family had not seen each other for 15 years.

Who were these Jews who had just come from Yemen? And why had they flown into Abu Dhabi?

Reunion of the al-Nati family at Abu Dhabi airport

Thanks to eagle-eyed Point of No Return reader Nomann, who spotted the backstory in  the Sparabia news medium, we can now put the two halves of the story together.

Saeed al-Nati, his disabled mother and three daughters lived in Amram in northern Yemen. The Houthis, who had  invaded the area in  2004, began to harass Saaed in order to make him leave.

He was jailed  in May for one month, but was released after committing to sell his home.  He and his family left for the capital Sana'a, where 33 Jews live in a compound, and then on to Aden, where he hoped to catch a flight out of the country.

Saaed was told that there were no flights out of the country because of the coronavirus  crisis. In any case, he was told that the only country that would take him would be Israel, as Yemeni passport holders  could not obtain a visa for any other Arab country.

Enter Abu Dhabi to the rescue. Photos clearly show the disabled mother in a wheelchair and Saeed's sons, wives and grandchildren from London embracing their sisters. Mindful of the impending announcing of the UAE peace deal with Israel, Abu Dhabi must have seen a golden photo-op to advertise the emirate's tolerance and pluralism.

According to the Sparabia report, the departure of the al-Nati family leaves just five Jews  - an old woman, her crazed brother and three others - in Amram province, where the market was once dominated by Jews. Together with the 33 Jews still in San'a that makes a total of 38 Jews in Yemen altogether.

Violence in Amran  made the remaining Jews leave in waves. In 2016, 17 members of one family arrived in Israel in a blaze of publicity carrying a Torah scroll which they claimed was a family heirloom.

The Houthis arrested two Jews and two Muslims for facilitating the smuggling of a 'national' treasure. One Jew was released  after three months, but they kept the other, Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, in jail.

A court of first instance acquitted Levi Marhabi and the Muslims, but eighteen months later, Levi Marhabi is still in jail.

Marbahi suffered a stroke that caused paralysis in half his body. His deteriorating health prompted Elan Carr, US antisemitism tsar, to appeal for his release.

Nevertheless, the Houthi-run prosecution has refused to accept all the guarantees provided to them for his release until such time as the case is heard by the Court of Appeal.

Syrian Hebrew bibles to stay in Israel's National Library

A tug-of-war between the Syrian Jewish communities and the Israeli government has long been waged over the the precious medieval bibles or Codices rescued from  Aleppo and Damascus. According to the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli court has now ruled that the Damascus keter, or crown, is a ' treasure of the Jewish people' and belongs in The Israel National Library. It may be argued that this is the best place for it, as the Syrian Jewish community is dispersed between Israel and the diaspora.

A quarter century after Israeli spies, a Canadian activist and a Syrian rabbi smuggled nine rare medieval Jewish manuscripts out of Damascus, an Israeli court decided the books will remain under the National Library’s custodianship for their preservation.

 The decision ends a protracted legal battle over the ownership of the Damascus Crowns, illuminated Bibles written on parchment that belonged to the Syrian capital’s Jewish community for centuries until they were secreted to Israel in the 1990s.

 The Jerusalem District Court ruled Monday the books were “treasures of the Jewish people” that had “historic, religious and national importance” and must be preserved. The best way to do so would be to keep them at the National Library under a public trust, it ruled.

  Read article in full

Hebrew manuscripts from Syria go on rare display

A window on the murky world of the Aleppo Codex

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

US antisemitism tsar calls for release of Yemenite Jew

The United States special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism Elan Carr  has urged the Iranian regime-backed Houthi movement to release an illegally imprisoned member of Yemen’s tiny Jewish community. The Jerusalem Post reports: 

Benjamin Netanyau poses with the last members of the Yemenite community to arrive in Israel in 2016. They brought with them their family heirloom, a Torah scroll, which the Yemen authorities claim is 'national heritage.'

“The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have a record of persecuting religious minorities. Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a member of Yemen’s small Jewish community, has endured four years in prison despite a legal order for his release. We join in calling for his immediate release,” wrote Carr on Twitter.

 The Houthi movement has waged a civil war in Yemen to seize the country. The official slogan of the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah) reads "Allah is Greater, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.”

According to report by Ami Magazine, “In May 2016, a group of dazed but ecstatic Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel after a long trip that was the culmination of over two years of planning. Among their possessions was a very rare deerskin Sefer Torah, claimed by some to be 800 years old. The successful aliyah of this family angered the Yemeni authorities and their Iranian backers, and a young Jewish Yemenite named Levi Marhabi was arrested on suspicion of aiding the Jews’ departure with the scroll, which they consider a ‘national Yemeni treasure."'

  Read article in full

Monday, August 17, 2020

Remaining Yemen Jews 'to move to UAE' (report)

Following on from the bombshell news that the United Arab Emirates are to sign a peace agreeement with Israel, it would be a PR coup if the UAE were to show that is is a more congenial place to live for Jews than Israel, as this (unconfirmed) report in the Jerusalem Post infers:

Yemen Jews demonstrating in the capital Sana'a in 2009

Yemen’s remaining Jews plan to immigrate to Abu Dhabi following the peace deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported over the weekend.

The plan is to transfer 100 Jews to Abu Dhabi, a Yemeni rabbi told the pan-Arab media outlet headquartered in London, although past estimates placed the Jewish population in Yemen at about 50 people.

 In 2017, Yemeni Information Minister Moammer al-Iryani said the state of the 50 or so remaining Jews in the country was unknown.

The report was unconfirmed by any official source.

In July, Iranian-backed Houthis were said to be rounding up Yemeni Jews and pressuring them to leave, according to Egyptian reports. The Foreign Ministry denied the reports, as did Yemeni and international sources.

Some 40 Yemeni Jews have agreed to move to the UAE, and others are being persuaded to move by being told that they will not have any trouble integrating into Emirati society, Al-Araby reported, adding that the US government is said to have requested the move.

Read article in full

'Houthis arrest Yemeni Jews'

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Terror and persecution : my university years in Iraq, Part 2

In the second part of her story, Lisette Shashoua Ades describes the dark days of terror and oppression directed at the small Jewish community after the Six Day War. But in 1970, a small glimmer of  hope that she and other Jews might be able to escape Iraq, presented itself. (For Part I, 'Palaces, parties and racehorses: my childhood in Iraq', click here. For Part 3, click here. 

I have to stress the fact here, that us Jews, who chose to stay in Iraq after 1951, and after all the persecution, had nothing to do with Israel. We were too scared to mention the word Israel between ourselves, let alone out loud. We called it “ that place “ or even “the other London”. Magazines with the slightest article or picture about Israel were banned from being sold in Iraq since 1950. We grew up having no idea what Israel or Israelis looked like.

I once drew a few mini stars of David in the privacy of our living room - and immediately tore up the paper and threw it down the toilet; only for my Dad to discover a mini shred of paper that remained unflushed! He reacted with sheer terror; he rebuked me and told me that he would be sent to the gallows if anyone discovered that paper.

Unfortunately, we did have a maid,  Mariyam,  who lived with us. She  would invariably threaten to tell on us : "they listened to Radio Israel!” That was whenever my grandmother would accuse her of stealing anything  - and steal she did - .including a whole Persian carpet which she proudly had hanging on her wall. We actually had a spy living with us:  of course,  we did not dare sack her! I could not stand her, yet she stayed with my parents till they themselves left Iraq, .and she probably stole whatever she could carry to her house after they left.

We were members of the Mansour club and YMCA where we went swimming. At the Menahem Daniel playground (Malaab) , we played tennis, ping pong, volleyball and basketball and also socialized with each other. We became members of the Acropolis, a Greek club, where we played Bingo, had dinner and started to attend dancing and New Year parties. We had dancing parties in our homes where we twisted to Chubby Checker, rocked to Elvis, swooned to Adamo and Enrico Macias and danced to the Beatles.

In February 1963 Abdul Karim Kassem (the co-instigator of the 1958 revolution) was killed by his former partner Abdul Salam Aref. The Ba'ath party immediately started to restrict Jews from many activities, including travel. Now, not only the properties of the denationalized Jews outside Iraq were frozen, but the properties of us Jews living in Iraq as Iraqi nationals were also frozen!

 Then the Six Day War broke out. Israel won the war. To retaliate against Israel, Iraq tightened the pressure even more on the 3,000 helpless Jews still living there. On the very first day of the war, all the clubs we helped build such as the Mansour, the Acropolis, and even the YMCA expelled all “ undesirable members” - with all our names listed outside their closed doors. Our playground - the Menahem Daniel Malaab” which belonged to the Jewish Community - was immediately closed and confiscated.

 The regime cut off all our telephones immediately after the war; they did not admit Jews at universities anymore, and those who were already attending university, like myself at Al Hikma, were constantly reminded that we could be kicked out any day. Some of my Jewish classmates were harassed, beaten, detained and even imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

 The new government revoked all Jewish commercial licenses; they kicked out all Jews from employment and instructed all businesses to fire their Jewish employees. They froze all Jewish assets including our moneys in the bank. Jews were only allowed to withdraw 100 dinars a month from their own bank accounts for expenses!

 Unemployment insurance did not exist in Iraq, so the employees who were kicked out of their jobs had no money left to live on. They were too proud to admit it, until their children were fainting from hunger at school. The school administration, spearheaded by two wonderful ladies, started organizing food baskets for the families.

 On 3 January 1968 my dear grandfather Eliahou Meir Heskel Haim passed away from cancer. Even though he had a legal will, the Ba'ath Party decided that inheritance is determined according to Moslem law. In Moslem law, every male member inherits twice the amount of his sisters. Since my mother’s three sisters and two brothers were outside Iraq and already de-nationalized: my mother’s share was one eighth of the house; the Iraqi government confiscated the stakes  of her siblings and became the senior partner with my grandmother and mother. So, in 1968, my mom and grandma, in order to continue living in the house that my grandparents had built in 1927, were ordered to pay rent to the government for the stakes of my mother's de-nationalized siblings.

 Matters deteriorated so badly that a passing car in the night would cause me to wake up, kneel and pray that the car should not stop at our house and turn our lives into an even worse predicament!

 It got so bad that my mother and I bought sleeping pills to commit suicide if ever they came to arrest us. If someone disliked a Jew in his neighbourhood, all he had to do was denounce him or her as a spy to the authorities. This was a good enough reason to arrest that poor soul who was pronounced guilty from the outset, never given a chance to prove himself innocent.

 I placed a book of tehilim (psalms) under my pillow and started to teach myself to read the three paragraphs of Shema Israel It took me an hour and a half the first time to read it aloud. Each night I slowly advanced my pace.

 In 1968, the random arrests intensified, men were tortured until they confessed that they were spies. (I will withhold from describing the gory details). I was told by one of the survivors that the jail relied on an East German doctor to determine how much each individual could endure without dying!

Many died from the torture regardless, and they were reported on the radio as 'escapees'. Many of the Jewish prisoners gave in to the torture or to the fact that  their wives, daughters or sisters were being raped in front of them; the prisoners falsely admitted to spying even though they were innocent to spare their loved ones, or themselves, further torture. Many refused categorically to give in. Unfortunately, they were doomed to the same fate anyway. They were all murdered!

 All these arrests and tortures culminated in a mock “Mickey Mouse” trial in December of 1968 and January 1969. The defendants were not allowed to have their own lawyer; the State appointed a lawyer for them who further incriminated them as spies for Israel. The verdict was death by hanging.This verdict was carried out on the same night as it was announced.

 We woke up on the morning of 27 January 1969. To our horror, we found out that fourteen innocent men were hanged in Liberation Square. Ten of them were Jewish! At least three victims were less than eighteen years of age. The Iraqi courts jacked up their ages to make it legal for them to be hanged. These teenagers were accused of blowing up a bridge that was still standing. Furthermore, they were tried for blowing that bridge back in 1962, meaning that they were less than ten years old when they committed this nonexistent crime!

The hangings in Baghdad, January 1969

 Anyone with a brain could immediately deduce that all these wild accusations were fake! Yet the Iraqi mobs so hungry for blood, decided to buy into these blatant lies. The country went into a frenzy of jubilation. Thousands of Iraqis, little girls dressed in glitter running to the square, danced and chanted in the streets around the dead bodies. Women were actually breast-feeding their babies and picnicking in front of the dangling corpses of those poor innocent martyrs.The radio was blaring that the country was now rid of their spies. It encouraged the public to continue denouncing the fifth column!

 The horrors of that day would be forever emblazoned in the DNA of every Jew who was in Iraq and who lived through this trauma. What made things worse for me, was that we were amongst the lucky ones to still be attending University. It was a double-edged sword since we were in constant fear of being kicked out, or worse, especially since we had to pass through a military zone every day on our way to university and our car was stopped at a checkpoint.

 We were in the midst of our mid-term exams so it was mandatory to go to University that day. I wrongly rationalized in my head that since we were going to be amongst the educated, surely the other students could tell that all these spy stories were fabricated.

 It did not help.  I was the first of five  Jewish students to be picked up that day by the taxi driver we had hired for the school year. He had just returned from the square and was ecstatic. He proceeded with a happy smile to describe the corpses he just saw...I could not scream or show my horror to him in case he thought that I too was a spy, yet, I dared ask him to refrain from further gory descriptions.

 We arrived at the university after a long, forty-minute ride of silent tears and furtive exchanged glances, only to be greeted with banners applauding the hangings and demanding more such acts from the government from our so-called friends and university colleagues. What is more, they were looking at  us laughing! The expressions of utter glee and happiness of these supposed friends, whom we had often tutored and fraternized with, will be forever etched in my mind. I  will neither forgive nor forget.

We were horrified, yet we were too terrified to show our grief. Had  we done so, it would only mean (in the mob’s mind) that we sympathised with the so-called “spies” and therefore must definitely be one of them ourselves! When Israel protested that none of these people were its spies and a world outcry ensued denouncing these fake accusations, the Iraqi government defiantly answered that it had enough Jews to hang all of us. You can just imagine the heightened atmosphere of terror that dominated our daily existence after that horrid day.

 In order to get rid of his enemies, Saddam Hussein found it was more convincing  to hang a few Jews as scapegoats  along with his real enemies; this would make it more plausible for the public to believe ...and believe they did.

There was some international pressure on Iraq after this to stop these fake trials, yet the reign of terror and the hangings continued (with a few less public spectacles). Eventually, a year later, a small window of opportunity for the Jews to escape presented itself when Iraq and Kurdistan reached a temporary, semi-truce  in 1970.

 The Iraqi government decided to turn  a blind eye  and let the Jews leave illegally. Apart from the fact that they were paid for each and every one who left,  they could now seize all Jewish assets and possessions with impunity. In August 1970, a hundred and fifty Jews (many of them my close friends and classmates) travelled to the north of the country looking for ways to escape:they were all rounded up in northern Iraq and  Kurdistan, brought back to Baghdad and were imprisoned in the Ba ha'i center which the government had recently confiscated.

Our dear and close friends and their families; Linda Schemtob, Albert Sleeman, Edna and Vera Dallal, my cousins Solly and Abood Abdulezer, Dora Yamen and her brothers, Laurette and William Nourallah - they were all incarcerated along with their families. Needless to say,  how shocked and worried we were.

 Freddy Sheena, my close friend Laurette’s brother, was also missing. His mother Salima went up North to look for him, she too got arrested. While we were commiserating together, Laurette told me: “ as black as it is now, I still feel we will leave soon.” Somehow,  that was enough to awaken a glimmer of hope for me as well.

 My mom who stayed behind, told me later that Mrs Alkabir took a chance and wrote to her brother- in-law in Paris; she listed all the names of the people in prison . He in turn, informed Alain Poher , a senator in charge of a French human rights committee. When Alain Poher confronted the Iraqis, they denied having any Jewish prisoners, until  Poher showed them the list that Mrs Alkabir had sent - and demanded that Iraq free them. Three weeks later, Gamal Abdul Nasser died, and miraculously all the 150 detained Jews, including Freddy and his mother, were freed one day before Rosh Hashanah.

What a relief. What a miracle! I went hopping from house to house to hug my cousins and friends who were freed that day. Upon their release, they told us that  the Amen ( national guards)  were vicious to some of them, yet  being together  still  gave them comfort. There were some terrifying instances when they were all being questioned, some were forced to sign false statements about connections to Israel. Others told us  that they flushed their jewellery down the drain in case they were accused of smuggling what belonged to them,  or squeezed antique watches into the cracks of a sofa while being questioned. Some stories were funny, but of course only after the fact.  We heard how one of the boys put an address in his mouth and swallowed it. When she saw this, the young lady beside him, asked him if he could swallow her gold sovereign as well!

Rosh Hashanah was the day after the release of all our friends and dear ones. We went to the Meer Elias synagogue to pray and give thanks for their safety, with renewed faith, and yes - hope! ! By now, I had learnt the three paragraphs of Shema Israel and I recited them by heart in the synagogue. 

All the Jews were gearing up to leave Iraq, but my parents and grandmother Sarah Khatoun Shamash  were hoping that one day soon, they would be able to sell some of their frozen properties. They made the futile decision to stay in Iraq and not flee in order not to lose everything. I, on the other hand, had my whole future as well as possibly my own life to lose if I stayed. It was a no brainer; I had no choice, but to leave! Both my parents and I knew that I was endangering my own life as well as theirs if I escaped  - but we operated out of desperation!

I owe my freedom to the family of Haim and Amal Rejwan who accepted to take me with them as they fled.

To be continued

Friday, August 14, 2020

Peace deal signed as UAE Jewish community grows

The agreement reached between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to 'normalise' relations is the most historic since Israel signed peace deals with Egypt and Jordan.

 Through the ages, there were never many Jews living in the Gulf, but a modern expatriate community has been steadily growing, and in 2019, came out openly as an official community. Today the community has two synagogues. The Talmud Torah has 40 children.

A historic sight in Dubai

 In his travels in the Middle Ages documenting Jewish communities, one of the towns that Benjamin of Tudela reported as having a Jewish community was in  Kis, located in Ras al-Khaimah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE. Modern Ras Al Khaimah covers an area of 656 square miles (1700 km²) in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

 Rabbi Marc Schneier estimates that about 150 families and up to 3,000 Jews live in the UAE.


 This three-minute video produced by the UAE Jewish community in June 2020 has gained about 60,000 views. It is a Hebrew prayer chanted for the welfare of the rulers and armed forces of the UAE. (With thanks: Rachel).

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Palaces, parties and racehorses: my childhood in Iraq, Pt I

Lisette Shashoua Ades and her parents were among the few thousand Jews who stayed on in  Iraq after the mass emigration of the 1950s. She escaped the country in 1970: her parents did not follow until 20 years later. In the first part of a three-part occasional series, she recalls growing up as a happy-go-lucky child in Baghdad. She now lives in Canada.

This is my story.

 My father Menashy was one of eight children born to Shaul Shashoua,  a well- to- do, self-made merchant and property owner in Iraq. Baba Shaul and Nana Farha’s children were Hanini, Meer, Jacob, Naima, Rosa, Salim, Menashy and Marcelle. In the early 1920s when the British decided to appoint a king in Iraq, they needed a palace to house King Faisal I, who was from the Hejaz.

However, since Baghdad was part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, there were no grand palaces fit for a king anywhere in Baghdad. My mom told me that Gertrude Bell sailed along the river Tigris, with binoculars, to chose a suitable home for the King. She chose my grandfather Shaul’s house.

Kasser Shashoua, rented to the king for a nominal sum

Baba Shaul duly moved out with his whole family to a house in the neighbourhood. He rented his house out for a nominal sum to the king  until a suitable palace was built for the king to move into about two years later - Al-Bilat. The house got duly named Kasser Shashoua and somehow this expression seeped into Iraqi culture and folklore. For example, if it takes someone a long time to build a house, he would be told, "you are not building Kasser Shashoua after all....” I actually knew nothing about this until I heard a play, Arthahalchy, on television when I was ten,  using exactly this expression: “What do you think you are building,  Kasser Shashoua?"

I ran to my Dad to ask if we were the same Shashoua they were talking about. This is when my father told me that he and his seven siblings grew up in this palace and that his father, Baba Shaul, who was now in heaven,  had built it. My dad and his sisters Aunty Marcelle and Aunty Naima would tell us how King Faisal I would drop in on my grandfather unannounced on horseback. Baba Shaul would send his children who were playing in the garden inside the house out of respect. I was also told recently by one of my  dad s cousins that my grandfather Shaul, who had many agricultural lands in the area, got a huge Zanbeel (a big bag) of dates from his many date trees and asked Dad and his cousins to take it to the king. The three young boys strutted along with their charge, simply rang the bell of the palace,  and King Faisal opened the door himself.The cousin still wondered how simple and humble this king was.

Most of my uncles and aunts fled after the well-known Farhud. Sami Sourani, our history scholar who has first-hand information, says, that '200 dead' was only the official number that the Iraqi government admitted to. The number was much higher, especially since many of the injured taken to hospitals were also killed by the hospital staff, upon learning that the patients were Jewish!

My mother Mouzli had two brothers and three sisters: Renee, David, Violette, Bertha and Emile. My Dad’s seven siblings as well as my mother Mouzli‘s five siblings  all left Iraq in different decades; some during the forties, others the fifties and the last batch in the early sixties. They were scattered all over the world. Some went to Italy, others to India, to Iran, England, the United States to Brazil and to Canada. They did not go to Israel, yet  not one was able to sell their shares or their lands: their properties were frozen as soon as they left Iraq .They were all eventually 'de-nationalized' simply for being Jewish.

 In 1950 -1, when Iraq acquiesced to opening up emigration, more than 120,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel and were stripped of their nationality upon applying to do so. My beloved nanny Esther, whom I nicknamed Tiquo,  was amongst them. I still wish I could find her.

There were many Jewish schools, such as the Alliance Israelite Laura Kadoorie school for girls,  al- Taassisiyah,   as well as clubs belonging to Jews such as Nadi El Zawra where my father was president. All were all closed and confiscated by the government. These buildings were filled with Palestinian refugees. Rumour had it that the regime would  kick all the Jews out of their homes and replace them with the Palestinian refugees. Ironically, the situation of the Jews gradually improved in the fifties after the  shock of the mass migration, the hanging of the innocent Shaffik Ades, the imprisonment and hangings of several Jews as Zionists or communists.

Lisette playing Goldilocks at the Menahem Daniel school 

 I grew up in the 1950s as a happy-go-lucky child surrounded by my sisters Evelyn and Hilda, my parents Menashy and Mouzli and my maternal grandparents, Eliahou Meir and Sarah Khatoun. Our beloved Amma Massouda, my grandfather s sister, lived with us as well : we shared the same bedroom where I taught her some English words and she told me all kinds of folk stories before going to sleep.

 We the children used to have birthday parties, go on boat trips  (as in David Dangoor's film Remember Baghdad)  and family picnics with our parents and their friends. We belonged to the Mansour club that my father and a few other Jewish and Moslem leaders help build. At the Mansour they played tennis,  they had a great swimming pool, a dance floor and open air playground. The club was adjacent to the horse race track. My dad had Arab race horses, and was a prominent member of the races. In fact, we had a booth or  logggia next to that of the king.

 One day  I remember being with my parents and  the young King Faisal II was in his loggia near us. I remember being really excited when he waved back at me after I saluted him. One of my dad's well -known horses was called Dixie, a beautiful dark brown steed. Dixie won all the races until he tripped and broke his leg. Many of the older teenage boys at school knew about this great horse. In fact some associated my father’s name with Dixie  - even when we met in Canada twenty or thirty years later. Dixie was too precious a horse to be put down:  he healed and became a stallion on a studfarm who sired many foals. Dad called one of Dixie's offspring Coquette after me. She was a light brown mare. He would joke that he did not dare call her Lisette for fear that she might lose at the races and he would be cursed: Ana’ al Abouha la abou Abouha  ( 'Damn her and her father '), by those who would lose their bets on her.  My sisters Evelyn and Hilda and some of my male cousins, Solly and Abood Abdulezer, would sometimes accompany us to the stable where we had the horses. This was  in the Karkh neighbourhood, near the Mansour club and the racetrack.

 We were allowed to feed the horses jath ( hay), pat them on the forehead but never to ride them because they were too fast for us, although my sister Evelyn told me she did ride one of them with some help once. Dad called the horses fun names; such as Taj Iraqia meaning the Iraqi crown (the horse was white) and a fast horse; so was Iraqia Khanem, Iraqi lady. Kawlee was a black horse, His name loosely translates as a 'bum',which he was. He was quite unruly, always balking, and hardly ever won. Shuaa a el thawaheb, meaning 'golden rays' was another beauty of a horse, She was a light brown,  golden horse which shimmered in the sun, my sister Evelyn remembers!

 Ta’ an el Waleed, was named after some army hero. Then there was Bo Peep, who never won, except on the day when my Dad was too sick to attend her race. That day, Bo Peep won 370 odds on to the dinar and was awarded a trophy. The following day, my sister Evelyn remembers reading in the newspaper:“ the Shashoua horse went like an atomic bomb at the races". This added to my dad's disappointment for not being there and not being able to bet on his horse that day.

 We had Assyrian domestic help from Zakho and Alkosh where the prophets Nahum, Daniel ,and Jonah were buried. The help lived with us and they spoke Assyrian amongst themselves, (I just found out that this is a form of Aramaic). My favourites throughout the years, were Sammia and Shoushan. Sammia eventually married a man from Switzerland and Shoushan moved to Detroit in the United States . What a shame that we knew so little about our history and did not realize the richness of either our Jewish heritage nor the fact that Aramaic (the language of the Talmud and of Christ ) was being spoken in our own homes.

 Of course, this was due to the fact that in all the history books; the existence of the Jews in Mesopotamia since Babylonian times had been completely and methodically obliterated. We were only allowed to study Hebrew an hour a week just to learn to read the alphabet  - and that was only in elementary school. There was no time to learn about our rich heritage dating back to Babylon, when all the laws of Judaism were established.

 We had wonderful and devoted drivers who drove our Chevrolet cars. They were both Armenian; first, our dear Mangar. When I was nine years old, he suddenly passed away from a heart attack after taking me to school that morning. Menass, his son and his family, now live in Toronto and we are still in touch with them.

 Our driver Samuel came to us in 1957. Samuel stayed with my parents years after that day in 1970 when he took me to the Nafarat taxi station when I escaped from Iraq. He was the last person I saw before leaving. I barely said goodbye to him, because the situation was very scary! He was so devoted and loyal to us that when a family member (who suspected that I had escaped) stopped him in the street the following day to ask where I was...he lied,  saying, “I just took her to her girlfriend this morning.”

 Since my parents stayed behind until 1990, twenty years after my escape, Samuel had to retire a few years prior. My dad drove the new car now. The Chevrolet was now replaced by a Moskovitch.  (That shows you the sign of the times.) Until 1962 we used to go on holiday nearly every summer. We travelled to Paris, Nice and Geneva when I was seven. We went to Iran over several summers to stay with my aunt Renee and uncle Selim Noonoo and my uncle David and his wife Eva Meir and families. We also went to Lebanon for both the summers of 1960 and 1961. My sister Evelyn left just before the 1958 bloody revolution when our 22 year-old King Faisal II was killed along with his grandmother, his uncle Abdul Ilah the regent, his ministers, his dogs, cooks and domestic help.

 Hilda my sister, my mom, and I were in Iran staying with my Aunt Renee and family, on 14 July 1958, the day of the Iraqi revolution. My dad was supposed to follow a week later. We were awakened by my uncle Selim Noonoo who yelled from downstairs “ Mouzli, wake up,  there is a revolution in Baghdad !“  I did not know what it meant, but it sounded ominous!

 My mom was convinced that the communists were coming. She was hoping to stay in Iran and for Dad to join us there, then we would all move to Europe and never go back to Iraq. She even registered me in the American community school in Tehran which my cousins Pepina, Jack and Joyce were attending. Mom also wanted to prepare herself for the worst scenario; she and Hilda took typewriting and shorthand lessons in case we did go back, and Iraq would become a communist regime. I learnt some Persian whilst we were there. This  proved very useful when I escaped twelve years later. Dad soon sent us a letter to go back to Baghdad two months later, after the horrors had calmed down and a new phase had started:, the sadistic Mahdawy courts started sentencing all the former ministers to death. 

Many of my childhood friends and their parents started to leave Iraq for good, one by one, after the 1958 revolution. The brutality against the royal family was enough for them to cut their losses and move to safer havens such as London, Canada, Israel, the United States and even Iran where the Shah was the ruler and Tehran was the  'Paris of the Middle East'. The families we went on picnics and birthdays with all left :the Dangoors, Chitayats,  Shamashes, Sofaers, Bekhors,  Shohets, my close friends Stella , Diana, cousins Jimmy and David, and many others including many Moslem friends and some business partners of my dad. The race course was closed after the revolution in 1958. Some people convinced my Dad to send the horses to Egypt where they, supposedly would be able to continue racing. Unfortunately the horses were stolen in Egypt after Dad paid for their transportation and their care... another big let--down for him.

As for my sister Hilda, she left in 1962, just before the next bloody revolution in 1963 where the Ba'ath party arrived and life for us Jews started to deteriorate again! I, being the youngest, stayed with my parents to live  under even harder times.

 We were lucky that both our schools, Menahem Daniel and Frank Iny, were mixed, boys and girls. We all grew up together , sat through the same exams : French Certificat and Baccalaureat, the British Cambridge Certificate, O'levels and A' levels, the  American SAT's and of course the mandated Iraqi baccalaureate exams. We all became like one big family, and the bonds we built with each other became stronger and all-encompassing with time.

For Par 2 click here. For Part 3. click here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Curriculum still marginalises non-Arab ethnic groups

On 3 August 2020, the California Department of Education released the second draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum: while changes were made, it still excluded the antisemitism which Middle Eastern and North African communities had experienced, prompting protests from JIMENA. Dani Ishai Behan has written in the Times of Israel this long but comprehensive analysis of how the curriculum still falls short:

The University of California in L os Angeles

It still fails to recognize anti-Semitism as a form of racism.

* The passage “Arabs and other Middle Easterners” is concerning, if only for the fact that it treats Arabs as the Middle East’s “default” ethnic group.

Consequently, the curriculum marginalizes other indigenous ethnic groups of the MENA region, including Jews (of whom there are 6-7 million in America), Persians, Copts, Assyrians, Amazigh, Armenians, Kurds, Turks, and others. It also obfuscates the fact that Arabs became a majority throughout the MENA region the same way Europeans became a majority in North America (colonialism), thereby ignoring the pre-colonial histories of many of the above-mentioned Middle Eastern populations.

 * There is no indication that Jewish-Americans are included under the ‘Middle Eastern’ umbrella at all. Instead, it egregiously compares the Jewish-American experience to the Irish-American one. * It airbrushes Jewish-Americans into the category of “privileged whites”.

* The existence of non-Ashkenazi Jews is largely ignored.

* Instead of making an effort to cover the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a fair, balanced, and accurate manner, they’ve instead opted to scrap all overt references to Israel and Palestine. Although, it must be said, this did not stop them from ratifying published texts urging “solidarity” with anti-Zionist groups as mandatory reading materials. The proposed curriculum, as it stands, is a recipe for more anti-Semitism and more facile understandings of Jewish history and lived experience.  

Read article in full

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