Saturday, April 29, 2006

Bahraini official rewrites Jewish history

The members of the American Jewish Committee in Palm Beach would do well do take some of what the Bahraini ambassador to the US told them about Bahraini Jews with a pinch of salt.

Report by Michele Dargan in the Palm Beach Daily News. (With thanks: Albert, and a special correspondent)

"(...) Nasser M Al Belooshi spoke to more than 50 members and guests of the American Jewish Committee at The Colony. AJC honorary board members Nancy and Mark Gilbert hosted the cocktail reception.

"Al Belooshi, who resides in Washington, D.C., came to the United States in 2003 to coordinate and expedite the signing of the U.S./Bahrain free-trade agreement. The agreement was signed in 2004 and ratified last year. He was appointed ambassador in 2005.

"Al Belooshi also discussed the history of Jewish residents in Bahrain.

"In the early 1900s, many Jewish immigrants from Iraq, Iran and India settled in Bahrain. When Israel was formed in 1948, most of the Jews left Bahrain.

Most Jews did not leave when Israel was formed, but in reaction to local Partition riots in 1947 which destroyed the synagogue and claimed two Jewish lives.

"Today there are 70 to 100 Jews living in Bahrain, but that number is on the rise, Al Belooshi said.

Wrong: there are 30 Jews in Bahrain, though numbers fluctuate if you include Jews serving with the American Fifth Fleet.

"Bahrain has always been inclusive of all religions — Jewish, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Baha'is and Sikhs — whose adherents live side-by-side and are productive members of society, he said.

"Al Belooshi made frequent mention of Bahrain's longtime friendship with the United States. An island nation nestled midway between Saudi Arabia and the peninsular nation of Qatar in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain is the home port for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

"He said the Gulf States "feel very unsafe because of the nuclear ambitions of Iran," which Bahrain opposes.

"We need to see a more united front against this," he said. "America has always been a country that has helped. I hope (the U.S.) will help and push for peace in that region."

"Bahrain is the only Gulf State that has given Jews land for a synagogue and there has been a well-maintained synagogue for 100 years," he said.

Wrong: the Jews jointly acquired land out of town during the 1920s for a synagogue. It was destroyed during Partition riots in 1947, and the Jews put up a high wall around the compound so that it became inaccessible. Over the years, the town expanded, and the compound became very valuable because of its location. The rulers of Bahrain offered to pay for the land, and provide the Jews with a piece of land outside town in order to build a synagogue. The Jews refused. They argued that no one would build another Synagogue out of town, and if this piece of land were given up, there would be nothing to show that there was a community in Bahrain. So about five years ago, the synagogue was rebuilt. There are no services there, but it stands for all to see.

"Bahrain also was the only country to have offered American missionaries in 1888 land on which to build a church. The synagogue and the church still exist as emblems of Bahrain's tolerance of all religions."*

Al Belooshi was asked if Bahraini officials are afraid that radical groups may target his country because of its alliance with the United States.

Twenty-five thousand Americans and their dependents from the Fifth Fleet live in Bahrain and a half-million Americans pass through the country each year, he said.

"We are an island and islands can protect themselves in a better way," he said. "Yes, we are afraid, but our responsibility is bigger than other countries. Just imagine an American killed in Bahrain. It would be a disastrous situation. That's why we have to be careful not once, not twice, but 100 times. That's why we have a very strong intelligence relationship with the U.S. and Great Britain."

Read article in full

*Bahrain's Jews have benefited from the protection of the island's rulers, but as in Iran have been known to suffer from the widespread Shi'a popular prejudice that the Jews are 'unclean'. One Jew who used to install TVs in people's homes would be invited for a Coke. But his hosts would never drink with him and he would discover the glass he had drunk from had been thrown away.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Update on Iranian Muslim who went to Israel

The BBC has finally picked up on this story, featured originally on 'Point of no return' in February (with thanks: Albert):

"My biggest surprise was when I found myself with two other Iranians, completely randomly, on the same minibus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I had no idea that Israel had the world's largest proportion of Iranians in its population, outside Iran itself.

"It was only then I could digest the fact that Israel's President Moshe Katsaf and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, despite their hardline stances against the Iranian government, were originally from Iran. I began to share with my blog's readers what I was observing, by posting entries, pictures, videos, and podcasts. I shared stories about an Israeli woman who knew the works of Persian classical poet Saadi by heart; an Iranian professor whose wife's family were killed in Holocaust; an Israeli actor who invited me to watch rehearsals of the play he was appearing in ; a young Israeli academic who had studied Ayatollah Khomeini's ideas; an Iranian veteran engineer whose biggest wish was to see Iran again.

"I encountered some hostile Iranians in Jerusalem who saw me as a representative of a government of which they didn't have good memories. But I also wrote about an Iranian family man who generously invited me to his suburban Tel Aviv house, and in return I helped him become the first Iranian to write a blog from Israel."

Read article in full

Eli Amir brings the East to Jerusalem

Those who attended Eli Amir's lecture 'Longing and hope' in London, part of Harif Week last November, will be particularly interested in this lengthy interview in the Jerusalem Post. (With thanks: Albert)

"(...)Describing the meaning of Jerusalem, Eli Amir has, perhaps unwittingly, also described himself. Meeting with In Jerusalem in honor of Independence Day and upcoming Jerusalem Day, Amir, best-selling author, publicist, former adviser on Arab affairs, former head of the Youth Aliya Department in the Jewish Agency, and regular guest on the popular radio show (with former MK Geula Cohen), "From the Right and from the Left," reveals much about himself, yet hides at least as much.

Nearly 70 years old, married with three adult children, Amir seems both younger and older. He is both decisive and ambivalent, his language combining both the polemic and poetic, the elegant and the nearly-crude.

Almost like the walls he describes, he is both present and distant, engaged in the interview - but then suddenly making a list of errands and folding it carefully into his pocket. He is alternatively vain and attentive, with an otherworldly eastern quality, sensual and earthy, that is consistently charming and embracing. (...)

"They (the Arabs) know that I am from here, too, and so, in a moment of grace, a Palestinian will be able to say that he recognizes that I belong here, and that the countries of the region owe me a solution to my refugee-ness, too. But no one thinks in those directions today, and that is part of the tragedy, too.

"As a country and society, we must be from here. We must stop acting as a Western colonial conqueror. We must be part of the Middle East. Our children must learn Arabic as well as Hebrew."

That is why, he says, he is head of the board of the Abraham Fund - to help to make a change, to bring the message of peace and equality.

Read article in full

A Persian-Jewish actress in Hollywood

The Forward reports:(with thanks: Albert)

Persian Jewish actress Bahar Soomekh earned some serious attention last year when she played a young Iranian in "Crash," the Academy Award winner for best picture. She's about to star in an even bigger role — playing alongside Tom Cruise in the thriller "Mission: Impossible III." On the eve of the film's debut, the Shmooze caught up with Soomekh to chat about growing up Persian Jewish in Los Angeles and about her road to becoming a star.

"I was born in Tehran. My father is a poet. We moved from Iran in 1979, but before the revolution. I pretty much grew up in Los Angeles and learned English by watching TV. I went to the Sinai Akiba Academy and later to Beverly Hills High School."

Read article in full

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The cauldron of anti-semitism

Bruce Thornton likens European anti-semitism to another form of 'dhimmitude'. The Jew is tolerated only when he is a defenceless victim, conscious of his inferiority.

"The position of Jews in the European imagination is similar to their status in the Muslim world. Most Muslims don’t want Jews to disappear, just Israel. Jews have lived in the Muslim world for centuries, but they did so as a subordinated minority whose public behavior and demeanor were always supposed to testify that they were inferior to their Islamic overlords. As possessors of the ultimate divine revelation, Muslims were justified in reminding Jews and Christians, who both rejected that culminating revelation, that they were inferiors allowed to live only by their spiritual superiors’ dispensation, which could be arbitrarily lifted at any time.

This is the contemptuous, conditional forbearance that many today extol as Muslim “tolerance.” It reminds me of the position of blacks in the Jim Crow South. After all, many Southerners who believed in segregation despised the Klu Klux Klan’s terrorism, and sincerely liked black people. These more respectable segregationists didn’t want to kill all the blacks, just to make sure that they lived in a way that publicly testified to their inferiority. Such Southerners believed that given the innate, ineradicable differences between the races, both peoples were better served by maintaining in social and political life the various mechanisms for asserting the superiority of the white race and its natural right to rule. So too with the dhimmi in Muslim societies: they can live and even practice their religion, so long as they demonstrate that they are inferior.

But the existence of Israel upsets all these long-established roles for Jews. Not just because Israel fights — Jews can fight, as they did at Masada and in the Warsaw ghetto. But they’re not supposed to win. To have their own nation, and thus be equal to the world’s other nations, and then to defeat in battle better armed, more numerous enemies, is to violate the image of the Jew established for centuries. It is to make him our equal, and to call forth paranoid fantasies about nefariously influential cabals to explain this disturbing change. For the Jew’s job is to be a victim, and thus perpetually inferior. He is to suffer and die, or else to leech away his Jewish identity and thus not really be a Jew, which is another sort of death."

Read article in full

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Iranian Jews 'support nuclear programme'

The Jerusalem Post reports (with thanks: Albert): Iranian Jews have long supported the country's nuclear program, according to the Iranian parliamentary representative of the Jewish community. (Well they would, wouldn't they?)

'In an interview with the TV network al-Arabiya, Morris Motamed claimed that the nuclear program was indeed for peaceful purposes, and that Iranian Jewry's connection with the current regime is "very good."

'But Motamed differed from Iranian President Ahmadinejad on the subject of the Holocaust. While Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied the historical truth of the Holocaust, calling it a "myth," Motamed believes that the murder of six million Jews and other minorities did actually take place.

Read article in full

Exodus of Egypt's Jews revisited

A Jew who called the Muslims to prayer in the camp where they were all interned in 1948, another whose dream is to assemble a Minyan (quorum) in an Egyptian synagogue - just two of the characters interviewed in Benjamin Bright's fascinating Jerusalem Post feature, 'Exodus revisited'. (With thanks: Albert)

(Abraham) Matalon describes his encounter in the Abu Kir internment camp with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria, who had also been imprisoned: "At first I didn't know he was a member. We embraced, and we started meeting every day. He said me he wanted to learn Hebrew, and I wanted to learn Koran, so this is how we spent our time."

Matalon continues: "I wanted to have a dialogue with the Muslims, and they loved me for it! I did the call to prayer in the camp and the soldiers admired it, they even answered me. And they knew I was a Zionist, but they did not manifest any attitudes against me. They said we are friends in life. When you come to talk to your enemy, you see that he is a different person, you can see his human side." (...)

My parents couldn't take anything from Egypt," recalls Levana Zamir. "My mother sewed her jewelry into the hem of her coat, and by a miracle she got on the boat, but it was nothing to build a new life with. When new immigrants came to Israel, they put us in tents. It was very difficult for my parents, and I remember my mother crying every night."

But the Jews in Egypt had always given great importance to education, building their own high schools and providing private schooling for the poor. Within a few years, most families had pulled themselves out of poverty through hard work and established themselves in their new homes in Israel.

Any bitterness Zamir might have harbored vanished when she visited Egypt for the first time in 1982. "I went back because I was curious what kind of place it is and I wanted to remember what I had left. And when I was in Egypt, I found my place. After so many years, I thought I was an Israeli, but I am not. I was exiled from Egypt: we had to leave, though we did not want to."

Taking a different perspective, Lucy Calamaro claims she "will never again put my foot in Egypt because I remember the bad days. I do not miss it at all. We had a good life, but it was like being a bird in a cage. I prefer to live poorly in Israel."

Yet despite being an adamant Zionist, Calamaro has never become an Israeli citizen. "I am convinced that one day the Italian embassy will get my money back from Egypt. When we left, the Egyptians made us leave everything behind, but they gave us papers signed by the government and Nasser himself saying we are owed half-a-million dollars. For this we agreed never to return to Egypt."

When Geoffrey Hanson returned to his native city of Alexandria in 1980 to see the synagogue of his youth, Eliahou Hanabi, he heard rumors of the Egyptian government's desire to take over the synagogue and to convert it into something else. On Friday, the Muslim holy day, thousands flooded the mosques, filling them past capacity and forcing the pious to pray on small rugs in the middle of the street. Walking around Alexandria, Hanson concluded that it was only a matter of time before the Muslims called for the conversion of Eliahou Hanabi, the biggest synagogue in the Arab world, capable of holding 1,500 people.

"In fact, an Egyptian office was opened in the compound, reporting monthly on the situation at the synagogue," Hanson says. And without regular attendance or religious services "it is only natural that the government wants to close the synagogue down, it is not a question of being anti-Jewish."

And so Hanson, who retired in 2000, started traveling all over the world on a "holy mission" to save Eliahou Hanabi and the Jewish buildings in all of Egypt. "[I am] asking for moral support from Jewish communities and advising them of the importance of regular visits," he says. Hanson believes that when the Egyptian authorities see these temples are active places of worship, they will be "afraid to go against people from all over the world."

Nevertheless, Shabbat at the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue in Cairo last month was a subdued affair. Hanson had succeeded in luring from abroad only Albert Bahar, and none of the few remaining local Jews attended.

"I think Geoff's idea is a mission impossible," Bahar says. "Even after many years of peace, I myself had no desire to go back to Cairo. Our family felt like foreigners. My friends visited and told me their impressions, which synagogues were destroyed. I preferred to keep my childhood as it is," Bahar says.

Read article in full

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

US calls for restoration of Aden cemetery

The US State Department has appealed for the Jewish Cemetery in Aden, Yemen, in a state of disrepair following years of neglect and periodic desecration, to be restored. (With thanks: Anne)

The State Department feels that restoring this historic cemetery is very important, and would like to find a group to help with finance and technical expertise. Any group able to provide technical or financial assistance would work with the (Yemen) Ministry of Religious Guidance 'to preserve this part of the historical Jewish presence in Yemen'.

Anyone interested in this project is asked to contact:

Katy A. Lurie
Office of International Religious Freedom
US Department of State, Rm 2634

More on the Jews of Aden here

Monday, April 24, 2006

Teaching about the N.African Holocaust

Haaretz reports that 'a new program for teaching junior-high students about North African Jews and the Holocaust aims to minimize the alienation felt by students who are not Ashkenazi Jews of European descent.' Nothing to do with teaching schoolchildren the historical facts, of course. (With thanks: Lily)

"The curriculum developers at Yad Vashem say most Israelis know nothing about the fate of North African Jews during the Holocaust. Yael Richler-Friedman, who heads the Holocaust Authority's curriculum development department, says she gets puzzled looks every time she points out to visitors the memorial plaque in the Valley of the Communities for the Libyan Jews who died in the Holocaust. (...)

"The current Israeli Holocaust high school curriculum devotes only seven pages to the Jews of North Africa, from the "Shoah Vezikaron" ("Holocaust and Memory") textbook used to prepare students for matriculation exams. It provides a dry, factual description of events but does not deal with daily life and with the complex issues of identity - Jewish, North African and European colonial subject - faced by North African Jews.

"Richler-Friedman believes the new program, which is filled with testimonies, personal stories and archive photos, will lead the students to "connect" to a historical narrative that is perceived as alien and distant.

"When students discover that their grandparents were also in danger, they lose their sense of distance toward the Holocaust. It's a situation that we're aware of, but not proud of, because the main goal of the program is different, it is to teach a chapter that had been neglected in the curriculum," Richler-Friedman explains.

"According to Richler-Friedman, in the past it was impossible to develop a separate unit on North African Jewry because the dominant educational approach gave decisive weight to what she terms the "numerical element."

"The name of the unit - "North African Jewry during the period of the Holocaust" - consciously avoids coming down on either side of the question of whether North African Jews can be viewed as victims of the Holocaust.

Mainstream Holocaust researchers believe that these communities did not face total annihilation, and their persecution was not based only on racist motives but also on doubts regarding the Jews' loyalty to the government.

"Dr. Irit Abramsky, the academic adviser for the curriculum, believes the Nazis had identical plans for the Jews living in Europe and in North Africa, but they did not get the chance to implement them in the latter case.

"In the curriculum developers chose to tread carefully with regard to this sensitive issue. They do not explicitly say whether the Germans took the North African Jews into consideration when the decision to obliterate European Jewry was made at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942.

"Dr. Abramsky believes the Nazis included these communities as part of the Italian and French Jewish populations, but Yad Vashem's chief historian, Prof. Dan Michman, believes the Nazis were thinking only about eliminating European Jewry at Wannsee. A flurry of e-mails eventually produced an oblique formulation that was acceptable to all sides.

"When the Holocaust is discussed only in demographic or numeric terms, it is obvious that there was no Holocaust in North Africa. But if one is attempting to understand the Holocaust in terms of values, it is clear that North Africa plays an important part."

Read article in full

Israelis help rebuild devastated Iran

While the Iranian regime has been engaging in public displays of hatred against Israel (see President Ahmadinejad's latest diatribe), behind the scenes the picture seems very different. (With thanks: Albert)

"In recent weeks the Muslim republic has been enjoying the skills of Israeli experts recruited to help with rehabilitating the country after recent earthquakes have caused massive damages and devastation.

"Three Israeli infrastructure consultants who returned to Israel at the end of the week from a secret visit in Iran on the invitation of a Tehran official, told Israel's leading daily Yedioth Ahronoth they were stunned by their stay in the country.

"We were amazed to discover the gap between Israel's public conflict with Iran, and the depth of the commercial cooperation between the countries, estimated at dozens of millions of dollars a year. We were greeted warmly and felt no hostility on the part of our hosts," one of the Israeli experts said."

Read article in full

Friday, April 21, 2006

Magdi Allam awarded Israeli prize

Congratulations to Magdi Allam, one of four journalists to be awarded this year's Dan David prize by Tel Aviv university for 'his ceaseless work in fostering understanding and tolerance between cultures' (With thanks: Lily).

It is a fitting occasion to revisit Allam's seminal piece Arabs without Jews: roots of a tragedy (scroll down). Allam wrote it just after seeing Pierre Rehov's film about the Jews expelled from Arab countries, The Silent Exodus.

A Muslim born in Egypt and raised in Italy, Magdi Allam is one of the leading journalists in Italy today. He is Deputy Editor of Corriere della Sera, one of Italy's leading newspapers, and an Arab and Islamic affairs commentator.

An author as well as a prolific journalist and editor, he has consistently spoken out against extremism and in favour of tolerance. He is one of the leaders in the fight for coexistence between civilizations, asserting, "A positive dialogue with moderate Islam is both possible and necessary".

Jewish bridegroom kidnapped in Baghdad

In a post dated 30 September 2005, Point of no return told the story of the young Jews living in Iraq who fell in love and travelled to Amman to get married. (With thanks: Iraqijews).

"The bride, a dentist, and the bridegroom, a jeweller, held a small, intimate engagement party in what remains of the Jewish community of Baghdad - thought to be only nine or 10 people now - before going to Amman for a marriage ceremony performed last week by a European rabbi. The wedding arrangements were made by the bride's two brothers, who now live in Holland. A third brother, and her mother, still live in Baghdad."

The couple were determined to return to Baghdad.

Now a tragic twist has come to light. As this Arabic article in Al-Sharq al Awsat explains, a few days after the newly-weds returned from their honeymoon, the husband was kidnapped. The article does not say if and when the husband was released. The young wife, in tears, said that come what may, she would 'never leave Iraq, her country.'

Update: in September 2007 his family fear the worst for the kidnapped bridgeroom. Efforts to raise money in London in return for information about him have proved fruitless.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Jew interned in Egypt in 1948

This story about an Egyptian Jew interned in 1948 was extracted from a talk given by Racheline Barda at the Sydney Jewish Museum on 10 April. The talk was entitled ' The Second exodus of the Jews of Egypt 1948 - 67' and was based on Racheline's doctoral thesis. (With thanks: Sara)

"Egypt was apparently the first and only Arab state to use internment camps against its Jewish citizens. In Cairo: men were detained in Huckstep, an old American military camp, and the women at the Prison for Foreign Residents (Prison des Etrangers). In Alexandria, the Abukir camp – an old British Airforce military camp - held both men and women. The fourth site was the prison of El Tor on the Red Sea coast in Sinai. It was the most isolated and dreaded of the camps.
"The authorities particularly targeted all Zionists activists and sympathisers, even though Zionist youth groups were tolerated up to 1948 and operated semi-legally in Egypt. They also targeted anybody suspected of being a communist or associated with a communist. [As Jewish youth was heavily implicated in the Egyptian communist party, it meant that a great number of them were arrested. Upon their release, they were all expelled. (The majority went to France, where I interviewed a few of them.)
"In fact, anyone deemed ‘prejudicial to the safety and security of the state’, was a potential target. The experience related by one Respondent was particularly significant as it demonstrated the arbitrary nature of those arrests. He was a student at the Faruk University, in his last year of Engineering. He was not a Zionist but politically he was more of a nationalist who leaned towards the left. In April 1948, members of the Muslim Brothers Society tried to stop him from entering the grounds of the university on the pretext that ‘they did not want Egypt to help the enemies of Islam’. When he tried to force his way in, they physically assaulted him. The dean of the faculty, who did not want any problem with the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, worked out a compromise where the Jewish student collected his lecture notes from friends without attending classes personally. This arrangement was short-lived as, on 15 May 1948, the day Egypt and the other Arab states declared war on Israel, the authorities formally arrested him. He related to me the exact circumstances:

"The guy from the secret police was there and he said: ‘the Egyptians on one side and the foreigners on the other side. I went towards the Egyptian side because that is what I thought I was. He said: ‘you are not an Egyptian, you are a foreigner, you are a Jew’.Until then, I had never been impressed by the arguments of the Zionists.This is when I realised that it was not going to help to try and integrate in Egypt because they were never going to accept us.That was the turning point for me. I started to study Zionism and Hebrew while I was in prison."

"He was subsequently interned for fifteen months with other Jewish students in the Abukir cammp. Their treatment in the hands of Egyptian authorities was apparently fair, and they were not subjected to any trial or even lengthy interrogation. Paradoxically, during his time in prison, this particular respondent together with other students in the same predicament, appealed to the Prime Minister of Egypt, al-Nuqrashi Pasha - the same one who had declared repeatedly to the British Ambassador in Egypt that ‘all Jews were potential Zionists but that anyhow all Zionists were Communists’- to allow them to sit for their final examinations. Strangely enough, they were granted permission to do so, albeit separately from the rest of the student body. The respondent recalled that his diploma was delivered to him in the internment camp together with a signed picture from the King, in recognition for his outstanding performance in the examination. This was Egypt, it couldn’t have happened anywhere else’, remarked this respondent.Eventually, the covert efforts of the Jewish Agency and Mossad Le’Aliya helped secure his release from prison together with other detainees and they organised immediate travel arrangements to Israel through Naples.
In her talk Racheline gives an overview of the multi-ethnic composition of the 80,000-strong Egyptian Jewish community. She notes that only 25 percent were Egyptian nationals; 25 percent had foreign nationality and over 40 percent were stateless. The first signs of trouble were anti-Jewish demonstrations in the streets of Cairo in 1938. The Jews were forced out of Egypt after each of the three Arab-Israeli wars in 1948, 1956 and 1967, but Jews also fled after the 1952 Cairo fire, a 'spontaneous' orgy of anti-British and anti-Jewish rioting, looting and arson.

If you would like an electronic copy of Racheline Barda's complete talk (30 pages long, 1 Megabyte) please email me - Ed.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A leavened Passover

Jews leaving Egypt celebrating Jews leaving Egypt: Teddy Nahmias describes a Passover he will never forget. From Jewish Renaissance (Spring 2003).

Following the unfortunate events of 1956 and the Suez Canal crisis, hundreds of Jewish families packed their belongings and left Egypt, most boarding ships sailing from Alexandria , bound for 26 European Mediterranean ports.

My family chose Italy, my father's dream land. As a Corfiot he felt Venice was his cultural home, so we were on our way to Venice and Trieste. The vessel was the S/S Enoiria, a smaller version of the famous S/S Esperia of Adriatica fame, those white luxury liners that rode the Mediterranean with the Lion of Venice watching over from the yellow chimneys.

We took the lift down from our fifth floor flat in Mazarita for the last time. Some of our neighbours opened their front doors and stood in silence on the landings to watch us go. Mohammed, our imposing Sudanese bawah (porter), was sobbing like a child. There was no coming back. The emotion was high and my mother could not stop her tears. Dad became tense as we went through customs and police clearance, but felt more comfortable as he walked the steps to the deck. After all, he was already on Italian soil. As for myself, I was in a daze, feeling that something irreversible was taking place, but too young to realise the implications. I was probably hoping to find another group of youngsters at the other end that would recreate the rock 'n' roll fun-loving crowd I had left behind.

As the ship started to move away from the dock and head for the high seas, we all waved goodbye, and slowly turned our heads from the land that we were not to see again for perhaps half a century.

I noticed a few young people around my age and naturally was drawn to them. My parents by now were in conversation with other Jews who were on their way to Canada. Others were due to catch a ship from Trieste to Australia.

Suddenly someone said," but tomorrow night is Pesach, it's the first Seder night. Shouldn't we mark the occasion somehow?" A charming and understanding officer decided we could use a section of the dining room, and I recall about 25 of us sitting around a number of tables assembled to form a long table. To top it all, as a gift from the Captain, a beautiful cake was placed in the centre of the table with the compliments of the Chef, the crew and the officers. How embarrassing: no matzah, no haroset, no maror, but instead a massive hametz torta to celebrate the festival of the unleavened bread. I remember my father laughing and I also remember a discussion on who would officiate. A Haggada was found. I cannot remember whether or not the cake was eaten. We were Jews leaving Egypt, celebrating Jews leaving Egypt. Had we fallen into a mysterious time warp? Although not realising it at the time, we had gone through a unique experience never to be repeated. This time the bread had risen.

Al-Kahina: a powerful symbol of female resistance

A famous symbol of resistance to the 7th century Muslim conquerors of North Africa is the Jewish Berber warrior queen, the Kahina, whose story is detailed here (with thanks: Ida). She led what are believed to have been Judaised Berber tribes into battle and fought valiantly, but ultimately in vain. Over the centuries these Berber tribes are thought to have nearly all been Islamicised.

In his book Minorities of the Middle East Mordechai Nisan explains that the role of women in Berber society differed significantly from Arab Muslim norms:

"Unveiled women were free to meet and openly discuss marriage in contrast to Arab custom in many Muslim societies... From childbirth methods to participation in the war of liberation struggle against the French, the Berber woman demonstrated a willingness to endure pain and contribute to the solidity of the cultural group. Always she remained the symbol of love and beauty, magic and nature."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

We cannot tolerate the intolerant

As a Jew once married to an Afghan Muslim, the American feminist Phyllis Chesler experienced at first-hand Islam's intolerance of other religions and of assertive women. A fascinating interview with her in Front Page magazine.

..."Every day I lived in Kabul my mother-in-law tried to convert me to Islam. She eventually scorned me as the Yahud (the "Jew"). Thus, I became finely attuned to religious apartheid as well. I understood that, with some exceptions, Muslims do not have a history or a psychology of tolerating other religions very well; on the contrary. Islamic history is one in which Muslims have taxed, impoverished, jailed, murdered, or exiled all those who do not convert to Islam.

Today, the level of anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda in the Islamic world is lethal, toxic, and has unleashed a global jihad against both Israel and the West. We cannot afford to tolerate the intolerant nor can we afford to minimize the dangers to our civilization posed by Islamist fanatics who have successfully hijacked their religion and peoples. There were also "good" and moderate Germans during Hitler's reign. What matters is that they did not stand up to Hitler. What matters is that otherwise "good" people appeased him as well...."

Read article in full

Monday, April 17, 2006

In search of the last Jews of Yemen

Academic and journalist Dr Saul Zadka is one of the few Israelis to have visited Yemen. This small country at the tip of the Arabian peninsula is still home to 150 Jews, the remnant of a once-great community . They live precariously in a lawless society with a rampant gun culture. What does the future hold, not only for the Jewish community, but for Yemen in general?
Don't miss Dr Zadka's illustrated talk about his visit to Yemen on Sunday 7 May. The talk takes place in London's West End and is being jointly organised by Harif (The Association of Jews from the Middle East and N. Africa) and Spiro Ark.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Nebi Daniel launches website

The Nebi Daniel Association was set up to preserve and document Egypt's Jewish heritage for posterity - so far, no easy task.
The Association has just launched a beautiful and detailed website in English and French. Bookmark and contact the editor, Yves Fedida, with your views. If you are an Egyptian Jew fill in the form endorsing Nebi Daniel's aims and send it back to them. The website has an excellent list of links to sites and resources on Egyptian Jewry and Jews from Arab countries in general.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Passover story recalls their Second Exodus

Joe Pessah and his wife, Remy Pessah, attend a gathering at Jewish Community High School in San Francisco.
Jim Gensheimer / Mercury News

For Jews from Arab countries such as the Pessahs of San Francisco, the story of the First Exodus is a poignant reminder of the Second Exodus they experienced in their own lifetimes. (With thanks: Albert)

Lisa Fernandez reports in the Mercury News:

"Joe and Remy Pessah grew up a few hours' drive from the pyramids in Egypt and swam where the Nile kissed the Mediterranean Sea. Then their country turned against them.

"Because he's Jewish, Joe Pessah was imprisoned when Israel went to war with Egypt in 1967. He tells of being beaten and tortured. Remy Gazzar waited for three years for her fiance to be set free. Then, like the rest of the Egyptian Jewish community, the Pessahs were whisked to Cairo's airport with a one-way ticket away from their home.

"So when the Mountain View couple sit down to tell the story of Passover tonight -- on the first night of the Jewish holiday -- they won't recite their prayers with an impatient eye on the barbecued lamb and homemade matzo to come. The biblical Exodus mirrors the bittersweet story of their lives.

"``I feel it more than anybody,'' said Joe Pessah, whose surname passed on through the generations coincidentally means Passover in Hebrew. ``I feel happiness, anger, sadness -- all that makes up a salad. Though I am free, the emotions have left a scar.''

"Today, the Pessahs (pronounced Peh-SAH) lead comfortable Silicon Valley lives, among about 2,000 other Middle Eastern and North African Jews who call the Bay Area home. But with freedom come nagging fears that it could be taken away.

"Joe Pessah, 61, an electrical engineer in Milpitas, co-founded a synagogue for Egyptian Jews called Bnei Yisrael in Daly City. Remy Pessah, 58, a textile artist, volunteers with a Jewish women's group. And three years ago, both Pessahs began sharing their story, hoping this little-known slice of Jewish history won't be lost.

"It's not easy. Joe Pessah said he has nightmares, at times so intense that he wakes up believing he's behind bars. His wife lowers her voice at a neighborhood coffeehouse while describing anti-Semitic times in Egypt."

Read article in full

Update: this article has prompted the Egyptian consulate, for the first time ever, to acknowledge that Jews had been detained

Another story of modern-day exile

Gina Waldman's Libyan Seder

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Passover pilgrimage to Ezekiel's tomb in Iraq

With Passover beginning tomorrow evening it seems fitting to post Tim Judah's moving article, Passover in Baghdad. Tim, a war correspondent whose Indian-born father was of Iraqi-Jewish origin, went to Baghdad to cover the US invasion in April 2003. He managed to track down most of the 34 Jews still living there. Today, their numbers are down to single figures and the 2,700-year-old Jewish community in Iraq is on the verge of extinction.

"Sara told me that in Al Kifl her family had lived next to the shrine of Ezekiel the Prophet. Every year thousands of Jews would come to make a pilgrimage there. A couple of days before I talked to Sara I had visited the nearby town of Karbala. Here I had seen tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims beating their breasts and heads and converging on the golden domed mosques of the city to mourn the Imam Hussein who had died there in AD 680. At the height of the pilgrimage there may have been up to a million pilgrims in Kerbala at any one time.

"I asked Sara when the Jews would make their pilgrimage and she said that it used to take place in the week after Passover. In fact, she said—scrabbling through a Jewish calendar—it would have to be done by, well, tomorrow.

We began to debate. Would the road be safe? What about the Shiites? A day or two before, one of the Shia leaders had been arrested by the Americans, and his followers had been protesting, writing slogans in blood on the road outside the Palestine Hotel. But we decided to try and go anyway.

"We set off the next morning. The road was open and there were no checkpoints. American military convoys jostled for space with the rest of the traffic. When we got to Al Kifl we made our way to the shrine, behind the old, covered market. Because it was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, the shops were shut and just as we got there a Shiite imam was leading his flock into the tomb to pray. He politely told Sara to put on a headscarf. We went to have lunch while the prayers took place. Ishak was nervous and did not feel safe. Men ambled around with Kalashnikovs. There had been fighting with the Americans here and the main street was pockmarked with bullet holes. Outside the little restaurant were three mini vans with coffins strapped to their roofs. They were Shi'a being taken for burial at their nearby holy city of Najaf.

"When we went back, prayers had not yet finished. We sat outside a teahouse in the covered market while inside a group of men watched a DVD chronicling the crimes of Saddam. Sara told me that until 1951 about five thousand Jews used to come to Al Kifl during Passover week. And people still came after 1951, at least until 1967, after which it grew too dangerous. Then in 1984 a group of twenty Jews had come from Baghdad and in 1989 Sara, her family and another family had come, but no Jews to her knowledge had made the pilgrimage since then.

"We wandered back to the gate of the shrine and met a young man who was waiting there for his father. He told us, without being asked, that the market used to belong to Jews and added that now Indians and Iranians came to pray at the shrine. I asked if Jews came too and he said, 'I don't know, because I don't know what they look like.'

"Before the Jews left Al Kifl the Jews and the Shiites had shared the shrine. They would come at different times of day and steer clear of it on one another's holy days.

"Inside the shrine was the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel. There were still Hebrew inscriptions on the walls. The tomb was surrounded by a large wooden covering, like a sarcophagus. We lit candles and the guardian, who realized from the way we talked and acted that we were Jewish, opened a tiny door at the bottom of the covering. By crouching down we could see the actual, concrete-covered tomb. It had Hebrew script on one end. The guardian told us he would welcome the Jews to come back to pray here. Sara walked around and kissed the corners of the tomb.

"Later Sara told me she was both exhilarated and saddened by what we had done. The past, she said, her childhood in Al Kifl, had seemed 'like yesterday'. But now perhaps this would be her last visit.

"On the way back to Baghdad we stopped at the ruins of Babylon. Much of the ancient city was reconstructed under Saddam, the rest is crumbling walls in dips and mounds and the whole site is dominated by one of his nearby palaces. A few American soldiers were mooching about, some guarding the site, some tourists.

"This was where this story began, and this was where it was ending. In 606 BC the Babylonians brought the first group of Jews from Judah into exile here. In 597 BC King Nebuchadnezzar brought several thousand more, including Ezekiel. Ezekiel told his people that, following the destruction of Jerusalem, the exiles were the hope of Israel's redemption. When the time was right, God would lead them back to the Promised Land.

"I left Iraq on May 1. The planned airlift still hadn't happened and the people who were supposed to be organizing it—exactly who they were was still unclear—had started to argue that airlifting a handful of people was not only unnecessary but might even be 'bad for the Jews'. Bad for those who would be left behind, and bad politics in a region—and world, even—that already believes that one of the main reasons for the war was to help Israel. Those that wanted to go would be helped to do so individually.

"As Sara and Ishak and I drove back to Baghdad I tried to imagine my ancestors here. At home my father had always told me that we came to Iraq with the exiles of 597 BC. (How did he know this, I had always wondered.) I tried to picture my forebears, in the fields or perhaps in the shops or the market, but I couldn't. A cold grey dust filled the air. Wrecked cars and burnt-out tanks littered the road back to Baghdad. On either side were dried-out, churned-up fields and the remains of unfinished concrete buildings. So my ancestors lived here for 2,500 years? So what? My pilgrimage was over. I will never need to do it again."

Read article in full (Granta 82 - subscription required)

Tim Judah's photographs show him (in the checked shirt), 'Sara' and 'Ishak' at the prophet Ezekiel's tomb, and one of the Hebrew wall inscriptions. 'Sara' now lives in London.

Nothing tastes like home-made Haroseth

There is nothing like home-made Haroseth - the paste eaten at Passover that symbolises the bricks and mortar that the children of Israel toiled to make as slaves in Pharoah's Egypt, says Lucette Lagnado in Opinion Journal. (With thanks: Lily).

"Now that my parents have died, I find myself yearning for the texture and richness of my mother's dark red jam and for the musical sound one of those gleaming spoons would make as my father tapped it against his wine glass. I guess that is why I winced when I saw the Streit's jar. Instant haroseth, I thought. Is nothing sacred?

"Passover has always taken on a literal cast for me. I was born in Cairo, and my family had to leave when I was 6 years old, as part of a massive, modern-day Exodus of tens of thousands of Jews from Egypt and the Levant in the aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel. At the Seder, Jews read that we must regard the flight from Egypt as if it were our own personal journey. This was no trouble for my family. We'd had our own encounter with a Pharaoh--the dictator Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Despite our hardships there, we also missed Egypt, perhaps never more than on Passover. Our holiday had an inverted quality, longing for the place we were grateful to have left.

"And now a jar of premade haroseth has made me miss my mother's homemade variety all the more. I called the Streit's company, an 81-year-old family-owned business, still in its original location on New York's Lower East Side, and asked whether this is the first time that it was selling this product. I tried to keep outrage from creeping into my voice. A man whose name was Boris Glusker told me that his company has been selling haroseth in a jar only for the past few years. Mr. Glusker was humble: He didn't rave about his industrial haroseth, which is made in Israel. He and the Streit cousins who run the company were actually comforting when I confided how hard my mother had worked to produce this delicacy. "It's America," sighed Aaron Gross, the founder's great-great-grandson. "People want ease, efficiency.

"Haroseth in a jar is fine, but Mr. Glusker acknowledged the truth that, for him and for me, it is never as good as Mom's."

Read article in full

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Associated Press rewrites history of Moroccan Jews

Gilead Ini of CAMERA, a media monitoring watchdog, has a good article exposing the double standards operating whenever Arab and Jewish refugees are discussed. Palestinian grievances are reported uncritically, while the word 'refugee' is not even mentioned when it comes to Jews driven out of Arab countries.

"American media outlets—including the influential Associated Press (AP) wire service—rarely discuss the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled under duress from Arab and Muslim countries. By contrast, news reports certainly don’t shy away from discussing Palestinian refugees and relaying their narrative.

"Take, for instance, AP’s May 15, 2005 story, "Palestinians hold rallies to lament Israel's founding 57 years ago." That article repeatedly quotes Palestinians lamenting the anniversary of Israel’s independence and emotively describing the flight of the Palestinian refugees from Israel, implying that this exodus was the result of an Israeli "crime"(...)

"Critics are provided no opportunity to respond to the allegations that Israel committed a "crime" and "uproot[ed] hundreds of thousands" of Palestinians. Consequently, readers are not informed that most of the Arab refugees were not at all "uprooted" by Israelis. Many fled at the prompting of Arab leaders, and in some cases Jews implored that the local Arabs remain. According to scholar Ephraim Karsh, for example, "the Haifa Jewish leadership ... went to great lengths to convince the Arabs [in that city] to stay" (Commentary, July-August, 2000). (See here for more details.)

"Associated Press finally did discuss Jewish refugees (although the journalists refrain from using the word "refugee" even once) in a March 22, 2006 story about Moroccan-born Israeli politician Amir Peretz (featured here on Point of no return). While this was an excellent opportunity for the wire service to finally look at the often harsh and injust treatment of Jews in Arab and Muslim countries, the report instead whitewashed the situation, ignoring anti-Jewish prejudice and even massacres.

"Although Jews in Morocco were better off than their co-religionists in other North African and Middle Eastern countries, almost the entire Moroccan Jewish community, which once numbered over 250,000, were driven to permanently leave their homes. AP's story, entitled “In Morocco, an Israeli's political climb stirs memories of gentler times,” acknowledges this dramatic exile, but gives no indication what caused the flight. It would not be a surprise, in fact, if after reading the story one were confused as to why the Jewish community virtually disappeared. Reporters Scheherezade Faramarzi and Laurie Copans describe a harmonious relationship between Jews and Muslims. (..)

"According to this report, then, "some street protests" were the extent of the difficulties faced by Moroccan Jews after Israel gained its independence. But the story’s rosy depiction of historical ties between Jews and Arabs in Morocco is incomplete, at best.

"The situation is summed up well by this passage from a May 19, 2003 JTA article:

Moroccan government officials like to boast of what they call the country's "2,000 years of peaceful Arab-Jewish coexistence."

The historical record is more complex and includes anti-Jewish pogroms. But Jews generally fared better in Morocco than in many other parts of North Africa or Europe.

But the Jewish experience in Morocco was cyclical, with favorable times followed by periods of anti-Semitism. During World War II, for example, King Mohammed V refused a request by the pro-Nazi Vichy France regime to round up the country's Jews for deportation.

Several years later, Moroccan Jews, like others in the Arab world, were attacked by the local population during the period surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Maurice M. Roumani’s book, “The Case of the Jews from Arab Countries: a Neglected Issue,” elaborates, describing the massacre of dozens of Moroccan Jews:

... bloody riots broke out in June 1948 against the Jews in Oujda and Djerada in Morocco. In Oujda, within three hours, five Jews had been killed, 30 seriously injured, shops and homes sacked. In Djerada, the Jewish population of 100 suffered 39 deaths and 30 severely wounded, the remainder less seriously.

And Heskel M. Haddad’s “Jews of Arab and Islamic Countries: History, Problems, Solutions” notes:

The attack on the Jews of Casablanca in 1945 may have been an additional consideration in their decision to immigrate. However, after 1948, a combination of factors led to an increased rate of immigration. With the establishment of the Jewish state, more Jews felt free to immigrate. The arrival of some Israeli emissaries helped to inform Jews of the opportunities in Israel and encouraged their immigration. The major cause of the Jewish exocus from Morocco is the two pogroms that occurred in 1948 and 1953. Within a few years, several thousand Moroccan Jews immigrated to Israel. But mass immigration of Jews from Morocco occurred in 1954 when it became clear that France intended to grant Morocco full independence. Tens of thousands of Jews left Morocco, thereby betraying the typical anxiety of Jews in an independent Arab country.

A September 1954 article in Commentary magazine also describes problems faced by Moroccan Jews, noting that

In disputes with Moslems, or on civil commercial, and criminal issues among themselves, Jews are almost entirely subject to Islamic courts. ... [E]ven under the best of circumstances [the courts] regard Jewish litigants as unclean, inferior beings.

Why is it that when AP covers Palestinian refugees, the stories often uncritically present Palestinian grievances about purported Israeli "crimes," but when when the wire service (however infrequently) discusses Jewish refugees from Morocco, only glowing accounts of the Arab-Jewish relationship are cited, while discrimination and pogroms are overlooked completely?

Read article in full

Iraqi Muslims threw 1951 synagogue bomb

For years anti-Zionists have maintained that the Zionist underground in Iraq had planted bombs aimed at Jewish targets to cause or hasten the Jewish exodus in 1950 -51. Now evidence published in Haaretz by Tom Segev - an Israeli 'new historian' - vindicates the official Israeli line that Iraqi Muslims, not Jews, threw the deadly bomb at the Masuda Shemtov synagogue in January 1951 which killed four Jews and injured 10. (With thanks:Lily)

On January 14, 1951, at about seven in the evening, a bomb - or perhaps it was a hand grenade - was tossed into the open courtyard of the Masuda Shemtov synagogue in Baghdad. The courtyard served as a gathering place for Jews, prior to their departure for the airport, on their way to Israel. At the time of the terror attack, the place was filled with several hundred people. Four of them, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed; about 10 were wounded. The Iraqi authorities blamed two activists from the Zionist underground, and had them executed.

The British embassy in Baghdad relayed to London its own assessment of the motives behind the attack: Activists of the Zionist movement wanted to highlight the danger for the Jews of Iraq, in order to spur the State of Israel to accelerate the pace of their immigration. At the time, there was serious debate in Israel on this issue and some wished to slow down the rate of emigration from Iraq. The British embassy's appraisal is quoted in a book by Esther Meir of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The embassy also offered a second possible explanation: The bombs were meant to influence well-off Jews in Iraq who wished to stay there, to get them to change their minds and come to Israel, too.

Compared to the terror currently raging in Baghdad, the 1951 bombing barely rates a footnote, but in the history of immigration to Israel, it still has significance, some of it political - because the bombing at the synagogue fueled a whole host of rumors and accusations. Some claimed that it was carried out by Mossad agents, with the objective of frightening the Jews and encouraging them to move to Israel. This claim is also accepted by several Mizrahi scholars and activists, and is sometimes cited as one of the arguments against Zionism.

The rumor particularly haunted former minister Mordechai Ben-Porat, the Mossad's man in Baghdad: Ben-Porat even sued for slander, and won an apology. In the Haganah archives, correspondence between Mossad agents in Baghdad and their handlers in Tel Aviv is preserved, and includes their reports on the synagogue bombing. The impression that arises from the exchange of telegrams is that the Mossad agents in Baghdad and their superiors in Tel Aviv did not know who was responsible for the attack.

Nonetheless, the issue has remained a mystery - for one thing because the state continues to conceal information related to the episode. I am referring to information David Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal on October 10, 1960. On that day, nearly 10 years after the incident, the prime minister received a detailed report about it from Isser Harel, then head of the Shin Bet. A few lines of what Ben-Gurion wrote are classified. Some time after Harel reported on the incident to Ben-Gurion, the Mossad established a commission of inquiry that "did not find any factual proof that the bombs were hurled by any Jewish organization or individual." The commission's conclusions were made public in a book written by Ben-Porat.

Now, a recent publication is shedding new light on the mystery. The revelations come from Yehuda Tager, an Israeli agent who operated in Baghdad, was exposed and spent about 10 years in prison there. According to Tager, the bombing of the Masuda Shemtov synagogue was not carried out by Israelis, but by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, at least one activist from the Zionist underground, Yosef Beit-Halahmi, did apparently carry out several terror attacks *after the arrest of his comrades, in the hope of proving to the Iraqi authorities that the detainees were not involved in these actions. This is the first time someone involved in the episode is confirming that members of the Zionist underground did commit bombings in Baghdad.

The interview with Tager, now 83, appears in a new book by the British journalist Arthur Neslen, titled "Occupied Minds." Tager quoted a conversation he had with Beit-Halahmi's widow: "She said she had asked him (if he had thrown the bombs) and he had replied that if a bomb was thrown while we were in prison, it would have proved that it was not us who bombed the Masuda Shemtov. She implied that he, on his own initiative, without orders from Israel, did it in order to save us."

Evidence from Beit-Halahmi's widow is still not conclusive. She does not say outright that her husband had thrown the bomb, she 'implied' it - Ed.

Ehud Ein-Gil, deputy editor of Haaretz Magazine, who came across this information, called up Tager and the latter confirmed the version of events depicted in Neslen's book. But when he appeared before the Mossad's commission of inquiry in 1960, Tager did not tell this part of the story.
Ein-Gil asked him why.

Tager: "There is a time and a place for everything. At that time, saying something like that would have been greatly frowned upon by the community.
The conditions have changed since then, and here in Israel the true story is already known, at least among former Iraqis."

*According to the book Fascinating life and Sensational death by Gourgji Bekhor, only two bombs were thrown subsequent to the Masuda Shemtov incident. A bomb on 5 June 1951 targeting the Jewish firm Stanley Shashoua on Rashid Street caused no casualties. Another on the Amana market in Rashid Street did not explode. These incidents would not have affected the Jewish exodus ( by March of that year, all but about 6,000 Jews had decided to register to leave Iraq) and preceded the arrest of the Jewish activists Yusef Basri and Shalom Saleh in June 1951. Both were hanged in January 1952.

Read Haaretz article

Bombs update: Mordechai Ben-Porat, Mossad's leading operative in Baghdad, had his name cleared in an Israeli court when he sued an Israeli magazine for libel. The court heard evidence (see Porat's book To Bahgdad and Back) in support of the theory that non-Jews threw the January 1951 bombs and that Muslim peddlars were tipped off to clear the scene just before grenades were thrown at the Messouda Shemtob synagogue. The two Jews who were accused of planting bombs and hanged in January 1952 were never accused of the January 1951 incident.

See Wikipedia entry on Jews of Iraq (modern times)

Naeim Giladi and the Jews of Iraq

Friday, April 07, 2006

Recording the histories of vanishing communities

A growing number of Jewish oral historians are working to capture the diversity of the Jewish experience. Through documentary filmmaking, tape-recorded conversations and a variety of other primary source materials, these projects give voice to vanished or vanishing Jewish communities in China, Iran, Iraq, Cuba and other unlikely locales, reports JTA News (with thanks: Albert).

"When Carole Basri started taking oral histories of Iraqi Jews, she found even her own family members unwilling to talk.

“Telling these histories is a very painful process,” said Basri, a lawyer by training. “People don’t want to talk about being in jail, or hangings... nobody wants to think of themselves as a refugee.”

"Over time, however, Basri was able to get Iraqi Jews to open up, using connections from her grandparents, who were prominent members of Baghdad’s Jewish community. She now has produced three documentary films and interviewed 100 Iraqi Jews in the United States, Canada, Israel, India and elsewhere.

“I wanted to understand what made people decide to leave and why they did leave,” she explained. “The oral histories were so important because I couldn’t get the answers anywhere else.”

Read article in full

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Jews of Syria, outside looking in

Arabic-speaking Robert Tuttle spent three years in Syria. Writing this article about Syrian Jews for his master's degree at Columbia university, he found some 'almost apologetic about the restrictions placed upon them by the Syrian government'. After leaving for Israel and the US, 'even those who suffered and cut their ties with Syria long ago continue to speak fondly about the country and its leader.' Does the Jews' rosy view reflect their gratitude for 'stability and relevance'? Or are they in a state of advanced 'dhimmitude'?

Read the whole thing.

"The years proceeding Hafez al-Asad's rise to power were time of immense chaos in Syria. A succession of coup d'├ętats resulted one repressive regime after another. For Jews, instability brought some of the worst abuses and there was always the uncertainty about the future. Asad, by contrast, quickly consolidated his power, exiling or imprisoning rivals.

"Ironically, the very power that made Asad feared was also the power that gave him the leverage to improve the status of those Syrians who had been most marginalized, including Jews.

"Asad was himself a member of a minority group: the Alawis. Concentrated in the mountains near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, the Alawis had been victims of a long history of persecution, said Patrick Seale, author of the leading biography of Hafez al-Asad and personal acquaintance of the late Syrian leader.

“They were very poor and downtrodden,” Seale said. “They were thought of as collaborationists with the French,” the former colonial rulers of Syria. Many Alawi men served as tenant farmers for Sunni landowners and Alawi women sometimes worked as domestic servants.

"The Alawi faith is somewhat secretive but it is known to blend Shia’a Islam with aspects of Christianity. Many Muslim clergy initially questioned Asad’s own Islamic credentials.

"Some Syrian Jews said they believe that Asad’s minority status may have inspired sympathy for their plight. “The Asads were a family oppressed like any Jews,” said one member of the community.

"Seale is more circumspect. The late Syrian president’s policies toward Jews probably stemmed more from a general opening up that accompanied his rise to power. But, he added, “He [Asad] had a feeling for downtrodden peasantry particularly. His regime was made up of country boys, not just Alawis, but Sunnis, Druze and Ismailis.”

"Asad made the struggle against Israel a central plank of his leadership, but Israel never posed a mortal threat to his regime and never were Syrian Jews ever implicated in spying for Israel. Asad’s only true threat, in fact, came from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, who staged an insurrection in the city of Hama in 1982, which Asad violently suppressed.

“The Jews in Syria never had a spy,” said Hasbani. “They also never had a problem with Israel or another country. Their only problem was that some of them wanted to leave. The President understood that.”

"In a hierarchical society like Syria, where a resident of Damascus could go an entire lifetime without catching a glimpse of the president except on television, a public meeting with Asad was the highest of honors. That is why Hasbani’s newspaper clips of Asad shaking hands with Syrian Jewish leaders are significant. Those photos made Jews relevant in Syrian society, he said, and gave the community a level of respect it had never enjoyed before. In effect, Asad brought Syrian Jews into the national tent.

"But all this begs a question: if life was so good under Asad, why did nearly all of Syria’s Jews leave when given the opportunity?

"Most left behind successful businesses and expensive homes in order to start over all again in Brooklyn or Tel Aviv. Most Syrian Jews received housing and financial assistance from local Jewish and civic organizations for one year after their arrival, but many continued to struggle. Hasbani, once a respected doctor, has watched his life sink into anonymity in a country that he himself characterized as being impersonal and lonely.

"Some Syrian Jews like Hasbani said that fear of the future prompted the mass departure. Although Asad had treated the Jews of Syria well, there was no guarantee that his predecessor would do the same.

"Jajati attributed the exodus to inertia. By the time the Syrian president lifted restrictions on emigration, most Syrian Jews had already escaped Syria for Brooklyn or Israel, where they had established thriving new communities. As life slowly drained out of the ancient Jewish neighborhoods of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli, the remaining families saw few reasons to remain.

"Then there was the Syrian government’s own dithering that might have contributed to the mass flight of Syrian Jews. Asad opened the door for Syrian Jews to leave in 1992 and then, for reasons no one entirely understands, the door was shut a year later and then reopened shortly after that. Many of those who had not left, when first given the opportunity, felt that if they did not leave immediately, the door would close again, said Hasbani.

"Fouerti explained his reason for leaving with a simple metaphor. “If you have a bird and locked it in a cage and later opened the door, it will fly away,” he said. “I had one choice: to go see the outside.”

"Yet living on the outside, Syria’s Jews continue to look back in. Much like Palestinian-Israelis, they straddle the very dividing line of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Although this awkward position has caused many to suffer pain and torment, it has also provided them with unique insight into a conflict that has festered for far too many years. Syrian Jews will likely never play a role in resolving who gets what part of the Golan Heights. But they may someday be able foster a warm peace.

“If there is peace between Syria and Israel, and I am sure there will be peace, we will bring them together,” Fouerti said. “We must be a bridge between Israel and Syria."

Read article in full

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Iranian Jews 'have a future'

A group of Iranian Jewish women on a cultural visit to Moscow has claimed that Iran's 25,000 Jews have a future. Their community lacked for nothing - except a connection with Israel, JTA News reports. (With thanks: Albert)

The Iranians — aged 14 to 30 — came to Russia thanks to diplomatic efforts by Arkady Gaidamak, a Russian Jewish leader and businessman, and with a special permit from the Iranian authorities.

Russia is a major supplier of nuclear technology to Iran, which is currently under strong international pressure to halt its supposed nuclear weapons program.

In addition to general tourist sites, the delegation visited a synagogue and a Jewish day school in Moscow, as well as the Jewish community of Yaroslavl.

The women were expected to be joined by Harun Yeshayaie, the chairman of the Iranian Jewish community, but the leader had to cancel his visit at the last minute because of health reasons, according to members of the delegation.

All members of the group live in the capital of Tehran, which is home to 15,000 Jews, the majority of the estimated 25,000 Jews who live in the Islamic Republic.

This community is only a fraction of the 100,000-strong community that lived in Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But the Jewish women who visited Russia said their community has a future in Iran — despite the militant anti-Zionism of Tehran’s current political regime.

“After the revolution, problems began for the community,” said Elham Abaei, 30, the leader of the group that came to Russia.

Abaei, who runs the Iranian Jewish community’s Web site,, said the community has adjusted to the political and social climate.

“We can now run cultural and religious but not political activities,” she said, referring to anything related to Israel.

Opposition to the Jewish state has been a cornerstone of the Islamic revolution.

In 1999, 13 Jews were accused of spying for Israel. Ten eventually served jail terms, with the last being released in 2002.

Most recently, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, caused a wave of international condemnation when he suggested that Israel should disappear from the map and called the Holocaust was a myth.

The statement about the Holocaust reportedly triggered a rare example of discontent from the country’s Jewish leadership. Yeshayaie, the community’s chairman, wrote a letter to Ahmadinejad saying that the remarks caused fear in the country’s Jewish community.

But on the issue of Israel, these Iranian Jews would not speak out against Tehran’s official policy.

“You can be Jewish and not associate yourself with Israel,” said Sarah Hay, a 21-year-old computer engineering student from Tehran.

Even far away from Tehran, members of the group tried to distance themselves from any reference to Israel when visiting Russian Jewish institutions.

In Yaroslavl, a city in central Russia, the local community baked two cakes for the Iranian guests.

But members of the group were visibly shocked when they saw the cakes were glazed with the design of the Israeli flag.

The hosts gave the guests only those slices of cake without the flag design.

But a member of the delegation who asked not to be identified because of the fear of repression back home said she had been to the Jewish state, visiting her family there. Moreover, she said, her example was not unique.

Some Jews use their foreign travels to meet with their Israeli relatives in a third country, usually in Turkey or Western Europe.

The members of the group said they were participants in the cultural activities of the Tehran Jewish community.

The communal activities range from Jewish day schools — one-half of Tehran’s Jewish children are said to attend Jewish day schools — to synagogues, youth clubs and summer camps, and even a Jewish hospital in Tehran.

One of the members of the group described her community as one having “everything a Jewish community should have” except for any Israeli connection.

Iranian Jews are accorded a status of an officially recognized minority and are generally free from discrimination — although all women in the country, regardless of their faith, have to cover their faces when in public.

Privately, some women said it is impossible for Jews to enter some sectors of the government, but said they did not want leave Iran.

“We are Iranians first, we share our country’s history,” Hay said.

Abaei said her parents were too old to leave, and generally those who stay in Iran after all those years feel comfortable there.

“There are no ghettos, you can live your life,” she said.

She said some Jews “were slightly offended” over Iranian president’s remarks about the Holocaust.

But years of state-run propaganda show themselves in the Jewish community members, and Abaei said some Jews may disagree that the Holocaust was a myth, yet they are inclined to think the number of Jewish Nazi victims may be “an exaggeration.”

Read article in full

Monday, April 03, 2006

Moroccan-Jewish adviser Andre Azoulay speaks

Andre Azoulay belongs to a select club - a club of one. He is the only Jew with political influence in the entire Arab Muslim world.

For the last six years he has served as adviser to king Muhammad Vl of Morocco, and before that spent 10 years advising the late Hassan ll. "It's been exalting, but difficult and stressful," he tells Guysen Israel News in a recent interview at the Seville meeting of 400 imams and rabbis in March.

One detects a certain exasperation in Azoulay's voice regarding prospects for peace between Jews and Arabs. " Things have become worse in the last year," he admits. "The road is long."

He sees himself as the sole representative of a millenarian Jewish presence. " Judaism was here well before Islam. We are not here through charity, protection or kindness. We are as legitimate as any one else. I feel I have inherited a great civilisation and this is what carries me through.

"I respect Muslims. Muslims must respect us. The history books have been distorted. I don't accept that history should be mutilated and (the Jews) amputated from it, as certain weak minds have tried to do."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

'Banking on Baghdad' and Iraqi Jews

In the Spring 2006 issue of Sameah Lyn Julius reviews Edwin Black's 'Banking on Baghdad' (now in paperback), one of the few books to focus on the commercial role and eventual demise of the Iraqi Jewish community.

"If you can’t read my entire book, don’t read it at all,” Edwin Black warns his readers. Banking on Baghdad is indeed as compulsive as a thriller, breathlessly sweeping through seven thousands years of Iraqi history.

The book begins and ends with the American invasion in 2003, but the ‘cradle of commerce and civilisation’ now known as Iraq has been the scene of Sunni-Shi’a conflict and foreign invasion through the ages.

When it comes to the 20th century, “the drums of war and the drums of oil…in Iraq all the drums played together.” Seams of the shiny black stuff, with all the international intrigue and machinations of petropolitics, run through the book as surely as they flow under Iraq’s shifting sands. After the First World War, the British threw together three Ottoman provinces to create the artificial state of Iraq, international oil corporations carved up the Middle East and the legendary magnate CS Gulbenkian (Mr Five Percent) established the Red Line Agreement monopoly.

Black’s books are famous for their meticulous detail. For Banking on Baghdad Black employed 30 researchers across numerous time zones ‘to triple-check every fact and footnote every paragraph.’ The book ‘s footnotes do indeed take up almost 100 pages.

Jewish readers will find Chapter 17 of particular interest. It chronicles the rise of antisemitism through the 1930s and 40s, the pernicious influence of Fritz Grobba, the German Charge d’Affaires in Baghdad - Grobba was an acronym for his real name, A. Borg - the influence of a group of pro-Nazi Iraqis called the Golden Square and the outbreak in 1941 of the two day- anti-Jewish pogrom known as the Farhoud, 65 years ago this year. As Black puts it,‘More than two thousand years of historic coexistence abruptly shattered like a fragile knee.’

Following the Golden Square’s failed coup, Jews returning from greeting the returning Regent at the airport were removed from their cars and brutally murdered. Homes were pillaged and women raped. Even Jewish patients being treated in city hospitals were attacked. Black puts the casualties at over 500 killed and over 1,000 wounded, but the true death toll may never be known.

The part the Jews played in Iraq is described in unprecedented detail. They were the bedrock of the economy and the country’s finances. One third of the companies in the Iraqi chamber of commerce were Jewish and Jewish firms transacted 45 percent of exports and 75 percent of imports. One quarter of Jews worked in transport, railways and ports. Black describes the gathering anti-semitic storm, the quotas on Jews in public services and the universities, and the Nazi-style pauperisation of the Jewish community, concluding with dismissals of thousands of Jewish civil servants, economic boycotts, arrests, hangings and the mass airlift of almost the entire community to Israel in 1950.

Considering the dearth of material in English on Iraqi Jews especially, Black has made a valuable contribution to the historical record – even if you don’t read the whole book.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

When Jewish means Ashkenazi

Loolwa Khazoom is right: Ashkenazi culture has taken over Jewish life. Is this not inevitable when Sephardim/Mizrahim form a tiny percentage of the Jewish diaspora? Ashkenazi tradition dominates in the US and Britain; but Sephardim do hold their own in Mexico, Italy and France. Neither does Loolwa's argument really apply to Israel, where the Mizrahim form around half the Jewish population.

"As a result of the racism and ignorance in the mainstream Jewish community, those of us in the Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian communities have learned embarrassment or contempt for our own heritage. Out of our desire to "fit in" - in other words, to become like the Ashkenazim - we have failed to pass on our tradition; and our tradition now is in danger of extinction.

"A number of Mizrahi/Sephardi young adults my age have shared the fact that they love Mizrahi/Sephardi tradition when they are exposed to it; however, they know virtually nothing
about the tradition, and they do not relate to the tradition as theirs. "I grew up in Ashkenazi services my whole life," one individual recently said, "so I relate to those services as my tradition. I do not recognize the prayers in [a Mizrahi/Sephardi] service, even though those prayers are part of my heritage..."

"The younger generations of Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian Jews face a crisis in identity. As such, our entire heritage faces a crisis of extinction:
Because the younger generation is ill-equipped to pass on our tradition, our tradition will die when the older generation passes on."

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