Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lisa Srour, the last Jewess in Lebanon

Rare interview with Lisa Srour, who claims to be the last Jewess in Lebanon. Nobody can tell if she is correct, as the few Jews still living in that country are too fearful to stand up and be counted. With thanks to Iraqijews for summarising an article published on 6 September 2006 in Ana-News.

Abu Jamil Valley in Beirut was once called Jew Valley: 6000 Jews lived there. They belonged to high-class society and owned most of the wealth of the country.

They say that when the late president Rafik Al-Hariri wanted to renovate a synagogue there, the Jewish Community Association refused because of fear that it might be blown up.

Today, although there still is a Jewish community in Lebanon, nobody talks about it and almost
no one knows of its existence. There are no Jewish marriages since there is no younger generation.

Lisa, in her 50's, lives in Abu Jamil Valley, on the fourth flour of a building almost in ruins. She lives on eggs which she shares with her cats. She said that she was once the most beautiful girl in the valley.

She is very poor but does not complain. Lisa is afraid to say that she's Jewish.

In the past her family owned a luxurious house and a big store. Her brothers left for France during the (civil) war, her parents died, her uncles emigrated to Brazil. During the war, armed people came and abducted her father and forced him to sign a paper giving up their house and
their store.

She is hoping that maybe she'll get some compensation like others have done (from the construction company that is renovating and rebuilding the whole area).

See Lisa's photo and read article (in Arabic)

Yemen Jews accused of selling wine

A new twist in the unfolding story of the 45 Yemenite Jews driven from their homes by an Islamist group, allegedly for selling wine:

SANAA, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Nearly a quarter Yemen's Jews have fled their village and sought refuge at a hotel in the Arab country after militant Islamists threatened to kill them for selling alcohol, a government official said on Monday.

The official, who asked not to be named, said authorities had deployed policemen around the hotel to protect the Jews, numbering at least 45, after they escaped the village of Al Salem in the northern province of Saada two weeks ago.

Just 200 Jews live in Yemen after thousands were evacuated to Israel in 1948.

"The Shi'ite militants of (Abdel-Malik) al-Houthi sent threats to them (Jews) because they sell wine," the official told Reuters. The Jewish community denied they sold wine. Islam forbids the sale or drinking of alcohol.

Read article in full

Sunday, January 28, 2007

BBC names Yemeni Islamist death threats group

The BBC has caught up with the story of the 45 Yemenite Jews forced out of their homes by Islamist death threats, and names the group responsible for their flight: the Youthful Believers.

The message was clear - the Jews must leave the country or lose their lives.

Dawoud Yousef Mousa and his neighbours fled to Saada City, the provincial capital. Since then, the group has been living in the Paris Tower hotel at the expense of a local tribal sheikh, despite the authorities' promise to guarantee their safe return home. Saada's governor claimed the threats against the Jews came from Zaydi Shia rebels, who have fought a decade-long insurgency in northern Yemen.

The extremists are said to belong to a banned organisation known as the Youthful Believers, who want to replace Yemen's democratic government with an Islamic theocracy.

Read article in full

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Babylon.... and on

Naim Kattan's memoir of his Iraqi boyhood tells a familiar tale: Jews were here. Now they are not.

Reviewing Kattan's book in Nextbook the Egyptian-Jewish author Andre Aciman ponders this fact of Jewish life. And why do some Jews consistently fail to read the warning signs of impending doom, while others are already 'mentally elsewhere'?

"We were already somewhere else..."

In Farewell, Babylon, the Iraqi-born Jewish writer Naim Kattan restates one of the most enduring paradoxes in Jewish history: that all the while they belonged to Iraq—belonging there with all their being, their history, their love—most Iraqi Jews were scrambling to obtain passports and exit visas to seek out homes and fortune elsewhere. They were already somewhere else. So many of them eventually left Iraq that today there are no Jews left there.

In light of 20th century European Jewish history, the tale is familiar enough. After generations, sometimes centuries in one place, Jews are no longer welcome. When they resist leaving, or try to prolong their stay, or learn to put up with ever-crueler forms of oppression, their lives are made so intolerable that they have no option but to abandon everything and flee. Failure to read the writing on the wall often forecloses even the possibility of flight, thus spelling—as in the German case—looting, imprisonment, forced labor, slaughter. (...)

There are gradual snapshots of discrimination and hostility against Jews, but Kattan never provides a clear narrative of how the relative comfort of Jews under Ottoman rule finally devolved into oppression following World War II. Or perhaps the path from one to the other is so familiar by now that the shorthand version will do well enough. Jews were here. Now they are not. End of story.

Perhaps there is a slightly altered version that might do better yet: Jews were here but they were always already out, always already elsewhere. Maybe this is what being Jewish has always meant from the days of Babylon, and before.

The one little detail no one bothers mentioning, however, is what Jews left behind: their schools, their temples, their cemeteries, their homes, their businesses, their bank accounts, their things. The tale here is so familiar as to stare the banality of history in the face. Even as Jews held on to their things, these were always already being looted.

Read article in full

Naim Kattan will be in conversation with Marina Benjamin on 4 March during Jewish Book Week in London. He will be giving a talk about his journey to find his identity as a Jewish writer on 6 March. For details of both events see Harif.

Book review of Farewell Babylon

Friday, January 26, 2007

Threatened Yemenite Jews 'will be allowed home'

In the latest development in this disturbing saga, the Yemeni government has assured Jews fleeing Islamist death threats that it will be safe for them to go back to their homes. A community spokesman in the US suggests, however, that they would choose to leave Yemen altogether if they were given financial help.

NEW YORK, Jan. 25 (JTA) A small community of Jews who fled their homes last weekend after a Muslim leader threatened to kill, rob or kidnap them will return imminently, Yemen's government says.

As of Thursday, however, it wasn't clear whether the Jews actually had returned home.

"A number of government levels from a number of countries have been involved in seeking a solution to the Jews' plight, said Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews in Arab Countries. "There seems to be an evolving resolution."

According to news reports, 45 Jews from the village of Al-Salem sought refuge in a hotel in the capital of the Sa'ada region and asked for protection from Yemeni authorities, to whom they reportedly pay a special 'minorities' tax in return for security.

The threats began with a letter attributed to the followers of Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, a reputed al-Qaida ally whom the government has accused of trying to overthrow the regime.

In the letter, the tiny Yemeni Jewish community was accused of 'doing things which serve mainly Zionism,' as well as corrupting society and spreading vice.

According to reports, the threatening letter arrived Jan. 10, but the Jews stayed put until one community member was threatened directly by a group of four masked men. The men warned that if the Jews didn't leave their homes in two days, 'they will have only themselves to blame.'

In an interview Monday with Israel Radio, one resident confirmed that the government had urged the Jews to flee.

The Yemen Times reported Wednesday that Prime Minister Abdulqader Bajammal had promised state protection for the country's Jewish minority, which numbers several hundred people.

Several Jewish sources told JTA they believed the commitment to be credible, citing the importance the Yemeni government places on good relations with the United States.

'We don't allow anyone to harm any of the Jewish citizens in Yemen,' Bajammal said Tuesday, according to the newspaper. 'We strongly reject what happened to Jews in Sa'ada.'(...)

In a brief interview Amir Shaviv, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, told JTA that 'no action is needed' to assist the Yemenis. According to Shaviv, Yemeni Jews are free to leave the country but have chosen to stay.

Yemeni Jews dispute that characterization, telling JTA that community members effectively are stuck in Yemen because they cannot liquidate their assets.

'These are people that want to leave but know that if they do leave without their assets, they'd have to be asking for handouts, which they don't want to do,' said Sampson Giat, former president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America. 'These Yemeni Jews are very proud people and they've been in Yemen for centuries.'

Read article in full

Whatever happened to the Jews of Pakistan?

According to this year's census, there are no Jews in Pakistan - Reuters reports. Yet three years ago, 10 Jews admitted to living in that country. Where have they all gone? Or did they ever exist in the first place? (With thanks: Jonathan)

ISLAMABAD, Jan 25 (Reuters) - The Pakistan government census on civil servants raised curiosity on Thursday about one of the Islamic Republic's smallest and most low-profile religious minorities -- the Jews.

The 2003 census, released on a government Web site last week, showed none of the 234,933 government employees declared themselves to be Jews, though 10 had done so in the previous census three years earlier.

"Whatever happened to the 10 Jew civil servants?," read a headline in The News daily, Pakistan's biggest-selling English language newspaper, on Thursday.

But, for many people the real news was that there were still any Jews living in Pakistan, given Pakistan's longstanding antipathy towards Israel and Zionism.

Even a former minister for religious minorities was taken aback that there were Jews in the country. "I never thought there were Jews in Pakistan. I have never seen them or met them, even when I was a minister," remarked Colonel S.K. Tressler, who served in President Pervez Musharraf's first cabinet in 1999.

"I was also surprised to see the report that there were Jews in the government service, also."

Officials who conducted the census couldn't say whether the Jews had retired, converted, migrated, died, or simply chose to mark themselves in an "Other Religions" category.

The census depended on what answers respondents submitted, and Jews might have chosen not to disclose their religion.

"In the latest census, they might not have indicated their religion. If it is not there, it will not reflect in the census," Saeed-un-Nisa Abbasi, of the Establishment Division, which looks after civil service affairs, told Reuters.

The existence of Jews in Pakistan is seldom acknowledged, although the mostly Muslim country has sizable Hindu and Christian communities, who between them make up about four percent of Pakistan's 160 million people.

The number of Jews living in Pakistan today is unknown, but must be very tiny.

There were a couple of thousand Jews living in Karachi and Peshawar before the partition of India and the formation of Pakistan in 1947. Their families mostly migrated from Iraq in the 19th century.

A 55-year-old woman, who converted to Islam from Judaism when she married, remembered attending services at a synagogue in Karachi.

The woman, who asked not to be named, says all of her relatives have migrated to Israel, the United States and Europe, and she hasn't seen any people from her old faith for years.

"I have been separated from them for a long time," she said. A commercial plaza now stands where the synagogue used to be, she added.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The last of the Arabic Jews

The phrase 'Arab-Jew' sounds like an oxymoron: it's like saying 'fat-thin', or 'black-white'. But there was a time when there was such a creature. Listen to this fascinating lecture given last November by Sasson Somekh at Vanderbilt university. It was part of a series called Jews among Arabs: the future of their past. (With thanks: left but not anti-zionist)

Somekh, a scholar of Arabic literature and emeritus professor at Tel Aviv university, calls himself 'the last Arabic Jew.' He was 17 when he left Iraq, together with the great mass of the Jewish community in 1951, having been steeped in Arab culture and Arabic literature while growing up. This makes him a 'rare bird'. There were not many like him to follow.

But as he himself admits, the community's 'Arabic Jew' interlude was comparatively short-lived. Jews did not know Arabic script and were still writing in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic using Hebrew characters) in 1900. Their dialect was quite different from that spoken by Muslim Arabs. The education received by the Jewish middle class at the Alliance Israelite Universelle taught them English and French as well as Hebrew and Arabic, and equipped them for modern life with the necessary skills for public service and commerce. They were able to thrive under the British mandate. It was thanks to these skills that many Iraqi Jews were able to walk into jobs almost as soon as they arrived in Israel, unlike the Jews of Morocco, for instance.

Somekh is at pains to dispel the prevailing (Ashkenazi) stereotype that the Jews of Iraq were religious, and therefore primitive in some way. "I never went into a synagogue in my life", he says.

More controversially, Somekh says that 250 Muslims were killed defending Jewish lives in the anti-Jewish Farhoud of 1941 * - a claim rubbished by the documentary film maker Salim Fattal below. Somekh does not consider the massacre, which according to him claimed 150 Jewish lives, a 'pogrom' (others put the figure at 179, or even 600). He disputes the idea that the Farhoud marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish community - they never had it as good as in the years following, he claims.

It is true that Jews made money after the Farhoud. It's also true that many had their confidence in Iraq shaken: families left for India or Iran. After 1941 the community were much more receptive to Zionism, especially young people.

Photo by Daniel Dubois/ Vanderbilt university


'The dead Muslims were rioters, not saviours '

*Salim Fattal, who interviewed over 100 eye-witnesses while making a film on the Farhoud, comments:

"The new theory that 250 Iraqi Muslims sacrificed their own lives only to save or defend their Jewish neighbors is absolute nonsense. This is a new, pathetic attempt to add to the bloody massacre some rosy color and to twist the very simple truth that Arab society was hostile or, in the best case, indifferent to the Jewish tragedy.

"At the time, the Arab public opinion in Iraq, as well as in other Arab countries, including North Africa, was openly admiring of Nazi Germany and was fanatically against the British and the Jews as well. My uncle Meir Kalif and his partner Nahom Qazzaz were assassinated in the pogrom. Their bodies were never found. Our two families were very much involved in searching and tracing their disappearance but in our entire search we never heard such a legendary story.

"When I started working on my documentary series I interviewed over one hundred Jews who were exposed, this way or another, to the traumatic massacre. None of them claimed that Muslims were killed while defending their Jewish neighbors, or simply killed. On the contrary, I heard that some Muslims joined the rioters in killing or looting their neighboring Jews.

"In his special research about the 1941 uprising in Iraq, A’bdul Razzaq al-Hasani, a well-known Iraqi historian, wrote a special chapter about the pogrom titled “the tragedy”. Neither he nor other researchers, Muslims, Jews or Christians, have ever mentioned that such event (ie. the killing of Muslims - ed) had really occurred.

"Did professor Somekh mention any name or names of such righteous Muslim citizens? I doubt if he really meant what he said.

"Moreover, if 250 Muslims were killed while defending Jews and only 150 Jews were killed, if out of total 400 victims, nearly 65% were Muslims and nearly 35% were Jews, then we can definitely say that the pogrom initiated and carried out by Muslims was not directed against Jews but against Muslims. Can anybody conceive such absurdity?

"Yes! There were some Muslims who gave shelter to their Jewish neighbors. I mentioned that three times in the first chapter of my documentary series. Some Muslims challenged the rioters by telling them that “if you want to kill my neighboring Jews you have first to kill me”. For their part they were noble citizens but none of them were killed. Rioters didn’t kill Muslims.

"And yes, again! There were probably hundreds of Muslims who were killed in the second day of the pogrom. Who were they? Who killed them and why? Were they killed because they were defending Jews or because they were rioters who endangered the political and social order in Iraq?

"On the first day and partly on the second day of the pogrom, the rioters were acting freely. Neither the Iraqi police nor the British army interfered to stop the massacre because it coincided with the British and the Iraqi interests. They deliberately let the pogrom go on.

"An official investigation committee completely ignored the role of the British in failing to prevent the pogrom.

"The British army encamped near Baghdad, but did not lift a finger to stop the rioters. The British purposely stayed outside Baghdad for three days, to let the Arabs vent their hatred towards the British and Jews. The British are to blame for the pogrom. They knew and were informed it would happen.

"A’bdul Ilah, the crown prince, averted his eyes too, but when the rioters endangered the well-established Muslim quarters and total anarchy was about to emerge, only then did he show up as his people’s rescuer, a savior in his own right, no longer servile to Britain. He immediately formed a new government and ordered rioters to be shot.Then the storm quickly died down. It is in this context that Muslims rioters were shot to death. Muslim rioters were shot in order to save Baghdad from wide anarchy.

"The Iraqi authorities killed them not because they were saving the Jewish population – the Iraqi authorities and the British could have saved Jews earlier if only they wanted to do so. But they refused to do so deliberately and stayed outside Baghdad. "

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Israel Radio contacts distressed Yemenite Jews

Israel National News quotes a 'phone conversation with a Jewish woman who claims that some of the Yemenite Jews receiving death threats from radical Muslims have already been killed:

"In a 'phone call engineered by Voice of Israel Radio on Monday, a Jewish woman living in Yemen said that the Moslems "have already killed the wise men." No confirmation of this has been received from other quarters - though news from Yemen does not flow freely.

"The stated explanation for the Moslem anti-Semitism, according to a letter circulated by local Sheikh Yahya Sad Al Khudhair, is that the Jews are "associated with groups and activities that primarily serve global Zionism that works actively to corrupt the people and cause them to abandon their ethical values and religion and disseminate all types of abominations... Our religion has ordered us to fight the corrupt people and expel them.”

"In the Voice of Israel phone call, Masoud - a Yemenite Jew who moved to Israel six years ago and now lives in Be'er Sheva - spoke with a woman relative in Yemen. The conversation was held in Hebrew-spiced Arabic. "Kif halak?" Masoud asked in Arabic, meaning, "How are you?", and the response came in Hebrew, "Baurich Hashem," "Blessed be G-d."

"The woman told Masoud, "On Friday [11 days ago], they received letters saying that whoever doesn't leave will get killed or have his children taken away or I don't know what... Now they saw these [threatening] letters and are scared; what can they do? They took everything they had, with the children, and left, and now they're in a hotel." Some 45 Jews are now reportedly in the Paris Tower Hotel in Saana.

"Asked why the remaining Jews do not come to Israel, Masoud said simply that they are currently not interested in that option.

"Earlier last week, according to the Yemen Observer, local authorities and tribal sheikhs held meetings to discuss the complaints from the Yemeni Jews - but they resulted only in oral reassurances for the Jews, who were told to ignore the threats and go back to their villages. "Yes, they received threats," the area's Deputy Governor said Monday about the Jews, "and they are now here in the hotel, but I can assure you that the problem will be solved today, and the Jews will return to their villages."

Read article in full

First Arab proposed as Righteous Gentile

Khaled Abd al-Wahab, a well-to-do Tunisian farmer who died in 1997, is the first Arab to be named as a candidate for a Righteous Gentile award from Yad Vashem, Amiran Barkat reports in Haaretz. (With thanks: Lily)

The request to award him such recognition was submitted by Dr.Robert Satloff, an American Jewish expert on Arab and Islamic politics, following his research on Arabs who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem officials declined to speculate on the chances of the request being approved, but did note that it meets all the formal requirements, at the heart of which is testimony given before her death by a Jewish woman who was saved by al-Wahab.

In an interview with Haaretz, Satloff said he hopes that his research will help break the "conspiracy of silence" in the Arab world surrounding the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust. Satloff, a Middle East expert and the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, started his research in 2001, following the attack on the World Trade Center. "The attacks prompted me to decided to combat Holocaust denial in the Arab world, because in my opinion, this is a primary source of friction between the West and Islam."

Read article in full

Article in The Times

More on Satloff's book here

London author recaptures lost Iraqi-Jewish history

Photo Neil Bennett

Jessie Graham in Nextbook interviews Marina Benjamin. The London-born author, who is about to publish the UK edition of her new book, Last days in Babylon, travelled to Baghdad to find the city that suffused her family's imagination. (With thanks: Albert)

Marina Benjamin went to Baghdad for the first time in March 2004. She made her way to the Old City, where the Jews once lived, and in the twisted streets, among the souks and coffee houses, searched for her family's past. She wanted to know why her relatives—Iraqi Jews in exile for half a century—still lived in the Baghdad of their memories.

As a teenager in London, Benjamin ignored her Iraqi Jewish roots. She could not understand her family's hunger for a homeland that rejected them. She didn't learn Arabic. She was more interested in being British than she was in learning about her family's past. When she turned 16, her parents began to search for a boy for her to marry—someone from a good Baghdadi family. Benjamin's instinct was to run away.

Following the death of her grandmother, Regina, Benjamin began to feel the pull of the heritage she had previously rejected. In Last Days in Babylon, she traces the footsteps of her grandmother, born in Baghdad in 1905. It was not an easy task. "I had to face up to the fact that this Jewish history had been written over, rubbed out, vanquished," she writes. "It remained alive in living memory, of course, but even now that was fading."

Read article in full

Marina Benjamin will be giving a talk in London on Saturday 3rd February and signing copies of her new book. For details see Harif.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

UN refugees official wrong about refugees

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has bought into a false narrative which holds that Palestinian Arab refugees were the largest single displaced group in the Middle East until the current Iraqi turmoil. He is wrong, says the media watchdog CAMERA. There were more Jewish (and Christian) refugees.

'The current exodus [of Iraqis] is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of the Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948,' said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees." – "Saddam's Voice, Aura Still Fill Courtroom," by Lauren Frayer, Associated Press, in the Washington Times, Jan. 9, 2007.

"No, it is not, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees – currently Antonio Guterres – could be expected to know better. So could news media that unquestioningly reported Guterres' declaration, including CNN.com; the Voice of America; Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, on January 8; the Associated Press, United Press International and the Guardian (U.K.) on January 9, and the San Francisco Chronicle, January 16.

"How many Palestinian Arabs became refugees following the creation of Israel? Palestinian sources claimed 800,000 to 1 million, and more recently insist on from 3.5 million to 5 million refugees and descendants. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), itself heavily staffed by Palestinian Arabs and long close to the Palestine Liberation Organization, parrots these assertions. (...)

"But reputable sources put the range much lower, from 472,000 to 650,000. The lower number is from a 1948 progress report by the U.N. Mediator on Palestine. The higher figure represents the difference between the number of permanent Arab residents in that part of Mandatory Palestine that became Israel, 809,100 according to the last census by British Authorities, and the number of Arabs counted in the first Israeli census, 160,000.

"Yet a larger Middle East population displacement occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Approximately 820,000 Jewish refugees fled ancestral homes in Arab countries. Of them, 586,000 settled in Israel.

"The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees may not know, or remember, this history, but the U.N. Security Council does. That is why Security Council Resolution 242, the keystone of successful Arab-Israeli diplomacy since its adoption shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, calls for, among other things: "achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem." Not "the Palestinian refugee problem" but, understanding that those displaced included both Jews and Arabs, "the refugee problem."

"Another larger "long-term population movement in the Middle East" has been the migration of Christian Arabs. According to Jonathan Alderman and Agota Kuperman, senior fellows at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, "there has been a great – and little reported – Christian exodus from the Middle East, with some 2 million fleeing in the past 20 years alone." The "single greatest cause of this emigration is pressure from radical Islam."

"Whatever the reason for High Commissioner Guterres' mistake, and its uncritical repetition by news outlets, the 1948 flight of Arabs from Israel was not the largest such population movement until the current Iraqi turmoil. The flight of Jewish refugees, and Christian migrants, both have been greater. Once again, tunnel vision about the Palestinian Arabs – the tendency to see them not just as victims but as the Middle East's most newsworthy victims – misinforms.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Conditions worsen for remaining Jews of Yemen

According to this depressing Haaretz report by Yoav Stern, it looks like the writing is finally on the wall for the few hundred Jews still left in Yemen, and still living in a state of classic 'dhimmitude'. (With thanks: Lily)

Some 45 Jews of Sa'ada county in Yemen left their homes after being threatened by radical Muslims, the Saudi daily Al Wattan reported on Monday.

According to the report, the extremists told the Jews to leave their homes within ten days, after which time they will be exposed to abductions and looting.

The Jews moved into a hotel in the town of Sa'ada, north of the Yemenite capital Sana. A formal complaint was submitted to the Yemenite President Abdullah Salah, the report said.

The threat message - attributed to disciples of Shiite-inclined religious leader Hossein Bader a-Din al-Khouty - said that the Jews are acting in a manner that "primarily serves global Zionism, which is acting persistently to disseminate decay amongst the people and to cut them off from their principles, values, their morals and religion."

The message also said that the threats are based on surveillance conducted on the Jews, and that "Islam calls upon us to fight against the disseminators of decay."

Israel Radio on Monday interviewed a recently-arrived immigrant from Yemen, who identified himself only as Masoud, who managed to contact one of the women forced out of their homes.

The man was told that the Jewish community received letters last Friday, saying "whoever remains at his home, will be killed or his children will be taken away."

According to Masoud, the Jews who fled their homes told him "their condition has worsened, they are staying in a hotel, and they are scared." He said that the members of the Jewish community are not interested in immigrating to Israel, and wish to keep living in Yemen.

They blame their strife on the oblivious Yemenite government, which refuses to offer them assistance. (...)

The Jews under threat contacted local authorities and demanded fair treatment as ordinary Yemenite citizens. They told the authorities among other things that Islam imposes taxes on Jews in return for protection and security.

The Al Watan report said also that last week four masked men approached Yehie Moussa Merhavi, member of the Jewish community, to emphasize the will act on their threats. Merhavi said he was told that if the Jews do not leave their homes in two days, "they will only have themselves to blame" for the consequences, which will include abductions and looting.

Following the incident, the community was forced to evacuate the homes in which they lived for generations, and leave their home town under the protection of tolerant local sheikhs.

"We have been taken out of our homes, our money is lost, we cannot provide for our children. We came to the county's capital (Sada) to plea before the president and the government to treat us fairly, because we are Yemenites," Merhavi told Al Watan.

The Jewish community in Yemen consists of several hundred members, who are not interested in leaving it. The Jews maintain a community life, including a cheder for children's torah instruction and regularly pray.

Read article in full

Update: the story is confirmed on Worldnet Daily and four other Israeli media

Report in Gulf News

Report in Jerusalem Post

Travellers' accounts of the Jewish community of Yemen here and here

The illusion of Palestinian return

Samir al-Youssef is a brave man. He is a Palestinian who thinks his people ought to renounce their 'right of return'.

Last week Samir al-Youssef was talking about his new book. The title says it all: 'The Illusion of return'. He described how, growing up in a refugee camp in Lebanon, he and his classmates would be asked by the teacher where they saw themselves living in the future. "Jerusalem!" they responded dutifully, one by one. Until one lone voice piped up:"Paris!"

"Hong Kong!" said another, emboldened. "New York," said a third. From then on, the illusion of return to Jerusalem - a backwater which their grandparents had no interest in visiting, even at the time - was shattered.

For years, peacemaking efforts in the Arab-Israeli dispute have run aground against this particular Palestinian demand. Even so-called 'moderate' initiatives, such as the Saudi peace plan of 2002, carry the Palestinian 'right to return' in the small print. Only last week, the 'moderate' Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas made a stirring speech proclaiming that the Palestinians would never give up 'their right to return'.

Never mind whether the Palestinian 'right to return' has any basis in international law. To them, it is non-negotiable and sacrosanct. No Arab leader has dared renounce this central plank of their ideology. Of course, as far as Israel is concerned, the 'right of return' is a non-starter. To permit the refugees of 1948 and 1967 and their descendants to flood back into Israel would destroy the country and achieve by demographic means what the Arabs have failed to do militarily.

Though a whole industry exists to promote the Palestinian demand to return, al-Youssef knows that the Arabs have been building castles in the sand. What would the refugees come back to? Where would they all live? Al-Youssef's grandfather had a plot of land that could accommodate 10 people. But his descendants now number 100.

Let us not get too excited. Although Samir al-Youssef's realism gives hope, he is in a tiny minority of Palestinians (Sari Nusseibeh and Bassem Eid are the only others on record as saying that the 'right to return' is incompatible with a two-state solution). For breaking this taboo, Al-Youssef, who for the last six years has lived in England, has been called a traitor and a Zionist.

And from al-Youssef's realism, people could be led to draw the wrong conclusions. At the launch of al-Youssef's book someone in the audience asked the writer: "Is there not a symmetry between the Jews, who claim a right to return to a land they left 2,000 years ago, and the Palestinians? If the Palestinians renounce their right of return, should the Jews, logically, not be expected to renounce theirs to Israel?"

In fact, in 2002, 45 Jewish intellectuals in the UK did write a letter to the Guardian renouncing their right of citizenship in Israel. But there is no symmetry between the Jewish literati - comfortably and securely esconced in western society - and the great masses of desperate, destitute and persecuted Jewish refugees clamouring for a safe haven.

Tactfully, Samir al-Youssef's answer sidestepped the issue: what the Jews do with their right of return is their own affair.

If there is any symmetry, it ought to be between two sets and roughly similar numbers of Middle Eastern refugees - one set Palestinian, the other Jewish. The Jews expelled from Arab countries did not have the luxury of choice (neither, indeed, did Holocaust survivors, most Russians and Ethiopians). Not having the money or the connections to go elsewhere, the refugees welcomed the chance to rebuild their lives in Israel. And Israel welcomed them as citizens.

I called this blog 'Point of no return' because Jewish life in the Arab world is effectively over. Dead, deceased...is no more. The Iraqis stamped the passports of fleeing Jews ' one way - without return'. At the airports in Egypt they made the Jews sign a pledge that they would never return. And if the Jews could not return, why should the Palestinians? There is a rough justice to this particular exchange of populations.

Back in the 1970s, realising the inconsistency in their position, the PLO, Libya, Iraq and the Sudan all made declarations inviting the Jews who had left Arab countries to return. Some Jews had pleasant memories of their birthplace. But for those who remembered the knock in the middle of the night, the nagging fear and insecurity of living in a hostile environment, an invitation to return to an Arab country was a bad joke. Rebuilding their lives from scratch in Israel or the West was tough. But who in their right mind would wish to return to hell?

One Jew did return to Iraq. He appeared on Iraqi TV. Then he vanished, never to be heard from again. Even if Arab countries were suddenly to become paradise on earth, it is highly doubtful whether a single child or grandchild of Jewish refugees would go back.

If the Palestinian refugees want a 'right of return' it should be to a state of Palestine. Else, they should be absorbed into their host societies, with which the vast majority - who have never known Palestine - share a religion and language. They should be given rights which all states except Jordan deny them: the right of citizenship, jobs, the right to own property. The Palestinians should follow the example of the Jewish refugees and, like them, move on.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Moroccan film provokes anger

The new Moroccan film Marock, which tells of the love story between a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy, has provoked anger in the Moroccan establishment. (With thanks: Albert)

Acclaimed Moroccan director Mohamed Asli said "Marock" did not deserve inclusion in the festivals because it was "not a real Moroccan film," although he subsequently told a magazine that he welcomed the public release because it would open debate. Some critics claimed to detect sinister Zionist propaganda in the depicted Jewish-Muslim romance.

The Justice and Development Party, Morocco's increasingly popular Islamist political party, has led the charge against "Marock," claiming that it breaks a Moroccan law forbidding offense to Islam. The party plans to press the government on whether it has fully upheld the law.

"It's a mockery of Moroccan spiritual life," said Abdelkader Amara, a member of the PJD's general secretariat. "It presents Moroccans as if they don't adhere to their religion. But that's not true."

Read article in full

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Where were the Arabs in the Holocaust?

The good news is that an academic at a North African university has called for the Holocaust to be re-examined as a seminal event in Arab, not only European history. The bad news is that he prefers to remain anonymous. Review of Robert Satloff's taboo-breaking book on Arabs and the Holocaust in the Weekly Standard by Roger Kaplan.

In December 1942, Joseph Scemla and his family, successful textile merchants in Tunis, suddenly found themselves in grave danger. The Axis armies and their French collaborators, until then in control of the southern shores of the western Mediterranean, and threatening British power in Egypt, were thrown on the defensive by the American invasion of Morocco and Algeria. (...)

With German troops pouring in, the sensible course for Tunisia's Jews was to lie low—or get out… The Scemla family decided to entrust their property to a Muslim associate and make a run for it. Unfortunately, the associate was an informer who betrayed them to the Germans in early 1943. Three of the Scemla men—Joseph and his two sons—were taken to concentration camps in Germany, where they were killed.

The unusual feature of this bitter story involves the transfer of Jews to Germany: Most of the Jews of Tunisia and nearby lands under Nazi or French fascist control were persecuted in regional camps or prisons. In its substance, however, the story is not unusual. The Jews of the east discovered to their dismay that their neighbors were all too willing to turn into murderers when the Nazis offered them the opportunity. Willing participants or indifferent onlookers, the Muslims behaved no better during the Holocaust than the Christians of Nazi-occupied Europe…

Yet, just as in Europe, there surely were exceptions. This, at any rate, was the notion that led Robert Satloff on his quest for a Muslim Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg. (...) During the Holocaust, where were the Arabs? And more precisely, whose side were they on?

His answers are tempered by years of immersion in Arabic, Arab history, and contemporary Arab politics... Viewing themselves as the victims of modern European aggression, Arabs find it difficult to acknowledge even passive responsibility for such events as the herding of Jews into concentration camps in the Sahara, where they tortured and killed them under the orders of French or German officers.

Satloff understands the ambivalence of a Tunisian, for example, regarding the war, such as it seemed in 1941 or '42. Why not root for Germany? The colonial situation in North Africa was unjust and cruel and a German victory might change it. Yet this did not necessarily imply supporting appalling persecutions that, as most leading Muslim authorities knew, could not be condoned by Islam, which explicitly prohibits racism. And indeed, as Satloff reports, there were Muslims who did what they could to block the persecutions.

So why is it, he wonders, that among the more than 22,000 names inscribed at Yad Vashem as "Righteous among the nations" for saving Jews, there is not one Arab? For as he researched stories like the Scemlas' he found that, while there were Arabs who risked their lives under Nazi noses to save Jews, none of them or their descendants claimed it had much, if anything, to do with Jews. And this was not because they viewed their neighbors as compatriots rather than as Jews—which could be seen as reflecting a strong civic sense—but because they really did not want to make an issue of the Holocaust's reach into their lands.

But what if this notion were challenged? What if the Arabs (and the Jews) saw that their intermingled histories must include the World War II years? With a shared narrative, including stories of complicity as well as resistance to mass murder, it might be possible to rethink the relations between peoples who seem stuck in a perpetual conflict based on an impossible who-did-what-first argument.

On the surface, Satloff's idea—his starting question—is absurd: Why should anyone expect Iran's president or your ordinary Gaza human explosive to take the trouble to even read about the Holocaust, let alone its reaches beyond Europe? Why should a man like Hezbollah's leader, or one of his storm troopers, even want to think about the implications of what happened in Morocco in 1942 or Tunisia in 1943 or Paris in 1944?

What happened—and Satloff is meticulous in distinguishing between what we can certify from the historical record and what remains legend and folklore—is that Mohammed V, the sultan of Morocco, reluctantly governing under a French protectorate and plotting his eventual restoration of full sovereignty, refused to apply the Vichy anti-Semitic decrees. What happened is that a Tunisian named Khaled Abdelwahhab sheltered close to 2,000 Jews in danger of deportation on his farming estate, part of which the Germans were using as barracks. What happened is that in the Grande Mosque of Paris, the "official" center of French Islam a few blocks from the Pantheon, Kaddour Benghabrit, the leader of what already was a significant French Muslim population (largely made up of World War I veterans from North Africa and their families), sheltered Jewish resistance fighters and others escaping the Nazis.

Why is not one of these individuals inscribed at Yad Vashem? The answer is of stupefying simplicity, and just for bringing this point out Among the Righteous is worth reading: The Arabs themselves do not want to be there. Satloff found that there exists a kind of collective Muslim denial regarding the Holocaust. The Muslims do not want to study the Holocaust, or the part they played in it, even if the part is heroic… [I]t is convenient for Arabs (and their Western sympathizers) to argue that, since 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel, they are paying for a great European crime. This view, recently reiterated by the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a Persian, not an Arab) to justify wiping Israel off the map, is conventional in Muslim countries.

With this mindset, the Arabs simply cannot touch a subject that would force them to recast the whole history of the past half-century by putting Jews and Israel in a fresh historical light. They are not about to deny that they saved their neighbors when they did—they liked their neighbors—but they refuse to connect this to events that, in their reading of history, were…a European injustice for which they are still paying.

Satloff found amazing examples of this attitude, such as the entire extended family of a true hero, the Tunisian nationalist leader Mohammed Chenik, a great liberal who was brushed aside by the regime of Habib Bourguiba, even though he did as much as any other individual (including Bourguiba himself) to negotiate a relatively peaceful transition to independence in 1956. Chenik saved many Jews when he was one of the primary interlocutors with the Germans in 1942-43. Today there is not a grandchild, nephew, cousin, or friend of Chenik who remembers him rescuing Jews. At one point Satloff thought he had found an Egyptian Wallenberg who served in Berlin at the beginning of the war. But not even the most liberal and cosmopolitan Egyptians, knowledgeable about their country's diplomatic history, wanted to help him track down the facts on what would have been a case worthy of inclusion at Yad Vashem.

Robert Satloff, always the American in his optimism, notes in conclusion that, lately, Arab voices have been heard calling for a reexamination of the Holocaust as a seminal event not only in European history but in world—and thus certainly Arab—history. As one of them has written: "The genocide's principal significance today is that it stands out as the archetype of the crime against humanity. It is the crucial relationship between the Holocaust and modernity that Arab opinion fails to understand."

Satloff would have liked to track down the author of this remarkable essay…but while acknowledging that he teaches in a North African university, the writer prefers to remain anonymous.

Read article in full (subscription required)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Medieval Jews were 'intellectual equals of Muslims'

As the Muslim world, and now Iran, make increasingly hostile overtures toward Israel, it's hard to imagine that relations between Jews and Arabs were ever harmonious, writes Rachel Silverman in the Jewish Exponent.

"But as biblical scholar Elsie Stern pointed out, during the pinnacle of Islamic power, Jews and Muslims often had a "really fertile" relationship -- one based on shared religious convictions and intellectual and cultural progress.

A new lecture series sponsored by the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies of the University of Pennsylvania aims to shed light on this formerly symbiotic relationship.

Beginning this week, the five-month "Jewish Life Under Caliphs and Sultans" program will bring leading Judaic scholars to synagogues in Center City, Elkins Park and Montgomery County to give both a basic primer on Muslim beliefs and practices, and to examine special topics in Jewish-Muslim history.

The latter will illuminate issues such as Islam's effect on the Hebrew Bible, and how Jewish-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages waxed and waned between cooperation and conflict. (...)

"Most American Jews, when they think of Jewish culture and the roots of Jewish culture, they think about Judaism in Christian settings," said Stern. "But the reality is, that from the seventh to 13th centuries, 90 percent of Jews lived under Muslim rule."

Islamic lands were "the heart of sophisticated culture -- where philosophy was happening, where math was happening," she continued. " 'The dark ages' were really a period when Christian Europe was a backwater."

By way of example, Stern referred to the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, whose thoughts on Jewish ethics and law were developed in conjunction with Muslim intellectuals. She explained that, by valuing classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, those Muslim intellectuals provided much of the fodder for Maimonides' work.

Jews can also trace their economic prowess to the Islamic empire, according to Stern.

She said that the image of "the international businessman" developed under the sophisticated trade networks of the Islamic empire, and that by capitalizing on this infrastructure, Jews began a long lineage of bartering and trading.

In general, Stern said that Judaism and Islam share "a lot more similarities than I think Jews kind of intuitively would guess."

She pointed to a mutual emphasis on the legal tradition as an example, comparing Judaism's halachic teachings to the body of work called sharia in Islam.

That's not to say that Jewish life in Muslim lands was a bed of roses during the Islamic era.

As Hebrew University scholar Miriam Goldstein noted, Jews did not enjoy full rights in most Arab nations, and often had to pay a special tax, wear distinguishing clothing or adhere to certain restrictions there. (...)

Nevertheless, Goldstein -- whose scholarship at the center focuses on Muslim and Christian influences on Judeo-Arabic -- said that in intellectual spheres, they were equals.

"The rule then," she said, "was really peaceful co-existence."

Read article in full

For a contrary view see here