Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Moroccan Jews deny political causes of their flight

This two-part article by Mahitab Abdel Raouf in Le Petit Journal, a newspaper for French expatriates and French-speakers, gives an interesting insight into the Jews still left in Morocco. They are but a remnant - fewer than 5,000 out of 280,000 - and more Jews leave each day. Rabat, the capital, has only 200 Jews. The journalist interviews the rabbi of the synagogue (only two Jewish families still live in the Jewish quarter or Mellah), the secretary and an old lady who has moved in because her roof had collapsed. Otherwise, Jews have stayed on because they run lucrative businesses, or are misfits who never managed to settle down in Israel or elsewhere.

Although the article does say that the Jews felt insecure after 1956, when the French left, the Jews in the 'public eye' play down any political reasons for their continuing exodus. "It is neither discrimination nor insecurity," says Shimon Cohen, director of the Casablanca Jewish Museum. No Jew tried to leave after the al-Qaeda attacks in 2002 says Mme Azuelos, who runs a profitable jewellery business.

Moroccans are proud to have been the only Arabs to have lived together peacefully with the Jews, but the latter are considered strictly a religion - Ahl-el-khateb, and not a race. " Every time we lose a Jew Morocco gains an ambassador," gushes Andre Azoulay, a Jewish adviser to King Mohamed VI. "A Moroccan Jew can return at any time - but can a Jew from Iraq, Syria or Egypt? "

The Rabat synagogue rabbi is more forthright, grumbling that anti-Jewish incidents are never covered, while the media broadcasts images of Palestinian suffering all day long. A Jewish student says, " I am Arab before I am Jewish, Morocco is my beloved country, but I feel unsafe and do not want to stay." Another Jew admits there is prejudice, but will not call it racism.

Ironically it takes two non-Jews to call a spade a spade. Mohamed ben-Allaoui, a trader in the Rabat Mellah, thinks that the conflation of Judaism with Zionism in Morocco has caused a feeling of insecurity and encouraged the Jews to leave. Latifa Bouchoua, a human rights worker, says that anti-Jewish slogans shouted by pro-Palestinian demonstrators are clear proof of discrimination.

Read Part l and Part II (French)

Lucette Lagnado's Cairene dream

Lucette Lagnado, author of the newly-published The man in the white sharkskin suit, tells Jessie Graham of Nextbook that there is a place in history and literature for more than one memoir on the Arabic-Jewish narrative.

Q: I would imagine it would be a bit difficult to approach this memoir with André Aciman's Out of Egypt already out there as the definitive memoir about Jews in Egypt.

Cairo street scene
For eight or nine years I wanted to write this book, and every time I would tell people, they would say, "But you know, there's André Aciman." It made me crazy. First of all, I love André. But then I think about the lost worlds of the Jews of Eastern Europe and Europe. How many writers did it take to recreate the little shtetls? We start with I.B. Singer and then we go on into the modern, new generation. And yet, we had equally magical, quirky, special, soulful, extraordinary worlds in the Middle East. The Jews of Iraq. The Jews of Iran. The Jews of Algeria. The Jews of Morocco. The Jews of Tunisia. We were this unbelievably cultured place. Why can't we produce a body of literature? And why haven't we?

Q:Was it in part because the European narrative of exile and the Holocaust came first? Perhaps there was no room for another narrative?

We've all been consumed by the Holocaust, by the evisceration, disappearance, and destruction of the communities of Europe. In the same way, we should be concerned and consumed by the Palestinian refugee narrative, where there was and is a lot of suffering. But the idea that there was, as you put it, no room for another one. I actually found myself talking to a colleague when I dared to use the term "cultural holocaust" for the exile of Jews from the Middle East. She is a Jewish reporter, Orthodox. She said to me, "Well, forgive me, but you weren't wiped out, you weren't slaughtered." And I said, "No we weren't. But communities were wiped out culturally." To me that's a tragedy. My first book was about the Holocaust. I was totally consumed. But until recently, the Arab-Jewish refugees weren't a story. It wasn't even a graceful term, "Arabic Jews." To me it was an extraordinary accomplishment when recently I stood in front of my synagogue and said, "I was a refugee from Egypt." It's sort of like saying, "I'm an alcoholic."


From the first days I came to America, my mother whispered, "Don't say you're from Egypt." Egypt was this backward, primitive country. I had to be the Parisian schoolgirl. I could play the part, "My name is Lucette. I'm from France." I didn't out and out say I was born in France. I would say I'm from France, and that was technically true.

The social worker that managed your family's case here saw your father as very backward.

They wanted to make sure that you're assimilated. And then you get a man like my father, and he doesn't want to assimilate. So I have these single-spaced notes by the social worker from the New York Association for New Americans and she records him telling her, "We are Arab, madam. We are Arab, madam." My father loved Muslims. He loved Egyptians. He felt at one with them.

That's quite a contrast to Aciman's family. His family was Sephardic and they were always trying to distinguish themselves from the Arabs in their midst—to distinguish even between Syrian and Egyptian Jews. Your family didn't seem to have such an identity crisis in Egypt.

synagogue in downtown Cairo
Synagogue in downtown Cairo, 2006
They're totally different. My parents were really religious. He may have been a boulevardier, a womanizer, a sinner, a pleasure seeker, and a gambler, but come morning, he was in shul. Aciman's family was secular.

You were able to go back to Cairo in 2005, with the permission of the Egyptian government. One of the things that surprised you was that after all this time, you felt at home there.

I am an angst-ridden person, and I felt angst-free in Egypt—it seems bizarre. I would look at the Nile, and how calm it was, and I thought the people were awfully nice. If I had my own way, I'd sit with everybody and say, "Now wait a minute, wait! It worked 60 years ago, you know? We got along fine. Why, why can't we redo that?"

What did older Egyptians say about the Jews who had left?

They never talked about missing Jews, but they all had memories. It was almost like in Germany, where I did reporting for my other book, where they say, "I knew a Jewish family." In Egypt it was at a more human level. I spoke with our former neighbor. The old woman said, "I liked your mother. She was very sweet to children." That was the nicest part about it. We weren't Yehudi. We were simply neighbors and then we had to leave. They were probably bewildered, as bewildered as anybody.

Read article in full

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Jews of Egypt, through the eyes of an Egyptian

Professor Mohamed Aboulghar is an eminent Egyptian obstetrician whose book Yahood Masr (The Jews of Egypt) - from prosperity to dispersion (2005) was reviewed in the September 2007 issue of the Newsletter of the Association of Jews from Egypt (UK). The review is reproduced below, with the AJE's permission.

"This is a very interesting book written in Arabic by an Egyptian on the subject of Egyptian Jews, their origins and their recent history, from their ascendancy and prosperity in the early part of the twentieth century to their exodus and dispersion in the second half of that century.

"Prof. Aboulghar, 67, is an eminent obstetrician at the University of Cairo specialising in IVF fertility research, and author of many papers in that field. His book on the history of Egyptian Jews, published by Dar El Hilal in 2005, was written after browsing relevant literature and holding discussions and interviews with ex-Egyptian Jews living in Cairo, Paris, Geneva and Florida. He quotes frequently from the works of Joel Beinin, Gudrun Kramer and Shimon Shamir.

"In his book, Prof. Aboulghar gives due credit to the contribution of Egyptian Jewry in the spheres of trade and commerce, finance, education, journalism as well as music and the cinema. He describes the political activities of those Egyptian Jews who became affiliated to communist movements and those who embraced Zionism and emigrated to Israel in 1948. However, he indicates that the majority of Egyptian Jews were apolitical.

"When discussing the position of the community within Egyptian society, Prof. Aboulghar points out that despite the hospitality and generosity accorded to them by the Egyptian people and Government, the Jews, with the exception of the Karaites and the poorer sections living in the Haret-El-Yahoud, never integrated fully. They did not identify with the Egyptian people’s interests and aspirations. They spoke foreign languages at home, mainly French, and did not learn how to read and write Arabic. When the nationality law was passed in the 1940s, many Jews did not apply for Egyptian nationality. They were looking more towards Europe, acquiring its various nationalities instead.

"Moreover, according to Prof. Aboulghar, when the Zionist movement began to establish deeper roots in Palestine and clash with the native Arab population, Egyptian Jews were not sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, although some of their leaders voiced their opposition to the Zionist movement and its attempt to influence Egyptian Jewry. The Egyptian people, on the other hand, became increasingly involved with events in Palestine and angered by the treatment of Arabs by Jews. Their attitude to their Jewish community began to veer towards the hostile views of the Muslim Brotherhood. The establishment of the State of Israel with its attendant Arab refugee problem exacerbated anti-Zionist feelings to the extent that many Jews felt insecure and emigrated in 1948-51. Operation Suzannah (when Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar were caught and hanged) contributed to the populist perception that Jews constituted a fifth column in Egypt.

"Finally, the book recounts that the Egyptianisation of commerce and industry, the nationalisation laws that Nasser promulgated and the expulsion, during the Suez war, of British and French nationals of all religions, led to the exodus of the entire community from 1956 onwards. Prof. Aboulghar claims that Jews were not targeted in particular, because other foreign communities, e.g. Greeks and Armenians, also left Egypt around that time. Even during the 1967 war with Israel, when the Egyptian authorities imprisoned Jews and other Egyptians
considered a threat to state security, the Jews were treated better than the detained Muslims and Copts.

"It thus becomes clear on reading the book that the author attached no blame to the Egyptian people or Government for the exodus of the entire Jewish community. In fact, he concludes that even if Israel had not been created, the Jews would have emigrated anyway because their livelihood was threatened and they would have been unable to enjoy continued prosperity and affluence. Most of the Jews he met had good things to say about Egypt. Some were critical of Israel.

Since Prof. Aboulghar welcomes comments on his book, James Levy, an AJE (UK) committee member, sent an email to him, making the following points:

· Whilst it is true that Egyptian Jews did not integrate, it was not deliberate. It was the product of years of foreign occupation, of poor standards of education in Government schools and of liberal multiculturalism and tolerance. In any case, the integration of the poorer Jews within the wider Muslim and Coptic communities did not help them when the crunch came, and they also had to leave their country of origin.

· Why should 'Operation Suzannah' be blamed on the Jewish community? It is tantamount to saying that the Muslim community in Britain is to blame for the terrorist acts of July 7th 2005.

· Just as it was natural that Egyptians would sympathise with their Arab brethren in Palestine, why should it not be natural that Jews view Israel with some sympathy? Especially if they are treated unfairly in their country of origin and made to feel insecure?

· The entire Jewish community would not have emigrated because of the new laws and regulations on commerce and industry. After all, there were Jewish communities in Irak and Yemen who only spoke Arabic. Many young Egyptian Jews would have gone on to learn Arabic and continued to live in Egypt - provided, of course, that they would have been treated fairly by a democratic and moderate Government. This was not the case.

· Two examples of unfair treatment were given to Prof. Aboulghar:

1. Why did Jews have to apply for Egyptian nationality, even though they, their parents and grandparents were born in the country? They should have been entitled to that nationality automatically, just like Egyptian Muslims or Copts.

2. Why were Jews imprisoned during the 1967 war even though there were very few left and they presented no security risk to the state? The fact that they were treated in prison better than Muslims or Copts does not take away from the injustice.

Prof. Aboulghar acknowledged receipt of the comments and wished to pursue the dialogue, although there is little likelihood of him visiting the UK in the near future in view of his busy professional schedule. He is nonetheless a voice of moderation, at odds with the extreme views expressed on Egyptian media.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Jonathan Cook is dead wrong about Iranian Jews

Karmel Melamed, an Iranian-Jewish journalist based in California, has written this excellent rebuttal on his blog to recent claims by Jonathan Cook on The Guardian's 'Comment is Free' website that Jews in Iran live in freedom and tolerance:

"Recently one of my readers forwarded me a blog posting made by freelance journalist Jonathan Cook on The Guardian newspaper website in the United Kingdom. Cook, who is based in Nazareth in northern Israel, has made quite a number of incorrect assertions about Iran’s Jews in his piece entitled “Kosher in Tehran”. As an Iranian Jewish journalist living in the U.S. with more first-hand knowledge about Iranian Jewry, I feel compelled to set the record straight. Jonathan Cook is dead wrong about Iran’s Jews and his misinformation must be exposed.

Aside from Cook’s long-standing and rampant hatred of Israel, he has either knowingly or unknowingly taken in the one-sided propaganda put out by Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime hook, line and sinker! Cook tries to paint a rosy picture of the 10,000 to 20,000 Jews in Iran that he claims live in “peace and freedom”, and Iran’s regime as benevolent toward the country’s Jews. As a journalist who speaks the Persian language fluently and regularly chats with Jews and non-Jewish Iranians who have fled the country, I can tell you Cook's claims are nothing more than fantasies.

The truth of the matter is since 1979, Iran’s government has used the presence of Jews living in the country as a major propaganda tool to supposedly show themselves in a positive light to the West. Ex-agents of the regime have long identified scores of Western journalists who were paid off by the Iranian government to portray the regime positively. Again today, pundits and supposed journalists like Cook are trying to use Iran’s Jews to whitewash Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments about the Holocaust and wiping out Iran. This is basically being done as damage control by the Western proponents of Iran’s regime on the Iranian government’s behalf. Often you’ll see the same type of damage control by television news media, showing young women in Iran wearing make-up, trendy clothing, and listening to Western music-- all done to send the message to Americans and Europeans that “Iran is not such a bad place”.

Cook also claims that Iran’s Jews only “suffer from discrimination” - but nothing could be further from the truth. The regime’s thugs keep a tight grip on the Jewish community in Iran who live in constant fear for their lives. If the Jews step out of line in Iran their lives are at immediate risk. Such was the case in 2000 when 13 Jews from the city of Shiraz were randomly arrested on trumped-up charges of being supposed spies for Israel and the U.S. The penalty for treason by any person, especially a non-Muslim, in Iran is death. The intense pressure from the U.S. and Europe on Iran during the case of the Shiraz 13 ultimately forced the regime not to execute the Jews. Now if Cook is reluctant to believe me, I suggest he speak to the scores of new Iranian Jewish immigrants who have recently resettled in Los Angeles and ask them about life in Iran. Or perhaps he should chat with the hundreds of Iranian Jewish families who left Iran and are still waiting in Austria for their visas to the U.S., and ask them how life was for them in Iran. I seriously doubt Cook or anyone else would find a single person who would praise the conditions for Jews in Iran.

Yet Cook's most naïve assertion about Iran’s Jews is that he wholeheartedly believes the “positive” statements made by the Jewish community leaders in Iran about their lives in the country. For instance, in his blog posting, Cook quotes a Jewish leader in Iran who denounces Zionism and praises his life in Iran. Likewise Cook points the refusal of the Jewish community in Iran to take up $60,000 offered by certain Jewish groups to lure them out of Iran, as evidence that conditions are supposedly good for them in the country.

I recently interviewed Frank Nikbakht, director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, who has monitored the rhetoric of Iran’s Jewish leaders for the last 25 years. Nikbakht said the comments made by Jewish leaders in Iran to the Western media should be questioned. They lack credibility since these leaders have been picked by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry to parrot what the regime tells them. “Whenever any journalist goes to Iran to talk to the Jews, they will be handed over to hand-picked Jewish collaborators similar to those from the Judenrat in Nazi Germany,” said Nikbakht. In essence how can any statements regarding Iran’s Jews coming from those so closely aligned with Iran’s regime be trusted? They clearly cannot.

Here's a recent TV news feature showing the handpicked Iranian Jewish leaders only saying positive things about the Iranian government and other Iranian Jews supposedly speaking their minds freely about life in Iran.

What’s even more interesting is the fact that Iran’s regime does not grant visas to journalists it deems unsympathetic to their government, so the Iranian officials have had much success spewing their one-sided propaganda regarding Iranian Jews. Cook is also foolish to believe public comments made by Jews in Iran. Even if they wanted to speak freely about their government, they would never dare do so because they would face imprisonment, torture or even death. The regime’s armed thugs have arrested and tortured Iranians in recent years that have expressed their criticism of the regime to visiting Western media. Therefore, when all the voices on Iran’s Jews are so heavily influenced and controlled by the Iranian government, no one in their right mind should believe a single word coming from them.

Cook is seriously mistaken if he believes life is great for Iran’s Jews considering the scores of ridiculous, intolerant laws they live under. According to Nikbakht’s research of Iran’s Islamic based laws, not only does the Iranian Constitution clearly indicate that all non-Muslims have inferior status to Muslims, but all non-Muslims must be humiliated and confined to prevent them from gaining any advantage over Muslims. Again, how on earth can Cook or anyone in their right mind consider such an unjust system of laws in Iran as humane and fair ?

As a journalist who exclusively covers Iranian Jewry and has close ties to the community, I am personally baffled at how Cook can assert that life is great for Jews in Iran. I am regularly reminded by countless Iranian American Jewish leaders to watch what I might be writing about the Iranian government for fear that what I report on may have negative repercussions on the Jews of Iran. So my question to Cook, and others like him, is why on earth are Iranian American Jews so concerned about my words and the safety of their brethren in Iran if everything is so fine and dandy in Iran? The truth of the matter is, Iran’s Jews are not safe and they live in a constant fear of how the regime may turn on them at any moment.

Finally, Cook’s argument that Iran’s remaining Jews are living peacefully and freely in Iran and supposedly “unwilling to leave the country” is also flawed. First of all Cook is wrong in citing that are there are 25,000 Jews living in Iran because there has been no real census to determine their population. The community’s population estimates over the years have varied from 10,000 to 20,000 today. Some argue that the 20,000 figure is also inaccurate because thousands of Jews have quietly left or illegally fled Iran in the last five to ten years. Others argue that the 20,000 figure is inaccurate because a small but considerable portion of these Iranian Jews have converted to Islam or Christianity in order to survive, but are still counted as Jews because they are living within their family structures and attend synagogue to their continued beliefs in Judaism. The children of these Jews are now growing up as Muslims or Christians, but not as Jews. It should be noted that it is much safer to live in Iran as a Christian than as a Jew. Therefore, for Cook to include a few thousand hidden converts with the population of Jews in Iran is flawed.

In his posting, Cook boasts on behalf of Iran’s regime that the country is still home to a substantial number of Jews. He FAILS to look at the bigger historical picture of Iran’s Jewish population. Before the 1979 revolution, some 80,000 Jews lived in Iran, compared to the 20,000 who have remained. This mass exodus of Jews would be enough proof to anyone in their right mind that Iran must obviously not be a welcoming place for Jews if 60,000 Jews have fled the country! Moreover, Cook FAILS to take into account the painful history of Iran’s Jews who numbered in the hundreds of thousands 500 years ago before the Shiite religious cleansing of Iran began. Since then, and over the centuries, forced massive conversions, gradual conversions, mass killings and pogroms forced thousands of Jews to convert. Those hundreds of thousands of Jews in Iran should have been in the millions today had it not been for the ruthless and irrational activities of Iran’s clerics and monarchs over the centuries. Cook’s ridiculous portrait of Jews now living in Iran is not only an insult to those who appreciate common sense, but an insult to Iranian Jewry for ignoring our tragic history in Iran.

The irony of Cook’s anti-Israel stance and sympathetic views towards Iran’s regime is the fact that he is currently living in Israel, a country where he has the freedom to criticize anyone he pleases without the fear of being harmed in any way. He would never enjoy that same free speech while living in Iran or any other Islamic country. Cook and other apologists for Iran’s Islamic regime must be exposed for continuing to perpetuate these lies about Jews exclusively for Iran’s benefit. Individuals like Cook are in no way professional journalists but rather the lapdogs of Iran’s tyrannical regime: they are spinning the real truth about the regime and presenting supposed "facts” from a non-objective and biased perspective.

What’s really sad about Cook and other apologists of Iran’s regime is that they have no other way to bolster the Iranian government than to point to the condition of Jews in the country. The fact of the matter is that Iran’s economy is in shambles, there is a gasoline shortage, skyrocketing inflation, and doubt-digit unemployment—how else could anyone justify keeping any government in power with such a disastrous economy? As usual, they can use the Jews as a distraction.

Cook is dead wrong about Iran’s Jews and I call on the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper to retract Cook’s statements because they have no journalistic value and are only helping to perpetuate hate for Israel and wrongly bolster the tarnished image of Iran’s government."

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Turkish Jews dispute Armenian 'genocide'

Should Jews speak truth to power even if it means putting Turkey's Jews - and Israel's relationship with Turkey - at risk? The controversy over whether to call the Turkish massacre of 1,5 million Armenians during the First World War 'genocide' epitomises the dilemma that vulnerable Jewish communities have wrestled with through the ages.

As reported in The Jerusalem Post,"Turkey's small Jewish community has come out against the Anti-Defamation League's new policy position that the massacre of Armenians during World War I was "tantamount to genocide."

"Silvio Ovadio, head of the Jewish community in the country, issued a statement saying, "We have difficulty in understanding" the ADL's new position on the matter, the Turkish media reported on Thursday.

"The ADL position only reflected the opinion of "related institutions of the American Jews," the statement emphasized. "We declare that we are supporting Turkey's belief that the issue should be discussed at the academic level by opening archives of all related parties and that parliaments are not the places for finding out historical facts via voting‚" the statement read.

"The Turkish press also published a letter from prominent Turkish Jewish businessman Jak Kamhi to (Abraham) Foxman (ADL's director) on Thursday.

In his letter, Kamhi said that "by accepting this false comparison between the uniquely indisputable genocide for which the term was coined - the Holocaust, and the events of 1915, the ADL has committed an act of the most inexplicable injustice against the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, as well as against the sensitivities and pride of the Turkish people, who deserve your praise for their centuries-long tradition of compassion and their culture of humanity and cohabitation that remains an example to the world."

Kamhi took issue with Foxman's assertion that there was a consensus among historians that the massacre was tantamount to genocide, saying there was no such agreement. The ADL position "will put back the painstaking efforts by many of us in Turkey, including our brothers in the Armenian community, to resolve this highly emotive issue without prejudgment. It will now be seized upon by all those who seek to destroy all our work and create discord and bitterness between our countries," Kamhi wrote.

Against the 'pragmatism' of the Turkish Jewish community David Harris of the American Jewish Committee puts forward a powerful argument that Jews should protect historical truth:

"The Armenian position has been straightforward. As victims of the Holocaust, who can better understand the Armenian ordeal and anguish than the Jews? Fearful of the danger of Holocaust denial, aren’t the Jews most aware of the slippery slope of distorting historical truth? And wasn’t it Adolf Hitler who reportedly asked, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”— in effect, paving the way for the Final Solution?

"Meanwhile, the Turkish stance has been that Jews shouldn’t simply accept the Armenian version of history lock, stock and barrel, as it’s fraught with distortion and deceit, but rather bear in mind the traditional Turkish welcome of minority communities, especially the embrace of dispersed Jews from Spain by the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 15th century.

"Moreover, Turkish leaders have also at times taken a tougher line, suggesting, in barely veiled language, that a Jewish acceptance of the Armenian version of history could have negative consequences for other Jewish interests, whether in Turkey or beyond.

"And it is in this vice that many Jews have lived for years, essentially pitting principle against pragmatism. For armchair observers, that may look like an easy choice, but, in the world of policy, where actions can have real-life consequences, it’s anything but.

"Look at successive governments of the United States, whether under Democratic or Republican leaders. All have reached the same conclusion: Turkey is of vital importance to U.S. geo-strategic interests, straddling as it does two continents, Europe and Asia, bordering key countries—from the former Soviet Union to Iran, Iraq and Syria—and serving as the southeastern flank of NATO. Each administration has essentially punted when asked about the Armenian question, seeking to discourage the United States Congress from recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide, while arguing that a third-party parliamentary body isn’t the right venue to settle a heated historical dispute. (...)

"I have a strong connection to Turkey, a country I have visited on numerous occasions and to which I feel very close. Few countries have a more critically important role to play in the sphere of international relations. I remain grateful to this day for the refuge that the Ottoman Empire gave to Jews fleeing the Inquisition. I am intimately connected to the Turkish Jewish community and admire their patriotism and enormous contribution to their homeland. I deeply appreciate the link between Turkey and Israel, which serves the best interests of both democratic nations in a tough region. And I value Turkey’s role as an anchor of NATO and friend of the United States.

"At the same time, I cannot escape the events of 1915 and the conclusions reached by credible voices, from Ambassador Morgenthau to Harvard professor Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Problem from Hell: American and the Age of Genocide, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, about the nature of what took place: it was a genocide, they determined, albeit one that occurred more than thirty years before the term was coined.

"From my experience in tackling difficult relationships, I believe that engagement, not avoidance, is the best strategy. In a perfect world, Armenian and Turkish historians would sit together and review the archival material, debate differences, and seek a common understanding of the past. To date, that hasn’t happened in any meaningful way. I continue to hope that it will. It should. We at AJC have offered our services, if needed, to help facilitate such an encounter. Ninety years of distance ought to allow for the creation of a “safe” space to consider contested issues.

"Meanwhile, as the issue once again heats up in the United States, it’s important to be clear. In a book entitled Holocaust Denial, published by the American Jewish Committee in 1993, the author, Kenneth Stern, an AJC staff expert on the subject, noted: “That the Armenian genocide is now considered a topic for debate, or as something to be discounted as old history, does not bode well for those who would oppose Holocaust denial.”

"He was right. Picture a day when a muscle-flexing Iran or Saudi Arabia seeks to make denial of the Holocaust a condition of doing business with other countries. Sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t. We have many interests as a Jewish people. Protecting historical truth ought to be right up there near the top of the list."

See AJC press release in full

The Jerusalem Post: History is not black and white, but full of shades of grey

Friday, August 24, 2007

Is the Mizrahi decade in Israeli politics over?

For the first time in a decade, the current Israeli government contains no Mizrahi Jews. That's because ethnicity is no longer an issue, argues this Haaretz piece. (With thanks: Lily)

The recent headline in the daily Maariv, which attributed to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the offensive remark that Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz is "a new version of David Levy," drew three reactions: It reminded readers that such a person once existed - David Levy; it gave off an unpleasant odor of racism, or maybe just plain arrogance, on the part of the "confidants"; and it shed light on an interesting phenomenon: The emptying from the top political ranks in Israel of leading politicians from the Mizrahi communities (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent).

Maybe it's a passing phenomenon, maybe a coincidence, maybe something deeper, but it's hard to ignore the following fact: the last decade, 1996-2006, was characterized by a leap forward of members of the Mizrahi communities. They occupied the most senior positions in the successive governments, they were considered the stuff of which prime ministers are made, they competed for the premiership, they were elected to the presidency, took control of ruling parties. That was unquestionably the "Mizrahi decade" in politics.

From 1996 to 1999, two senior Mizrahi ministers served in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu: defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai and foreign minister David Levy. In the government of Ehud Barak, between 1999 and 2001, Levy was foreign minister before being replaced, a year later, by Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Ariel Sharon, who succeeded Barak, appointed two senior Mizrahi ministers to his first government, 2001-2003: Silvan Shalom as finance minister and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, then the chairman of the Labor Party, as defense minister.

The second Sharon government, 2003-2006, also had two ranking Mizrahi ministers: Shalom in the Foreign Ministry, Mofaz in the Defense Ministry.

Only one Mizrahi minister served in the first year of the Olmert government- Amir Peretz, chairman of Labor, as defense minister - whereas in the new Olmert government, the three top posts are held by Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent): Tzipi Livni (foreign affairs), Roni Bar-On (treasury) and Barak (defense).

In the past few years, the Mizrahim have disappeared one after the other. Some left due to unpleasant reasons, moving to the locales covered by the crime and legal affairs correspondents. Only a small minority remained, but they lost their high rank and have had to make do with secondary posts, with the crumbs of power.

Read article in full

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ezra Levy's quest for lost love - on Al-Jazeera TV

Soon after the US invaded Iraq, six elderly Jews were airlifted from Baghdad to Israel. One of them was 82-year-old Ezra Levy, the focus of this two-part report, 'The last Jew of Babylon', broadcast on al-Jazeera's Witness programme on 15 July. Ezra's son Emad achieved a high profile in the press as Baghdad's 'last rabbi' and unofficial spokesman for the handful of Jews still left in Iraq, before he too left for Israel.

The programme presenter, Rageh Omar, tells us that Ezra - who we are told, despite his kippa, is 'fiercely secular' - did not leave for 'political' reasons. Filmed hawking her picture around the hairdressers of Ramat Gan, Ezra came to Israel solely to find a woman he had fallen in love with more than 50 years ago - Daisy. We are told that Ezra stayed behind in Baghdad to nurse Daisy through an operation. We are not informed why the couple did not marry. Daisy and the rest of Ezra's family moved to Israel in the early 1950s while he remained in Baghdad. We are told only that Ezra's wife died 15 years ago - and nothing about his two sons, Saleh and Emad.

The programme puts a fascinating spin on Ezra's story. In spite of the apparent comfort of his sheltered accommodation, his move to Israel has been a bitter disappointment. In Iraq he had Muslim friends, even girlfriends. He feels 'a stranger in a strange land', more Arabic than Jewish, and has more affinity with his Arab cleaner than with his own family. The moral of the story is that an 'Arab' Jew's natural habitat is an Arab country, unless they have a compelling romantic reason for leaving it.

Watch Part One and Part Two of The last Jew of Babylon on Youtube. (With thanks: Lily)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

'Baghdad Jews must run for their lives'

As already highlighted on 'Point of no return', the saga of Baghdad's last Jews rumbles on. Can they leave but don't want to? Do they want to leave, but can't? Canon Andrew White, the Jews' 'caretaker', gives another interview, this time to The Jerusalem Post. (with thanks: Lily)

Eight Baghdad Jews who represent the remnants of that city's Jewish community are facing security threats so grave that they need to flee the country, the community's caretaker, Canon Andrew White, told The Jerusalem Post from London on Tuesday.

According to White, who himself has fled from Baghdad due to terrorist threats, the situation has become dire for the 2,600-year-old community, which only 100 years ago made up a third of Baghdad's population.

Ever since sectarian violence in the capital first forced the community to assume a low profile, White, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has taken on the role of community keeper, bringing the families food, money and medicine. He has also been actively trying to increase awareness of their plight abroad, petitioning for diplomatic and humanitarian support in America and Europe.

White is the vicar of St. George's Anglican Church in the US Embassy in Baghdad, where he has been posted since a 1998 sanction by Saddam Hussein gave him permission to serve the church. He said "violent incidents" had been recorded against the eight Jews. He also said they were constantly threatened by looming violence, given that they reside beyond the heavily guarded Green Zone.

"The time has come for them to flee," White said.

Asked if the threat against them came from Shi'ite or Sunni groups, he said "everyone" was out to get them.

"I asked [the US] Congress about the Jews in Baghdad because their situation was so desperate," White said, referring to his July 25 appearance before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, where he stressed the growing threat to Baghdad's minorities, including Jews. "In their passports it says Yihud [Jew in Arabic] under religion, and that only adds to the danger. They need to get out."

According to White, an unspecified few have expressed their desire to leave. But despite efforts by Jewish organizations abroad and some Knesset members to bring them to Israel, the eight rejected the idea of the Jewish state as a possible point of refuge. The problem, White said, was that due to the umbrella of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiments they have lived under in Iraq, they are fearful of Israel and what it represents.

"They have been fed anti-Israel propaganda all their lives," he said. "They do not trust Israel to be a good place. If some of them do want to go to Israel, they are scared of what the repercussions might be for the ones that stay."

White said Labor MK Michael Melchior has been extremely supportive. Melchior, a member of the Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, told the Post the situation facing the eight Jews in Baghdad was very complex and sensitive. He said some had even been held hostage. "We always try to help when Jews are in need," he said, adding that they were under the care of White.

White said an alternative to Israel as a point of refuge could be the Netherlands. The Baghdad Jews have relatives among the Iraqi community there who emigrated via Israel after the first Gulf War. He said there has been a flurry of back-channel activity between Israel and Holland concerning their possible emigration to either country, and praised the efforts made by Israeli representatives, saying the Israeli government has "done absolutely everything" to help.

However, White said the Dutch were ignoring requests for the visas needed to immigrate and refusing to absorb the community. "We're talking about eight people," he said. "[The Dutch] should be receptive, but they're not."

Dutch officials in Israel told the Post Monday that no activity toward such immigration has taken place.

"Lies. Damn lies. The fact is, is that they just don't want to take them in," White said. "I have spent hours sitting with them. How can they say that I was not there?"

Speaking from The Hague, Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Rob Dekker told the Post there have been no recent requests for visas, and that there have been no "formal discussions" between White and the Dutch government. He said informal meetings between White and a former Dutch ambassador to Baghdad had taken place.

Dekker said the Dutch Embassy in Baghdad was not equipped to handle the visa requests, and that the eight Jews would have to travel to Jordan or Syria to request visas. He acknowledged that their classification as Jews in their passports might not grant them safe passage to Damascus or Amman, but said these procedures "applied to everyone in Iraq," regardless of religion.

Dekker also said asylum could not be given either, and could only be requested from Holland. Dutch law does not allow for asylum requests from Dutch embassies, he said.

Baghdad's Jews have been leaving for North America, Europe and Israel for 60 years, most recently in 2003, when a few Jews left just after US and British troops invaded Iraq. Following Israel's independence in 1948, 100,000 Iraqi Jews were brought into the newly created Jewish state. The community had been present in Iraq since the Babylonian exile, which began in 586 BCE. following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.

Read article in full

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Teach our 'nakba' too, say Arab-born Jews

Jews from Arab countries have reacted to controversial moves by the Israel education minister to introduce the notion of the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe of their flight) into the school curriculum by demanding that the nakba of the Jews forced out of Arab countries be taught as well.

Professor Ada Aharoni of the World Congress of Jews from Egypt wrote to both the Israeli minister of education and the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. She has been quoted in the Israeli press as saying that the nakba suffered by the Jews from Arab countries was no less than that of the Palestinians.

"It is important to emphasise that there were in fact two nakbas", she wrote to Yuli Tamir, the education minister. "You must teach the nakba of the Jewish refugees as well as that of the Palestinians in Arab and Jewish schools in Israel.

"In addition to the textbook referring to the nakba of the Palestinians you will have to print another book which will teach about the nakbas and the great suffering of Jews from Arab states coerced into emigrating and leaving all their assets behind.

"In the name of every citizen of Israel we demand a new textbook - up-to-date, correct and egalitarian."

Professor Aharoni suggests that a Memorial Nakba Day of the Jews from Arab countries would commemorate the expulsion and emigration and the loss of all their private and communal property of near a million Jews from Arab countries. Ancient and prosperous Jewish communities, some more than 2000 years old, like that of Egypt, have been completely destroyed. Out of 100,000 Jews in Egypt in 1948, today, only thirty Jews are left.

The Nakba Day of Jews from Arab countries should be commemorated before the Nakba Day of the Palestinians: "to make them realize that in every war both sides suffer, and not only one side, would make them more conciliatory, " Professor Aharoni says. A suitable date might be May 10, 2008. It should be organized by the Government of Israel, in collaboration with relevant organizations in Israel and abroad.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Libyan Jew crusades for refugee rights

Gina Waldman tells The Marin Independent Journal (California) how her miraculous escape from death in her native Libya turned her into an activist for the rights of Jewish refugees:

"GINA WALDMAN of Tiburon has horrific tales of escaping with her Jewish family from anti-Semitic mobs in Libya in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War between five Arab nations and Israel.

"What happened to her then colors what she does now - trying to educate the world about the destruction of Jewish civilizations in North Africa and the Middle East where Jews had lived for 2,000 years.

"Palestinians are not the only refugees in the Middle East," says Waldman. In 1948, when Israel was founded, nearly 1 million Jews lived in Arab countries and Iran; today there are fewer than 5,000.

"My community (in Libya) is extinct," she says.

"The Jews who fled have since been integrated into countries all over the world. But Waldman wants the world to remember their plight.

"To that end, she testified last month before a congressional Human Rights Caucus, urging that any discussion of refugee rights should include the rights of other victims - Christians and Jews - displaced by the Middle East wars."

Read article in full

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Indian Muslims make historic visit to Israel

The Indian government can learn a thing or two from the way Israel treats its Muslim minorities, the leader of an Indian-Muslim delegation of imams declared on a groundbreaking visit to Israel, Ynet News reports:

"The time for violence has come to an end, and the era of peace and dialogue between Muslims and Jews has begun - that was the message delivered by Maulana Jameel Ahmed Ilyasi, secretary-general of the All-India Association of Imams and Mosques, during an interview with Ynetnews.

"Ilaysi's organization represents half a million imams, who are the main religious leaders of India's 200 million Muslims.

"In an extraordinary visit to Israel, organized by the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) India office, Ilaysi arrived as part of a delegation of Indian Muslim leaders and journalists.

"Asked to address Hamas's call for jihad to destroy Israel, Ilaysi said, "I believe in peace and this is the message I take. I don't believe in anything that destroys another country."

"The religious leader also said the time had come for Pakistan to establish official relations with Israel. "This is the right thing to do," he added.

"Ilaysi's arrival was not trouble-free, however, as a number of protests held by Indian Muslims were held in opposition to the visit.

"Indian Muslims do not have a very good impression of the Israelis. The protesters were saying, you are going to Israel, a country which humiliates the Muslims. That's the impression that they have," Ilaysi explained. He said the protests symbolized the natural opposition which arises to positive acts. "When you do good deeds, you are bound to have challenges and hurdles," he added.

"My impression was initially that the Israelis are certainly dominating Muslims out here. Once I came here, that impression completely changed," Ilaysi said. "I saw the reality on the ground, the mutual respect Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews have for each other. Constant conflict is not the reality here," Ilaysi said, describing his visit to the Israeli-Arab village of Abu Gosh, frequented by Israeli Jews.

"A visit to Jerusalem's holy sites only served to reinforce what Ilaysi described as his "pleasant surprise."

"I saw that Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side happily, not at each other's throat," he said.

"Ilaysi added that the Indian government has lessons to learn from Israel on how to deal with Muslim minorities. "I was pleasantly surprised to know that Sharia (Islamic law) code is being supported by the Israeli government, whereas in India only local Muslims implement it. That is unique," he said."

Read article in full

India's own record of tolerance for its Jews has been the focus of several articles marking the 60th anniversary since independence, such as this one in Forbes

Friday, August 17, 2007

Could Israel revive ties with Iraqi Kurds?

Although ties were severed with Israel in the 1970s, Kurds still have fond memories of Jews, Zvi Bar'el of Haaretz reports:

NORTHERN IRAQ - "Do you want an answer on the record or a real answer?" asked a senior member of the Kurdistan Regional Government. I said I wanted both.

"On the record, I will tell you that the political conditions today do not make it possible to maintain independent relations with Israel. Iraq is one country, which includes Kurdistan, and the decision must come from Baghdad."

The real answer was: "We would like very much to develop relations with you, but not publicly. There are ways you can help us today far more than ever before."
The ties between Israel and the Kurds were severed almost in one fell swoop in the mid-1970s, and since then Israel has vanished from the scene. But not the memories.

At every corner, office, street and booth where I could say I was from Israel, the response was a thumbs-up, sometimes with both thumbs, or the word "brothers," spoken in English. Some spoke of a feeling of betrayal or abandonment, others as though they had lost family.

At every opportunity, someone spoke longingly about a Jewish friend or neighbor who had emigrated to Israel, and one person even had images from Israel as his screen saver.

The memories and nostalgia for friendship with Israel are now awaiting revival because the list of needs in Kurdistan is very long: an infrastructure for banks and insurance companies; agricultural technology of the sort Israel rushes to sell every fraction of a tribe in Africa, the Caucasus and East Asia; delegation exchanges of physicians and academics; scholarships for students from the University of Sulaimaniya and Salah al-Din University in Erbil; donations of books and medicines so it will no longer be necessary to buy only substandard medicines from the countries of the region; and solar technology, which will save the expensive fuel that Iraq is not supplying in sufficient quantities.

Read article in full

Last Pakistani Jew sues over Karachi synagogue

As India and Pakistan celebrate 60 years since partition, Patrick Belton in The Jewish Chronicle spotlights the last Jews - or should it be Jew? - of Karachi.

" As Pakistan marks its sixtieth birthday, 200 Jews still live secretly in Karachi, all that remains of a community numbering 2,500 at independence.

"In this fervently Muslim country, most pass as Parsees. As one member of a Karachi Jewish family observes of his brethren: “They like to keep quiet.”

"All except one. A destitute and frail woman of 88, Rachel Joseph is the sole surviving custodian of the community’s synagogue, even though it was destroyed almost 20 years ago. Magain Shalome once stood at the corner of Jamila Street and Nishtar Road. It was demolished in July 1988 by order of President Zia ul-Haq, to make way for a shopping plaza. Ms Joseph is suing the property developers who built it, saying they promised her space for another synagogue, and a flat to live in while she tended it. Meanwhile, she looks after the community’s graveyard, in the Mewa Shah neighbourhood. The shul was built in 1893 by Bene Israel from Maharashtra, who came to work in the civil service, on the railroads and pressing coconut oil, joined by Baghdadi Jews from Bombay.

"Quetta, Lahore and Peshawar also had communities, but Karachi’s importance as a Jewish centre was such that the All-India Israelite League convened there in 1918.

"But with Partition came pogroms, and Israeli independence in May 1948 saw the Karachi synagogue set on fire. Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto’s father, declared: “To Jews as Zionists, intoxicated with their militarism and reeking with technological arrogance, we refuse to be hospitable.”

“My grandfather went from door to door, from Jew to Jew, to tell them that they had to leave the town,” recounts Rachel Khafi, an American whose grandfather Benjamin Khafi organised the departure of Jews from Peshawar.

"The numbers in Karachi halved during the Suez Crisis and again with the Six-Day War, though communal life would continue throughout the 1970s. Over 630 Karachi families now live in Ramla, Lod and Beersheba. Older members still speak Urdu or Marathi. “They are not the most integrated of all communities in Israel,” notes the Hebrew University’s Dr Shalva Weil, an expert on Jews of the subcontinent.

"At first they faced discrimination; before 1964 and the recognition of Bene Israel as legitimately Jewish, they also faced difficulty in marrying. Meanwhile in Pakistan, Rachel Joseph, the last openly Jewish member of an extinguishing community, awaits her day in court."

Read article in full

Reprinted in The Daily Times (Pakistan)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

BBC agrees to amend article on Jews of Iraq

Displaced Iraqi Jews arrive in Israel in 1951

Good news from the media watchdog CAMERA: following its appeal to the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit, the BBC made 'a significant revision to a once wildly skewed article' about Jewish refugees from Iraq. CAMERA issued the following media alert: (with thanks: Jerusalem Posts)

"The original article painted a picture of "an easy, happy life" for Jews in Iraq while glossing over the actual record of persecution faced by Iraqi Jews. Most egregiously, the piece ignored the Farhoud, a brutal anti-Jewish massacre that occurred in 1941.

After our correspondence, an editor told CAMERA: "On further consideration, we have made some changes to the report."

Most importantly, the BBC added information on the 1941 massacre:

"But, while anti-Jewish sentiment flared up after the creation of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war in 1948-49, discrimination and attacks on Jews were part of life in Iraq. In the most notorious incident, mobs rampaged through the Jewish district of Baghdad killing an estimated 170 Jews in 1941, in what became known as the Farhoud massacre."

BBC also added the word "fled" to describe the departure of Jews from Iraq, which is significant because the article initially said only that the Jews "left" Iraq - a euphemism that hardly describes the duress, pressure and even expulsions that caused the exile.

The BBC also suggested that it would soon publish a feature article which would provide readers with another (and hopefully more accurate) look at the plight of Jews forced from their homes in Arab countries.

"It is worth noting that the Middle East desk of the BBC News Web site was initially reluctant to make any changes to the article. It was only after CAMERA took its complaint to the next level - the Editorial Complaints Unit - that the changes were made. This serves as another reminder that perseverance pays in the quest for a fair and accurate media. "

Read report in full, which also analyses BBC bias in the coverage of Palestinian refugees

BBC misrepresents why Jews left Iraq

BBC Babylon nostalgia 'essentially a hoax'

Islam must reform to provide for legal equality

In this convincing and thought-provoking discussion of Islam in the August 2007 edition of the New English Review, Theodore Dalrymple dwells on the chequered history of the Jews of Algeria as described in Les Trois Exils by Benjamin Stora (See here and here). The Jews of Algeria fought with the Muslims against European imperialism in the 16th century, but ultimately threw in their lot with the French - despite outbursts of colonial antisemitism - when they understood that only French law could guarantee their citizens' rights.

"The nationalist movement (in 1950s Algeria) gained strength, and the violence increased enormously; a million people were eventually killed. Officially, the FLN, the Front National de Liberation, was a secular movement; it appealed to Algerian Jews to join the struggle against the French, and promised them equal treatment after independence. However, the Algerian Jews did not believe it, for they had the examples of other Jews in other Arab countries before them; the famous Jewish-Algerian singer, Raymond, was assassinated in 1961, and Moslem attacks on Jews increased; the Jews naturally thought that the Moslem tradition would prevail over the secular nationalist ideology, and in 1962 they left en masse for France. If they had not, it is not difficult to imagine their fate in the civil war waged between the military government and the FIS, the Front Islamique de Salut.

"But what is the moral of this history, if there is one? It is certainly not one of the immemorial goodness and tolerance of the western tradition and the immemorial wickedness and intolerance of the Islamic one. I suppose a Martian, on reading this story, might come to the conclusion that human beings were a bad lot, and that he had better leave Earth as soon as possible.

"But there is another moral to the story, and I do not think it is one that is encouraging about Islam as a force in the modern world. For many centuries, the record of Islam was probably no worse, and might even have been better, than the western one, at least in point of religious tolerance (the Jews of the Maghreb in the Sixteenth Century certainly thought so). Unfortunately, this is a pretty dismal standard to measure anything by. There was, in fact, plenty of room for the Islamic record to be as good as or better than the western one, and still be very bad. Between dhimmitude and death, who would not choose dhimmitude? But that is not to say it was an enviable or morally defensible fate.

"By 1962, however, things were very clear: for Algerian Jews, France, its chequered record notwithstanding, offered hope for the future and equality under the law, while Algeria offered the prospect of future pogroms, the promises of its leadership notwithstanding. And there was a reason for this: while France had a theory of legal equality, Islam did not (My emphasis -ed). And the Jews of Algeria thought that the hold of Islam over the pays réel would more outweigh the hold of secular nationalist ideology of the pays légal. The former, and not the latter, would determine their fate in Algeria. They did not believe the promises of the FLN, not because the individuals who made them were insincere, but because the forces against their being kept were simply too strong.

"This suggests that there is a conflict between Islam and modernity, at least if one of the important components of modernity is equality under the law. Such equality means that Moslems would have to accept that, even in polities where they were in the immense majority, Islam would have no special claim to consideration, and that (for example) apostasy would have to become a normal and acceptable part of life. Whether, under these circumstances, Islam would remain truly Islamic is a question for scholars, not for scribblers such as I."

Read article in full

Misusing memory for political purposes

Roi Ben-Yehuda, writing in Zeek Magazine (August 2007), condemns the distortions of history by those with a political axe to grind. His point is well taken; but he does not deal with the fundamental precariousness of life for non-Muslims under Muslim rule. No matter how good things were for the Jews in Golden Age Spain, it did not last. An 18th century Jew like Hayim Farhi could enjoy untold wealth and glory at the sultan's court; the next moment this same Farhi could fall into disfavour, have his nose cut off and his eye gouged out. The appeal of Zionism is that for the first time Jews took control of their own destiny.

"Considering the Golden Age narrative and its counterpart, it becomes obvious that each perspective offers a distorted take on the history of the Jewish-Muslim experience. Both pro- and anti-Israeli forces claim to be speaking of the same history, yet each side draws a completely different conclusion about what actually took place. According to one argument, Jewish-Muslim history recounts a time of harmony, coexistence, and cultural interchange, while the other contends that this same period was one of humiliation, discrimination, and oppression. Somewhere in between these respective ideological claims lies a history that still needs to be properly understood independent of the desire to political repurpose the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"Pro-Arab pundits must take into account that, notwithstanding all the benefits that Islam brought forth to the Jews, by today’s moral and legal standards the Jews of Islam lived as second-class citizens. They were subjected to unique taxes such as the poll tax and the land tax, while civil law imposed prohibitions that marked them as different from and inferior to their Muslim counterparts. Jews were prevented from striking Muslims, bearing arms, building or repairing houses of worship, proselytizing, and were forced to wear distinctive clothing. In addition, they experienced bouts of persecution and violence. Any writer who addresses the topic of Jewish-Muslim history without taking these issues into consideration is being negligent.

"Pro-Israeli writers need to acknowledge that, in spite of their unequal status, the Jews living in Muslim societies – both in medieval and early modern times – were members of well-integrated communities. The degree to which Jews were culturally, linguistically, socially, and economically assimilated in Muslim societies is proof in and of itself that Jewish-Muslim history cannot be characterized solely in terms of discrimination and persecution. Legally, while the dhimmi (the non-Muslim citizen of an Islamic state) was subject to many prohibitions, in exchange he received freedom of religious worship, freedom of self-government, freedom of movement and settlement throughout the empire (with the exception of Mecca and Medina), freedom of occupation, and protection by the law. Again, in view of these facts, we cannot characterize Jewish-Muslim history solely in terms of intolerance.

"Finally, theologically, while many quotes from the Koran and the Hadith suggest that Jews were viewed as spiritually inferior to Muslims, there are also many passages from the sacred texts of Islam that contradict this viewpoint. For example, Sura II 62 states:
Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they be grieved.
"The Koran is a complex and contradictory text, and one cannot simply extract from it a single truncated quote, extrapolating the essence of Islamic theological attitude (not to mention practice!) towards Jews over the centuries.

"A “balanced” approach to history forces us to be similarly careful in linking the past to the present, because when we acknowledge history’s complexity, it makes it that much more difficult to use it for partisan political purposes. Thus, taking both the "good news" and the "bad news" of Jewish-Muslim history into consideration, it becomes much harder to exploit the story of this relationship in order to argue either that Islamic civilization is wholly at fault, or that Zionism is the sole cause of Muslim anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"Cognizance of this complex history will also help us address what needs to changed in order for coexistence actually to flourish. The history of convivencia, or coexistence, teaches us that while some history is worth repeating, we can only ignore the dark side of Jewish-Muslim coexistence at our own peril. It is precisely in recognizing and coming to terms with periods of violence, hatred, and degradation that we can begin to address some of the fundamental problems in the way in which Jews and Muslims approach each other today.

"Contemporary Jewish-Muslim relations are the products of various, complex factors that cannot be reduced to a single, essential explanation. Yet when we claim that Zionism or Muslim anti-Semitism is the sole source of animosity between the two people, we reduce the Arab-Israeli conflict to a primary and weak causal description. This is as important as understanding the etiology of a disease is a key to finding its cure. A balanced approach may function as a buffer to a simple and misleading analysis. As we have seen, when it comes to Jewish-Muslim history, the question becomes which past we choose to remember."

Read article in full

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Kfar Shalem Yemenites win stay of eviction

Good news for the residents of the south Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Kfar Shalem: a Tel Aviv court on 29 July granted a stay of the eviction orders served on some 30 families. The ruling expires on 4 September, when the judge will make his final decision on the residents' fate. (With thanks: Ilise)

Around 400 families in all have been threatened with eviction by a housing development company, Halamish. Halamish wanted to redevelop the site and build high-rise apartments, in exchange for minimal compensation to the evicted residents. Some 30 Knesset members signed a declaration of support for the residents condemning their treatment by Halamish. The chief executive of Halamish is thought to have resigned.

But the fight is not yet over. The residents fear that unless their rights are properly enshrined in law they will end up on the streets. They are appealing for tents and for contributions to their legal fund.

Ilise Cohen, a Sephardi activist in the US, says: "this community is struggling economically to survive and they have been asking for help from people in Israel and internationally to support them - at least to get compensation that will not leave their intergenerational families on the street in a month. They have been battling in the courts, which is so expensive - few families have the funds - and they are also trying to get the word out about their situation. Because they are Jewish families who came to Israel from the Middle East, I would hope that there is also an interest in their not becoming homeless in Israel."

The Kfar Shalem dispute has become a cause celebre taken up by assorted activists and politicians from both sides of the spectrum.

Sixty years ago new immigrants, mostly from Yemen, were settled in what had been the village of Salameh until its Arab inhabitants fled during the War of Independence.

Israeli state policy usually dictates that the land be registered in the new owners' name without or for symbolic payment, but for some reason an exception was made for Kfar Shalem and other Mizrahi neighbourhoods.

Explaining the difference between Kfar Shalem and the kibbutzim and moshavim to Haaretz, the Israel Land Authority' s Eli Moran said, "They settled the kibbutzim and the moshavim on the frontier. These neighbourhoods were not frontier zones. The state just wanted to give those immigrants a roof over their heads. Who was thinking about rights at that time?"

The authorities soon withdrew the residents' land ownership rights, forbidding them to improve or expand their homes or synagogues. The residents effectively became squatters.

Rafi Shubeli of the Yogev movement says that for years until 1990, when adequate compensation allowed the residents to remain in Kfar Shalem, the area became a battlefield between the harrassing authorities and the residents. But a change in the housing development company management threw all previous agreements to the winds. Some of the land was sold privately and the unprotected residents once again began to receive eviction notices with no hint of compensation.

Matters came to a head on 17 July 2007 when residents demonstrated against the demolition orders scheduled for that day. Shubeli claims that the police ransacked houses and turned their contents upside down. (Haaretz carries a different story: the police arrested three residents suspected of wiring gas canisters to an explosives device.) The Kfar Shalem residents took their case to Jerusalem on 24 July and the following day the issue was raised in the Knesset.

If you would like to offer practical help to the Kfar Shalem residents please write to

Monday, August 13, 2007

Another review of 'Last days in Babylon '

Lyn Julius reviews Last Days in Babylon by Marina Benjamin:

Readers of Last days in Babylon -- be aware that Marina Benjamin risked her life to bring you this book.

In 2004, the young authoress left her husband and baby to embark on a hair-raisingly risky trip to Baghdad, capital of kidnappings and bombings. She quips that she is one of the few Iraqi Jews to have fought her way into the country while everyone else was trying to get out.

It was a necessary trip. As a quest for identity, though, it failed. Strife-torn, dangerous Iraq was not a good place to admit to being Jewish. Marina encountered a city with few reminders of its Jews - once a third of the city’s inhabitants - and one gripped by antisemitism and conspiracy theories. She was too afraid to find the house where her mother was born lest she attract suspicion.

But if Marina had not gone to Baghdad, she could not have brought the city alive in her prologue. The history of the Jews of Iraq is skillfully woven around the life of her uprooted grandmother Regina, which spanned most of the 20th century. The book comes neatly full circle: offering incongruous packets of kosher meat as her calling card, Marina introduces herself to the 22 Jews still left in Baghdad.

Three years after Marina’s visit, there are eight Jews left. The door has slammed shut on 2,700 years of Jewish presence in the Land of the Two Rivers.

To tackle the history of the Jews of Iraq, from the British occupation at the end of the First Word War to the present day, is to venture into a minefield. Facts have been erased, politicised, and distorted. Arab writers have blamed the Jewish exodus on bombs planted by the Zionists in 1950 -51, suggesting that Jews and Arabs lived in muticultural harmony before Zionism. But Marina Benjamin’s book leaves little doubt that the Jews were subject to a decade of persecution prior to their departure. Today we would call it ‘ethnic cleansing.’

In 1917 cheering Jews lined the streets when General Maude rode into Baghdad (it is an intriguing thought that the Jews could have inadvertently been responsible for his death, having served him cholera-infected milk with his tea). King Faisal tried to forge one nation from a multitude of ethnicities and religions. The Jews dominated trade and became the main allies of the British, effectively running the country for them in the 1920s and 30s.

On the personal level Marina leaves no topic unturned – the food the Jews ate, the houses they lived in, the way they dressed. The Jews were apolitical and socially conservative. Women’s ambitions were limited, their marriages were arranged, their lives devoted to their children and lived to the rhythm of Sabbath and the festivals. Marina’s grandmother had the strength of character, but also the pragmatism and adaptability typical of these Jews to make a life after her husband’s death and the family’s brutal uprooting. What a falling-off she experienced - from a comfortable, sheltered life with servants in the smart, new district of Bataween, to selling Crown wallpapers in Hownslow.

Writing elegantly and eloquently, Marina Benjamin is at her best when she chronicles the persecution closing in on her grandmother’s world: the rising hostility of the 1930s, the Farhoud massacre, the impact of the partition of Palestine and the first Arab-Israeli war. However, the narrative is marred by minor errors: the first minority to be massacred on independence, the Assyrians, were not ‘brought in’ by the British - they were even more indigenous to Iraq than the Jews.

Since the Jews were there before the Muslims, Marina wanted to call her book ‘I am Iraq,’ after the 1957 poem by Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri. Just as well she did not: the phrase has connotations of a blood and soil patriotism that Jews, with rare exceptions, did not feel. As the old saying went,’ the country is for its people and the trade is for the Jews.”

It is a pity that the book ends on a sour note, highlighting, as is fashionable, the social prejudice that the transplanted Iraqi community encountered in the transit camps and development towns of Israel in the 1950s. But in 60 years Israel has become culturally much more of a Levantine state than its Ashkenazi founders had envisaged. As professor Sasson Somekh has observed with pride, the Iraqis were the best educated and most successful of the Jews of the East. And such is the pace of integration that in a generation or two there may be no such thing as an Iraqi Jew.

Other reviews here

Sunday, August 12, 2007

TV debate on Berber-Israel friendship association

Fascinating debate on Al-Allam, an Iranian Arabic TV channel, in which a spokesman for the Moroccan Berber (Amazigh) Association, Ahmed Adghirni, puts up a dignified and reasoned defence of the Amazigh-Israel Friendship Association, to which this blog referred over a year ago. (With thanks: Lily)

Pitted against Adghirni is Yahya abu al-Zakharia, an Arab-Algerian writer. To him, the Jews of Morocco are not native to the Maghreb. They were the 'eyes of French colonialism', who betrayed the mujahaddin. They have shown ingratitude and lack of conscience and repaid Arab protection and kindness by joining Israel's security apparatus!

The tension between the two is palpable. Adghirni states that the Association represents the humanist value of longstanding friendship, which 'Arabs had sought to replace with enmity and war'. He even accuses his interlocutor of antisemitism.

Watch the whole thing!

Transcript here

Departing Jews marked Egypt's 'cultural Holocaust'

A 'crushing, brilliant book' is how Alana Newhouse in the International Herald Tribune describes Lucette Lagnado's memoir, 'The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit'. The man in question, Lucette's father, never recovered from the experience of being uprooted, while the departure of the Jews marked 'a cultural Holocaust' for Egypt.

"In her new memoir, "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit," Lucette Lagnado relates how her father, Leon, first reacted upon escaping the dangerous anti-Semitic environment of Nasser's Egypt in 1962: "Ragaouna Masr," he cried, as their boat left the Alexandria harbor - "Take us back to Cairo."

"It's a sad moment, but one would be forgiven for finding it melodramatic. After all, we know how the story ends: the family settles in America and, judging at least by the ascent of Lucette, their youngest daughter, as a prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter, they presumably enjoy success and happiness. That this assumption is so far off the mark - that the reality of the Lagnados' fate is so far from the triumphalism that Americans have come to expect from immigrant narratives - is one of many reasons to read this crushing, brilliant book.

"Lagnado traces the story of a family so connected to Cairo that they held on until they were forced out, thankfully alive. "Alas, what no one could stop was the cultural Holocaust - the hundreds of synagogues shuttered for lack of attendance, the cemeteries looted of their headstones, the flourishing Jewish-owned shops abandoned by their owners, the schools suddenly bereft of any students." Some will blanch at her use of the word "Holocaust" here, arguing that only the World War II murders of European Jews are worthy of this term. But the wholesale destruction of Middle Eastern Jewish life, along with the even more devastating evisceration of individual lives, was nothing short of a catastrophe - and not only for the Jews.

"Leon Lagnado, like many others, had a love affair with his city, and "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" is a story about what happens when two such lovers are torn apart. The man of the title is, of course, Leon. Fluent in seven languages and full of charisma, he was the consummate man-about-town. He spent his days immersed in a web of discreet business deals - all conducted in such privacy that even family members couldn't describe his profession - and his nights gallivanting at the city's hot spots.

"But Leon was also a good Jew, as it were, one who went to synagogue every morning. "It was as if two people resided within one sharkskin suit," Lagnado writes, "one who was pious and whose vestments resembled those of the priests at the Great Temple, all white and sparkling and pure, and the very different creature who led a secret, intensely thrilling life."(...)

"Lagnado is equally adept at maintaining suspense, particularly as the skies begin to darken for Egypt's Jews after Gamal Abdel Nasser's rise to power. Leon resisted leaving for a decade and then did so only after harassment and discrimination extinguished all hope for his family's future in Cairo. Beaten down, they shuffled weakly through Alexandria, Athens, Genoa, Naples, Marseilles, Paris, Cherbourg and Manhattan, before finally landing in Brooklyn. But an easy union between Leon and America was not to be. Heartbroken and infirm, he failed to impress the social workers and bureaucrats in charge of helping new immigrants, leading to a string of humiliations and failures. The "boulevardier of Cairo" never regained his footing, and the already thin threads holding his family together frayed irrevocably. Lagnado recounts the irony of their Passover Seder in Brooklyn: "No matter how loudly we sang, our holiday had become not a celebration of the exodus from Egypt but the inverse - a longing to return to the place we were supposedly glad to have left."

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This review also in The New York Times

Interview of Lucette Lagnado in The Forward

Review in the Washington Post

Friday, August 10, 2007

Was the king of Morocco a 'righteous gentile' ?

A row has broken out over whether the wartime king of Morocco, Mohammad V, should be recognised as a 'righteous gentile' for his role is protecting the Jews of Morocco. Serge Berdugo, a leader of the Moroccan Jewish community, and Israel President Shimon Peres say yes. Yad Vashem and the French Jewish body CRIF say no. Shirli Sitbon reports in The Jewish Chronicle:

"Moroccan Jews believe Mohammad V was responsible for saving Jewish lives during the second world war, and Mr Peres decided to endorse an initiative led by Moroccan community leader Serge Berdugo after they met at the Israeli President’s inauguration ceremony.

"However, the Yad Vashem museum is less convinced. “Mohammad V is not on our agenda,” a spokesman told the JC.

“The king doesn’t fill the necessary conditions to be designated,” added Richard Prasquier, the Yad Vashem representative in France and head of Jewish umbrella group CRIF. “Mohammad V didn’t actually save Jews since there was no official demand to deport them to death camps and he didn’t risk his life. These are two of the basic conditions necessary for the title.”

“Mohammad V did save lives!” declared Mr Berdugo, also a roaming ambassador for King Mohammad VI, grandson of Mohammad V. “Historical documents prove Mohammad V refused to treat Moroccan Jews any different from the Muslims. He received Jewish officials during the war and told them he had sympathy for them.”

"Moroccan Jews say that when French officials gave Moroccan authorities yellow stars for Jews to wear, King Mohammad asked for a dozen more, and explained that he and his family would wear them too.

“Mohammad V was very respectful and fond of the Jewish community, but some situations have built-up into legends, turning the king into a saviour,” historian Jean-Pierre Allali *told the JC. “An equivalent situation existed in Denmark, where, according to the legend, the king rode on a horse wearing the Star of David.”

"Mr Berdugo does not agree that his request is based on a legend. “Historians are working very seriously on this issue and there is no doubt King Mohammad saved lives,” he said.

"Some have implied that Mr Berdugo has ulterior motives, and that he might become Morocco’s first ambassador to Israel if relations improved further. “There are those who believe Mohammad V was righteous and others who plead for him for political reasons,” a Jewish community official told the JC.

"Mr Berdugo flatly denied this. “This process will probably take a long time, but at the end I’m sure Mohammad V, the king that saved so many Jews, will get the tribute that he deserves.”

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* Robert Satloff also testifies that " in a variation on the apocryphal stand attributed to Denmark's king Christian X, the French resident-general announced that all Moroccan Jews had to wear the yellow star of David. The sultan replied that the French had better order 20 extra, for him and all the members of the royal family. In another the Germans informed the sultan that they planned to deport the Moroccan Jews to death camps in Europe. According to the story, the sultan brashly came to the Jews' defense, declaring that none would be deported because all Moroccans are his children. There is no historical basis to these legends."

Michel Abitbol goes even further: "To our knowledge, no anti-Jewish measure was ever suppressed or slowed down as a result of the sultan's intervention."