Thursday, November 15, 2018

Most Moroccan Jews 'never died a natural death'

 The myth of happy Jewish-Muslim coexistence in Morocco is one of the most persistent. Exile in the Maghreb. by David Littman and Paul Fenton, is a corrective to this historical distortion. Ruthie Blum reviews the book for the Gatestone Institute (with thanks: Imre, Doug):

Exile in the Maghreb, co-authored by the great historian David G. Littman and Paul B. Fenton, is an ambitious tome contradicting the myth of how breezy it was for Jews to live in their homelands in the Middle East and North Africa when they came under Muslim rule.

"Ever since the Middle Ages," the book jarringly illustrates, "anti-Jewish persecution has been endemic to Muslim North Africa."

Littman, before his untimely death from leukemia in 2012, had intended this book on the Maghreb to be the first in a series that would cover the social condition of the Jews of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Iran and Turkey -- an ambitious project that he was unable to tackle in its entirety.

The impetus for the book, which was first published in French in 2010 and in English in 2016, was to expose the misrepresentation by certain historians of the relations between the Jews of Morocco and Algeria and their Arab rulers. One such historian cited in the book was the French Orientalist, Claude Cahen, who dreamily wrote in his chapter on "Dhimma" in the Encylopaedia of Islam:
"There is nothing in medieval Islam which could specifically be called anti-Semitism... Islam has, in spite of many upsets, shown more toleration than Europe toward Jews who remained in Muslim lands."
The original idea for the book -- a massive collection of personal testimonies, photos and documents spanning ten centuries (from 997-1912) -- came to Littman when he was on a humanitarian trip to Morocco in 1961. Littman noted:
"Following the independence of their country in 1956, the Jews of Morocco had begun to redefine their hopes regarding the future. Whereas new opportunities for them began to loom on the horizon, I was astonished to observe that the Moroccan Jews were making every possible effort to leave their native land to immigrate to the struggling young State of Israel or even to Europe, whose communities were still painfully recovering from the tragedies of World War II."
In an article for the Jerusalem Post -- entitled, "Exploding the myth of Moroccan tolerance" -- Lyn Julius described an anti-Israel documentary by Al Jazeera that blamed the Mossad for "play[ing] a key role in convincing thousands of Moroccan Jews that they were in danger and covertly facilitated their departure" to the newly established state of Israel. Prior to that, according to the broadcast, "Jews first began to settle in Morocco over 2,000 years ago and for centuries they and Muslims have happily co-existed there."

Julius writes that Exile in the Maghreb provides "a corrective to this common historical distortion."

There is, for example the account of Samuel Romanelli (1758-1814), an Italian Jew who visited Morocco at the end of Sultan Sidi Mohammad III's reign (1757-1790), and wrote about his travels in Oracle from an Arab Land (1792):
"Most of them [the Jews of Morocco] never die a natural death nor do they share the lot of common mortals: execution, torture, expropriation, incarceration are their fate. Their bodies might be mutilated and their residences turned into cesspools..."
In the article, "What Is a 'Refugee'? The Jews from Morocco versus the Palestinians from Israel," published earlier this year, the renowned lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, writes:
"Jews lived in Morocco for centuries before Islam came to Casablanca, Fez and Marrakesh. The Jews, along with the Berbers, were the backbone of the economy and culture. Now their historic presence can be seen primarily in the hundreds of Jewish cemeteries and abandoned synagogues that are omnipresent in cities and towns throughout the Maghreb...
"Now they are a remnant in Morocco and gone from the other countries. Some left voluntarily to move to Israel after 1948. Many were forced to flee by threats, pogroms and legal decrees, leaving behind billions of dollars in property and the graves of their ancestors.
"Today, Morocco's Jewish population is less than 5,000, as contrasted with 250,000 at its peak. To his credit, King Mohammad VI has made a point of preserving the Jewish heritage of Morocco, especially its cemeteries. He has better relations with Israel than other Muslim countries but still does not recognize Israel and have diplomatic relations with the nation state of the Jewish People. It is a work in progress. His relationship with his small Jewish community, most of whom are avid Zionists, is excellent..."
Exile in the Maghreb is a most important book, which sets the record straight about the true plight of the Jews after the conquests of the lands in which they had peacefully resided.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

'Occupied territories' of the Middle East and Africa

Have you heard of the Land of Punt? I certainly hadn't - before I read David Silon's 'Occupied Territories'.

It's a clever title designed to make you sit up. To most people the Occupied Territories have something to do with Israel.  Silon means those territories stretching from West Africa to Iraq that came under Arab rule after the 7th century. There is a bewildering variety of peoples, each with a long and complex history.

The flag of the Druze

As Silon (who claims to be neither an academic nor a scholar) points out in his introduction, subjugation by the Arabs did not mean that the occupied peoples themselves did not desist from being at each others' throats. He also makes it clear that the Arabs were not the only oppressors of indigenous peoples. The Turks and the Persians inflicted their fair share of oppression too.

The Land of Punt refers to Somalia and Djibouti, one of the first regions to convert to Islam. Did you know that they wanted to establish a Dervish state in the early 20th century, before Somalia was split into three by the British, the French and the Italians?

Silon's 45-page booklet is a labour of love and a work in progress. It  includes peoples who are Muslim but want to throw off the Arab yoke - like the Amazigh (or Berbers), the Kurds and the Sumer or Marsh Arabs (who apparently are not Arabs at all, but a separate ethnicity called the Madani.)

On the other hand, the Comoro Islands, sandwiched between East Africa and Madagascar, seek to assert their Arab-ness over their African-ness.

And the Druze? What do they seek? It seems that in 1921 they had their own state, but were always clashing with the Maronites. Today, however, they do not seem to want to assert their independence from either Syria, Israel or Lebanon, and are content to live as a minority.

Then there are indigenous Christians - the Arameans, Syriacs, Maronites, Copts. All have suffered discrimination and persecution under various Muslim rulers. But did you know that the Crusaders were no less a nightmare for the Arameans? The eastern Christians have a history of squabbling with the church of Rome, yet Assyrians and Maronites call themselves Catholics. Work that one out.

Israel makes an an appearance as the only Jewish state previously ruled by Islam to have reclaimed sovereignty. Silon's chapter gets a little too bogged down in historical detail; he could have written a little more about the rise of the Zionist movement.

We get a chapter on the Nubians,  an ancient people now split between Egypt and the Sudan. But why stop there?  Where are the Rifian people, the Beja, the Touareg, the Chaouis, the Chenouas and the Mozabites of North Africa?  Silon is gracious enough to offer to remedy omissions in future editions.

'Occupied Territories' goes into a lot of detail -  and there is perhaps too much reliance on Wikipedia. But Silon's work is an eye-opener - and makes an important point : the 'Arab world' is nothing of the sort. It is a collection of disparate groups and peoples, some of whom still want independence and liberation from arabisation and islamisation.

For copies of Dave Silon's 'Occupied Territories' booklet contact

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Remembering the Libyan riots of 1945

With thanks: Raphael

This is a copy of the fatwa issued by the Grand Mufti of Tripoli, published in the Official Gazette, prohibiting seizure  of Jewish property.

A total of 130 Jews and one Muslim were killed in riots in and around the Tripoli area in November 1945. Shops and homes were looted and property burnt. The Grand Mufti of Tripoli issued a fatwa against the seizure of Jewish property following the November 1945 riots against the Jews of Libya. 

In what was described by one British source as a 'brutal and savage pogrom', the elderly, women and children were wounded by sticks, clubs, knives cleavers, piping and hand grenades. Bodies were quartered, children had their heads bashed against walls and old men were pushed out of windows. 

Nine synagogues were burnt down, 35 Torah scrolls and 2,000 sacred books were destroyed. About 90,000 kg of silver from sacred ornaments were plundered. The damage was put at 268 million Military Administration lira (MAL). One British pound equalled 480 MAL in 1945. The assessment made by the Jewish community was of course much higher. Over 5,000 people were made destitute and had to be housed and fed in displaced persons camps.

Libya was then still under British military rule. The Jews held the British authorities partially responsible for the riots as they did not intervene directly in the pogrom until the third day of violence. Of the 550 Arab rioters only 289 were tried in court. The majority were set free months later. To maintain a semblance of even handedness the British also arrested ten Jews for daring to defend themselves.
Tensions between Jews and Arabs had been rising since 1944. A worsening economic situation, Arab nationalism and events in Palestine, together with the activities of the recently-founded Arab League, combined to aggravate relations. Then, on 2 November 1945, anti-Jewish riots spread across Egypt. Libyan notables tried to reassure the Jews; but on 9 November a demonstration erupted into violence in Tripoli and soon spread to neighbouring towns of Amrus, Tajuria, Zanzur, Zawia and Kussabat. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

New paradigm sees Israel as a haven from Sunni persecution

For most of the 20th century Zionism meant saving the Jews of Europe in a revived Jewish homeland. This led to the misconception, spread by Palestinian propaganda, that Israel is an alien, colonialist state. Today, however, a new paradigm is emerging of Israel as a Middle Eastern nation in need of a haven from Sunni Muslim persecution, argues Edward Retting in Fathom.  Rettig is broadly right, but this new political paradigm did not emerge organically, but  after pressure from the US Congress and  a decade of hard lobbying for recognition and justice for the victims of Arab and Muslim antisemitism  by MKs and organisations in Israel representing Jews from Arab countries.

Then, with the rise of the first Likud government in 1977, a new political elite revised the classic Zionist paradigm. Oddly, considering its profound influence on the conflict, this revision – which involves an essential change in how most Israeli Jews now see the conflict – has drawn little international discussion. At the heart of the revision is the growing awareness of the experience of ethnic oppression of the Jews in the Muslim world and the growing influence of the ethnically cleansed Jews of the Muslim world and their descendants in Israeli society, culture and politics. Today, almost three-quarters of the Jewish population is Israel-born, and more and more young Jewish Israelis ‘intermarry’ across the Eastern-Western Jewish divide, ensuring that a growing percentage, probably more than a majority, now trace at least part of their origins to the wider Muslim-dominated region.

 Ed Rettig: colonialist paradigm turned upside down

Simply put, Israel has become much more attuned to its neighborhood as it has incorporated these migrants and their descendants. Much of the population that absorbed these migrants consisted of Holocaust survivors and other refugees from Europe, which contributed indirectly to the widespread but shallow anti-Zionist idea that ‘Europeans’ invaded Palestine. But today, at the age of 70, Israel is much less Europe-centered and not only in music, food, literature, popular culture, and so on but also in politics and foreign policy.

This emergent Israeli paradigm is also the result of regional developments since the 1940s. From the Atlantic coast of North Africa, eastward to the Shiite provinces of the Persian Gulf, a group of countries form one of the great contemporary civilisations. Sunni Muslim Arabs overwhelmingly dominate the region demographically and politically. Unfortunately, Sunni Muslim Arab society faces a deep crisis as it struggles to reconcile modernity with its traditional values and culture, a predicament that lies beyond the bounds of this paper. A common symptom of the crisis is that virtually all of the non-Sunni, or non-Arab, or non-Muslim populations in the region – Copts, Maronites, Assyrians, Jews, Kurds, Yazidis, Shiites, and so forth – suffer severely. Today, the situation of these minorities provides an essential framework in which one can reinterpret Arab behavior in 1948. We might call this new understanding the ‘hegemonic majority paradigm’. It can shape our perception of events such as the Syrian civil war (where the pro-Assad coalition is glued together by fear of majority Sunni ascendancy), the rise of ISIS (an expression of Sunni political extremism), and, of course, the current dynamics between Israelis and Palestinians (who are ethno-religiously overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Arabs).

This emerging Jewish Israeli paradigm turns many ‘anti-colonialist’ assumptions upside down. Of all the minorities in the region, only the Jews have prospered since the end of World War Two. We did this despite the murder of large numbers of us, the seizure or abandonment of much of our property, the waging of wars against us, the ongoing reverberations of the Holocaust, and the anti-Israel political clout of the Arab peoples and the Soviet Bloc. The new paradigm says that what allowed for this success was the fact of withdrawal (sometimes willingly, often through outright expulsion), from the Sunni Muslim Arab hegemonically dominated areas, to congregate with other Jews from other parts of the world in the land of our shared history.

Read article in full

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Vigil for Jews killed in Arab lands shut down

A vigil held by pro-Israel activists in London for Jews murdered in Arab countries over the centuries was dispersed violently by men shouting about killing Jews in Arabic. The episode, recorded by Haaretz, goes to the heart of the hostility of Muslim fundamentalists towards Jews. The vigil was timed for the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which prefigured pro-Nazi attacks on the Jews of Gabes in Tunisia and the Farhud in Iraq, when at least 170 Jews were murdered in 1941. (With thanks: Michelle, Lily)

The event Wednesday by the Israel Advocacy Movement was held on Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, which is known for its culture of free speech and passionate street preachers championing various causes. 

A few dozen people holding Israeli flags and candles gathered there ahead of Kristallnacht, the name of Nazi pogrom perpetrated in 1938, to highlight the suffering and slaying around the same time of many hundreds of Jews who were killed and wounded in pogroms across the Arab world. 

 Click here to see video showing how the vigil was disrupted by Muslims evoking a massacre of Jews in Arabia. A sympathetic German bystander was shocked to have witnessed such antisemitism
Joseph Cohen, an Israel Advocacy Movement activist, filmed the event as about 20 men drowned his talk, shouting: “Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning.”
The cry relates to an event in the seventh century when Muslims massacred and expelled Jews from the town of Khaybar, located in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Some of the men shouted about “Palestine,” surrounding the pro-Jewish activists and shoving them.
“As if on cue, before we’d even begun an extremist began screaming a death chant of Jews,” Cohen said. “The vigil went from bad to worse, they shouted us down, they would not allow us to remember our dead until we had to call off the vigil,” he added. The occurrence “goes to the heart of the matter we’d gathered to commemorate in the first place,” he also said. 

Read article in full 

For list of massacres see Israel Advocacy Movement Facebook entry for 7 November.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Writer calls on Iraq to apologise to Jews

 It is heartening to listen to voices such as that of Haidar Muften Jarallah, writing in the Arabic news medium Elaph. Jarallah gives a factual account of the prejudice and discrimination suffered by Iraqi Jews. He is to be applauded for calling on Iraq to apologise to its Jewish community. However, he exaggerates the 'indescribable love for the land of their fathers' felt by Israelis of Iraqi descent, who are now three generations removed from Iraq. Can they realistically serve as a bridge to normalisation ? MEMRI reports (with thanks: Lily):

"A number of researchers, sociologists, and thinkers who lived in the era of the Jewish community in Iraq agree that most of its members were talented and respectable individuals. Additionally, our fathers and forefathers had contact with them in many areas, maintained friendships with them as sons of the same homeland, and told us many stories about them, about their lives, and about their presence in a range of fields – technical, literary, financial, administrative, and medical and scientific. [They said that] it was hard to differentiate between them and the rest of the Iraqis because of their integration and their assimilation of their identity into the rest of the identities in Iraqi society.

"As I noted, starting in 1941, Iraq's Jews experienced murder and looting of their property, after the fall of the government of Rashid Ali Al-Kilani, who resisted the English. These events cast a shadow over Iraqi society, and the fears of the Jewish community increased with the 1948 UN resolution on the partition of Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs, and the declaration of the [establishment of the] State of Israel. As a result of the pressure on them, and because of their worry that began following the events of 1941, most of Iraqi Jewry chose to emigrate, and those who remained were forced to do so later, when the masses were mobilized [against them] and the hostility and enmity against them were fanned.

 "Despite the decades since their exodus, [the Iraqi Jews] still hold Iraq in their hearts, and they are considered one of the [Jewish] communities most loyal to their motherland. Furthermore, many of their offspring born in Israel or other foreign lands, and who have never seen Iraq except in the news and on television, feel an indescribable love for the land of their fathers. We see this clearly in their culture, in their way of life, and even in their celebrations, which have an Iraqi flavor, as if these people still resided in the alleyways of Baghdad.

"I call on the Iraqi government, [on the Iraqi] political, cultural, and media elite, and on all [Iraqi] civil organizations to act earnestly and with haste to change the wrongheaded stereotyped image [of Iraqi Jewry]. This discriminatory and racist image – widespread, shaped over decades, and fixed in the minds of generations of Iraqis, which reached its peak during the dark era, over three decades, of Ba'th rule in Iraq – casts the Jews as the reason for the disasters and problems afflicting Iraq, the region, and even the entire world.

"Today, Iraq must apologize to its Jewish community, restore its good name, compensate it materially and spiritually, and make its leaders into bridges for peace and normalization, so that the peoples of the region will enjoy tranquility and security."

Read article in full 

 Also at Mosaic 

Iraqi newsman calls for apology

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Israel-Morocco ties increasingly visible

"Secret" Israeli-Moroccan business is increasingly visible, despite the North African country sharing no official relations with Israel and growing calls in Morocco against "economic normalisation". One Israeli company, Netafim, makes no secret of its drip-feeding business in Morocco, but was forced out of an agricultural fair in Rabat in October after BDS protests. Middle East Eye reports:

A protester setting fire to the Israeli flag

Recent statistical discrepancies are a good start. Although Morocco’s official trade data has never made mention of Israel whatsoever, Israeli records shows $37m worth of commerce with Morocco in 2017, according to data released by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) this year.

This means that, out of Israel’s 22 African trading partners, Morocco is among the four top nations from which it imports, and ninth in terms of exports, according to CBS. However, with $149m worth of trade between 2014 and 2017, this partnership is not new.

More unusual is Israel’s first overt foreign investment into the Arab world, with Israeli agricultural technology giant Netafim setting up a $2.9m subsidiary in Morocco last year, thereby creating 17 jobs, according to fDi Markets, a Financial Times data service that has monitored crossborder greenfield investment worldwide since 2003. Greenfield investment is when a company builds its operations in a foreign country from the ground up.

This development may fit into broader regional trends. Arab-Israeli relations are improving, for one, due to a growing alliance aginst Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent visit to Oman is a good example of these warming relations.

Netafim’s investment is the most visible example of the longstanding and "clandestine" economic ties between Israel and Morocco, two countries that have shared historically warm ties compared to other Arab-Israeli relations.
However, public opposition in Morocco against normalisation with Israel keeps these ties under wraps.

Read article in full

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Rene Trabelsi, a Jew, named as Tunisian Tourism minister

 A Jew has been named as Tunisian Tourism minister. This is not the first time that Rene Trabelsi has been nominated, but his appointment was vetoed in 2012. Trabelsi and his family own most of the hotels on the island of Djerba, where 1,000 Jews still live. He is mainly responsible for organising the Lag Ba'Omer pilgrimage, which used to attract thousands. Lately security issues have limited their numbers, but it is still the central  event of Tunisia's tourism calendar. Article in The Times of Israel:

Rene Trabelsi, co-organizer of an annual pilgrimage to the oldest synagogue in Africa, was named Tunisia’s first Jewish minister in decades this week.
Trabelsi was appointed tourism minister on Monday evening. He splits his time between France and Tunisia.

He is the country’s third-ever Jewish minister. The previous two were Albert Bessis who served in the 1955 government that led Tunisia to independence, and Andre Barouch, who worked in president Habib Bourguiba’s administration in 1956.
Trabelsi grew up on the island of Djerba, the heartland of Tunisia’s Jewish community and the site of the pilgrimage which attracts thousands of people each year.

Read article in full

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

150 Baghdad graves cleaned up and catalogued

 With thanks: Freddy

Update: Click here  to see the photos taken in the Sadr City Jewish cemetery. If you run your mouse over a particular photo, you will be able to see the name of the person buried in that grave.

 A catalogue of 150 identified graves in the Jewish  cemetery in Baghdad is to be uploaded onto the website of the Montreal Spanish and Portuguese congregation. Kaddish and a Hashkaba (prayers for the dead) will be recited on 24 November 2018 at the synagogue.

The project began when a member of the congregation, Sass Peress, collaborated with a kind-hearted Muslim to find and clean up the grave of Sass's grandfather, Sassoon Moshi Peress. The clean-up continued. Before the operation was halted, 150 graves out of a total of 4,000 had been cleaned. Montreal historian Sami Sourani identified the names of the dead and translated the epitaphs into English.

 This photo of the new Jewish cemetery was taken in 2003

The  cemetery replaced the main Baghdad cemetery, which dated back to 1642. Following the great exodus of Iraqi Jews of 1950/51, the Iraqi government decided to demolish the original cemetery. The order was signed by the Prime Minister of the time, Nuri al-Said. Al-Said was murdered in the 1958 revolution, led by General Kassem.

Community leader Rabbi Sasson Khedouri pleaded with General Kassem to cancel the order, but Kassem refused. He gave the community two weeks to remove the remains to a new site.

 The mass grave of the Farhud victims, demolished in 1959

The community disinterred the remains of some dignitaries and community leaders, and exhumed from their graves the relatives of families still living in Iraq.

The rest of the graves were bulldozed by government tractors. They also demolished the mass grave of the victims of the Farhud, the pogrom of 1-2 June 1941.

How Baghdad got its Jewish cemetery

Monday, November 05, 2018

The Sephardi rabbi who inspired Herzl

 Herzl St in the Belgrade suburb of Zemun

 A little-known Sephardi rabbi in a Balkan neighbourhood was the precursor of Theodor Herzl's modern Zionist movement. Only now is the influence of Rabbi David Alkalai being recognised in his native land. Report by Ronen Snidman in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Michelle):

President Reuven Rivlin visited Serbia this past July to participate in a ceremony with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic renaming a street after the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl in the Belgrade neighborhood of Zemun. This unusual event, which marked the first ever visit by an Israeli president to Serbia, received less coverage than would be expected from most Israeli news outlets.

It begs the question: What was Herzl’s connection to Zemun, and why would the Serbian government name a street after him?
The answer may surprise most Jews and even many ardent Zionists. The intellectual roots of political Zionism and the Jewish state did not start with the refined emancipated Jews of fin-de-siècle Vienna or Paris, and they certainly don’t begin in Poland. Zionism’s journey traces back to a pious Sephardi rabbi in what was then the Serbian border town of Zemun at the edge of the Austrian Empire. It was this rabbi who taught Herzl’s grandfather and father and likely planted the seeds of the Jewish state, some 70 years before the First Zionist Congress in Basel and 90 years before the Balfour Declaration.

Historians in the past focused on difficulties secular emancipated Jews like Theodor Herzl had integrating into the rapidly developing European societies of Western and Central Europe at the end of the 19th century. However, Herzl’s exposure to the idea of reconstituting the Jewish nation predates his coverage of the Dreyfus Affair as a journalist or even his encounters with elite antisemitism as a law student in Vienna. Instead, it can be traced back to his father’s family’s roots in Zemun (also known by its old German name Semlin) and the influence of the community’s Sephardi rabbi, Judah Ben Shlomo Hai Alkalai.

Alkalai is today acknowledged as a precursor of the modern Zionist movement, but his ideas are usually mentioned in passing if at all. Likewise, there is very limited scholarship regarding how this Sephardi rabbi on the edge of an empire came to his revolutionary ideas for the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Historians and literary experts have pointed to the influence of the radical interpretations of the Bible from the Kabbala as a source of inspiration (as was the case with Rav Abraham Isaac Kook). While it is certainly possible that the rabbi’s knowledge of Kabbala played a role, what has been ignored is the influence of the early national revolts in the Balkans against Ottoman rule, in particular by the Serbs, and its possible influence on the ideas of a young Rabbi Alkalai.

Alkalai was born in 1798 in Sarajevo in what was then the Ottoman Empire and which today is Bosnia and Herzegovina. He came from a prominent family of rabbis whose roots trace back to Spain before the Jewish expulsion, and his father moved the family to Sarajevo from the large and well-established Sephardi community in Thessalonica. After spending years acquiring a traditional education, including rabbinical ordination and studying with kabbalists in the Holy Land, at the age of 27 Alkalai become the communal rabbi of the town of Zemun in what was then on the military frontier of the Austrian Empire. He served as rabbi for both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi members of the town’s small Jewish community, according to information found in the Jewish Historical Museum’s archives in Belgrade. 

Read article in full

Sunday, November 04, 2018

One man's mission to save abandoned Sephardi treasures

While popular Sephardi culture is burgeoning in Israel, Sephardi literature and philosophy has been neglected. Moshe Amar has countered this trend by rummaging through the antique stalls and synagogues of his native Morocco to save abandoned spiritual treasures. YNet News reports (with thanks: Imre) 

According to Amar, whereas there is a growing interest in Mizrahi music and cuisine, centuries-old spiritual treasures are being neglected. "Mimouna (a traditional Moroccan end-of-Passover celebration), and Mufleta (a Moroccan pastry - ed.) are nice to enjoy now—but the spiritual legacy will remain forever,” Amar said.
Rabbi Professor Moshe Amar: no shortage of students (Photo: Tali Farkash)
An expert in Medieval Hebrew Paleography, Amar is the chairman of the "Lights of the Jews of the Maghreb," an institution for the preservation of Moroccan Jewry heritage. According to the professor, the problematic relationship between Israeli academia and Sephardic literature and philosophy started back in the 80’s.

“There was an outrage following the publication of Kalman Katzenelson’s 1964 book entitled 'The Ashkenazi Revolution'”, he explained. According to the book, there are two peoples living in Israel: supreme Ashkenazim and inferior Sephardim, who should learn Yiddish in order to be considered 'cultured.'

“There was a great cry and then the Knesset decided to make a change. The Institute for Integration of Mizrahi Jewry Legacy was founded, and all the universities, who wanted in on the budgets, established research facilities," Amar added.

However, between 2006-2007, things began to change. “Limor Livnat, the education minister at the time, had decided to close the integration institution and the universities were out of incentives. Once a professor retired, his position was cancelled and only several courses were left," he elaborated.

There is no shortage of students, however. Amar says the majority of students come to study at the department after consulting with him about other subjects. “It ends there, unfortunately.They have nothing to do with it afterwards, Maghreb Jewry isn’t studied anywhere in universities," Amar lamented.
After the 2016 Biton Committee, which was supposed to encourage Mizrahi legacy in education, one would presume things are about to change. However, according to Amar, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev encourages Mizrahi popular culture alone. “We had high hopes of the Biton Committee, but nothing came out of it," he continued.

Professor Amar, one of the leading researchers in his field, is now retired. He travels to Morocco independently in order to find books and manuscripts from different communities—but it’s a one man mission.

He showed me an ancient poetry book, written by a 15th-century Jewish diplomat named Avraham Ben Zimra, only a generation or two after the Alhambra Decree.“I found this by mistake, and intact! His poetry is amazing, and there are a lot of details here about one of the most important periods in history,” Amar exclaimed.

He found it while wandering around antique shops in Morroco. “Antique sellers collected things from abandoned Synagogues or from people who left the country. So I walked in and asked if they have anything that ‘belonged to Jews’. I asked for manuscripts, and the owner said ‘you won’t pay what I want for it’, but closed the shop and showed me the basement.
“In the basement this book was waiting for me, alongside Torah scrolls and inscriptions. Just by the writing I could tell it's very old, and I told him I’ll take it. He asked for $1000, an imaginary sum for Morocco in the 90’s. He said if I don’t take it, an American will come by and pay double the amount. What could I have done?" he went on to say.

Among the texts Amar keeps in his archives are protocols from local Rabbinical Courts that tell the story of entire communities—stories of plagues, pogroms, hardship, philosophy and much more.

Read article in full

Friday, November 02, 2018

Why attacks on 'white' Jews can never be racist

 There is a worrying trend in the West to treat Jews as  'whites' and not members of an ethnic minority. As a result, they can never be seen as victims, especially when their oppressors are 'people of colour', Lyn Julius argues in Jewish News/ The Times of Israel.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: 'Jews pass into whiteness'
As people the world over recoil in horror at  the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews praying in a synagogue, it is as well to recall a disturbing trend among US academics. Some have been saying that attacks against Jews cannot be termed racist because Jews are white. Black lives matter; they infer that Jewish lives don’t.

As an example the self-described ‘queer, agender’ astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who identifies as black (despite having a Jewish father), has tweeted this:

White Jews also need to reckon with how they used colorism to their advantage, passing into whiteness in many ways. On the street. In the board room. With property ownership.

In other words, Jews are ‘privileged’, affluent and powerful. They cannot be oppressed. The ‘intersectionality’ movement recognises that people can harbour  anti-white prejudice. But never anti-white racism. Inherent in  anti-black racism, however,  is the element of oppression built into being white.

Jews, therefore, do not qualify as victims, even if their attackers are people of colour.

The idea that ‘people of colour’  cannot be racist against whites is part and parcel of the vogue for ‘intersectionality’. This is the notion that oppressed minorities must stand up for each other.

But nobody stands up for the Jews.

After several generations of sacrifice and hard work, many Jews have achieved success. But  it can hardly be denied that Jews in America were compelled to reach its welcoming shores because their ancestors were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms or persecution in Hitler’s Germany. By  any reckoning Jews have never been other than an oppressed minority, throughout their history.

Since the end of WW2 the ghosts of Edward Said, Michel Foucault and Franz Fanon have haunted western universities. These teach the  Postcolonialist dogma that  only the West, with its history of colonial exploitation, can be racist against ‘Third World’ peoples.

The fact that 90 percent of Jews in the US fall in the category of ‘white Ashkenazi’ obscures the fact that Jews in general originate from the Middle East. Jews are from Judea. Ultimately, Jews are people of colour.

Over 50 percent of Israeli Jews never left the Middle East and North Africa.  They are in fact the indigenous population, both in Palestine and in the ‘Arab world’.

Yet it is Israel that is perceived as a white country and the Palestinians are perceived as non-white, even though, in fact, many Palestinians have lighter skin than some Israelis. The theory that Israel is a colonialist and imperialist interloper only works if vital information is suppressed – that Israel is a de facto Middle Eastern nation; that indigenous Jews were colonised and ultimately victimised by Arab and Muslim racism.

You will hardly find any Jews left in the Arab and Muslim world today, because they were driven out of it, along with  other ethnic and religious groups. The Arabs and Muslims  established vast empires full of subject peoples. They have a long history of racism and pseudo-colonial exploitation of Jews and non-Muslims. In the pecking order in Muslim society, Jews were only one notch above slaves. In some cases, they were actual slaves.

‘Third Worldism’ makes people in the West inclined to overlook the misdeeds of Arab and Muslim states or to indulge in apologetics for them. To give a flagrant example, the Taubira law memorialising slavery (adopted in France in 2001) mentioned the 11 million victims of the transatlantic slave trade, while ignoring the 17 million slaves trafficked by Arabs and Muslims.

The sooner we ditch simplistic categories born of western guilt and a stubborn obsession with identity politics, the better.

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Thursday, November 01, 2018

Why a Trump peace deal must not ignore Jewish refugees

For some weeks now, governments and opinion-formers have been waiting with baited breath for President Donald Trump to unveil his peace plan for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Lyn Julius gives reasons why Jewish refugees should not be left out of the deal. Column in JNS news:

Donald Trump speaking to reporters (Photo: Algemeiner screenshot)

We’ve had a foretaste of how he sees the “refugee” issue—a “final status” question that has hitherto been pushed to the back burner in Middle East peace talks. Trump has decided to curtail funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency that cares exclusively for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. These are now said to number more than 5 million. Yet there were no more than 711,000 original refugees, or fewer, according to some estimates. Only 30,000 of these are reckoned still to be alive.

At about the same time as the Palestinian refugees, a greater number (850,000) of Jewish refugees fled Arab countries in one of the most dramatic examples of 20th-century “ethnic cleansing.” All but 4,500 have been forced out by state-sanctioned discrimination, arrests, synagogue burnings and murderous riots. They abandoned billions of dollars’ worth of land and property—equivalent to four times the size of Israel itself. Returning to Arab countries would have put their lives at risk; it still does.

At the time, there was no internationally recognized definition of what constituted a refugee. In 1951, the U.N. Refugee Convention agreed the following:
“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or … is unwilling to return to it.”
This definition certainly applies to the Jewish refugees. The burden of rehabilitating and resettling the 650,000 who arrived in Israel was shouldered by the Jewish Agency and U.S. Jewish relief organizations, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The refugees were shunted into putrid transit camps or ma’abarot (refugee absorption camps), but were soon absorbed into Israeli society.

Historians are now revealing that in the early 1950s, in addition to the Marshall Plan to rehabilitate Europe after World War II, the United States gave money to Arab states and Israel to solve the refugee problem created by the 1948 War of Independence. The American aid was supposed to have been split evenly between Israel and the Arab states, with each side receiving $50 million to build infrastructure to absorb refugees. The money to resettle the Arab refugees was handed over to the U.N. agency founded to address the issue, and the Americans gave Arab countries another $53 million for “technical cooperation.” In effect, the Arab side received double the money given to Israel even though Israel took in more refugees, including Jews from Arab lands.

But none of this aid went into resettling Arab refugees. Instead, an exclusive agency, UNRWA, set up camps to perpetuate the delusion that the Palestinians are in transit to their permanent home in Israel, and that one day they will return. The great “March of Return” on Israel’s border with Gaza demonstrates emphatically that the marchers’ ultimate objective is not a two-state solution, but to overrun the Jewish state with “returning” Arabs. As long as the “right of return” is the cornerstone of the Palestinians’ strategy, the Jewish refugees from Arab lands remain its antidote.

It is extraordinary that UNRWA should grant inherited refugee status only to Palestinians; that it should attract one-third of the budget for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency that deals with all refugees globally (some 65 million); and that it should have four times the number of staff.

Trump seems to have recognized that UNRWA has been fueling the single biggest stumbling block to peace, if not a recipe for continuing bloodshed. If the “refugees” come under the umbrella of UNHCR, the focus will be on rehabilitation and resettlement in their host countries.

The skewed mandate of the United Nations
From an early stage in the conflict, the United Nations was co-opted by the powerful Arab-Muslim voting bloc to skew its mandate and defend the rights of only one refugee population: the Palestinians. Hundreds of U.N. resolutions were passed affirming the rights of the Palestinian refugees. Not one concerned Jewish refugees.

For decades, the Israeli government failed to raise the question of Jewish refugees in a clear and forthright manner. The result was vague, generic reference to the “solution of the refugee problem.”

In the last decade, however, justice for the Jewish refugees has become a strategic objective. Since February 2010, Israeli governments of all political stripes have been bound by a Knesset law committing them to secure compensation for Jewish refugees in a settlement.

Why should the Jewish refugees feature in an Israel-Palestine peace deal? The 50.2 percent of Israel’s Jews who descend from refugees forced out by Arab and Muslim persecution have a right to expect that a peace deal will be signed that does not ignore their painful history. They cannot reasonably be asked to approve a plan that only provides rights and redress for Palestinian refugees without providing rights of remembrance, truth, justice and redress for Jews displaced from Arab countries, as mandated under humanitarian law.

Both refugee populations were created by the Arab League countries’ belligerent refusal to accept the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan; both groups became refugees during the same period in history; and both were declared to be bona fide refugees, under international law, by the appropriate U.N. agencies.

Palestinian responsibility
The common objection to including the Jewish refugee issue in an Israel-Palestine deal—that the Palestinians had nothing to do with it, and that Jewish refugees should address their grievances to the Arab states which drove them out—is an easily demonstrable fallacy. Seven Arab states declared the 1948 war against Israel, but an extremist Palestinian leadership, which collaborated with the Nazis and incited anti-Jewish hatred across the Arab world in the decades preceding the creation of Israel, played an active part in all Arab League decision-making and goaded Arab states into conflict with the new Jewish state—a conflict they lost and whose outcome cannot be reversed. The Palestinians cannot escape some measure of responsibility for both the Arab and the Jewish nakbas (“catastrophes”).

Indeed, the idea of expelling the Jews of Arab countries was adopted by the Palestinians as a policy, according to the well-connected Egyptian-Jewish journalist Victor Nahmias.

Still today, most Palestinians appear both uncompromising and unrepentant. Therefore, any proposed solution that calls for return of Palestinian refugees, even in paltry numbers, without taking into account the Jewish refugees, perpetuates the injustice to Jewish refugees by letting both the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states off the hook.

Two sets of refugees exchanged places in roughly equal numbers in the region. A “right of return” for one set of refugees is morally untenable; it’s not equitable to give one set such a right without giving the same right to the other. But to give Jews from the Arab world, now resettled in Israel and the West, a “right of return” to countries that spat out them out is like asking a prisoner who has tasted freedom to go back to jail. The fairest solution is for neither set of refugees to “return” to their countries of birth. Palestinian Arab refugees need to follow the model of successful Jewish refugee resettlement by being allowed to acquire full citizenship in their host countries or in a future Palestinian state (a right that the Palestinian leadership has, to date, declared no intention of granting them).

When Trump discloses the final terms of his peace deal, the rights of Jews refugees to compensation must not be forgotten. An international fund, as proposed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, should compensate refugees on both sides for lost property and also be used to finance the rehabilitation of refugees in host countries. The West and Israel would pay into the fund, but it is imperative for reconciliation that Arab countries should also contribute. Compensation should also go to the 200,000 Jews who did not go to Israel but settled in the West. They, too, are entitled to justice.

Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).

Read article in full

Crossposted at Algemeiner

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

How Carol Isaacs answered the call of the wolf

For Jews in Iraq, a wolf's tooth was a popular good luck charm. It inspired Carol Isaacs, an artist and musician, to produce an original graphic memoir, accompanied by live Middle Eastern music. The Wolf of Baghdad will have its premiere on 21 November in London for the 5th Memorial Day to remember Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran. (Booking link here) In her animated presentation,  Carol imagines herself travelling back with the wolf to her family's roots in Iraq, and explores the complex relationship of second-generation Jews in the West with their Mizrahi origins.  Rebecca Taylor interviewed Carol for Jewish Renaissance.

 Where do I belong, London or Baghdad? Video clip here.

RT: Did you grow up being aware of your Iraqi background?
CI: No, my parents didn’t talk about it. I started playing music when I was four years old, but if I think about music in my parents’ house, it was classical. In Baghdad they were very Europeanised. Theywore European clothes and had European names. I never heard any Arabic music in the house.

My father would have passed as a British gent. He went to his office in the City
in a pinstriped suit, with arose from the garden in his buttonhole. The only vestiges of Iraq were in the food. My mother was a fantastic cook– she made great bourekas.

My father also often had non-Jewish business associates who came to visit from Iraq. Then you really felt you were in Baghdad because they brought
presents – sometimes gold – and they talked all night with my family about
what was going on back home. On those occasions I felt as if I lived in two worlds.

RT: Do your Iraqi roots influence your own music?
CI: The Wolf of Baghdad will be shown on screen at various events in the
autumn and my band, 3yin, will accompany some of the screenings. For this project I play Arabic accordion. I’ve had to learn how to playmusic using the Arabic scale, which gives a different feel than a Western one. It’s
like learning a whole new language. It’s very special. It’s funny going back to learn this music that I never thought had any relevance to me. Now I see that it has. It’s important to preserve it. (...)

RT: Would you like to go to Baghdad?
CI: I have mixed feelings about the place. All my life I’ve known that the Iraq that my family has spoken about with such affection is not there any more. Our houses are gone, the cemeteries are gone. There is one hidden synagogue that is looked after by some Muslim residents. There is nothing left of that former life. That’s what the memoir is addressing: on the one hand, why would I want to go back? On the other hand, I have that longing for a place I don’t know. It’s something that many second generation immigrants have.

Read article in full

Interview on Nahrein News with Carol Isaacs and Daniel Jonas  from the band 3yin (22 mins)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Hatikva played for first time in Abu Dhabi

In a sign of increasingly warm relations between Israel and the Gulf States, the Israeli national anthem was played in Abu Dhabi at an international judo competition in the presence of an emotional Israeli minister of culture, Miri Regev. In a previous contest, Hatikva and the Israeli flag were banned and  the winning Israeli had to sing the words himself. Regev also made history by being the first Israeli minister to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.  The Jerusalem Post reports:

Hatikva (was  heard a second time) in Abu Dhabi as Israeli judoka Peter Paltchik won gold in the under 100 kg weight category on Monday. Paltchik defeated Azerbaijani judoka Elmar Gasimov in the finals.

Miri Regev moved to tears during the singing of the Israeli national anthem (Photo: IJF)

Paltchik, who was born in Ukraine and moved to Israel when he was 9 months old, began learning judo at age four. The 26-year-old judoka won his first gold medal at the "Grand Prix Cancun" in June 2017.

He also won a bronze medal in the 2018 European Judo Championships that was held in Tel Aviv in April.

Judoka Sagi Muki won gold on Sunday in the under 81 kg weight category. Israel's national anthem "Hatikva" was played, even though sport event organizers in the Guft have made Israel's participation conditional on it not displaying national symbols.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who was in attendance, openly wept. Following the event on Sunday, Regev made an official visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.  “The whole message here is of unity and peace,” she stated.

Read article in full

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Expert musicologist Heskel Kojaman dies

Update: friends and admirers will gather at 10 am on Sunday 4 November at Golders Green Crematorium, Hoop Lane, London NW11 to pay their respects to Heskel Kojaman.

 The death is announced of the great Iraq-born musicologist and author, Heskel Kojaman. A member of the anti-Zionist League and then the Communist party of Iraq, Kojaman was arrested in 1949, released in 1958 but re-arrested; he spent another 18 months in prison. He spent his latter years in London and is survived by his wife Habiba.

Emil Cohen writes:
"Heskel Kojaman has passed away two months before his 98th Birthday. He was a man of great intellect and wrote regularly in “Alhewar”. In fact, he was such a prolific writer that, last year I checked, he had written some 560 articles. He studied avidly communist ideology and was strongly principled in his interpretations and approach. He spent many years in prison in the infamous Niqrat Salman and other Iraqi prisons. He was a strong lover of music and studied Iraqi Maqam and wrote a book that is considered the most important source of Iraqi traditional music. He was thought of as an expert musicologist and was visited by many Iraqi musicians and singers as he kept an open house for all the writers and musicians."

Heskel Kojaman z''l

A lost world (New Statesman)

Saturday, October 27, 2018

A potted history of the Jews of Oman

The visit of Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Sultanate of Oman may have taken much of the western media by surprise. In fact relations between the two countries have been an open secret for some time. Netanyahu's  is the latest in a series of visits by Israeli leaders: Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, Shimon Peres in 1996; the Omani foreign minister paid a visit to Jerusalem in 1995. Israel even had a trading mission until it was shut down at the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. In 2008, Tsipi Livni, then Israel's foreign minister, visited Oman.

Benjamin Netanyahu with Sultan Qaboos during his one-day visit to Oman

The small gulf state of Muscat and Oman, on the trade route to India and the far east, has been home to a small community of Jews until recently. The grave of the prophet Job is said to be 45 miles from Salalah, located in the south, and very close to the border with Yemen. Benjamin of Tudela,  who kept a diary on Jewish communities around the world, visited Muscat around 1170. Jewish merchants lived in Suhar since medieval times. According to the Gazetteer of Place Names in Muscat, published in the 1970s, travellers reported the presence of Jews in Muscat in 1625 when the port was under Portuguese control. A synagogue was built in 1673. 

In 1828 Jews fled the oppressive rule of Daoud Pasha in Baghdad and settled in Oman, where they practised silvercraft, money-lending and alcohol production. It was claimed that Oman had as many as 350 Jewish families there, mostly from Yemen and Iraq. Between 1830 and 1860 they represented British interests, as in the port of Aden,  but by 1900 they had mostly disappeared.

The last Jew of Oman was thought to be Sulayman al-Yehudi. He left the state in 1948: his children and grandchildren converted to Islam. 

Today expatriate western Jews live in the sultanate, but there is no official Jewish community. 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Who owns Middle Eastern Jewish culture?

The fate of ancient Jewish archives rescued from war-torn Iraq is at a crossroads. Lyn Julius reports in Jewish Renaissance (October 2018) on the fierce debate over the ownership of Jewish history.

“They stole our lives, they stole our childhood, they stole our memories. Our memories lay in the flooded basement of Saddam’s Intelligence HQ. The government wants to return to an Iraq without Jews what Saddam stole from the Jews of Iraq. Do you want to insult us?”

Writing in the Arabic newspaper Elaph in December 2003, journalist David Kheder Bassoon expressed the anger and frustration felt by Iraqi Jews living outside of their country at the uncertain future of the Jewish archive – the enormous collection of books and manuscripts that document Jewish life in Iraq. This autumn marks the deadline for the return of these materials to Baghdad from where they were rescued by American troops in 2003 and taken to the US.

Under Saddam Hussein, thousands of books, manuscripts and other documents were seized from Jewish homes, schools and synagogues. Much of it was locked away at the headquarters of Iraq’s secret service in Baghdad. In 2003, the archive was discovered in the flooded basement of the building, containing tens of thousands of items including books, religious texts, photographs and personal documents that activists say were looted or left behind by Jews forced to flee the country. 

The Americans shipped the archive to Washington DC for restoration and hastily signed a diplomatic agreement promising to return the material to the Iraqi government. The US government spent over $3 million to restore and digitise the archive, which has been exhibited across the country. The collection includes a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793 and an 1815 version of the Jewish mystical text Zohar – as well as more mundane objects such as a Baghdad telephone book. 

Although tens of thousands of Iraqi documents were shipped to the US, the Iraqi government has only formalised its claim to 2,700 books and 30,000 documents of the water-stained archive, which it claims are the country’s ‘precious cultural heritage’, a last emotional link with its ancient Jewish community, and a reminder of Iraq’s former diversity. 

But over the past five years, the Iraqi Jewish community in exile has been waging a bitter battle to recover the collection and prevent it being sent back to Iraq. They say that to return the archives would be like returning property looted by the Nazis to Germany. Activists argue that the archives should be kept somewhere where they are accessible to Iraqi Jews and their descendants, and question whether Iraq would properly take care of the items were they to be sent back. 

 A Haggadah found in the Iraqi-Jewish archive

A similar fight is simmering for many Jews of Egyptian origin living abroad. Dozens of  volumes, containing every detail of the births, marriages and deaths of Jews from Alexandria and Cairo, and dating back to the middle of the 19th century were once kept in the two main synagogues in each city. But in 2016, government officials arrived unannounced at the synagogues and took away the registers to be stored in the Egyptian National Archives. Access to the records is restricted.

The Egyptian government claims that all Torah scrolls and Jewish archives, libraries, communal registers and any movable property over 100 years old constitutes part of Egypt’s national heritage. 

Egyptian Jews living abroad are frustrated  that they cannot even obtain photocopies of brit mila (circumcision),marriage and death certificates from these communal records. Such records are often the only formal Jewish identification Egyptian Jews have to prove lineage or identity for burial or marriage. Repeated efforts since 2005 to intercede with the Egyptian authorities have come to nothing.

In this case, the Egyptian government has been supported by the tiny remnant of the Jewish community that remains in the country. The community’s leader, Magda Haroun has made it clear in various TV appearances that her intention is to leave the community’s assets to the government. Last year Haroun helped revive a former Egyptian Jewish charity, A Drop of Milk, turning it into a heritage NGO with the aim of curating the Jewish archive with the approval of the Ministry of Culture. There are plans to transform the former Heliopolis Synagogue in Cairo into a national Jewish museum, with the hope that the archive’s registers will be available for consultation there.

Most Egyptian Jews left the country after 1948 and again after 1967. The biggest ex-pat Egyptian community is in Israel, but there are groups in France, Canada, the US, Brazil, Australia and the UK. 

But for organisations fighting on behalf of the rights of Jews from Arab countries, the Iraqi and Egyptian cases are symptomatic of a larger problem. Since 2004, the US has been bound by law to impose import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material that constitutes a country’s cultural heritage and has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) to this effect with Egypt, Syria and Libya. An agreement with Algeria is expected. In January 2018, the International Council of Museums released a ‘Red List’ for Yemen aimed at protecting Hebrew manuscripts and Torah finials from leaving Yemen. All but 50 Jews have fled the country, taking what possessions they could, but even these ultimately could be returned to Yemen.

“These MOUs claim to be about [stopping] looting, but their broad scope and limited evidence of success suggests their real impact is providing a legal vehicle to legitimise foreign confiscations and wrongful ownership claims…The MOUs are based on a flawed premise. It is the heritage and patrimony of 850,000 indigenous Jews who fled their homes and property under duress,” says Sarah Levin of the California-based Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).

It is understandable that the international community should wish to prevent the looting and smuggling of ancient artefacts and their sale on the international art market. That is how Islamic State financed much of its conquest of northern Iraq and Syria. Jewish  artefacts purported to be from devastated sites, such as the Jobar  synagogue near Damascus, have turned up in Turkey. These mostly turn out to be fakes. In Syria, mindful of the interest in Middle Eastern Jewish heritage in the West, both the regime and the rebels have been using Jewish artefacts as a political football in the civil war. Reports have surfaced - usually at times of regime offensives - in which both parties accused each other of stealing cultural heritage from Jewish sites. 

But there is a distinction between theft for financial gain, and legitimate salvage of Torah scrolls or books taken by fleeing Jews to be used for prayer. 

In centuries past, armies had carte blanche to plunder enemy property. The ‘Monument Men’ were assigned by the Allies to hide away cultural treasures in occupied Europe during World War II to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. Postwar international treaties, such as the Hague Convention of 1954, were introduced to protect states’ cultural property from wartime looting. But the days when Britain could ship the Elgin Marbles from Greece, or Napoleon could plunder ancient Egyptian obelisks as ‘war booty’, are over.

 In the aftermath of extensive looting after the invasion of Iraq, some 3,800 archeological artefacts have been returned to Iraq from the US. Recently eight Sumerian artefacts sold to the British Museum were sent back. But the Iraqi-Jewish archive does not belong to some long-extinct civilisation: some of the owners are still alive. International law is based on the outmoded assumption of territorial sovereignty. It needs updating, specifically to resolve the tug-of-war between minority and national heritage, where the minority has been persecuted and displaced.

Almost no Jews remain in Iraq. If the archive were to return, most Iraqi Jews – now in Israel – would not be able to visit it. Nor could the authorities guarantee its safety. 

Four US senators have tabled a bill and three congressmen have written to President Trump “strongly objecting” to the return of the materials. As I write, a scholar in the US, who follows these issues but has asked not to be named, has told JP that the State Department has agreed to renew permission for the exhibition of Iraqi-Jewish documents to continue for another two years. "There are some (mostly Jewish groups) who want to keep the archives in the US. They have no plan on how to do that. US museums might be reluctant to accept them, because they would be permanent custodians. Who owns the archive? Technically, the Iraqi government since it is state cultural property. The State Department has to figure out how to handle keeping the archives  in the US without contravening basic precepts of international law,' the source said.

The Jewish community may need to resort to the courts to assert its claims. There has been one precedent for this: lawyer Nathan Lewin successfully sued for the restitution of the library belonging to the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe. Seized by the Russians in 1917, it is now in New York.

However, the Jews fighting to stop the return of their property to Iraq, or the release of blockaded property in Arab states, can take comfort from Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This states that no individual or community should be arbitrarily deprived of their property. 

As Sarah Levin of JIMENA puts it: “The US should not enter into any agreement and should withdraw from any existing agreement with a foreign state that either condones, supports or promotes any Article 17 violation by that state.”

Lyn Julius is the author of Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight, Vallentine Mitchell, 2017.