Monday, April 30, 2007

Iranians take foreigners on Jewish community tour

This article in the Christian Science Monitor - no friend of Israel - tries to steer a neutral course between whitewash and critique in its portrayal of Iran's treatment of its Jews. But it is downright wrong to claim that the Jews were among the first to join in the 1979 revolution. (Such statements of fierce loyalty are being made by the community's leaders for reasons of self-preservation). Likewise, the CSM is wrong to claim that 'strong anti-Zionist undercurrents developed in Iran – and across the Middle East – since Israel's creation in 1948. Those views came to a boil in Tehran after the 1967 war, when Israel crushed Arab foes and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai. That war marked a turning point in Iranians' attitudes toward the Jewish state, and sometimes toward Iranian Jews.' In fact there were cordial diplomatic and trade relations between the Shah's Iran and Israel from 1948 onwards. The real turning point was the 1979 advent of the rabidly anti-Zionist Ayatollahs.

"The Iranian Foreign Ministry recently facilitated a day-long visit to significant Jewish sites in Tehran for the diplomatic corps. Privately, Iranian officials said the event was designed to reassure Iranian Jews, after unease over the December (Holocaust denial) conference.

"Jewish leaders portrayed themselves as ordinary Iranians, facing the same problems and with the same aspirations for their nation.

"The Jewish community was probably one of the first [minority groups] to join in with the revolution, and in this way gave many martyrs," Maurice Motamed, holder of the one seat set aside for Jews in Iran's 290-seat parliament, told the diplomats. "And after that, during the eight years of the imposed [Iran-Iraq] war, there were many martyrs and disabled given to Iranian society."

"Every revolution is followed by some issues, problems, and restrictions [on minorities]," said Mr. Motamed. "Fortunately, all these effects have been completely removed in the last ten years."

The diplomatic tour – with a number of Foreign Affairs Ministry officials – visited a Jewish school, a home for the elderly, a community center, and one of 100 synagogues left in Iran, during Friday Sabbath prayers.

"We have obviously had migration out of Iran," says Afshin Seleh, a teacher of Jewish heritage with a white yarmulke skullcap, who says he loses two to three students per year in classes of up to 30. Upon the walls of the Jewish school are portraits of revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Iran's current supreme religious leader.

"There have been different voices [coming] from the government, so people felt unsafe," says Mr. Seleh. "But our existence here has always been separate from politics in Iran, and we always had peaceful coexistence with the Muslim community."

"Part of that coexistence has been gratitude for the Dr. Sapir Hospital, a Jewish charity hospital that would have closed years ago, but for subsidies from Jews inside and outside Iran, doctors say.

"During the 1979 revolution, the hospital refused to hand over those wounded in clashes with the security forces of the pro-West Shah Reza Pahlavi. Ayatollah Khomeini later sent a personal representative to express his thanks. Ahmadinejad, too, has made a $27,000 donation.

"Still, the Iran-Israel standoff has spilled over into many avenues of life here, with varied results for Iranian Jews.

"Strong anti-Zionist undercurrents developed in Iran – and across the Middle East – since Israel's creation in 1948. Those views came to a boil in Tehran after the 1967 war, when Israel crushed Arab foes and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai. That war marked a turning point in Iranians' attitudes toward the Jewish state, and sometimes toward Iranian Jews."

Read article in full

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Non-Ashkenazim appointed on merit nowadays

As prime minister of Israel, Menahem Begin started a revolution: Sephardim/Mizrahim first began to be appointed to important government posts. Today nobody is appointed because of their ethnic background, and nobody votes on ethnic lines anymore. Amos Asa'El writes in the Jerusalem Post:

"The Begin revolution was first of all social, as it embraced all those Labor had marginalized, from the haredim, who became pivotal coalition partners, to the non-Ashkenazi masses, whose representatives increasingly populated all corridors of power, from municipalities, consulates and religious councils to ministries, utilities and state-company boards, not to mention the Knesset.

"It took Labor leaders time to understand the power of this revolution, if not for any other reason than simply because it was news to them that they had hurt anyone, let alone entire populations. Now they too tried to join the trend, searching for attractive, "authentic" non-Ashkenazim of their own.

"That is how in 1988 Shimon Peres turned Amir Peretz, Sderot's little-known mayor, into a lawmaker. It was part of a zeitgeist dominated by an unofficial affirmative action, part of the same trend that inserted a Lilliputian diplomat like David Levy into Abba Eban's shoes, and installed a vulgarian like Yoram Marciano as Labor whip.

"Fortunately, such poor choices were rare. Others, from Meir Sheetrit at the Treasury and Shlomo Ben-Ami at the Foreign Ministry to Yitzhak Navon at the presidency and Moshe Nissim at the Justice Ministry reached senior office on their merit. Whether or not it was deliberate, the fact is that prior to the Begin revolution Israel was run pretty much exclusively by Ashkenazim. Now ethnicity is no longer relevant.

"With self-made non-Ashkenazim like Yitzhak Tshuva and Haim Saban dominating the energy and telecom industries, and with the IDF having had, since the Begin revolution, four non-Ashkenazi chiefs of General Staff, there is no longer a sizable swing-vote fueled by ethnic considerations. Today no one even notices that, say, Yossi Bachar, the Treasury director-general who executed the Netanyahu reforms, is Sephardi; he was hired due to his abilities, and judged regardless of his origins."

Read article in full

Saturday, April 28, 2007

An Egyptian Muslim meets Murad the musician

The author of this post is a 33-year old Belgian-Egyptian journalist travelling in Israel at the moment. He's on the left, pro-Palestinian, with 'progressive' Israeli friends. Meeting an Iraqi Jew in Jerusalem may not shatter his preconceived ideas - but they might just make him reflect that the Palestinians are not the only victims of this conflict.

"Yesterday evening, I walked into a shawarma joint, and an accidental 'Aywa' ('Yes' in Egyptian) led the owner to ask me if I spoke Arabic. When I answered in the affirmative, he and his friend sitting by the counter welcomed me warmly. At first, I could not figure out whether these guys were Palestinians or not, until I realised the friend was wearing a kippa or yarmulka.

"Murad (Mordechai is his Hebraised name) is an Iraqi Jew who speaks fluent Arabic with an Iraqi accent and does passable impersonations of the Egyptian and Palestinian dialects. He was born in Baghdad and fled there in 1951 with his parents just before a law was passed to stop others from leaving. He recalls his childhood there with nostalgia.

"Baghdad is my birth place. It has a special place in my heart," he told me theatrically, his hands gesticulating musically. "I miss our house there. I wish I could go back and visit it, if it is still standing."

"And it is not just the current occupation and anarchy - which sadden Murad and which he opposes - that are holding him back. He and the Iraqi Jews he hangs out with are also casualties of the conflict as they were not allowed to re-enter the country. But he is determined to visit his beloved Baghdad at the first possible opportunity.

"Murad is a musician who plays the Arabic oud and sings old Arabic classics at weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. I was surprised that there was a demand for Arabic songs among Jews, but he reassured me there was. Showing his age, he told me that he had no desire to listen to modern singers whose songs had become too shallow and too short, in his opinion. He longed for the days when an Umm Kalthoum concert would last an entire evening and she'd only get through one song!

"He recalled with nostalgia the old greats of Arabic music like Umm Kalthoum, Farid el-Atrash, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Egypt's most famous Jewish singing giant, Leila Murad.

"Murad has been to Egypt several times and he recounted several long tales of adventure in Cairo and Alexandria. "I love the Egyptian people," he told me. "They're so friendly and funny. When they find out I'm an Israeli, they called me ibn 'ami [cousin] and khawaga [slang for foreigner who speaks broken Arabic]."

Read post in full

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ask Congress to support Jewish refugee resolutions

Regular readers of this website will know that two resolutions have been introduced into the US Congress at the beginning of this year. They are now before the House and Senate foreign relations committees.

Now a new site designed by the JCRC, Boston, makes it easy for you to send a message asking your Congressperson to co-sponsor the legislation and to seek other co-sponsors.

The resolutions instruct the US President that, when the issue of Middle East refugees is discussed in all international fora, explicit reference to Palestinian refugees is matched by an explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees, as a matter of law and equity.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Jews still consider Iran a land of milk and honey

The 2005 documentary, "Jews of Iran," directed by Ramin Farahani, was shown last week at the University of Pennsylvania, USA as part of a program sponsored by the Middle East Center. The Jewish Exponent reports:

"Daniel Tsadik, Ph.D., a fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies who studies Jews in pre-modern Iran, and Orly Rahimiyan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Middle Eastern Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and a Fulbright scholar at Penn, led the discussion after the film.

"The Jewish settlement in Iran dates back to the Babylonian exile, more than 2,700 years ago, explained Rahimiyan, and now numbers about 25,000 -- a drastic drop, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, from the 1948 Jewish population in Iran of between 100,000 and 125,000.

"The Jews of Iran have been segregated, socially and religiously. They were pushed to the fringes of society, noted Rahimiyan, kept in isolated neighborhoods and subject to a poll tax.

Yet despite these divisions and difficulties, much of the Jewish population strongly identifies with Iranian culture and heritage. "These people -- some of them at least -- really love Iran," said Tsadik. They speak Persian, and they identify themselves as Iranian.

"Tsadik knows these strong cultural ties of Iranian Jews firsthand -- from his own family. "For my father," he noted, "Iran is his country of milk and honey." He added that even those who've left still teach their children to speak the language and appreciate the culture.

"On one hand, the Jews love Iran, but certain circumstances force them out," he added. With the rise of the Islamic Republic in 1979, two-thirds of Jews fled the country. While many Iranian Jews had prospered economically through the years, the nation after the Shah -- where Islamic fanaticism took over -- caused fear and concern among those who stayed. The others wound up settling in American metropolitan centers like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. They also managed to immigrate -- in fits and starts -- to Israel, where an active Persian community remains."

Read article in full

'The Jews of Iran' will be shown in London on 19 June.

Monday, April 23, 2007

An Egyptian wishes a Happy Passover to 'Arab' Jews

This article by an Egyptian author wishing the Jews a Happy Passover is to be applauded: it is honest enough to admit that Jews, deeply rooted in the Middle East for millennia, were cruelly forced to leave Arab lands in modern times. (The author's reference to 'Jewish Arabs' is, however, not historically accurate, given that the Jewish presence preceded the Arab invasion by a good 1,000 years.) Excerpts from MEMRI (With thanks Ida, Lily):

In an article on the Arab reformist websites Aafaq (April 9, 2007) and Middle East Transparent (April 8, 2007), Egyptian author Hisham Al-Tuhi rejects the view that Muslims should not convey holiday greetings to non-Muslims on their holidays, reviews the history of Jews in Arab countries in the 20th century, and wishes Jews still living in Arab countries a happy Passover.

"In my previous article, I gave holiday greetings to the Afghanis and the Kurds on the Norouz holiday, [as well as] the Egyptian Baha'is. The letters came in from the caves: a flood of racism, hatred, ugliness, and abuse.

"This is neither out of the ordinary nor new. Here, it is only to be expected.

"The strange thing is that most of these letters… came from the caves of the Saudi Kingdom and the 'infidel' Western countries, [in] Europe, Canada, and the U.S.! (...)

"Many of the sons of the Arab Middle East lived for more than 1,000 years as Jews, more than 1,000 years before the advent of Christianity, and before the advent of Islam.

"Today, many of the Arab Christians are the descendants of these Jews. Their ancestors were Jews, even if they curse them and say: 'They crucified Christ!'

"And many of the Arab Muslims today are the descendants of Jews. Their ancestors were Jews, even if they curse them and say: 'Monkeys and pigs!'"

"In Egypt in 1917, there were 59,581 Jewish Egyptians - Egyptians in flesh and in blood. They took part, together with the other Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, in the Egyptian liberal renaissance (nahdha)…

"In politics, there was Musa Qattawi, who was a member of the Egyptian Legislative Assembly, finance minister, and then transportation minister in the 1925 government. He founded the Aswan railroad line and the West Delta tramway…

"There was also Yousef Qattawi, head of the Egyptian Sephardi Council, and member of the Draft Committee for the 1923 Constitution…

"Others were members in the negotiations committee for the abolition of the capitulations [Ottoman-era accords that granted special rights to foreigners]. And then there was the lawyer Zaki 'Uraybi, member of the Draft Committee for the 1956 Constitution.

"[Jews] founded the Salt and Soda Company… the Egyptian Petrol Company… the Rice-hulling Company… the Egyptian Real Estate Bank… the Family Bank… the Commercial Bank… and 'Rico' the Jewish Egyptian participated with Tal'at Harb in founding Bank Misr…

"In the arts, there were creators and performers who took part in the revival of music and singing and in the launch of Egyptian cinema and theater… For those who don't know, Ya'qub Sanu'a, the Jewish Egyptian, was one of those who raised the slogan: 'Egypt for the Egyptians!'…

"On October 25, 1952, following the military revolt, President Muhammad Naguib visited the temple of the Qaraite Jews to give felicitations to the Jewish Egyptians on Yom Kippur.

"In 1956, there were 60,000 Jewish Egyptians, who lived as Egyptians, in soul and in blood. Approximately 20,000 of them were forced to emigrate between 1956 and 1961…

"Their money was seized, and those of them who remained after the nationalization of 1961 were deported. Many of their homes and properties were distributed to army officers, after the renaissance ended and the eternal leader [i.e. Gamal 'Abd Al-Nasser] came to despotically rule Egypt.

"Today, in 2007, there are no more than 300 of the Jewish Egyptians left..."

"In Iraq, Nuri Al-Sa'id gave a speech at the 1939 Round Table Conference in London, in which he said: '200,000 Jews live in Iraq, the majority of them in Baghdad.' In 1950, they began to be forced to emigrate. In 1976, there remained of them fewer than 400 Jewish Iraqis.

"In Morocco, the number of Jewish Moroccans is estimated to have been 280,000 in 1950. Today, in 2007, the approximately 5,000 Jewish Moroccans live in fear of suicide bombers.

"On May 16, 2003, their possessions and cemeteries were subjected to a wave of bombings, which left 45 dead. In September 2003, one of them was killed in a stabbing, and another was killed in a shooting.

"In Tunisia, more than 3,000 Jewish Tunisians live in freedom, since the presidency of the late President Habib Bourguiba, who gave one of them, Albert Bessis, the position of minister in one of [his] governments.

"Nonetheless, they were not safe and sound -safe neither from the enmity of the Islamist Nahdha movement, nor from the suicide bombings. On April 2002, the oldest Jewish temple in Africa, which was constructed in 566 B.C. on the island of Jerba, was bombed, leaving 20 dead."

"Despite this - despite the nationalization, the expulsion, the banishment, the bombings, the racism, the enmity, and the marginalization; despite their being reviled with the ugliest abuse in the prayers of the Muslims, in all of the Arab mosques and in some of the churches; despite their being called infidels and cursed, and being accused of treason, in the books, the newspapers, and the TV stations, [both] governmental and private - despite all this, they still live in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, and in other countries of the Arab Middle East!

"And they still celebrate their holidays in silence, forgotten. And they still passionately love their countries who treated them cruelly, and will not accept any substitute [for them].

"Is not the least we can say to them: Jewish Arabs - happy Passover!?"

Read article in full

Jews of Libya home movie hits the big time

A new documentary by Vivienne Roumani-Denn, The Last Jews of Libya, began life as a home video for children's birthday parties. It is showing in May at a prestigious New York film festival, TriBeCA (see trailer). Report in the New York Post (with thanks: Heather):

"April 22, 2007 -- After the birth of his second child, UBS media banker Aryeh Bourkoff bought a digital camera and asked his mother to document their family's history for his kids to see as they grow up.

"Turns out the resulting video, "The Last Jews of Libya," will be seen by a lot more people than Bourkoff's kids. The film was accepted into this week's TriBeCa Film Festival as a documentary feature, earning Bourkoff's mom, Vivienne Roumani-Denn, a director's credit and the Wall Street banker an executive producer title.

"I just thought it would be something to show at my kids' birthday parties," Bourkoff, 34, said over coffee with The Post.

"But when Roumani-Denn found a handwritten memoir about her mother's - Bourkoff's grandmother's - experiences living as a Jew in Libya during World War II, she instantly knew she was onto something more.

"It was written from a very personal perspective, but it was universal in the way everything she wrote was so intertwined with the war," Roumani-Denn said.

"The low-budget, 50-minute film, premiering May 2, uses the Roumani family to tell the story of how war and cultural dislocation forced the entire Libyan Jewish community out of the country.

"The emotional tale has already garnered some big fans, including former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

" 'The Last Jews of Libya' is a fantastic documentary that in the end made me realize how lucky I was to be born in America," Eisner said of the film.

"Another big fan of the film, Sundance Channel CEO Larry Aidem, was also instrumental in getting the film out of Bourkoff's living room and in front of a larger audience. So impressed was Aidem with the film that he not only bought the domestic television distribution rights to the movie for the Sundance Channel, but he also enlisted Isabella Rossellini, with whom he was already working on a Sundance project, to narrate."

Read article in full

Yemen Jews mark Passover away from home

The 55 Jews driven from their village in the north, Sa'ada, and sheltering from Shi'ite Muslim rebels in the Yemen capital, Sa'ana, courtesy of the president, still managed to celebrate Passover this year. An insightful interview by Kawkab al-Thaibani in the
Yemen Observer.

"Their Rabbi, Yousif Marhabi, said that the main thing in their rituals is to eat their own homemade food. They are forbidden to make it outside, he said. He explained the reason for the unleavened bread saying that the Jews fled Egypt before their bread had time to rise. Marhabi was sitting on the floor, smoking Mada’ah (a Yemeni form of hookah). “Smoking or chewing gat (a plant with narcotic properties) is not forbidden,” he said. Marhabi cannot hear well, so when talking to him, everyone has to make his or her voice loud. “Allah hail the president, we, Jewish, feel secured now,” he said. He was complaining of the Houthi members in Sa’ada that expelled him.

“We are always in fear, so we could not put our sons and daughters in schools.” His daughter, Sa’adah, was also complaining of the bad attitude from some people in Sa’ada. “Some men or women said to us to stay way from them because we will dirty them*,” she said. Sa’ada, like the others, wore a very typical Yemeni dress, but she is a widow. “My son’s uncles took him away from me to Israel, and I have not seen him since,” she said.

"She heard from other people that he is a married man with a son. “I have no desire to marry again. If your lifetime begins in misery, then it will continue for the rest of your life,” she said. Her son, Manahim Izra, does not contact her. “I doubt that he knows that he has a mother,” she said grievously. Yahia said that they have special utensils for the celebration. “They should be new, nobody touches them, but here we could not get them here because we left our home, and we could not afford to buy new ones,” she said.

"The special utensils are the same Yemeni traditional ones used throughout the country. Nemah Yahia, an elderly lady, said that they went to a mill in Raida, half an hour from their new home, to grind the cereal into flour. “We are not allowed to take it already ground,” she said. Marhabi, his daughter, and Yahia continuously thank the president for his help to them, yet they don’t have enough money to cover their expenses. "

Read article in full

*the Shi'ite prejudice of najas

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ibn Warraq on the roots of Islamic antisemitism

Writing in Global Politician, Ibn Warraq, the pseudonym of a US-based author from an Indian-Muslim family, says that the claim that Jews found greater tolerance in the Arab world than in Europe is false. In fact, antisemitism's roots in the region go back to Muhammed himself.

"Is Islamic antisemitism only a modern phenomenon? What of the so-called Golden Age of Islamic tolerance, above all as depicted in Islamic Spain? Here the willingness to accept the clichés of the Romantics is palpable. And those whom we expect to have done their own research and not merely to accept, and pass on, these clichés, so often disappoint.

"Consider the case of Amartya Sen, a celebrated economist, and winner of the Nobel Prize. Sen has in recent years written on subjects outside his normal area of research. Unfortunately, he seems not to have bothered to check his history, something which would have been easy given the resources available to him.

"Here is how Amartya Sen treats, for example, the Myth of Maimonides. Amartya Sen tells us twice in his book Identity and Violence that when “..the Jewish Philosopher Maimonides was forced to emigrate from an intolerant Europe in the twelfth century, he found a tolerant refuge in the Arab world.” 1 I do not know how to characterize this misinterpretation of history- “willful,” “grotesque,” “dishonest” or “typical?” It is certainly an indication that in the present intellectual climate that one can denigrate Europe any way one wishes, to the point of distorting history, without, evidently, any one of the distinguished scholars who blurbed the book raising an eyebrow. Ironically, the one reviewer who did object to Sen's “potted history” which “is tailored for interfaith dialogues” was Fouad Ajami in The Washington Post. Ajami reminded Sen that

...this will not do as history. Maimonides, born in 1135, did not flee "Europe" for the "Arab world": He fled his native Córdoba in Spain, which was then in the grip of religious-political terror, choking under the yoke of a Berber Muslim dynasty, the Almohads, that was to snuff out all that remained of the culture of conviviencia and made the life of Spain's Jews (and of the free spirits among its Muslims) utter hell. Maimonides and his family fled the fire of the Muslim city-states in the Iberian Peninsula to Morocco and then to Jerusalem. There was darkness and terror in Morocco as well, and Jerusalem was equally inhospitable in the time of the Crusader Kingdom. Deliverance came only in Cairo -- the exception, not the rule, its social peace maintained by the enlightened Saladin."

Read article in full

An apology for Koranic antisemitism? by Andrew Bostom

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The battle to control Ezekiel's synagogue

The Hebrew inscription on the wall of Ezekiel's burial chamber reads: "This monument is the burial monument of our master Ezekiel, the prophet son of Buzi, the priest, may his virtue defend us and all Israel Amen "

(With thanks for source material: Eli)

Hardly a Jewish shrine or holy place exists that is not also considered sacred to Muslims. The cave of Machpela in Hebron and Temple Mount in Jerusalem are perhaps the obvious examples.

Iraq - the Biblical Mesopotamia -is almost as rich in Jewish history as the Land of Israel. Here Abraham first discovered the one God, and the prophets Ezra, Nehemiah, Nahum, Jonah and Daniel walked the dusty land of the two rivers.

The shrine most closely associated with the Jews of Iraq was the tomb of Ezekiel at Kifl, some two hours' drive south of Baghdad. It was popular with Muslims too, being on the route of the Hajj to Mecca. It is thought to have become a centre for Jewish pilgrimage after the Muslim conquest and the cult of the Shi'ite saints in Islam took hold. Benjamin of Tudela visited the site in 1170, and described seeing a synagogue, a Teba and a room filled with books dating back to the First and Second temples. Until their mass flight in 1951 the local Jews, and some from as far afield as Persia and India, converged on the tomb - especially between New Year and the Day of Atonement when the book of Ezekiel was read.

But what on the face of it constitutes a 'shared Jewish-Muslim heritage', conceals, throughout the shrine's history, a bitter struggle for control.

According to Zvi Yehuda* of the Hebrew University, the synagogue at Ezekiel's tomb became significant as a symbol of national identification under the Abbasids, when the Jews of the lands of Islam united under the leadership of the Jews of Babylonia. The growing importance of the site aroused the envy of the Muslims. Some Muslim writers attributed the burial place of the prophet Ezekiel to their 'mysterious and controversial' Koranic prophet Dhu-al-Kifl. Under the 14th century Mongol sultan Oljeitu the Muslims took over the synagogue of the prophet Ezekiel and turned it into a Muslim prayer house. Oljeitu also began to build a mosque, now ruined by flooding, but its minaret exists to this day.

For five centuries, not much was heard about the synagogue at Ezekiel's tomb, but it is assumed that control of it and the access yards to the tomb itself were in Muslim hands.

Around 1778, when the mosque was destroyed by floodwater, the local Muslims tried to turn the outer yard into a mosque, complete with minbar, mehrab, mahfal and Koranic inscription. They appointed Khadims as caretakers. Until the 1820s the Jews were banned from passing through the yard - now converted to a mosque - to the tomb.

In the 1840s, according to Zvi Yehuda, the Jews managed to regain control of the synagogue next to Ezekiel's tomb. At the time, the Turkish authorities needed the Jews to pay for repairs to the 'outer yard'. In spite of protests by the Shi'ite Muslims who controlled the tomb precincts, the Jews seized the opportunity to remove the Muslim symbols and ritual items from the outer yard and turn it into a synagogue again. The Turks (plied with generous Jewish gifts) expelled the Shi'ite caretakers and allowed the Jews to erect new buildings. To reinforce their hold on the site, the Jews set up a yeshiva staffed by scholars from Baghdad and their families. Jewish traders and craftsmen from Hilla, Baghdad and elsewhere went to settle in Kifl.

In the 1850s, the Turks expelled the last of the Shi'ite caretakers. The Jewish official now in charge was elevated to the same status as the keepers of the Shi'ite shrines. Jewish control was complete. The Muslims made two more attempts to wrest control of Ezekiel's yards - in 1860 and in the 1930s when they took over the synagogue for prayers. After a few months the occupation of the synagogue ended. Until their departure for Israel in 1951, the Jews of Kifl continued to maintain the yards of the prophet Ezekiel's tomb.

*The Synagogue at the Tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel at Kifil

Tim Judah's visit to Ezekiel's tomb

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Persian Israelis advised not to visit Iran

Declaring Iran an enemy state could endanger lives, according to Menashe Amir, an Iranian affairs analysts who works for Israel Radio's Persian-language service, the Jerusalem Post reports.

"Such a move would mean that any Israeli traveling in Iran for sightseeing or visiting relatives could be kept there as a hostage, and this would create a very dangerous situation," he said Tuesday.

"Amir said there have been many cases of Iranians living abroad who traveled to Iran and were arrested, molested, tortured and prevented from returning home.

"The most prominent recent example, he said, was Parnaz Azima, who holds dual US and Iranian citizenship. She works for Radio Farad, a Persian-language service operated by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty that is funded by the US. When she arrived in Teheran in January, her passport was seized and she has not been let out of the country.

"Amir strongly advised Israelis of Iranian descent from trying to visit Iran. Such visits were rare, he said, but there have been some disturbing incidents in recent years."

Read article in full

'Persian Israelis will never be spies'

Iran's drive to recruit Persian Israelis as spies using incentives and threats has not worked, according to the Jerusalem Post.

The announcement Tuesday that Iranian intelligence has been trying to recruit Israeli spies came as no surprise to Israel's Iranian immigrants, many of whom say the efforts have been going on for some time.

"The Iranians have always been searching, and they always try to target olim [new immigrants] as spies," said Nouriel Shaccid, who works with a rabbinical organization to assist new Iranian immigrants in Israel. "I can say that until now they have not succeeded."

Read article in full

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Iran tries to recruit Persian Israelis as spies

Haaretz reports that Shin Bet security forces detained an Israeli citizen of Persian-descent over suspicions he had been recruited by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence agency, it was revealed on Tuesday.

"Over the past two years the Iran's security servicies have made at least ten attempts to recruit Israeli citizens of Persian-descent visiting their relatives in Iran, Shin Bet sources said. By law, Iran is not defined an enemy state and Israeli citizens are permitted travel there.

"According to Shin Bet, Iranian intelligence officers try to recruit Israelis seeking entry permits to Iran at their Istanbul consulate. Permit applicants undergo extensive questioning in which Iranian officials test their political stance and other criteria.

"Israelis deemed suitable for recruitment are then arrested by Iranian police when they arrive in Tehran and held for questioning. In some cases, Iranian authorities hold them for a number of months and threaten to hold them indefinitely unless they cooperate with Iranian intelligence services."

Read article in full

Article in Israelinsider

Article in JTA News

Article in Jerusalem Post

Article in Ynet News

Wartime Tunisian saviour honoured in US

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in California has honoured the late Khaled Abdelwahab, who saved Jews from the Nazis in Tunisia. He is the first Arab to be named as a 'righteous gentile'.

"Over 500 community activists, students and Holocaust survivors joined Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, City Councilmember Jack Weiss, Simon Wiesenthal Center officials and members of the diplomatic corps to commemorate Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) at the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.

"This year’s commemoration posthumously honor Khaled Abdelwahhab, a Tunisian citizen who rescued 24 Jews including the family of Jacob and Odette Boukris, Jews who lived in Tunisia during the Holocaust. Mr. Abdelwahhab becomes the first Arab to be named by a Jewish organization as a “Righteous Among the Nations.” At the event, Faiza Abdul Wahab, daughter of Khaled Abdelwahhab met for the first time Nadia Bijaoui, daughter of Anny Boukris.On hand to honor Abdelwahhab was Tunisian Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Mohamed Nejib Hachana, who traveled from Washington, D.C. and Robert Satloff, whose book Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands, first brought this courageous story to light."

Read article in full

More on Robert Satloff's book here, here and here

Monday, April 16, 2007

US Holocaust Museum still ignoring pro-Nazi Mufti

On Holocaust Memorial Day, it is shocking that the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC should still studiously ignore the Mufti of Jerusalem's contribution to genocidal antisemitism, David Bedein argues in Israelinsider.

'Boston attorney Charles Morse has made an issue of the fact that The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum ignores any mention of the Arab or Muslim role in the Holocaust and by ignoring the link between Nazism and current Islamic extremism

"While the museum has programs on the role of Christianity in promoting anti-Semitism - yet nothing on Islam.

"There is no mention of the mufti in the museum's permanent exhibit, nor is there any reference to the Mufti in the millions of files of the US Holocaust museum. In contrast, there are 33 large files on the mufti in the Yad VaShem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Read article in full

Friday, April 13, 2007

Bigio case emblematic of Jewish dispossession

Ron Grossman's article in the Chicago Tribune tries to place one Egyptian-Jewish family's struggle for restitution in the context of the dispossession of almost one million Sephardi refugees:

"A little-noticed U.S. Supreme Court decision has reopened a forgotten chapter in Middle East history with far-reaching implications for the torturous, often violent politics of the region.

"The court recently declined Coca-Cola Co.'s request to review a lower court's decision allowing a Canadian Jewish family to sue the soft-drink giant for trespass. The case was brought by the heirs of Joshias Bigio, a businessman in Egypt until its government expropriated his enterprises in the 1960s.

"Thirty years later, Bigio's son, Refael, discovered that Coke was using one of his father's factories as part of its Egyptian bottling operations and asked for compensation. When that was not forthcoming, he filed a lawsuit -- Bigio vs. The Coca-Cola Co. -- in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

"The Bigios, who eventually settled in Canada, are Sephardim -- Jews whose ancestors lived in Muslim countries for centuries before fleeing a wave of anti-Semitic violence and intimidation that began at the founding of Israel in 1948. Many had to abandon homes, businesses and life savings. The Bigio family hung on longer, heavily invested in factories and other enterprises, hoping to weather the storm.

"You had to leave with only 5 Egyptian pounds per person," said Refael Bigio. "Our family wound up eating in a soup kitchen in France."

Now some Jewish organizations see the Bigios' lawsuit as a way to get the Sephardim case into the court of public opinion.

"Why is it that the issue of Palestinian refugees is always talked about and the issue of Jewish refugees isn't?" asked Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

"Klein's group is calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola products until the company settles accounts with the Bigio family. Klein says the ZOA, the nation's oldest pro-Israel group that claims a membership of 30,000, will picket a meeting of Coke shareholders Wednesday in Wilmington, Del.

"The Egyptian government's actions were part of a campaign of anti-Semitic discrimination and persecution that caused almost a million Jews in Arab/Islamic countries, like the Bigios, to lose their homes, properties, businesses and livelihoods," the group said in calling for the Coke boycott.

"The Bigios and other Sephardim are the counterparts of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Refael Bigio still has a document designating his mother, Bahia, as a refugee according to the United Nations' criteria. The plight of displaced Palestinians, many still living in refugee camps in nearby countries as well as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is well known. Acknowledging their "right of return" has consistently been a precondition of the Arab powers to negotiating a peace treaty with Israel.

"But the story of the Sephardic exodus from Arab lands has gone virtually unnoticed even by many American Jews, the vast majority of whom are of European, not Sephardic, origin.

Read article in full

Israel bars Iranian immigrant's Muslim wife

Israel has refused entry to the Muslim wife of a Jewish immigrant from Iran. She is currently in Turkey but could be sent back to Iran within days, where she is likely to be severely punished, Haaretz reports. A tragic case, on the face of it, but are we being told the whole story? (With thanks: Albert)

The immigrant, Puriya Hajaram appealed yesterday to Haaretz for help in bringing his wife to Israel. "I was told before coming that I would get help here. Otherwise I wouldn't have come alone," he said.

Hajaram, 23, left Iran with his wife, R., for fear of being drafted into the Iranian army. The two crossed the border to Turkey illegally. They went to the Israeli consulate, where they were told that only Hajaram could get an entrance visa to Israel because his family lives here.

Read article in full

Article in Ynet News

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Israel treated refugees in 'civilised, humane' way

At last, a Saudi Columnist writing in a Kuwaiti newspaper is brave enough to call for the Arabs to abandon the illusion of the 'right of return' for Palestinians. Yussef Nasser al-Sweidan believes that Arab host countries should absorb the Palestinian refugees as Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. (With thanks: Lily)

"Clearly, the refugee problem is mainly the result of cumulative mistakes made by the countries where [the refugees] live... such as Syria and Lebanon, which have isolated the refugees in poor and shabby camps lacking the most basic conditions for a dignified human existence. Instead of helping them to become fully integrated in their new society, they let them become victims of isolation and suffering... Later, the worst of all happened when Arab intelligence agencies used the Palestinian organizations as a tool for settling scores in internal Arab conflicts that probably have nothing to do with the Palestinians...

"The Israelis, on the other hand, were civilized and humane in their treatment of the thousands of Jewish refugees who had lost their property, homes and businesses in the Arab countries, and who were forced to emigrate to Israel after the 1948 war. The Israeli government received them, helped them, and provided them with all the conditions [they needed] to become integrated in their new society..."

Read article in full

Following on from Al- Sweidan's piece, this is an article I submitted to the Guardian website, but which they rejected on the grounds that the subject had already been covered in a debate between two Palestinians on 6 April :

Naturalise the Palestinian refugees

Last week, a Saudi columnist caused a stir when he called on the Palestinians to abandon their 'right of return':

"The slogan 'right of return' which is brandished by Palestinian organisations is...the main obstacle to renewing and advancing the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians based on the Road Map and the Two-State solution..It is patently obvious the uprooting the descendants of the refugees from their current homes in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and other countries and returning to Israel, to the West Bank and to Gaza is a utopian ideal and a recipe for anarchy. More than that it is an idea that cannot be implemented..."

The words of Yousef Nasser Al-Sweidan, writing in the Kuwaiti daily 'Al Siyassa', must have seemed heresy to many Arabs, who cling to the tired old sacred cow of 'the right of return'. Even the Saudi Peace Plan, recently revived at an Arab League summit to much fanfare, did not dare break the taboo: it demanded a solution in line with UN resolution 194, which calls for 'refugees to be permitted to return at the earliest opportunity'. The Saudis could not really have been surprised when Israel's Prime Minister rejected this particular deal-breaker.

Al-Sweidan blames the Arab refugee problem on the 'cumulative mistakes made by the countries where [the refugees] live... such as Syria and Lebanon, which have isolated the refugees in poor and shabby camps lacking the most basic conditions for a dignified human existence. Instead of helping them to become fully integrated in their new society, they let them become victims of isolation and suffering... Later, the worst of all happened when Arab intelligence agencies used the Palestinian organizations as a tool for settling scores in internal Arab conflicts that probably have nothing to do with the Palestinians..."

Arab countries should learn from Israel's handling of its refugees and naturalise their Palestinians. Al-Sweidan writes:

"The Israelis, on the other hand, were civilized and humane in their treatment of the thousands of Jewish refugees who had lost their property, homes and businesses in the Arab countries, and who were forced to emigrate to Israel after the 1948 war. The Israeli government received them, helped them, and provided them with all the conditions [they needed] to become integrated in their new society."

The mere existence of Jewish refugees may come as a surprise to those who think that the Arab-Israeli conflict only produced Palestinian refugees. In fact a greater number of Jews (870,000) were displaced from their ancient communities in Arab countries, fleeing mob violence, legal discrimination and harassment. In the 1950s the struggling state of Israel took in 600,000 Arab-born refugees (now 41 percent of the Jewish population)- with no help from the UN. The newcomers, some arriving incongruously in suits but with little else, were housed in tent camps or shacks that flooded in winter and baked in summer. There was scarcely enough food to go around. Gradually, the camps became townships and the refugees found jobs, learned Hebrew and rebuilt their lives.

The Orientals initially experienced social and cultural prejudice but Israel's integration of the Jews from Arab countries has, by and large, been a success. Although the underclass is still largely Oriental, Arab-born Jews have reached the top echelons of the Israeli establishment. Intermarriage between European and Oriental Jews is such that in a couple of generations Israelis will no longer remember where they came from.

How much easier, then, would it be for Palestinians, who share a religion, culture and a language with their Arab host countries, to integrate, given the chance. It is a disgrace that Palestinians born in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt should be denied citizenship and the right to jobs and property and a scandal that Palestinians born in Iraq should have been hounded out and refused entry into Syria. Last month Colonel Gaddafi threatened to deport his Palestinians so that they did not resettle permanently in Libya.

As Al-Sweidan puts it: "The Arab countries where the Palestinians live in refugee camps must pass the laws necessary to integrate the inhabitants of these camps into society. [In addition, they must] provide them with education and health services, and allow them freedom of occupation and movement and the right to own real estate, instead of [continuing] their policy of excluding [the refugees] and leaving the responsibility [of caring for them] to others, while marketing the impossible illusion of return [to Palestine]..."

In short, Yousef Al-Sweidan is bold enough to advocate a humanitarian solution for people who for sixty years have been treated as political footballs. Let's hope that his brand of brave and honest realism catches on.

Update: more Palestinians disavow 'right of return'

New book on Mizrahi life cycle rituals

The latest volume of Haim Saadoun's important historical series on Jewish Mizrahi communities, The Life Cycle, edited by Shalom Sabar, explores Jewish rites of passage, from birth to death, in Islamic countries and the Balkans. Review by Yali Hashash in Haaretz:

"The contributors have managed to avoid many of the methodological pitfalls that stood in their way. These rituals, for example, are not portrayed as hailing from some static past that is over and gone, and hence observed from a very distant vantage point. In addition, the East is not portrayed as a homogeneous entity but rather as a variety of communities, each with their own, sometimes widely different, customs. The authors seem to be aware that the West and Zionism have illuminated the rituals described here in an unflattering light, causing them to be perceived as vestiges of a diaspora life that was backward and primitive. In consequence, the first thing that captures the eyes in this book is its beauty.

"The Life Cycle" is overflowing with material meticulously gathered from oral testimonies and a large array of first-hand sources. The data is organized in five chapters written by different authors: Pregnancy, Birth and the Early Years (Shalom Sabar); Childhood: Traditional Education (Ella Arazi); Bar Mitzvah (Roni Weinstein and Shalom Sabar); Marriage (Shalom Sabar); and Death, Burial and Mourning (Avriel Bar-Levav). A glossary is appended at the back of the book. (...)

"The book contains descriptions of familiar rites of passage, like bar mitzvahs and weddings, but also some that are less familiar, like the ceremony in which cloth is cut up for diapers. Through these rituals, we see the diversity of Mizrahi Jewish culture. In modern times, the Jews of Algeria made a point of celebrating a boy's bar mitzvah on his exact birth date. That was the day on which he put on phylacteries for the first time. Among the Jews of Morocco, 8- to 12-year-olds put on phylacteries, in keeping with the Talmudic principle of " lzrizin makdimine mitzvot" ("the diligent fulfill mitzvot at the earliest opportunity"). The Jews of Afghanistan ascribed no importance to the age of 13. A boy's bar mitzvah was determined by when he reached puberty and when he was capable of reading the Torah and Haftorah portions. In certain parts of Ethiopia, women performed the circumcision ceremonies. And the list goes on and on, with rites differing from place to place and from one chronological period to the next."

Read article in full

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New Canadian website on Jews of Egypt

Led by the dynamic Irene Buenavida, a group of Jews from Egypt now living in Montreal, Canada, have set up their own website.

Apart from listing the many activities - social events, films, lectures, etc - arranged by the AJOE-Canada, the site has been posting articles about life in Egypt where there were once 80,000 Jews. Fewer than 100, mostly elderly, Jews are left.

Beny Melameth gives a moving account of his internment in an Egyptian prison camp when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967. Hundreds of Jews holding Egyptian nationality were jailed as 'Israeli PoWs' and held in cramped and rudimentary conditions, beaten and sometimes tortured. Melameth spent 1108 days in prison and on the day he was released had to wear handcuffs until he boarded the airplane to freedom.

The website is only in French at the moment but there are plans to do an English version.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Seven myths about Jews from Arab countries

By popular demand I have tried to explode some of the more common myths about Jews from Arab countries.

1.While some Jews were expelled from Arab countries, many left of their own free will and were fervent Zionists.

Although Jews in Muslim lands have a long tradition of Zionism, - and Israeli politicians such as Ran Cohen(who arrived in 1950 as a 13-year old refugee), Yisrael Yeshayahu and Shlomo Hillel, who arrived before Israel was born, are on record as saying they came as Zionists, not refugees - this myth, supported by radical Marxist academics such as Yehouda Shenhav, conveniently whitewashes all the push factors that together made life uncomfortable for the great mass of Jews living under Arab regimes after 1948 - murderous riots, anti-Jewish incitement, discriminatory laws and restrictions. As early as November 1947, the Arab League contemplated passing a law that would have treated all Jews of Arab countries as enemy aliens. Although this law was never passed, aspects were adopted by individual regimes. Once Zionism had been outlawed it was easy for Arab governments to scapegoat their Jewish citizens as spies or traitors.

The myth that these were Zionist immigrants has been fuelled inadvertently by the Israeli government. For ethnocentric reasons, Israel discouraged the Jews from seeing themselves as 'refugees', but rather as immigrants returning to their ancestral homeland.

2. Zionist agents set off bombs to scare Iraqi and Egyptian Jews into leaving.
In his book The Gun & the Olive Branch, David Hirst describes in detail covert Israeli operations to scare Iraqi and Egyptian Jews into fleeing their homes for the "sanctuary" of Israel. Wilbur Crane Eveland, a former CIA operative, wrote about the 'Zionist crimes' against Arab Jews in Iraq (Feuerlicht, The Fate of the Jews, 231).The writings of the disaffected Iraqi Jew Naeem Giladi are frequently invoked to support this myth.
The Egyptian bombs of 1954 were indeed the work of a pro-Zionist group, but there is no causal link with the exodus of 25,000 Jews two years later. In the Iraqi case no one will ever know for certain who planted bombs in 1950 -51, but three of the five episodes occurred after the vast majority of the Jews had already left or were leaving - and caused no casualties. The Israeli 'new' historian Tom Segev has produced evidence blaming the only fatal bombing on Iraqi nationalists. In his book Une si longue presence, Nathan Weinstock makes the point that only the Iraqi police possessed the no. 36 high potential grenades used in the bombings. Besides, the two Zionist 'culprits' executed in January 1952, whose confessions were extracted under torture, were never accused of the fatal bombing of 14 January 1951.
Moshe Gat (The Jewish exodus from Iraq, p 18) points out that the beginning of the Arab revolt in 1936 marks the onset of physical attacks on Jews. Nobody has suggested that the 10 Jews murdered and the eight instances of bombs thrown at places where Jews congregated was the work of 'Zionists'.
In any case undue focus on the 'bombs' distracts from the overwhelming evidence of official antisemitism in Arab countries, and does not explain the 'ethnic cleansing' of the Jews from Yemen, Syria, Libya and other countries.

3. In any case, the Palestinian refugees did not expel Jews from their homes in Arab countries.This argument is often brought up to refute the idea that the Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees constitute 'an exchange of refugee populations.'
It is often forgotten that the 'Palestinian cause ' began life as a pan-Arab cause. Five Arab armies fought an aggressive war in the name of the Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinians who fled their homes, no less than Jewish refugees, have good reason to hold Arab governments responsible for their plight. (An Arab League law passed in the 1950s even ensured no country except Jordan would give citizenship to Palestinians.)The main difference is that one set of refugees fled as a result of war, the other persecution. Both sets of refugees deserve justice as part of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement.
Nonetheless, the Palestinians were far from hapless victims. Palestinian Arabs fought against the Jews between November 1947 and May 1948. From the 1920s onwards, the Mufti of Jerusalem was agitating against the Jews of Palestine and in the Arab world, inciting terrorist attacks and riots. An ally of the Nazis, he was responsible for a great deal of the anti-Semitism that cost Jewish lives (he helped plan the Rashi Ali coup which led to the Iraqi Farhoud in 1941) and ultimately caused the Jews to flee from the Arab world.

4. The governments of Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen (unlike Israel) have always stated that those Jews who left are welcome to return.A cynical propaganda exercise: Jews have not exactly been falling over themselves to return to the tyrannies which persecuted them. The one Jew who returned to Iraq in 1971 (see comment 17) vanished, presumed killed.

5.The expulsion of some Jews was a natural reaction to the 'stealing of Palestinian land and establishment of the Zionist entity'.
The idea that Arab states were justified in taking revenge against their peaceful Jewish citizens is bizarre. Would it have been understandable if Americans had gone on the rampage against Muslims after 9-11?
Even if one assumes the whole of the land now constituting Israel to be 'stolen' the Jews of Arab countries are reckoned to have lost far more in land and assets.
This myth also whitewashes the fact that Arab antisemitism, xenophobic nationalism and Islamism predated the establishment of Israel.

6. The creation of Israel is expiation for European antisemitism and the Holocaust. The Jews are a European question and Israel is a colonialist European implant.
This popular leftwing myth ignores the fact that half the Jewish population of Israel are Jews indigenous to the Middle East. In many cases Jewish communities in Arab countries go back to Biblical times and predate Islam by 1,000 years. This myth posits that Arab antisemitism began in 1948 and that relations between Jews and Muslims before the creation of Israel were harmonious or even idyllic.
The truth is that Jews are an Arab question as much as a European. Relations between Jews and Muslims were unequal and historically precarious. Even the Andalusian Golden Age in medieval times may not have been the idyll it is often described.
The Jews were not the only victims of modern Arab Muslim nationalism. Other minorities have suffered persecution and ethnic cleansing. Indeed, non-Muslims constitute a useful distraction from their domestic failures for the failed and dysfunctional autocracies of the Arab world.

7. Israel's Ashkenazi ruling class caused the exodus of Jews from Arab countries in order to exploit them as immigrant labour.
A corollary of myth no. 2: the Jews were made to leave by the Zionists and on arrival in Israel became second class citizens. Their natural allies and fellow victims of racism are Arab Israelis/ Palestinians. This myth has been thoroughly debunked here.
The scandal of the 'ringworm' children, irradiated by the Ashkenazi establishment in the 1950s, turns out largely to be just another conspiracy theory (with thanks: Franck).

The pagan origins of the Moroccan Mimouna

The Mimouna celebration has nothing to do with Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, but everything to do with appeasing Lady Luck, claims Yigal bin Nun in Haaretz:

"The Mimouna table offers a hint of the holiday's true origins. It is not set for a family dinner, as usual, but displays an array of symbols that are basically variations on a theme. On this table you will not find typical Moroccan cuisine. It is laden neither with meat dishes nor an assortment of salads. Instead, it is laid out with items, each of which is symbolic in some way: a live fish swimming in a bowl of water, five green fava beans wrapped in dough, five dates, five gold bracelets in a pastry bowl, dough pitted with five deep fingerprints, five silver coins, five pieces of gold or silver jewelry, a palm-shaped amulet, sweetmeats, milk and butter, white flour, yeast, honey, a variety of jams, a lump of sugar, stalks of wheat, plants, fig leaves, wildflowers and greens. All are symbols of bounty, fertility, luck, blessings and joy. The traditional holiday greeting fits right in: "Tarbakhu u-tsa'adu" - meaning, "May you have success and good luck."

"Why is the table set this way? The answer can be found in the name of the holiday and in the songs traditionally sung on the day. The Arabic word mimoun means luck or good fortune. At the Mimouna celebrations, songs are sung in honor of "Lady Luck." One of them is "Lala mimouna/ mbarka masuda," which means "Lady Mimouna/lucky and blessed." Lady Luck is being feted with a table laden with goodies symbolizing abundance, health, success and good fortune.

Read article in full

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Dershowitz, listen to the Jewish refugees roar

Alan Dershowitz is one of Israel's most articulate and vigorous advocates. So why does this post , advising some 'compromise' by Israel on the 'Palestinian right of return', neglect to mention the rights of Jewish refugees?

Dershowitz should take note of Israel Bonan's ringing, heartfelt 'roar' on behalf of the refugees - at no 49 in the comments thread.

"Of some 40 plus responses only 2 spoke of the 800,000 Forgotten Refugees.

From day one, that is 1948; Jews living in Arab countries have been systematically purged, dimeless from their countries of birth.

Yet, no one speaks of their refugee plight?

Is it because, we succeeded, and moved on with our lives? Was it because the Jewish ethos did not allow even the concept of Jewish Refugees, and stepped up to the plate to lend a helping hand; when contrasted with the Arab ethos of allowing their Refugees to remain in camps as wards of the UN for 60 years, and in the process deprive them of their dignity, and keep their problem festering for all to see?

Looking at rights of one class of refugees and ignoring the other, is an injustice.

I hope that Prof Dershowitz will take up our just cause in his writings, we certainly need a stallwart, of his stature, and with an international platform to bring our stories forward and introduce it to an otherwise one sided Middle Eastern narrative.

Because 800,000 of us overcame our initial disenfranchisement and succeeded as productive citizens in the four corners of the world, does not diminish one iota our rights and our claims.

We too are Refugees, so hear us roar, because we will not go away silently as a footnote in history. We intend to stand up and be counted."

Israel Bonan, Boston, MA USA, Apr 5 12:04PM

Yemenite Jews caught up in sectarian strife

Photo:Ginny Hill

Long feature by Ginny Hill of the Christian Science Monitor on the troubles facing Yemen's tiny Jewish community:

"Sanaa, Yemen:Yahya Yousef Mousa (pictured left) is one of the several hundred Jews still living in Yemen. His grandparents refused to join the mass evacuation to Israel that followed anti-Jewish riots in 1948. Instead, they opted to continue a traditional life that their ancestors had peacefully pursued in Yemen for generations.

"But, in January, that peace was shattered when Mr. Mousa was confronted by masked gunmen from a Shiite sect that accused him of spreading vice and corruption. He and his neighbors were told to leave their homes in the northern province of Saada or lose their lives.

"Now, Mousa and eight Jewish families from the village of Salem are living in a secure residential compound in the capital, Sanaa. Their expenses are being paid by the Yemeni government, currently battling an armed rebellion mounted by the same Shiite group that threatened the Jews. "We are safe here, but we're afraid we'll be killed if we go back to our village," Mousa says. "We want to stay here until conditions improve."

"Only Mousa's locks and skullcap visibly identify him as Jewish. He is dressed Yemeni-style in a long, white robe and shawl. He speaks Arabic, even praising Allah for his good fortune to be rescued and housed by Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"Yemen's Jewish minority is clustered in small communities north of Sanaa. They are protected under Yemen's constitution and identify strongly as Yemeni citizens. Though these good community relations are being tested by the expulsion of the Salem Jews, Mousa is still determined that he and his family will stay in Yemen.

"We haven't had any help from the Israeli government," he says. "And if they offer us a home, we will refuse because we are all Yemenis and we want to go back to our village."

Read article in full

Forgotten exodus, forgotten Egyptian community

The memory of an Egyptian-Jewish community is fast disappearing, and much of its heritage has allegedly been sold off - with the community leaders' blessing. Amiram Barkat reports in Haaretz (with thanks Abert; Lily)

"Only a handful of Jews remained in Cairo after 1967. The luxurious villas the rich Jewish families built on the bank of the Nile became museums or foreign embassies, but most of the community's property was preserved. In fact, it was the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979 that dealt a heavy blow to the community, because of the tremendous momentum it lent to the illegal commerce in Judaica and other valuables.

"In many cases these liquidation sales had the blessing of the community's leaders. The Ben Ezra Synagogue, which was renovated and restored with the generous assistance of the Bronfman family, is nearly the only structure that escaped the looting.

"Cairo's Jewish community today, like that of Alexandria, consists of only one person. Carmen Weinstein, a businesswoman in her seventies, is courageously attempting to preserve the remains, under impossible conditions. The Egyptian press routinely accuses her of having ties with Israel's Mossad. For the more militant of former Egyptian Jews, Weinstein is a traitor who seeks to transfer community property to the Egyptians in exchange for financial reward.

Famous Egyptian-born Jews include Israeli author Haim Sabato, British businessman and politician Sir Ronald Cohen and the U.S.-based media mogul Haim Saban. No influential Egyptian-born Jews, however, have sponsored efforts to save community property remaining in the country or to commemorate the community's magnificent past. Jews of Egyptian origin around the world have established many organizations, but most are one-person shows that waste their time on struggles for honor and prestige. Some, like author and peace activist Prof. Ada Aharoni of Haifa, dedicate themselves heart and soul to preserving the memory of Egyptian Jewry, but regrettably they are too few.

"Only 50 years have passed since the second exodus from Egypt, but the term refers to the dismantling of a community whose existence no longer means anything to most of the world's Jews.

Read article in full

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fewer young Israelis are learning Arabic

As the number of Arabic-speaking Jews in Israel dwindles, interest in the language among the younger generation has waned to the point that some university Arabic departments are contemplating closing down. Scott Wilson in The Washington Post has the story (via Tom Gross):

"Rosh Haayin, a town of 30,000 on Israel's coastal plain, highlights the demographic challenge facing military recruiters as the flow of Jews from Arabic-speaking countries dries up and the first new immigrant generation dies off.

"Jews from Yemen, raised speaking Arabic, once dominated Rosh Haayin. But they now account for roughly 10 percent of the population, composed mostly of middle-class Jews with European and Russian backgrounds who have little interest in Arabic. "There are very few native Arabic speakers left in the Jewish population," said Carmit Bar-On, who teaches the language at the high school here. "There is a problem teaching Arabic because there is a problem between Arabs and Jews."

"After military service, fewer and fewer Israelis are studying the language in university, threatening the future of some Arabic departments.

"At 73, (Sasson) Somekh, the retired professor, is the dean of Arabic studies in Israel. He arrived a native Arabic speaker from Baghdad in 1951 after graduating from high school there. His Arabic classes swelled following the 1973 Middle East war, then dipped when the first Palestinian uprising began in 1987, he said. Since the Oslo accords, enrollment has fallen more than 30 percent, even though, he said, "the threat to Israel is higher than ever."

"Reflecting the mood in Israel, he lamented, "A friend of mine tells me we are now a high-tech economy that the Arabs have nothing to do with, so now we can turn our eyes to the West."

"Three years ago, after Somekh had stopped teaching full time, the university president told him that he was considering closing the department. "I told him the whole world will say the largest university in Israel just closed its Arabic department," Somekh said. "That scared him. But there is still this feeling of needing to get away from them as far as possible. This is the attitude shown toward Arabs and toward Arabic."

Read article in full

Meanwhile, Israel has created an Arabic language academy (Haaretz)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Beverly Hills rabbi fought for Iranians' asylum

The newcomers from Persia owe much to the Sinai Temple's (Ashkenazi) head rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, who fought hard for them to be granted asylum in the US and for acceptance by their fellow congregants. The Iranian Jewish Chronicle reports (with thanks: Albert):

"Iranians continued to pour in. They arrived by the thousands, and without visas. Culture in tow, they gravitated toward temples that would whole-heartedly take them in. Or not.

"With a “we shouldn’t have to pay to pray” mentality, they showed up to Sinai’s weekly Shabbat services but were absent on high holidays. They were unusual. Not punctual. Not American. Not the types of Jews to which Americans were accustomed.

"The standards of “kosher” differed among Persian Jews. The mixing of meat and milk was common and offensive to the Ashkenazim.

"Americans were ill-equipped for the assimilation and steadfast on pushing out the newcomers. Sinai’s board of directors got together and dealt with the commotion by cutting the Kiddush from Saturday services. Perhaps the Iranians would leave promptly and not stick around after services to mingle, make friends and connect. The aversion was obvious. It was an ugly and grim moment in time.

"Then stepped in Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz. Compassionate. Empathetic. Sensitive. Refugee. Dershowitz got out of Europe “thirty-three days before Hitler took over.”

"As Sinai’s head rabbi in the 1970s and 1980s, he sought to calm the ruckus within the congregation. He worked with congress and the senate to obtain political asylum for anyone with an Iranian passport who could prove they were Jewish. The federal government made it a ruling.

"He wrote hundreds of letters to the Justice Department on behalf of the immigrants. As long as it was on Sinai’s letterhead, asylum was automatic.

“I believe every Jew is responsible for every other Jew,” Dershowitz says."

Read article in full

Mimouna will celebrate 'true Moroccan spirit'

In keeping with Moroccan tradition, Arabs will be the guests of honour at this year's Mimouna festivities in Ashdod, where special pancakes - moufletas - are eaten to celebrate the conclusion of Passover. Greer Faye Cashman of The Jerusalem Post reports:

"The central Mimouna festivities this year will be held in Ashdod, which is celebrating its jubilee year and which is one of 111 initially rural areas (including moshavim) that were settled by immigrants from North Africa. There has always been a high ratio of Moroccans in the Ashdod community, though the demography changed percentage-wise with the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

"Nonetheless the Moroccan influence is still evident. Sam Ben Chetrit, the chairman of the World Federation of Moroccan Jews which is one of the major sponsors - together with Beyahad, which Ben Chetrit founded in Jerusalem in 1978 - of Mimouna activities throughout the country, this year intends to revive the true spirit of Mimouna as it existed in the Morocco of his youth. The first visitors in Jewish homes immediately after the Pessah holiday were Arab neighbors, who brought in leavened food, plus all the ingredients required for the moufletas."

Read article in full

Monday, April 02, 2007

Jesus pops up in Iranian Jews' message

Yesterday the Association of Iranian Jews issued the following Passover message of solidarity with the Iranian regime, via the Iranian News Agency. (With thanks: Albert)

Note the bizarre reference to Jesus, in the third paragraph: Some commentators have interpreted this as a desperate and coded message to tell the world that the Jews were being forced to issue the statement.

My own view is that it is more evidence of the crass ignorance about Judaism of the community's minders, who have never ceased writing messages on the Jews' behalf.

"The Association of Iranian Jews here on Sunday renewed its commitment to defend the national interests of Iranians with the advent of the Iranian new year (1386), which the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution declared to be year of "national unity and Islamic solidarity."

"The association renewed its commitment in a message issued on the threshold of the Jewish religious festival of the Passover, which starts Monday night.

"In obedience to the instructions of Jesus, in the new Iranian year, which has been declared year of national unity and Islamic solidarity, Iranian Jews voice their readiness to defend all national interests of Iranians and to observe the guidelines set by Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei) for the sake of strengthening national unity and solidarity in the fight against present-day pharaohs," the message said.

"It further said that Iranian Jews gave significance to the remarkable coincidence of the Passover festival with the advent of the Iranian new year.

"Pesach (Passover) begins on the night of the 15th day of the month of Nissan. This annual Jewish festival celebrates the escape of Jews from the slaughter of the first-born in Egypt."

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Third generation discovers its Egyptian roots

This lengthy but fascinating feature on the Second Exodus of Jews from Egypt by Batsheva Pomerantz in the Jerusalem Post coincides with the onset of the Passover festival (with thanks: Albert) :

"Egyptian Jews came to pre-state Israel not necessarily as active Zionists, but for a place to escape anti-Semitic sentiments. "The Zionist movement was peripheral until World War II," notes (Professor Nahem) Ilan. "Unlike their European brethren, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not cause the Jews to become Zionists."

"Zionist awareness was next to nothing in those days," recalls (Sarah)Rossano. "When things were going well for the Jews they didn't worry and were not involved in Zionism."

"The Jews felt so comfortable in the past century that until the 1930s some even had dual loyalties - they were Zionists and also members of the Egyptian National Movement. Many abandoned their dual loyalty in the 1930s due to the rise of the Nazis and the Arab revolt in 1936.

"The Center for the Studies of Jewish Heritage from Egypt headed by Prof. (Arie) Schlosberg works together with the Department of Middle Eastern Studies in Tel Aviv University. Its purpose is to perpetuate the heritage and culture of Egyptian Jews from ancient times by teaching in academic frameworks and schools, and by granting scholarships. "We give scholarships to high-school students and university students learning for all academic degrees," says Schlossberg.

"Currently, the center is trying to reconstruct historical documents left behind in Egypt by interviewing former Egyptians. To date the center has documented the life histories of 48 individuals. "As with other communities, the second generation is not so interested, but the third generation is showing an interest in their heritage," says Schlossberg."

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From Cairo to Omaha - an Egyptian Jew's story

On Aug. 8, 1962, Helene Avigdor was 13 years old. She lived with her parents, an older sister and a younger brother in Cairo, Egypt. “I came home that day and I saw the luggage by the door,” she explained. “My father kept us in the dark, and until that moment, I didn’t know we were leaving Egypt.” Helene tells her story in the Omaha Jewish Press.

"Speaking to his family in French, their primary language, Maurice Avigdor cautioned his children, “Don’t tell anyone we are going!”

Since the founding of Israel, pressure mounted on Jews through the Middle East. The Avigdors, a Sephardic family, experienced a great deal of prejudice, Helene explained, “My father told me that on a number of occasions when the doorman of their four-story apartment saw him coming, he would turn off the power in the lobby, forcing my dad to walk up the four flights.”

That was not the only discrimination he faced. Her father, who spoke seven languages and had a good job working for an Italian import/export company, stated he had been stopped often on the street. There had been a number of times when, without cause, he was stopped, questioned by authorities, and occasionally arrested. He knew of others that were roughed up.

And those same kinds of circumstances were occurring all across the Middle East. Jews were made to feel unwelcome. Jewish emigrants by the hundreds of thousands left their homes.

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The special meaning of the Egyptian Seder

JTA News has this story for Passover:

HAIFA (JTA) — In this mixed Jewish-Arab city, some 50 voices rise up in chorus to sing the familiar Passover chant, "As if we left Egypt."

But for this group of mostly elderly Israelis, the prayer — at an early holiday seder — is sung with grins of unmistakable irony.

"We are the

authentic ones," says professor Ada Aharoni, 73, who was born in Egypt and left for Israel at age 16. "We really got out."

The pre-Passover seder for Israeli Jews from Egypt is an annual tradition here. It's organized by a group of ex-Egyptian Jews called "Goshen," after the Biblical name for the region of ancient Egypt where Jews lived."

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