Thursday, May 31, 2007

Journey back to my mother's Baghdad...

The son of an Iraqi-Jewish mother, Joseph Braude 's work took him across much of the Arab world, but it was only when he met two of the last Jews in Baghdad that he felt he could be himself. Sentimental but elegantly-written essay in Best Life magazine.

"Maybe this passion to listen, to understand, to explain is the inevitable fate of a man born into a family whose history straddles the fault lines of today’s sectarian conflicts. Perhaps it all leads back to my mother, who became a refugee from Baghdad at age 5, one of more than 120,000 Iraqi Jews who fled their native soil in 1951 after 2,800 years of continuous history in Mesopotamia. But a refugee never entirely leaves the city of her birth. Memories of the place trail her through life, then live on in her children’s dreams. My brother and I grew up hearing her speak of a Baghdad that no longer exists—a peaceful multiethnic city, once a jewel of the Middle East, which has been fading from the war-torn landscape of Iraq for decades.

"Behind high vine-shrouded stone walls, my mother listened to her nanny tell animal fables under a palm tree’s restful shade. Roses, gardenias, lemons, strawberries, and okra grew in a garden flanked by water fountains. My mother tells me there were family outings in a colorful bustling town, of pastoral scenes at home that changed with the seasons. When winter’s cold crept into her house, the Persian carpets were spread across the chilly tiles on the ground floor, only to be rolled up and transplanted to the rooftop for the summertime, “when the family went up and slept in the open air to keep cool.” The Tigris River, too, brought a welcome breeze during the hot season: “We would take a boat to a little island in the Tigris, and your grandfather and your uncles would catch fish and spit grill them for our picnic.”

"Why, then, did she, her parents, five siblings, and tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews leave this wonderful place—nearly all at once? By the time we’d grown old enough to learn the answer, the sunnier parts of my mother’s youthful Baghdad had seeped into us.

"Even as a 5-year-old, my nose knew the smell of an Iraqi kitchen: Tbeet, a centuries-old Babylonian dish that cooks overnight on the Sabbath, features stuffed chicken quarters and whole eggs in their shells sitting in a reddish-brown cloud of rice, cardamom, diced tomatoes, cinnamon, and onions. This dish, she quipped, sometimes had to serve as a Baghdad mother’s tool of last resort to dissuade her son from leaving Judaism for Islam—not an unheard-of occurrence. “You can abandon our community, but are you ready to give up the eggs in this tbeet?” was supposedly the question that stopped many a prospective convert in his tracks."

Read article in full

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Of refugees and Kassam missiles...

What do Arab refugees and Kassam missiles have in common? Gerald A Honigman, one of the few writing on the Middle East with a sense of context, explains in The American Daily that the Kassam was named after a Syrian-born 'Palestinian' leader, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam. Many of the 'Palestinian' refugees now in Lebanon are also of Syrian or Arab immigrant stock. But what is not often mentioned is that Jews from Syria were forced to flee in the opposite direction.

"Izz ad-Din made his name by butchering "Zionist invaders" during the early mandatory period after World War I.

"What else do we know about this legendary leader of the "Palestinians?"

"Well, for starters, Hamas' hero--like most other allegedly "native Palestinians"--was born elsewhere. In his case, this killer of Zionist invaders was himself an invader from Ladeqiya--Latakia--Syria.

"In just one three month period alone, the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commissions documented scores of thousands of other Syrian Arabs pouring into the British Mandate of Palestine.

"Like numerous other Arabs moving in from elsewhere, they came to the Palestine Mandate to take advantage of the economic boom going on because of the influx of Jewish capital. And for every Arab newcomer--i.e. settler--that was documented, many more slipped in under cover of darkness and were never recorded. Add to this the fact that, for a number of reasons, the Brits were more concerned about entering Jews than entering Arabs.

"So lots of evidence exists which shows that--like the murderous Sheikh--most "Palestinian" Arabs were no more native than most of the returning, forcibly exiled, Diaspora Jews.

"Recall that so many Arabs were recent arrivals into the Mandate that when UNRWA was created to deal with the Arab refugee situation--again, created as a result of the invasion by a half dozen Arab states of a reborn Israel in 1948--it had to adjust the definition of "refugee" from the prior meaning of persons normally and traditionally resident to those who lived in the Mandate for a minimum of only two years prior to 1948. Keep this in mind regarding current discussions about those refugee camps in Lebanon.

"Also consider that for every Arab who was forced to flee the fighting that Arabs started themselves in their attempt to nip a nascent Israel in the bud, a Jewish refugee was forced to flee Arab/Muslim lands...but with no UNRWA set up to help them.

"Indeed, scores of thousands of Jews fled the same Syria that Sheikh al-Qassam migrated to Palestine from. Greater New York City alone now has some tens of thousands of these Syrian Jewish refugees. And hundreds of thousands of other Jews fled Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and so forth.

"Now bring this all together…

"An Israel not even the size of New Jersey absorbed more Jewish refugees fleeing Arab lands than Arabs moving in the other direction."

Read article in full

Alliance school still popular among French Jews

Some 60 percent of Jewish students attend Jewish schools in France. The Alliance school in Paris, continuing an educational tradition well established in North Africa, has 440 students. Orli Katz reports in Haaretz:

"Between the first round and the second round of the French presidential elections, the students at the Alliance school in Paris hung up a large poster that presented the two main candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal. "You won't find posters like that at Otzar Hatorah (an orthodox Jewish school)," says the principal, Michele Sarrabia.

"The founders of Alliance believed in a single basis for Judaism and the republic, that it is possible to be both Jewish and French. The parents who send their children here want exactly the same thing. There has to be congruence between the parents' outlook and the spirit of the school. I do not think this happens at the Otzar Hatorah schools: They prefer separation from and not integration with the general society."

Until the 1960s, the Alliance network hardly operated in France, but mainly in North African countries. This was, to a large extent, an ideological decision - to bring modernization and French progressiveness to the region. "When the Jew becomes a Western person and a cultured individual, he will become a fair and honest citizen of the country in which he lives. The model is the liberated and modern Jews of Western Europe," says the motto of the Alliance Israelite Universelle movement, which was founded in 1860. At the height of its strength, there were 46 Alliance schools operating in Morocco."

Read article in full

Monday, May 28, 2007

Unloved last Jews of Lebanon live in the shadows

The Beirut Daily Star reports on the shadowy existence of what remains of the Lebanese Jewish community:

BEIRUT: Just a two-minute walk from the sit-in launched almost five months ago by the Hizbullah-led opposition, an abandoned and crumbling synagogue stands as the last remnant of a once-thriving Jewish community in Beirut. Known as the Magen Abraham Central Synagogue, it is located in the heart of Beirut in Wadi Abu Jmil, directly under the Grand Serail where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora works - an area that has become the focus of ongoing political tensions in Lebanon.

Lebanon's few remaining Jews live out their lives in the shadows The synagogue's rusty gates are held shut with chains, and its punctured roof howls when the wind blows. While thick weeds and grass have taken up residence around the building's foundations, the Star of David still crowns its every column.

Given the obscurity of the structure - which dates to 1925 - amid the posh new edifices of the Beirut Central District, some people in the locale understandably said they were surprised a synagogue sits in the area.

Several private security guards patrol the area around the synagogue and have been instructed by Solidere, the publicly held company that owns many properties Downtown, to keep an eye on the place.

"Just in case of trouble," said one security guard. "Besides the synagogue, there is also some private property around here [owned] by Jewish Lebanese."

The site was allegedly part of Solidere's renovation plan, initiated by slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but that has been put on hold.

Not far from Downtown, a Jewish cemetery in Sodeco contains hundreds of tombstones with names and epitaphs etched in Hebrew.

The Jewish community in Beirut, estimated at less than 100 and nearly impossible to identify, once numbered as many as 14,000 and can trace its roots bacy to 1000 BC.

The Jews are one of 18 religious groups officially recognized in Lebanon but generally keep their religious identity secret for fear of persecution from other sects.

"No one likes us here, so we keep a low profile and pretend to be Christian or Muslim," said one Jewish Lebanese businessman who spoke on the condition that he remain "untraceable."

"We can't even bury or visit our loved ones in the Jewish cemetery out of fear someone might see us," he added.

A 2004 report said one out of 5,000 Jewish Lebanese citizens registered to vote had actually participated in municipal elections held that year. Most of those registered are believed to be deceased or to have fled during the Civil War that divided the country along sectarian lines in 1975.

The largest exodus of Jews from Lebanon began in earnest after 1982, when Israel invaded the country (An unfair dig -many left in 1967 and after 1975, during the Lebanese civil war - ed).

Some say most of the remaining community consists of old women, and one particular one, a 50-year-old known as Liza Sarour, lives in grave poverty in Wadi Abu Jmil and refuses to talk to the media.

Read article in full

Restoration of Jewish cemetery(via Jews of Lebanon blog)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Maurice el Medioni, French-Algerian music legend

If there is one Jewish musician who knows about breaking down barriers, it is the 78-year old French-Algerian pianist Maurice el Medioni - barriers between Jews and Arabs, between Europe and Africa, between musical genres and between the generations. In London to receive a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award, he was interviewed by Lemez Lomias in The Jewish Chronicle of 25 May.

"Born in the Derb, the Jewish quarter in the coastal town of Oran, Algeria in 1928, his music is a glorious flashback to a golden age of post-war optimism. (...)

"The longstanding Jewish community - records indicate Jewish presence in Algeria since at least the late Roman period - was stilll managing to tread the fine balancing line between the Muslim majority and their French masters, and local Jewish stars serenaded the crowds who flocked to the coastal clubs to hear love songs that flitted between French and Arabic, sometimes from line to line. (..)

"I play la musique orientale, la musique andalouse," (he said). "Us Jews, we call it judeo-andalouse; the Arabs call it arabo-andalouse. But there is no difference - it is a kind of traditional music that came to us from Spain after 1492, (the year of the expulsion from Spain of the country' s Jews) and it was kept alive all across North Africa." (...)

"Although much has been written retrospectively about this era as a golden age of coexistence between Jews and Arabs, Maurice is keen not to let nostalgia cloud his memories of the time.

"I was on good terms with everybody, because that is the type of person that I am. But I wouldn't say that the Jews and Muslims got on particularly well," he said.

"Relations were soon to reach their nadir in the bloody War of Independence in the 1950s and early 60s, and the Jewish community - who, unlike their Muslim neighbours, had been given French citizenship a century earlier - were suspected of having pro-French sympathies and ejected from the country in no uncertain terms.

"It was la valise ou la tete - to leave immediately or be killed. But when we left Algeria in 1961 - 62, we had the feeling that we were leaving our soul behind, our guts, our entrails. When we arrived in France, it was as though we had left a good land and we were being planted in cement, It was very difficult - a tree cannot grow in cement."

Read article in full (subscription required)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Hangman of Baghdad gets his comeuppance

Taha Yassin Ramadhan has at last got his comeuppance. Saddam's right hand man - known of the Hangman of Baghdad - Ramadhan was himself hanged in Baghdad a few weeks ago. This event prompted Emanuel Sivan, writing in Haaretz, to recall a book he read long ago by Fouad (Max) Sawdayee: All waiting to be hanged. Thanks to Iraqijews for this summary of Sivan's piece.

While still in living Baghdad, Sawdayee kept a diary during the years 1968 until 1970 (the year he escaped from Iraq through Kurdistan).

In October 1968 Saddam Hussein and his right-hand man Taha Yassin Ramadhan claimed that they had discovered a spy network for Israel and the CIA. They claimed that Iraq was defeated in the Six Day War because of this network.

In January 1969 a public trial was held. The judges ridiculed the accused. The defence lawyer even apologised for defending persons worthy of contempt and called for a severe punishment for those found guilty.

Nine Jews, three Muslims and one Christian were hanged in mid-January in the public square. Hundreds of thousands from all over Iraq came to watch.

Read article in full (Hebrew)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Rommel aimed to extend Holocaust to Middle East

A new documentary broadcast on Germany's ZDF television channel this week seeks to correct Rommel's image as a gentleman warrior whose campaigns in North Africa were not connected with the murderous wars of destruction Nazi Germany unleashed in Europe, Der Spiegel reports.

"If Erwin Rommel, lauded as a master military tactician even by his enemies, had managed to fight his way through North Africa, he would have sealed the fate of thousands of Jews who had fled to Palestine from the Nazi terror in Europe. (...)

"Recently published research by two Stuttgart-based historians, Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, claims that Hitler had worked out plans to extend the Holocaust to the Middle East, and that the Nazis had forged an alliance with Arab nationalists who wanted to drive the Jewish refugees out of Palestine -- a murderous version of German-Arab friendship founded on common hatred of Jews. Jews living in the Middle East were petrified by Rommel's victories. After seizing the British fortress of Tobruk in Libya in June 1942 he set his sights on the Suez Canal, on Palestine and the oil fields of the Middle East.

"Those fighting Jewry can always rely on the sympathy of the Arab population," the German army general staff wrote in an information booklet to prepare troops for the conquest of Palestine.

Hitler was celebrated in large parts of the Arab world, and some newspapers even likened him to the Prophet. The Desert Fox was almost as popular as Hitler. "Heil Rommel" was a common greeting in Arab countries.

Many Arabs thought the Germans would free them from the rule of the old colonial powers France and Britain. Hitler had shown how to burst the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles. After Germany defeated France in 1940, chants against the French and British echoed around the streets of Damascus: "No more Monsieur, no more Mister, Allah's in Heaven and Hitler's on earth."

"Adolf Hitler assured the exiled Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, at a meeting in Berlin in November 1941 that his goal was the "destruction of Jewry living in Arabia." The Führer had racist objections to Arabs as well, though. He declined to shake the Mufti's hand and refused to drink coffee with him.

"Hitler nevertheless provided the Mufti, who later sponsored Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with a budget of 750,000 Reichsmark per month to foment Jihad in Palestine. In an example of ideological flexibility, the SS even recruited Muslim volunteers and declared that the Muslims living in the Balkans belonged to the "racially valuable" peoples of Europe.

"Behind the front line of Rommel's Afrikakorps, a special unit was created in July 1942 to to plan the murder of Jews in the region. It was led by SS Obersturmbannführer, or Lieutenant Colonel, Walther Rauff, an experienced mass murderer who helped develop the mobile gassing vehicles the Germans used to murder Jewish people in their campaign in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

"Rauff and his men were empowered to "take executive measures against the civilian population", Nazi jargon for robbery, murder and enslavement.

"The Jews of Palestine were spared that fate. In October 1942 the Allies halted the German advance at the Egyptian town of El Alamein and thereby destroyed the myth of Rommel's invincibility. The Desert Fox had to evacuate his beaten army to Tunisia, back where his African campaign began.

"The SS had established a network of labor camps in Tunisia. More than 2,500 Tunisian Jews died in six months of German rule, and the regular army was also involved in executions.

Rauff's men seized silver, jewellery and sacred objects. On the Tunisian island of Djerba alone, 43 kilograms of gold was taken from the local Jewish population. The SS later deposited the treasure in the sea off the island of Corsica. Ever since, the undiscovered "Rommel's Treasure" has attracted generations of treasure hunters.

"Rommel's reputation was spared only because his strategy failed."

Read article in full

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Yemen journalist gets threats after report on Jews

Yemeni journalist Anwar al-Ansi, who now lives in London, has sought the Yemen authorities' help in finding the source of threats he has received. People have been throwing stones at his house in Sa'ana, and asking questions about him, leading al-Ansi to fear for the safety of his family. Al-Ansi believes the threats are a response to a news report he once filed stating that that followers of the rebel Abdul-Malik al-Houthi in the north of Yemen had driven out the local Jews. From this piece in The Yemen Observer it seems the al-Houthi were not the only tribe to want the Jews out.

"“I have the report documented, pictures and sound, and I spoke to some sheikhs in Sa’ada who said that if the government does not remove the Jews from that area they would support al-Houthi. They demanded this because, as they said, they don’t like their (the Jews') conduct and their behavior—mainly, their alleged selling of wine,” said al-Ansi. “Later on, these people changed what they said when things got heated between the government and al-Houthi.”

"In his report, al-Ansi talked with the Deputy of the Governorate of Sa’ada, who said that not only al-Houthi wanted the Jews out, but all the other tribes as well. This is because they think that they are drinking and making wines and alcohol. Also, female Jews are seen talking to the local young people, and the tribes are afraid that this will distort the city’s morals, he said. Al-Ansi said that the report that he wrote was not liked by the government, nor by al-Houthi followers, who accused him of instigating the government against them. His house was attacked twice before, on January 26 and February 4, 2007.

"Now, he has received news from home that there are people that are hovering around his house asking questions, and this led him to send his recent message through to reveal his suffering and agony, hoping the authorities will do something in order to stop these threats. He has sent a letter to the Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate to demand their solidarity or to seek action, and said believes that they will issue a statement denouncing the attacks. Al-Ansi is now a correspondent for Reuters TV."

Read article in full

Iranian Jews condemn Israel's actions in Gaza

The Fars News Agency carries a condemnation by the Jewish community's only MP, Morris Motamed, of Israel's actions in Gaza responding to the barrage of Kassam rockets against Sderot. The Jewish community in Iran comes under regular pressure to make such statements at times of heightened tension.

"TEHRAN (Fars News Agency)- Iran's Jewish community voiced hatred for the recent measures taken by the Zionist regime of Israel against Palestinians, and called for the immediate intervention of human rights bodies to stop Tel Aviv's brutalities and crimes.

"The stance was announced by the representative of Iranian Jews, Morris Moatamed, at an open session of the Iranian parliament here in Tehran on Monday.

"The Iranian Jews further expressed sympathy for the deprived and oppressed Palestinian nation, and stated their deep hatred for Israel's recent violent measures, including massacre and wounding of tens of Palestinians and demolition of tens of residential units, administrative buildings and facilities."

Read article in full

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

BBC Babylon nostalgia piece 'essentially a hoax'

The negative flak continues to fly against the BBC following a website story about Jewish nostalgia for Iraq (flagged on Point of no return and Honestreporting on 8 May). Although the BBC updated its original version to include two sentences about the uprooting of the community, the article still misleads.

Stan Brin copied
Biased BBC the text of his complaint. He wrote:

The story [Israelis from Iraq remember Babylon] is essentially a hoax. It falsely disguises a mass expulsion and terror campaign as a "mass migration" as if they just chose to move, or perhaps there was a crop failure. In fact, there were mass riots and mass murder.

Perhaps your "journalist" found someone who remembers the Shiah Muharam holiday fondly but I never met anyone who wanted to return to Iraq. I am an expert in Middle Eeast history, and lived with Jews from Arab countries, and they were unanimous that they would never go back, even if they miss the food.

It should be noted that well over 99 percent of the Jews of Arab countries fled since 1948. Most Jewish communities (except in Morocco) are essentially extinct. Some of the Jews were forcibly deported (Egypt and Libya), others escaped by fleeing across borders (Iraq, Syria, Yemen). All lost everything they had, their property stolen, their citizenship revoked. Many died as they fled.

Iraq, the subject of the story, was especially brutal. Of a quarter million Jews in 1940 (Sorry Stan, 150,000 is closer to the mark - Ed), perhaps a dozen remain today.

My Iraq-born roommate fled across mountains, avoiding Iraqi border police who would have had him tortured to death. He tells of an Iraqi border guard who kept a box filled with the fingernails of Jews whom he and his colleagues captured.

He has no nostalgia for Iraq.

What next from BBC? Auschwitz was a fun place to visit? Jews enjoy oppression?

I guess that all begs the question, if the Jews enjoyed having their fingernails pulled out, would they want to go back to Iraq so the Palestinians could move in?

Read post in full (21 May)

Tale of young Jew fleeing Egypt for Sudan

In his new book Gabi Tamman, born in Egypt to a Jewish family, tells the story of how he fled to Sudan.

"Talisman," a new book by Gabi Tamman, is a compelling tale of a Jewish boy who flees Egypt for a new life first in Sudan and then in West Africa. Richly atmospheric and thrillingly told, "Talisman" is a story of activism and triumph.

"What does it take to conquer incredible odds? In "Talisman," Gabi Tamman relates the story of a colorful and tumultuous youth. The novel is the story of Gabriel Romano, who grows up as a Jew in Egypt and is forced to flee to Sudan, carrying with him his prized talisman. As the character grows to manhood, he masters the mysteries of both business and women. But he also begins to understand prejudice and joins forces with underground activists dedicated to Israel's nationhood. Again, he must start a new life--but where and how? And will it end in triumph or tragedy?

Read press release in full

Babylon remembered at Jewish Book Week

In March, Jewish Book Week (in association with Harif) featured a discussion between two authors whose recently-published works have ensured that the Jews’ 2,500-year sojourn in Iraq does not go unrecorded. Here is Lyn Julius's synopsis for Sameah.

Naim Kattan, the grand old man of letters born in 1928 in Iraq and now resident in Canada, is the author of ‘Farewell Babylon’, a memoir of his boyhood first written in French in 1976 and this year re-issued in English.

Marina Benjamin, a successful journalist and author born in London in 1964 of Iraqi-Jewish parents, has written ‘Last days in Babylon’, the story of the final years of the Baghdad Jewish community seen through the eyes of her grandmother, who was born in 1905.

The two authors came face to face at a session entitled ‘Remembering Babylon’, chaired by the Baghdad-born artist Linda Dangoor-Khalastchi.

Why did both authors choose titles containing the word ‘Babylon’ ? For Kattan, Babylon was a place where he was taken on school excursions by his Alliance Israelite teachers. Babylon had taken the Jews into captivity. Although they were poor slaves, they were rich in one thing – they were the people of the Book. Here they had written about that Book, a commentary known as the Babylonian Talmud. Kattan’s own book was a farewell to great ancestors who had bequeathed a book about a Book.

Marina Benjamin’s book, on the other hand, was part history, part memoir, part travelogue. Looking inwards and writing from the margins, an outsider like herself gains perspective. “Last days in Babylon” was not her first choice of title. She would have preferred ‘I am Iraq’ - the title of a poem written in 1957 by Muhammed Al-Jawahiri. She felt it symbolised the centrality of the Jews to the history of Iraq.

But Naim Kattan explained that this feeling of Jewish entrenchment in Iraq was already badly shaken by the Farhoud. Kattan himself aged 13 had lived through these terrifying two days of murderous rioting in June 1941 which had claimed 180 Jewish lives. It drove home the sense that the Jews were powerless to protect themselves. Kattan’s father ‘s only weapon was to recite the Tehilim. From that year on, his family sought to leave Iraq but no country would accept them. Educated at the Alliance in four languages and the best at Arabic grammar in his class, Kattan turned to French literature even as he wrote in Arabic and belonged to a circle of Iraqi intellectuals. His talent for French would prove to be his escape route – in 1947 he was granted a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Marina Benjamin referred to the heady days after the end of the First Word War when the British installed Emir Faisal as king of the new state of Iraq. To his subjects, a patchwork of religions and ethnicities, Faisal had proclaimed that ‘we are all Iraqis’. She tried to capture the optimism that the nascent state would be more than the sum of its parts, and a sense of belonging extended to all. This feeling - as we all now know - did not last.

Kattan said that Jews were in Iraq before everyone else. “ We had great dignity. We never had been humiliated. Islam accepted Judaism and Christianity. Being Jewish was not superior, but normal.” Jews had always adapted to their host nations. Marina pointed out that a Jewish minister had cleverly tied the price of petroleum to the gold standard and Jewish civil servants had built up the new Iraq.

Compelled by a ‘Who am I?’curiosity, Marina Benjamin had gone to Baghdad in 2004. It was this quest for identity which had bubbled up to the surface in her life. What had she expected to find? She had not expected to find any traces of the life of her grandmother, but she tracked down the last 22 Jews still living there. Of 150,000 Jews in postwar Baghdad, 125,000 had been flown to Israel in the biggest airlift in history. What had happened to the Jews could only be termed ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Naim Kattan was utterly secure in his identity as an Iraqi Jew. When much later in Canada, people asked him why he did not change his name, a glance at his reflection in the mirror convinced him he could never be a Norman or a Nelson. The price he has had to pay has been to be ‘typecast’ as an Iraqi Jew and to have constantly had to tell his life story.

Marina commented that Iraqi Jews were not just expelled, but their history actively rubbed out. The Iraqi government had set up 40 committees to dispose of Jewish property quickly and cheaply. During the false dawn of 2003 following the Coalition invasion, there was talk of Jews returning to re-establish the community. In 2004, during her visit, the Iraqis were in the grip of an anti-Semitism that imagined the Jews would come back and buy up Baghdad.

When Kattan’s book came out in Arabic he was reproached for exaggerating the role of the Jews. As the people of the Book, on the other hand, he thought the Jews had a special responsibility to write their own history.

He felt no nostalgia for Iraq – just a relief that “we are still alive, and we made it elsewhere, and we are still Jews”. Expulsion was a blessing in disguise.“The best thing is that we were thrown out,” he exclaimed.

In moving from East to West, Naim had to change his language and culture, but his love of one language and culture did not stop him loving another. He re-invented himself in the three places he had lived in – Baghdad, Paris and Montreal.

Naim Kattan had been invited to return to Baghdad in 2003 to make a film. He never did. Paradoxically, it was Marina, who was not born in Baghdad and doubted that the place even existed, who needed to make her essential journey: ‘I want to celebrate who I am,’ she said. She had begun learning Arabic.

In short, when it came to ‘remembering Babylon,’ Kattan had never forgotten, and the memory was still a key part of himself. Benjamin, meanwhile, had made it her duty to fight against the active forgetting of Jewish history, before that history vanished forever.

Hear audiophile or podcast

Monday, May 21, 2007

The first refugees in Palestine were Jewish

Palestinians have been marking the 59th anniversary of their Nakba, when up to 700,000 refugees fled what is now Israel in the 1948 War of Independence. But it is seldom remembered that the first refugees following the adoption of the 1947 UN Partition Plan were Jewish, not Arab. In an article (Midstream, July/Aug 2005) focusing on French policy towards the neglected Jewish 'Tomb of the Kings' in east Jerusalem Elliott A Green touches on a story of dispossession ignored by the Arab organisers of the Jerusalem music Festival at the site and neglected even by Israeli historians:

"(There were) three nearby Jewish residential quarters whence the Jewish residents were driven out in the early months of the War of Independence when the Arabs had the upper hand. Of course, (...) they are regularly forgotten even by Israeli historians, so a brief review is relevant. Mere hours after the UN General Assembly Partition Plan recommendation (29 November 1947), Arab irregular forces began shooting at Jewish civilian targets in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere in the country. Automobile travelers were murdered in Sh'khem (Nablus) that night; and an ambulance was shot at on its way to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Throughout December 1947, the Shimon haTsadiq and Nahalat Shimon neighborhoods, close to the Tomb, on the way to Mount Scopus, came under attack, as did south Tel Aviv and elsewhere in the country.

"The Tomb is located in what became "East Jerusalem" after Israel's War of Independence. It is about 40 meters west of the Orient House compound, the erstwhile PLO headquarters in Jerusalem. The American Colony Hotel is some 60 meters to the north, whereas Nahalat Shimon is about 160 meters north of the Tomb, and Shimon haTsadiq less than a kilometer to the northeast. They are also in the area from which the Jews were driven out by Jordan early in the 1948 war, becoming Jewish refugees before there were Arab refugees. The Arab "squatters" who dispossessed the Jews and usurped their homes in 1948 have continued to live in them even though Israel took control of the eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967.

"Only about 50 meters to the west were the Siebenbergen Houses (where three new hotels are now located) along the Mt Scopus route. On their ruins to the west was built the later Mandelbaum Gate, the famous passage between Israeli Jerusalem and the Jordanian-held eastern sector in the armistice period between 1949 and 1967.

"Residents fled or were compelled by Arab and British forces to evacuate all three Jewish neighborhoods early in the war. Arab attacks with knives and guns were assisted, in the case of Nahalat Shimon, by British troops who forced the Jews to give up their weapons after the Jews had repelled an Arab attack. All but one of the Jewish families fled Shimon haTsadiq on the night of 29 December 1947. The remaining family fled on 7 or 8 January 1948 (exactly which day is missing from a diary shown to me by a family member). The British evacuated the now defenseless Jews from Nahalat Shimon on 17 January. Shimon haTsadiq became the first neighborhood in the country from which the population was driven out and did not return after the War. Jews had likewise fled south Tel Aviv in December 1947, but returned after the War, whereas Shimon haTsadiq remained under Arab control, as did Nahalat Shimon and the Siebenbergen Houses. Hence, precisely in the surroundings of the Tomb, Arabs and British dispossessed Jews from their homes in late 1947 and early 1948. This history does not appear among the suffering featured in the publicity of Yabous Productions, the Arab body organizing the music festival."

Read article in full

Iranian Jews' facade of contentment cracks

Bronwen Adcock's 'Shalom-Salaam' report for an Australian TV channel claims that Iranian Jews are living happily in the Islamic republic. They are even allowed to visit Israel freely, she reports. But Maurice Motamed, the sole Jewish representative in the Iranian Parliament, does admit there is discrimination. And one Jew is so terrified in case the camera records members of the community saying 'the wrong thing by mistake,' he tries to stop the filming.

"The fiercely Islamic Republic of Iran, next door to Iraq, is probably the last place you would expect to find a community of Jews openly practising their religion. Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is, after all, one of the world's most vocal Holocaust deniers. His vehement foreign policy is that Israel has no right whatsoever to exist. That said, Iran's Jewish community happens to be the largest in the Middle East*, outside of Israel itself, that is."

Read transcript in full (click on 'Jews of Iran - Shalom-Salaam' link)

* The community would have been even larger but three-quarters fled in the wake of the 1979 revolution

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Moroccan king 's emissary meets Jews in Canada

Continuing its 'charm offensive' towards the Jews, Morocco has sent the only Jewish member of the Moroccan Human Rights Advisory Council, Professor Albert Sasson, to meet Moroccan Jews in Canada. Is Sasson's mission a laudable bridge-building exercise, or a cynical ploy to extract money? Here is a summary of an interview Sasson gave on 17 May to Elias Levy of Canadian Jewish News.

Sasson 's task is to get support from the Canadian Sephardi Community for King Mohammed Vl's brainchild of a Council of Moroccans living abroad. The king considers Moroccan Jews still to be Moroccans, no matter what other nationality they may now hold. "I don't just have 5,000 or 10,000 Jews living in Morocco," he says," I have 1 million Moroccan Jewish subjects, many of whom are now in Israel."

Sasson admits that second or third-generation Moroccan Jews have turned over a new leaf and do not want to talk about Morocco. They are not hostile, just indifferent. On the other hand many Moroccan Jews, including those in Israel, have maintained links with their country of birth. They visit members of their family or go on pilgrimages. Others invest and do business with Morocco, or act as intermediaries.

Sasson is not perturbed by the fact that in a few years' time few Jews will still be left in Morocco.
Even if only one Jew remains, the Jewish presence must be symbolically maintained. " Let us preserve the Jewish cemeteries," he says. "The one in Fez is magnificent and well kept. People go there to pay their respects. If one day peace breaks out between Israel and the Arabs, thousands of Israelis of Moroccan origin would go back to Morocco to visit. There should be someone there to greet them, to show them the cemeteries, to take them to the Hillulot (saints' shrines) and the Jewish quarters.

"The Moroccans too must play their part. In their school textbooks they must recall the Jewish contribution to Moroccan history and culture. This is our fight. We want there to be a Jewish community and to be able to tell young Moroccans that their country is pluralistic, with Carthaginian, Berber, Jewish and Arab-Muslim roots. Once Morocco acknowledges its pluralism, Morocco's Jewishness will be obvious. One must then nurture it. It would be up to the Moroccan Jewish communities in France, Holland, Canada, the US, Israel to keep the flame of Morocco's Jewish heritage burning."

The Jews were not the only ones whose history has been erased from Morocco's textbooks. Some 30 to 40 percent of Morocco's population is Berber, and their history, too, has been erased. The king has created a Royal Institute for the teaching of history and 15 of Morocco's best historians are writing a book in Arabic and French: this time, the Jewish community will not be forgotten.

Sasson urges the Moroccan Jews in Canada to endow a living memorial to their heritage. He suggests that the Canadian Moroccan Jewish community might, for instance, fund a technical college in Casablanca, even if its students are all Muslim. "Imagine what an enormous and positive impact such an initiative would have," Sasson claims."At the entrance there would be a plaque bearing the words ' gift of the Canadian Moroccan Jewish community'."

He also suggests that the Jewish community might sell off its significant property assets." This heritage cannot be passed down. Nothing can be done with it except sell it off, and replace it with something living. The day the Moroccan Jewish community sells its old synagogues, its land, and uses the proceeds to build a university, schools, libraries - the memory of Moroccan Judaism will be perpetuated."

Sasson agrees with the interviewer's point that all previous initiatives to bring together the Moroccan Jews of Israel and the diaspora have been fiascos. He blames internal politics, and Jewish leaders who simply could not work together. He claims that things are looking up on all fronts: he foresees a rapprochement between Moroccan Jews and Muslims in Canada to the point that differences over the Israel-Palestine conflict will be overlooked. Morocco is democratising and there is now freedom of speech, especially on prickly subjects.

Read article in full (French)

Colour me cynical, but this latest Moroccan initiative appears an attempt to make a dying man dig his own grave. The Jewish community is being asked to spend its tourist dollars in Morocco or to sell off its assets so that it can fund the education of young Muslims. What will it get in return ? A few stone plaques. A chapter or two in the history books: in truly democratic countries, recording the historical truth is not a favour one bestows on a beleaguered minority, it is non-negotiable. Meanwhile, the Moroccan king, speaking through his obsequious 'court Jew', does not feel the slightest remorse or guilt for any part the Moroccans might have played in the flight of Moroccan Jewry and the abandonment of their heritage. An old Yiddish word springs to mind to describe the entire project: Chutzpah.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A little piece of Israel in Cairo

An outpost for Israel studies persists in Egypt - in good times and bad. Reuben Heyman-Kantor reports in The Forward.

"On the third floor of a brown, battered Cairo apartment building sits an institution that few Egyptians have heard of; it’s called the “Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.” The center is one-of-a-kind: It is the largest collection of Hebrew-language texts in Egypt, and the only place in the Middle East beyond Israel’s borders where Arab students and scholars and Israeli scholars meet on a regular basis and discuss Israeli history, literature and culture — in Hebrew. The center itself, however, is small and anonymous, facts that reflect a central aspect of Israeli-Egyptian relations. More than 25 years after peace was established, there is virtually no cultural exchange between the two countries."

Read article in full

Turkey's crypto-Jews unsettled by threat to shrine

Viewed as heretics by both Jews and Muslims, the Doenmeh - followers of the 17th century 'false Messiah' Shabbetai Tzvi who converted from Judaism to Islam - tend to keep a low profile. Now the threatened razing of Shabbetai Tzvi's house is unsettling the delicate balance that the community has kept for centuries. Fascinating article about Turkey's crypto-Jews by Jay Michaelson in The Forward.

"Far away from the eyes of the Jewish mainstream, in modern-day Turkey there live hundreds, if not thousands, of crypto-Jews — and today, one of their most sacred shrines is in danger.

"This is the hidden, fascinating tale of the doenmeh, descendants of the faithful followers of the 17th-century false messiah Sabbetai Tzvi, who converted to Islam in 1666. Tzvi’s own conversion came under duress: The Ottoman sultan demanded that he don the turban or die after nearly one-third of European Jewry had come to believe he was the messiah and had begun swarming into Turkey, expecting the long-awaited triumph of the Jews.

"Tzvi chose to convert, and most of his followers lost hope — but not all of them. Many saw the conversion as a heroic act of tikkun, or repair, and followed their messiah’s lead by outwardly becoming Muslims while secretly maintaining their messianic Jewish faith. They were called doenmeh, meaning “turncoats”— a pejorative term not unlike marrano (“pig.”) Among themselves, they were called ma’aminim, “believers.” Sabbateanism did not die out in 1666, or even 10 years later when Tzvi himself died. There were subsequent messiahs — largely forgotten men like Baruchiah Russo and Jacob Frank — and, as recent scholarship has shown, Sabbateanism greatly influenced the 18th-century emergence of Hasidism. And then there are the doenmeh, who live on until the present day, in secretive communities, at first primarily in Salonika and today almost entirely in present-day Turkey.

"A move to tear down the Turkish home where Tzvi is said to have lived, however, may now disturb the balance the community has cultivated for centuries.

Over the years, most of the doenmeh assimilated into Islam; many more were annihilated during the Holocaust, and still more have, in modern-day Turkey, come to see their background as a curious but largely irrelevant heritage. But even those who did assimilate usually maintained some knowledge of their ancestry, and doenmeh were among the founders of the secular Turkish republic. Today, many doenmeh are among Turkey’s elite, though it is taboo to speak their names; since doenmeh are regarded as traitors by both Muslims and Jews, it is scandalous to accuse a person of being one of them, even if his or her identity is an open, unspoken secret. (Recently-deceased Turkish foreign minister Ismail Cem, for example, was “outed” by several Turkish newspapers, but he denied being a Sabbatean, and Iglaz Zorlu’s best-selling 1999 memoir, “Yes, I am a Salonikan,” stirred controversy throughout the country.) But the secret is open, like the doenmeh cemeteries outside of Istanbul, with their distinctively unadorned gravestones, and the mosques where doenmeh are known to pray.

Barry Kapandji is one of the few doenmeh descendants willing to openly acknowledge his ancestry — and even he wouldn’t use his real name (“totally out of the question,” he said). Kapandji, 33, was told by his father that he was a doenmeh when he was nine years old. Since then, he has been fascinated by his heritage. Kapandji first contacted me a few months ago, when he learned that the house in Izmir (formerly Smyrna) in which Tzvi is believed to have lived was slated for demolition by the municipality to make way for a park. No one would help him: The doenmeh he knew were afraid of going public, and the Jewish community wanted nothing to do with this sect of heretics.

“This is a crime against culture, history and my heritage,” Kapandji told me. “The Jewish community elders do not want the house turned into a museum.… They would like Sabbetai’s name to be eradicated from history.”

Read article in full

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Relations thaw between Morocco and Israel

Is Morocco about to renew full diplomatic relations with Israel?
King Mohammed VI of Morocco recently appointed an unofficial ambassador to Israel, David Bedein writes in The Bulletin.

"The representative, Serge Bardugo, who served in the past as the Moroccan tourism minister, has already made a number of secret trips to Jerusalem in the past number of months, in the course of which he met with members of the Israeli Knesset and other political officials. In the course of his most recent visit, just a few weeks ago, Bardugo met with Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General for Diplomatic Affairs Yossi Gal. The two were cautious and chose to meet in a hotel and not in Gal's office.

"Bardugo, an old and well-known friend of the king, serves in Morocco as the chairman of the Jewish community. Morocco closed its formal representative office in Israel six years ago, immediately after the eruption of the el-Aksa Intifada. In the course of the past number of years, the Israelis have sent out a number of feelers to the Moroccans. Those efforts peaked in September 2003 when King Mohammed VI met with the Israeli foreign minister at the time, Silvan Shalom."

Read article in full

Article in Afrol News

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Israelis are more Middle Eastern than Arabs think

The Israelis are more Middle Eastern than Arabs think, Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab discovered on his recent trip to Israel. It's welcome news, and can only help promote understanding. But even an alcohol-imbibing liberal Arab like Khaled does not see Middle Eastern Jews as 'dispossessed'. That epithet is reserved for Palestinians. It is as if the Moroccan and the Iraqi Jews whom Khaled met parachuted into Israel out of the blue. Nothing remains of their 'narrative' except nostalgia.

"Landing in Tel Aviv at an airport called Ben Gurion had all the makings of an Egyptian spy thriller. And for those in search of "intrigue", my first introduction to Israel did not disappoint. Although Egyptian-born, I was travelling on my Belgian passport. Airport security had obviously been alerted about my imminent arrival and an official welcoming party was waiting when I stepped off the plane.

"When I left the airport two hours and four interviews later, my first encounter with an Israeli taxi driver confirmed that I had very much landed in the Middle East. He was a Moroccan Jew who had moved to Israel as a teenager and could shame any Cairo cabbie with his colourful use of curses and expletives and his love of Umm Kalthoum, the Arab world's legendary singing diva. The only western thing about this scene was that he had turned on the taxi's meter.

"The Israeli family I stayed with for a few days reminded me in so many ways of home. Like the traditional set-up in Egypt, several generations of the same family live together on the same plot, flowing in and out of each other's spaces, sharing intimacies, food and resources, etc. The key difference was that they were less patriarchal and more egalitarian than most Egyptian families.

"I don't understand how Europeans can leave home so early and stay so distant from their families," said an exasperated Zipora, the mother, sounding just like one of my Egyptian aunties, over a sumptuous lunch she had prepared to feed twice the assembled people, just like another of my aunts.

Throughout my time in Israel, it was constantly driven home to me that the joking description in Egypt of Israelis as our errant "cousins" had a very distinct ring of truth to it. After all, about half the Jewish population of Israel came from Arab countries - that's not to mention all the 1.2 million Palestinian holders of Israeli passports.

"One Iraqi Jew I met in Jerusalem could do a passable imitation of the Egyptian vernacular so popular in films and music across the region, loved travelling to Egypt, was a professional oud player and sang in Arabic at weddings and barmitzvahs.

"Israelis share with Arabs - particularly their Mediterranean neighbours - a keen sense of Middle Eastern hospitality, a love of conversation and large gatherings and spontaneity in public spaces. But just as Arabs do not realise just how "Middle Eastern" Israelis are, I discovered that Israelis are also largely ignorant of just how '"western" millions of Arabs are. But, then again, in a conflict, it's tempting to portray your foe as everything you're not.

"I found it entertaining that at a barbecue where no one was drinking except me with my solitary glass of wine, everyone seemed convinced that "secular Arab" was some sort of mythical creature, a semantic impossibility. Some guests looked at me with unrestrained dismay when I recalled the amount of drinking that went on at the Cairo parties I used to host or attend.

"Do you have alcohol in Egypt?" one confounded guest actually inquired, causing me almost to choke on my wine. "Of course, it's not the same with the Palestinians," another confidently asserted. We later drank a toast to his memory at a local bar in Ramallah over the surprisingly good Palestinian beer.

"The idea that there are sizeable minorities of Egyptians and other Arabs - counting in the millions - committed to secular ideals, gender equality, sexual liberty, etc, was entirely contrary to the vision that most Israelis I met entertained of the Arab world being a seething ocean of Islamic fanaticism.

"Of course, there are differences, and plenty of them. Whereas a relative minority are socially liberal in Egypt, a relative majority are so in Israel. An openly permissive city like Tel Aviv would be hard to find anywhere in the Middle East, with the exception of Beirut.

"Another key difference between Egypt and Israel is the sheer diversity of the Israeli population. Egypt's 75 million citizens are largely homogenous, despite some religious and racial variations. Israel is like a racial microcosm of the world - a fairly unique riot of ethnicities, races and cultures. And the fact that it has succeeded in managing all this diversity to construct a functioning society and a competitive economy is remarkable. Israel also leads the region in science and the knowledge sector.

"Despite a certain lack of contemporary confidence, Egypt, the oldest nation in the world, has the security of an ages-old identity that has the permanence of the Nile or the pyramids. Whereas Egypt is the land of the rooted, Israel - in contrast - is the land of the displaced controlling millions of dispossessed."

Read article on 'Comment is free' in full

Monday, May 14, 2007

Syria 'built on Eli Cohen's grave'

In response to Israeli requests for the return of the body of the Egyptian-born Mossad spy Eli Cohen, Syria is playing a cruel game of cat and mouse. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Syria has erected buildings and created a park over the grave of Eli Cohen, a Mossad agent who was murdered 42 years ago in Damascus after being exposed as an Israeli spy, a former Syrian bureau chief said on Monday.

"He is buried in the area of al-Maza in Damascus, and over his grave are houses, roads, and parks," Monjer Motsley, who worked with former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, said in an interview with the al-Arabia internet site. "Nobody is able to reach him."

Read article in full

Persecuted Yemen Jews still hope to go home

Reuters revisits the 45 Yemeni Jews forced to flee their village by Shi'ite rebels in January. They still hope to return home, Lin Noueihed reports:

SANAA, May 8 (Reuters) - Dawood Suleiman, a Yemeni Jew, felt something had changed in his village when someone threw a stone at him in the street. Soon after, the Jews of Al Salem received a threat from a local Shi'ite rebel group warning them to leave.

Evacuated by the government to the northern regional capital of Saada, before being moved by helicopter to Sanaa, the Jews from the remote Al Salem village have been living in the capital for around three months under the protection of the authorities.

They number around 45 men, women and children, unexpected victims of tension between followers loyal to Shi'ite rebel leader Abdul-Malik Houthi and the government, which has since escalated into violence.

The government accuses Houthis who follow the Zaidi doctrine, a branch of Shi'ite Islam, of seeking to reinstall the Islamic Imamate which was overthrown in 1962.

"The Houthis came and warned us to leave our village. We said why? They said no Jew would be allowed to stay here," said Suleiman, 28. "We told the government and they said to stay in Saada ... Then they moved us here and gave us money and food."(...)

"This is the first time we have had any problems," said Suleiman Moussa al-Marhabi, whose grandparents refused to leave following anti-Jewish riots in 1948. "My family did not go to Israel with the others because they consider themselves Yemeni."

Marhabi gave Reuters a copy of a handwritten threat he said they had received. The letter, dated Jan. 10, accuses the Jews of working for Israel and corrupting the morals of Muslims.

"We warn you to leave the area immediately ... ignore this message, and we give you a period of 10 days, and you will regret it," reads the letter, signed by Saad Khudhair, who describes himself as a Houthi representative.

Some locals have said the Jews were threatened because they had been selling wine to local Muslims, whose religion bans the consumption of alcohol. The Jews deny those accusations.

"It is not true. We were there for generations. This is just an effort by some people to stoke hatreds," Suleiman said.

Suleiman said he went to Israel but left after three months.

"I went to Israel but I did not feel comfortable so I came back to Yemen," he said. "They are all Zionists there. There is a difference between being a Zionist and being a Jew..."(...)

Though the government of Yemen has provided the Jews of Al Salem with housing, food and spending money, they say they would like to go back to their village as soon as it is safe.

"We hope things calm down and we can return to our homes," Marhabi said. "I was born in Yemen and I will die in Yemen."

Read article in full

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Last Jew of Afghanistan milks the moment

This was once a synagogue (photo: Tzur Sheizaf)

Tzur Sheizaf's interview for Ynet News with the last Jew of Afghanistan, Zevulun Simantov, came at a price: $100.

“Shalom aleichem,” I said. Hebrew in Afghanistan. “Shalom alaichem,” he said in the accent of Jews who speak Dari or Tajik (the Persian of Central Asia). Zevulun Simantov is his name. He wore a white undershirt and looked to be a little over 60. He looked at me with suspicion; perhaps he was calculating what he would get out of me.

He didn’t look Afghani, the last Jew in Afghanistan. I climbed the dark, broken stairs after him to the single room where he lives, in what was once the building of the Jewish school.

Yitzhak Levy lived with him until a few years ago. The quarrels between the two were covered in the world press in 2003 after the United States conquered Afghanistan. The two fought to be the last Jew in the country. Simantov won when Yitzhak Levy died and he was left alone. When Levy was alive the two quarreled, in front of the Americans, over which of them was a Taliban agent and which was their good friend.

Simantov is the custodian of Jewish property in Kabul. In Afghanistan. (...)

When did Jews arrive in Afghanistan? Legend has it that they came with the Babylonian exile in the time of the Persians. It is said that perhaps there were Jewish soldiers in Alexander the Great’s army. The evidence—monuments on the route from Balh to Termez in Uzbekistan—confirms 900 years of Jewish presence.

A hundred years ago there were 10,000 Jews in Herat, Balh, and Kabul. At the beginning of the 20th century they began to emigrate to the Land of Israel. Officially the Jews were permitted to leave between 1950 and 1971. The last Jews left Afghanistan in the 1970s after the communists overthrew the last Khan and took control. When the Russians invaded in 1979 only a few Jews remained, and they left for Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and India. "

From a community of hundreds of families in Herat, to which the Jews of Meshad in Persia were exiled when they were forcibly converted to Islam in 1840, not a living soul remained. I was in Herat. In good times there were three synagogues and a bathhouse there. The synagogues have become mosques. The Mula Shmuel Synagogue has become the Islamic school where children skip on the cantor’s bimah located at the center of the dusty room.

“Don’t forget to speak with the Jews in England and America!” Simantov reminds me as he accompanies me out to Flower Street and my two Afghani escorts look at him with admiration. In less than an hour he’s earned a sum equal to a monthly salary.

There are all kinds of ends to Jewish life in the world, to how the last Jew looks. I met one of them in Calcutta, several in Yemen, in Morocco. But Simantov, unlike the others, was aware of the importance of this time and of his uniqueness (which will pass like everything else), and got as much out of it as he could.

Read article in full

Friday, May 11, 2007

5,000 Jews come on Tunisian pilgrimage

Larry Luxner

Larry Luxner reports that this year numbers of pilgrims were up again for Djerba's unique Lag La'Omer procession at the ancient Ghriba synagogue:

DJERBA, Tunisia (JTA) -- With hundreds of policemen lining the roads, X-ray machines blocking the entrance to an ancient synagogue and a police helicopter circling overhead, some 5,000 Jews joyously celebrated the annual Ghriba pilgrimage on this Tunisian island.

The heavy security at the

May 6 event was intended to prevent a repeat of a 2002 terrorist attack against the historic synagogue, which killed 21 German tourists and was believed to be perpetrated by al-Qaida.

Even so, terrorism didn't appear to be a major concern for the Jews -- or the curious Arab onlookers -- who paraded through the streets of Hara Sghira, a small village that is home to the ancient Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in North Africa.

"We come every year to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai," explained Dr. Ouzifa Trabelsi, a UCLA-trained endocrinologist who was born in Djerba and now lives in Paris. "It's just a tradition. It has nothing to do with religion."

Trabelsi, 52, has been coming to Djerba annually for the past 34 years. Another regular is Haim Cohen, an Italian-born Jew of Libyan origin.

"Muslims and Jews live so close to each other, speak the same language and have the same traditions," he said. "The Tunisians are tolerant and they welcome all the Israelis coming here."

"When I tell people I'm from Israel, they welcome me with open arms," added Jacqueline Saban, who left Tunisia in 1978 and lives in Beersheba, where she runs a jewelry store with her husband, Avraham.

As there are no direct air links between the two countries, Israelis must fly to Tunis via Frankfurt, Paris or Rome, then drive six hours through the desert to Djerba.

Perez Trabelsi, president of the local Jewish community and a distant relation of Ouzifa Trabelsi, said that roughly 9,000 pilgrims came to Djerba in 2000, but that dwindled to virtually zero after the 2002 attack. He speculated that if there were direct flights from Tel Aviv to Tunis, 15,000 to 20,000 Jewish pilgrims might make the trip each year.

"We have received no specific threats" from al-Qaida "and we're confident nothing will happen again," he said. "We've already been hit once. After the events of 2002, we decided to start the pilgrimage again."(...)

This year the festival featured a chorus of young boys singing everything from "California Dreamin' " to "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" -- as well as men hawking embroidered caps, a master of ceremonies auctioning off the right to ride next to the Menara, and a venerated old rabbi offering benedictions in Hebrew, Arabic and French.

Of Tunisia's 10.8 million inhabitants, fewer than 2,000 are Jewish. Half still live in Djerba, with the other half spread among the capital and a handful of other cities.

David Tal, a member of Israel's Knesset, attended the Ghriba festival and told JTA he felt completely welcome in Tunisia.

"I think there's a basis for a relationship between Tunisia and Israel," said Tal, 57, who was born in Rishon Lezion to Tunisian parents. "Israel can assist Tunisia a lot in water, agriculture, high-tech and information. There is absolutely no hatred between our countries, and Tunisia always protected its Jews. The time has arrived for a bilateral relationship."

The highest-ranking Tunisian official at the festivities was Tourism Minister Tijani Haddad, who welcomed 75 local and foreign journalists the day before at a press conference at the nearby Hotel Yadis.

Haddad said Tunisia "was one of the first Arab countries to fight extremism" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but declined to say what security measures Tunisia was taking amid worries about the growing al-Qaida threat throughout North Africa.

Haddad also didn't answer a question about the possibility of establishing direct air service between Israel and Tunisia, and would not say how much revenue the Ghriba festival generates for Tunisia.

"It's not a question of money," he said. "Compared to Tunisia's overall tourism industry, what we get from a gathering like this is nothing.

"It's not that we follow a policy like this because we want to make money. On the contrary, we respect our principles even if we don't make any money at all."

Read article in full

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Point of no return marks its second anniversary!

Onward and upward ...

It is two years since this blog was set up to raise awareness and document the story of the 870,000 Jewish refugees who fled Arab countries - and the precarious situation of Jews living in Iran and other Muslim states today.

It's been a good year for 'Point of no return'. Hits - 8,800 this time last year - are nudging the 40,000 mark. Point of no return has made Google's first page of listings - just! Over 35 blogs link here and we've posted 660 articles.

Most importantly, the issue of the Jewish refugees is inexorably moving up the agenda. This week, the US Congress held its first hearing on the issue. An international campaign is underway to register Jewish refugee claims and gather testimonies. More and more, the Jewish refugees are entering the discourse on the Middle East.

But more - much more - still needs to be done. The rights of Jewish refugees need to be mentioned every time an article on the Palestinian 'right of return' appears, or the plight of the Palestinian 'refugees' is discussed. And not just mentioned - the proper context of antisemitism and persecution in Arab countries, often predating the creation of Israel, must be given.

I'd like to thank my faithful band of international readers and supporters, from Pakistan and Bahrain as well as Europe and the US, as well as all those of you who've drawn my attention to interesting articles. Most of all, thanks to Joseph Alexander Norland without whom this blog would never have seen the light of day.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Jews should not be penalised for refugee success

Two firsts: the issue of the Jewish refugees makes the lead story in the Jerusalem Post, and Congressman Gary Ackerman, chairing the first ever Congressional hearing on Jewish refugees, says Jews should not be penalised for their success in resettling their refugees.

In his conversation with the Post, Ackerman also criticized (...) the American government and Jewish community for not emphasizing the experience of Jewish refugees from Arab lands at the same time that the Palestinian refugee issue has gained such traction.

"We've not done a good job historically in pointing to their plight because we were realistic … and successful," said Ackerman, who is himself Jewish. "We shouldn't have a separate standard for Jews because of their success. That's discrimination."

Ackerman held a hearing on the subject of Jewish refugees from Arab Lands this week, the first such Congressional hearing, according to his staff.

In introducing the hearing, Ackerman declared that, "The reality is that an exchange of populations has taken place; that the Jews of Iran and the Arab countries are not going back to those lands; and that the Palestinian refugees will not be returning to homes in the State of Israel."

Still, Ackerman questioned President George W. Bush's decision to write a letter in 2004 [seeming to rule out] the Palestinian "right of return" to Israel, saying he had "deep concerns about the wisdom of the United States handicapping one party to a negotiation before the deal-making begins."

A fellow Democratic representative from New York, Jerrold Nadler, however, would like to see Bush do more on the issue of refugees, including Jewish ones. He introduced a bill earlier this year urging the president to ensure that when the issue of Middle East refugees is discussed in international forums, any reference to Palestinian refugees be matched by a similar reference to other refugee populations.

"The suffering and terrible injustices visited upon Jewish refugees in the Middle East needs to be acknowledged," said Nadler, who touted his bill at a B'nai B'rith breakfast held to honor Jewish members of Congress on Wednesday morning. "It is simply not right to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees without recognizing the rights of Jewish refugees, who, in fact, outnumbered their Palestinian counterparts."

Ackerman said that just holding the hearing helped advance his efforts to bring greater attention to the experience of Jewish refugees, with many of his colleagues telling him they were unaware of the issue before this week.

Read article in full

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Congress hears of plight of Jewish refugees

Photo: Devorah Carrie

A US Congressional subcommittee heard 'the other side of the refugee coin' yesterday: the plight of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has issued this press release:

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) May 8, 2007 - Jews in Arab countries "were compelled to leave their homes because of circumstances that included terror and government edicts;" so stated Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY) who, as Chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, stressed that: "Jewish refugees from Arab lands are of great concern to the Committee.

"These statements were made during a Congressional Hearing that took place on May 8, 2007 on Capitol Hill. Rep. Ackerman told how Jews lost their "entire businesses, not just their personal assets, but the property of entire communities; and most painful of all, not only did they lose their personal dignity and security, but their entire national identity."

Other members of Congress who were in attendance and made statements included: Rep. Mike Pense (R-IN), Rep. David Scott (D-GA), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), Rep. Ron Klein (D-FL), Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC), and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX).

Testifying as expert witnesses were Dr. Howard Sachar, Professor Emeritus of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, and Dr. Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

The ranking Republican on the Subcommittee, Rep. Mike Pense remarked how Jews from Arab countries "have suffered pogroms, exiles, confiscation of property - all for the alleged crime of Zionism." In addition, Rep. Pense called attention to the ill treatment of Palestinian Christians by Palestinian Arabs. He noted that the percentage of Christians in the Palestinian Territories has dropped from 10% to 8% in the last two decades, a situation he called "outrageous and tragic."

In commenting on a lack of awareness about Jewish refugees, Rep. Ackerman added that "Jewish refugees have been successfully absorbed in Israel and elsewhere and, perhaps, as a result, their claims and misfortune have been largely ignored." Rep. Pense concurred: "There is a great deal of world opinion about one group of refugees (i.e. Palestinians). There is a great deal of world ignorance about the other (i.e. Jewish refugees)."

Additional initiatives on behalf of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries will be undertaken on Capital Hill over the next few months. On May 15-16, 2007, a delegation comprising officials of major Jewish organizations will be making representations in support of Senate Resolution 85 and House Resolution 185 - both on the rights of Middle East refugees. Over the course of two days, meetings will be held with senior officials of some 20 Senators and Congressmen, seeking additional co-sponsors for these Resolutions that call for US recognition and support for the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

On June 19, 2007, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus will convene a special Hearing on the mass violations of human rights of Jews under Islamic regimes and their subsequent flight from their longtime residences in Arab countries throughout North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf Region. Under the auspices of its Chairman, Congressman Tom Lantos, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus will hear from legal experts on the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries as well as from 'living witnesses' - Jews who will testify as to their plight in, and flight from, the Arab countries in which they were born.

Full statement by Congressman Gary Ackerman

'With friends like these' - critique

BBC article misrepresents why Jews left Iraq

Suddenly, Jews from Iraq living in Israel have become BBC news. The bad news is that, while its interviewees wallow in nostalgia, this article misrepresents the true context in which the Jews left Iraq in 1950 -51.

Jews from Arab countries never 'flee' - like Palestinian refugees - they always 'emigrate' - and for religious reasons. The article also assumes that the UN decision to partition Palestine in 1947 was the turning point in the Jews' fortunes. In fact, conditions for the Jews began to deteriorate in the 1930s, culminating in the massacre of 180 Jews in the 1941 Farhoud, seven years before the establishment of Israel. (With thanks Eli, Robin)

"During the Shia festival of Muharram we would take part in the procession and along with our Arab friends, beat our chests to remember the epic battle of Karbala," said Yakov Reuveni, remembering his youth in 1940s Iraq.

"My best friend was the son of the mayor of Ammara. After school we would go out to the date palm grove with the freshly caught fish from the river Hidekel, which we would barbeque in the fields over an open fire."

The river Hidekel runs through his home province, Ammara, 380km (236 miles) south-east of Baghdad.

Among his most cherished memories, says Yakov, is the after-school stroll along the riverbank with his Arab friend.

He grew up in a moderately well-to-do Jewish home with his parents, four siblings and grandparents.

His father had a clothing store in the heart of Ammara's central market.

It was an easy, happy life. Jews shared almost all aspects of life with their Arab neighbours, reminisces Yakov.

He was 17 years old in 1951, when his family emigrated to Jerusalem.

For the Jews of Middle Eastern origins, like their European co-religionists, coming to Israel was the culmination of a religious journey - it was the fulfilment of the centuries-old dream to live in the so-called Promised Land.

But many who came over to Israel as part of the mass migration that followed the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, look back with nostalgia and fondness for the life that they had left behind.

Israel has a vibrant Iraqi Jewish community who arrived throughout the 1950s. Many Iraqi Jews settled in the area known as Mahane Yehuda in the heart of west Jerusalem. (...)

These stores are still mostly owned by the descendants of the Iraqi and Kurdish Jewish immigrants.

"The most memorable taste was the fish called maskuf, from the river Hidekel," says Yakov.

"After the Sabbath, we would wander off to the fields and have a feast with fish cooked on the spit, Iraqi pita and arak."

After maskuf and arak, a strong aniseed flavoured local alcoholic drink, the boys would go to Ammara's club to watch belly dancing.

Yakov recalls, with vivid, powerful details, the life that he had once led, a life that was changed overnight by the political realities of the time.

"We used to eat with them, sleep with them, go to school with them, the Arabs and the Jews went to the same high school.

"We never thought of who was Jewish and who was Arab, until 1947. It all suddenly changed. The people that you knew as good people turned into bad people for you and you became bad for them. It was very sad."

In the heart of the Mahane Yehuda market is Cafe Mizrakhi, which specialises in certain traditional delicacies from Iraq. The word Mizrakhi means Oriental Jews.

It is owned by Eli Mizrakhi, whose family came from northern Iraq, or what is now known as Iraqi Kurdistan.

"Most of us still feel connected to the country where we or our ancestors came from. Our parents and our grandparents still remember many things from their Iraqi past and they bring them to us, with food, music, language."

Both Eli and Yakov agree that despite having gone through the process of assimilation into Israel, they keep alive many aspects of their previous lives, in particular, Iraqi food and speaking Arabic.

"We used to eat kubbeh and bamia, or okra. The kubbeh, made with minced lamb, was the national food for the Jews all over Iraq. Thursday was the day of khitchri - it's a dish cooked with rice and lentils.

"I still think in Arabic, still I can't string together all my thoughts in Hebrew. You have to understand, my mother tongue is Arabic," says Yakov.

Now living in a small cottage with his wife in south Jerusalem, Yakov keeps himself busy recreating sweet pickled orange from his youth, while longing to someday return to Babylon.

Read article in full

Honest Reporting's critique

Nice story. but where's the context?

Crossposted here and here

Monday, May 07, 2007

Jewish cemetery in Karachi needs protecting

This remarkable article by Reema Abbasi in the online Pakistani newspaper Dawn makes a heartfelt plea for an NGO to take up the cause of the preservation of the Jewish cemetery in Karachi. The article asserts that 2,000 Jews stayed on in Pakistan in 1947, but there are only 10 Jewish families today. (With thanks: Farook)

"The fierce keepers of the graveyard refuse to let anyone in as they fear that excessive exposure will rob them of their home. However, when caught off-guard the family had some interesting information. “A lot of people used to come in the ‘50s, wearing black suits, hats and with beards. There were quite a few Jews here but after General Ayub many left for London,” says the old lady who lives there with her family.

“A few come here even now but they are in Sindhi-Muslim, Khoja or Memon families. They married Muslims or went undercover as Parsis because they fear for their lives. There are about 10 Jewish families in all, scattered in areas like Ramaswamy, Soldier Bazaar, Ranchore Line,” she continued.

"According to Aitken’s Gazetteer of the Province Of Sind, there were only 428 Jews enumerated in the census of 1901 and these were really all in Karachi. Many belonged to the Bene Israel community who observed Sephardic Jewish rites and are believed to have settled in India shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.

"Other research documents record about 2,500 Jews in Karachi with about 100 in Peshawar at the beginning of the 20th century. At the time of independence, many Jews migrated to India but about 2,000 stayed in Pakistan. Their first real exodus occurred soon after the creation of Israel which triggered many incidents of violence against Jews and the Karachi synagogue became a site of anti-Israel demonstrations. The majority of Jews who left Pakistan are said to have settled in Ramle, Israel, and have built a synagogue called Magain Shalome.

"Arif Hassan, renowned architect and town-planner, believes that this was a highly prosperous and active community. “Families such as the Dulseys were very important as prominent educationists who moved to Israel. One of them was also in government service.”

"Hassan also recalls that there were two famous Jewish cabaret artistes who performed at the Roma Shabana nightclub. “They were the Daniel sisters in the ‘70s and their names were Deborah and Suzie. One became a heroine in films and the other remained a dancer in clubs and films,” says Hassan.

"Commenting on the state of the graveyard and the fact that most of Karachi is either in denial of its existence or oblivious to it, Hassan says that it is vital for it to become a protected area. “I have asked for it to be made heritage property. If that does not happen, it will be destroyed like the Hindu cremation ground where many samadhis of prominent Hindus have given way to the Lyari Expressway,” asserts Hassan who is working on a three-volume account of the city.

"But the relevant government departments have no such plans. “No work is being done at the moment to make it a protected site. If this is done, it will be under the Special Preservation Act 1994 but we work mostly on cultural sites,” says Qasim Ali Qasim, head of Southern Circuit of the Archaeology Department.

"However, Qasim believes that if an NGO adopts a monument or a site then his department would provide the necessary technical assistance required to preserve it."

Read article in full

Yes, there were once Jews in Pakistan

Sunday, May 06, 2007

'Jewish-Christians' from Yemen founded Ramallah

Discussion of the current tribulations besetting Jews in Yemen on Dhimmiwatch spawned the following comment. The erudite Provoslavni draws on several sources - notably John of Ephesus' Eccclesiastical History - for his assertion that Christians of Jewish origin founded, in the 16th century, what is today the (predominantly Muslim) Palestinian Authority's administrative capital.

"Yemen was Jewish long before it was Muslim. The first Jews there probably arrived during the time of Solomon. After the Romans destroyed the temple in 70CE, thousands of Jews fled south to Yemen. Soon afterward a Christian community of Jewish origin also arose in Yemen. By the 5th Century, a Jewish dynasty ruled the Himyarite Kingdom of Yemen. Some of the more prominent Jewish kings were Rabiah ibn Mudhar and Yūsuf Asar Dhū Nuwas.

"In the early 6th Century, there were power struggles between the Rabbinical Jewish community and the much smaller Jewish-Christian community. The Jewish kings were supported by the Persians as well as by the Zoroastrian Arabs of the Lakhmid kingdom in norther Arabia. The Jewish-Christians, who controlled Najran, were supported by Axum (Ethiopia) and Byzantium. This war weakened Himyarite Yemen so much that it was easy pickings for the Arab Muslims.

"After this, both the Jews and the Jewish-Christians suffered under extreme dhimmitude but still maintained contacts with their co-religionists abroad. Sages such as Maimonides corresponded extensively with the Rabbis of Yemen and Byzantine patriarchs corresponded with the bishops of Najran.

"After several attempts a liberation by a number of Yemenite self-proclaimed messiahs, the Jewish community turned inward for survival. When Muslim persecution became unbearable for the much-smaller Jewish-Christian community in Najran they moved back to Palestine. This Christian Tribe of Jewish origin, known as the Haddadeen, are the founders of the city of Ramallah. This city, now the administrative center of the PA, was until 1948 an almost completely Christian city, populated by Haddadeen descendants as well as indigenous Christians from Judea and Samaria.

"Thus the historical links between Yemen and Israel are far more longlasting than Yemen's links with Islam. We should add Yemen to the list of nations conquered and colonized by Arab Muslim outsiders."

Posted by: Provoslavni at May 3, 2007 10:10 AM