Monday, June 30, 2008

CiF: "Let's not remember Jewish refugees after all"

It was too good to last: having allowed the case for Jewish refugees to be put, the Comment is Free website has lapsed back into its default position of denial. The blog Judeopundit has an excellent 'fisking' of Rachel Shabi's piece arguing that Mizrahi Jews left out of Zionism:

No Pro-Israel opinion must ever go unanswered at The Guardian. The inevitable reply to Lyn Julius’ argument that Mizrachi Jews who fled Arab countries deserve some recognition too comes from one Rachel Shabi, who was "born in Israel to Iraqi parents."

[...] It's a neat argument: Jews were forced to abandon material assets and leave Arab countries; Palestinians similarly fled or were expelled from their homes. Ergo, the region witnessed an exchange of populations and if Palestinian refugees are to be compensated by Israel, so too must the Jewish "refugees" from the Middle East, by the Arab nations that expelled them.

Nice try, but there are many reasons why this formula is all wrong. First off (as David Cesarani points out), it's tasteless. There is no need for the fate of these two peoples, Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians, to be so fused materialistically. Middle Eastern Jews may indeed have a claim to lost assets, but those genuinely seeking peace between Israel and its neighbours should know that this is not the way to pursue it . . .
Was there an argument in there somewhere? Being "tasteless" and "materialistic" is no way to pursue peace! Her next argument is that some Mizrachi Jews wanted to leave, leading to the following:
Broadly, you could say that any Middle Eastern Jew ("Oriental" or "Mizrahi" Jew) who defines their migration to Israel as "Zionist" cannot also be a refugee: the former label has agency and involves a desire to live in the Jewish state; the second suggests passivity and a lack of choice . . .
Let's determine the aptness of the term "refugee" by examining the connotations of the words "Zionist." What about someone who would have liked to emigrate in an orderly way, but who fled leaving his property behind? Too bad, the word Zionist "has agency"? It doesn't get better:
But let's get to the heart of the matter. What JJAC seems keen to establish is that Arab countries treated Jewish citizens with contempt and cruelty, fuelled by antisemitism. This formulation perpetuates the myth of Arabs and Jews as polar opposites, destined to be eternal enemies. It shirks the plain fact that Jews lived in Arab countries for over two millennia, for the most part productively and in peace . . .
Let's see, the assertion that Jews were persecuted in Arab countries in the 1940's "perpetuates the myth of Arabs and Jews as polar opposites." If they were persecuted, shouldn't it be admitted, and if they weren't, isn't this an odd objection? And that "plain fact" about the "productive" life Jews led in earlier centuries is neither "plain" nor relevant. Here is her conclusion:
Of course, we could only focus on the bad and write what the Jewish historian Salo Baron called a "lachrymose" version of events. But what's the point? The Middle Eastern Jewry comprises many threads and, compared with European Jewry, has a distinct history, heritage and culture. This legacy, in all its dimensions, should not be hijacked to fuel further rage and acrimony in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Nice of her to be against "rage and acrimony." I don't see why the broader perspective that comes from considering the fate of the Mizrachi Jews along with that of the Palestinians shouldn't lead to a calmer and more balanced view of the Middle East conflict. After the hysterical screaming that accompanies the bursting of the Palestinian bubble dies down anyway.

'The JJAC campaign has exposed hypocrisy'

Writing on her blog Warped Mirror Petra Marquardt-Bigman exposes the double standards delegitimising the Jews from Arab countries as bona fide refugees, excusing their treatment as a 'backlash', or claiming that they are not entitled to be treated equally with Palestinian refugees:

..."While there seems to be some willingness to acknowledge that Jewish refugees from Arab countries should have the right to demand compensation for their material losses, there is apparently very little willingness to reconsider what Prof. Cotler rightly calls the "revisionist narrative". In a commentary entitled "Another side to the Jewish story" Rachel Shabi asserted that many Jews left their ancient communities in Arab countries voluntarily; in her view, one could also argue "that Zionism both caused Palestinians to leave their homes and brought Middle Eastern Jews to Israel". Israel should therefore share responsibility for the "backlash" that led to the expulsion and dispossession of Jews from Arab countries:

"Jewish Agency officials knew that their activities in Palestine could imperil Jews in the Middle East . . . They chose to carry on with those actions and committed to 'rescuing' those Jews if things did take a turn for the worse. If Zionist officials themselves worried about a backlash in the Arab world, how can Israel then be absolved of responsibility for the Jewish exodus from those countries?"

Obviously, this is again an example of blatant double standards: since this argument justifies holding members of one group of people responsible for the actions of other members of this group elsewhere in the world, the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor would have been perfectly acceptable; and when it comes to our own times, Ms. Shabi's reasoning could serve to justify "a backlash" against Muslim minorities in the West.

Another rather peculiar argument was advanced by David Cesarani who argued that the "Jews from Arab lands who settled in Israel deserved compensation, from Israel. And, to a large extent, they got it. The Mizrachim are now a well-integrated and affluent pillar of Israeli society." He also concluded that "although there is an overwhelming case for examining the dispossession and displacement of Jews from parts of North Africa and the Middle East, and indeed a case for restitution and reparation for a proportion of them, it is not appropriate to place this quandary in the context of solving the Middle East conflict."

Cesarani did not really explain why the two groups of refugees who were displaced and dispossessed within the context of the same conflict should be treated so very differently - one group as the focus of attention, the other group ignored as presenting too much of a "quandary". It is of course true that the Jews who were expelled from their ancient communities in the Arab world found refuge in the still fledgling Jewish state, and that they contributed to, and eventually shared in its prospering. But the hardships they had to endure at the time they were made refugees were no less of a traumatic experience for them than the similar trauma experienced by the Palestinian refugees. The fact that the Palestinians were condemned to remain in the charge of UNRWA for six decades was undeniably the choice of the Arab states that had started the war that produced these refugees, and while the international community did nothing to alleviate the plight of the Jewish refugees, it devoted considerable means to take care of the Palestinian refugees.

Whatever the JJAC campaign will ultimately achieve, it already has achieved something by exposing the utter hypocrisy of those who doubt Israel's legitimacy and, at the same time, excuse the persecution of Jews in Arab countries as a "backlash" and insist that it is Israel which should be held responsible for the plight of the Palestinian refugees who fled a war started by Arab states bent on crushing the just established Jewish state.

Read post in full

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cotler sets out nine-point plan for refugee rights

Louise Ellman MP (in red) listens to testimony at the JJAC House of Lords briefing. Speakers included Professor Irwin Cotler, Ass. Professor Carole Basri and two witnesses from Egypt and Iraq. (Photo: JJAC)

(LONDON) June 25, 2008 - In his appearance before an overflow gathering at the House of Lords, Canadian MP Irwin Cotler declared that “Had the UN Partition Resolution been accepted sixty years ago, there would have been no Arab-Israeli war - no refugees, Jewish or Arab. – and none of the pain and suffering of these last sixty years. Indeed, we would have been celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of both the State of Israel and the State of Palestine.”

Cotler continued: “Yet the pain and plight of 850,000 Jews uprooted and displaced from Arab countries – not only a forgotten, but a forced exodus – has been expunged and eclipsed from both the Middle East peace and justice narratives these past sixty years”.

The meeting was organized by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), an international coalition of 77 major Jewish communal organizations whose mandate is to ensure that justice for Jews from Arab countries assumes its rightful place on the international political agenda.

Cotler submitted evidence from a report entitled “Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights And Redress,” which documented for the first time a pattern of state-sanctioned
repression and persecution in Arab countries - including Nuremberg-like laws - that targeted its Jewish populations, resulting in denationalization, forced expulsions, illegal sequestration of property, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and murder.

He concluded this part of his testimony that “This is a story that has not been heard. It is a story that has not yet even been told. It is a truth that must now be acknowledged.”

Professor Cotler then set forth a nine-point action plan for human rights and refugee rights – and a just and lasting peace in the middle-East – which included:

The appreciation that while justice has long been delayed, it must no longer be denied. The time has come to rectify this historical injustice,

Remedies for victim refugee groups – including rights of remembrance, truth, justice and redress - as mandated under human rights and humanitarian law - must now be invoked for Jews displaced from Arab countries;

• In the manner of duties and responsibilities, each of the Arab countries - and the League of Arab States - must acknowledge their role and responsibility in their double aggression of launching an aggressive war against Israel and the perpetration of human rights violations against their respective Jewish nationals.

• The Arab League Peace Plan of 2002 should incorporate the question of Jewish refugees from Arab countries as part of its narrative for an Israeli-Arab peace, just as the Israeli narrative now incorporates the issue of Palestinian refugees in its vision of an Israeli-Arab peace;

• On the international level, the U.N. General Assembly - in the interests of justice and equity - should include reference to Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees in its annual resolutions; and

• Any bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – which one hopes will presage a just and lasting peace – should include Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees in an inclusive joiner of discussion.

Cotler called on the UK Government to use its voice, vote, and participation in matters relating
to issues of mid-East refugees to ensure that any reference to Palestinian refugees is accompanied by a similarly explicit reference to Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

“Simply put,” Cotler concluded, “the exclusion and denial of rights and redress to Jewish refugees from Arab and countries will prejudice authentic negotiations between the parties and undermine the justice and legitimacy of any agreement. Let there be no mistake about it. Where there is no remembrance, there is no truth; where there is no truth, there will be no justice; where there is no justice, there will be no reconciliation; and where there is no reconciliation, there will be no peace –which we all seek.

Visit JJAC site for Professor Cotler's ful testimony and photos.

Media coverage generated by the JJAC congress.

Canadian Jewish News

Jewish News (UK)

Time for Arabs to recognise the Jewish 'nakba'

In this Jewish Chronicle comment piece timed to coincide with this week's Justice for Jews from Arab Countries founding congress in London, Lyn Julius puts the case for recognising the Jewish refugees:

This week, delegates from 10 countries convened in London for the first-ever Justice for Jews from Arab Countries Congress. The delegates, from Brazil and Belgium, Italy and Israel, Australia and America and elsewhere, represent the last generation of Jews uprooted from Arab countries. Their purpose was to spotlight the neglected rights of 850,000 Middle Eastern Jewish refugees.

Sixty years ago, as five Arab armies invaded the fledgling state of Israel, Arab states unleashed a terrible assault on their Jewish communities. Rampaging mobs screaming Ytbah al-Yahud (“Slaughter the Jews”) murdered more than 150. By 1958, following anti-Jewish decrees, bans, extortion, arrests, intimidation, internment and hangings, more than half the Jews had fled or been expelled. Today, 99.5 percent — all but 4,500 — have been driven out. Not even the Jews of 1939 Nazi Germany had been so thoroughly “ethnically cleansed”.

The uprooting of Jews in Arab countries was not just revenge for the creation of Israel and its humiliating victory over the Arabs. Even before the 1948 war, Arab states colluded to persecute their Jews. Nazi-inspired Arab nationalism and Islamism were already victimising minorities, historically despised as inferior dhimmis with few rights. These forces ignited the conflict with Zionism, and drive it to this day.

The Jewish nakba* — Arabic for “catastrophe” — was more than dispossession and expulsion. It tore a gaping hole in the Arab cultural, social and economic fabric. Cities such as Baghdad — one-third Jewish — were emptied overnight. Jews not only lost homes, shops, schools, shrines, hospitals, synagogues and deeded private land five times the size of Israel, but a 2,500 year-old heritage predating Islam by a millennium.

Most Jewish refugees fled to Israel, where half the Jewish population hails from Arab and Muslim lands. This makes Israel both a necessary haven from Arab antisemitism, and the legitimate political expression of an indigenous Middle Eastern people.

Arab regimes have never acknowledged that a mass violation of Jewish rights took place, much less admitted guilt or offered compensation. Over 100 UN resolutions relate to Palestinian refugees; not one to the more numerous Jewish refugees. Israel has been reluctant to politicise the issue, having successfully absorbed Jewish refugees as full and productive citizens. Thus, Arab denial has conspired with Israeli silence to expunge Jewish refugees from the record, distorting and decontextualising it.

Thanks to groups such as Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, however, awareness of the “Jewish nakba” has grown. In April, JJAC scored its first significant success. The US House of Representatives adopted its first resolution on Jewish refugees: future resolutions mentioning Palestinian refugees must refer explicitly to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Although Jewish financial losses have been put at twice the Palestinian ones, the resolution is about recognition, not restitution. Such measures could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by leading to mutual recognition of the plight of both sides. Thus, justice for Jews is not just a moral imperative, but the key to reconciliation.

Moreover, if abandoning the Palestinian “right of return” were balanced by the Jewish right not to return to the Arab tyrannies which threw them out — acknowledging a de facto population exchange — a major stumbling block to peace could disappear.

The Jewish refugees are also an object lesson in how Palestinian refugees festering in camps as propaganda pawns could be resettled in host Arab countries or a Palestinian state.

The campaign for Jewish refugees is picking up. In March, the UN Human Rights Council was addressed for the first time by a Libyan Jew who fled in 1967 in fear of her life. A US Senate resolution is in the pipeline, there is activity at the Canadian Parliament and a hearing scheduled at the European Parliament on 2 July. In Britain, aside from a mention at a parliamentary debate, little to date: perhaps this week’s Congress will show us the way.

Read article in full

* As Arabs often refer to the creation of Israel as their 'nakba' some have expressed disquiet that the author of this article has used the Arabic word to describe the catastrophic ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Arab lands. Strictly speaking, the word 'nakba' has nothing to do with Israel. In fact it was first used by the historian George Antonius in 1920 for the forced separation of Arabs from North and South Syria.

Think of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands

Simon Rocker of The Jewish Chronicle writes about the JJAC founding congress held in London earlier this week:

A campaign was launched in London this week to publicise the flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

More than 40 delegates from Israel, Europe, North and South America attended the three-day formal founding congress of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC).

Its goal is to ensure that equal recognition is given internationally to the exodus of Jews from Arab lands as to the plight of the Palestinian refugees resulting from Israel’s establishment 60 years ago.

According to JJAC, although 726,000 Palestinians lost their homes, according to official United Nations figures, 856,000 Jews have been displaced from 10 Arab countries since 1948, with barely 5,000 left by 2005.

“For decades this subject never had the prominence it deserved,” said Edwin Shuker, an Iraqi-born Londoner who is co-chair of JJAC with Serge Cattan from Brussels.

Based in New York, JJAC has operated for several years as a loose coalition of organisations from 20 countries. This week’s conference, which included a briefing at the House of Lords, has established it more formally as a lobby group backed by, among others, the Board of Deputies.

“We want to bring the achievements that have been realised in the US, to Europe and give the campaign equal weight and kudos,” said Mr Shuker, who will address a meeting at the European Parliament on the issue later in the year.

In April, the US Congress passed a resolution declaring that a just Middle East peace could not be achieved “without addressing the uprooting of centuries-old Jewish communities in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf”.

It noted that “whereas the Palestinian refugee issue has received considerable attention from countries of the world, the issue of Jewish refugees from the Arab and Muslim worlds has received very little attention”.

Stanley Urman, executive director of JJAC, recalled the impact on Arab-Israeli wars on the Jews of Arab lands. They had been victims of discriminatory legislation, losing their citizenship, their jobs and suffering restrictions on religion and freedom of movement.

Two refugee populations had emerged from the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said. Both suffered, both were victims and justice required “equal consideration and redress”.

Among those present were Maurice Maleh of the Association of Jews from Egypt UK. He was seven when his father Jacques, the JC’s Cairo correspondent, was expelled from Egypt in May 1953.

Read article in full

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Jews in Iran have it bad, but Baha'is have it worse

If Jews in Iran have it bad, Baha'is have it worse. At least Islam considers Jews a protected minority, while Baha'is are simply heretics. Roya Hakakian writes in The Forward: (With thanks Esra'a)

If one must master the knowledge that even bigotry is relative and comes in gradations, then I was a premature pupil. I learned this lesson when I was only 10.

In 1977, in an eclectic neighborhood in Tehran, my Jewish family lived on a narrow, wooded alley in what was then an upscale area, alongside two other Jewish families and many more Muslims. There was also a Bahai family, the Alavis, next door.

By then, I had already intuited that my relatives, in the presence of Muslim friends and neighbors, were somehow less flamboyant creatures, quieter and more measured. But the Alavis, debonair and highly educated, were mere ghosts.

Theirs was a corner house on the alley, one of the most beautiful in the neighborhood, and the first to be sold within days in 1979, after the return of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. In a neighborhood so closely-knit that even the mailman dispensed pearls of pedagogical wisdom to our parents, the Alavis simply vanished one day.

No chance for tears, or promises to keep in touch. Not even a forwarding address. My mother insists they said goodbye to her, but my mother considers inventing happy endings a maternal virtue.

American audiences, their eyes brimming with anxiety, often ask me about the condition of Jews living in Iran today. But the hardships they assume to be the burden of the Iranian Jews is really the daily experience of the Bahais.

In a 1979 meeting with five of the Iranian Jewish community leaders, Khomeini summarized his position on the local Jews in one of his quintessentially coarse one-liners: “We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists.” The line has served as the regime’s position on the Jewish minority ever since. So important were these words that they were painted on the walls of nearly every synagogue and Jewish establishment the day after the ayatollah spoke them.

It did not prevent Jews from being relegated to second-class citizenry, nor did it enable them to thrive in post-revolutionary Iran. But it recognized the legitimacy of the Jewish existence in Iran and allowed the community to live on, albeit extremely restrictedly.

But it is the Bahai community that has been suffering the bleak fate assumed to be that of the Jews. It is the Bahais who are not recognized by the Iranian constitution. Decades ago, Khomeini branded them, among other unsavory terms, a political sect and not a religion, circuitously defining them as plotters against the regime. Iranian Bahais have been accused of espionage for every major power save the Chinese, and simultaneously so. They are not allowed to worship. Their properties are vandalized. Even their dead know no peace, as their cemeteries are systematically destroyed.

Their children cannot attend schools, nor can Bahai academics teach. That is why in 1987, unemployed professors, in an act reminiscent of the Middle Ages, established underground universities to educate the Bahai youth.

Last month, six Bahai leaders were arrested. They had already been accustomed to routine weekly harassments and interrogations, which is why some of their wives have taken up sewing blindfolds to keep the guards from forcing dirty ones onto their husbands’ eyes. What is most alarming about this particular arrest is that they have not returned home and are being kept incommunicado.

Read article in full

Friday, June 27, 2008

Only ethnic cleansing in Middle East was of Jews

Ashley Perry in the Jerusalem Post sets the record straight on just who is guilty of ethnic cleansing in the Middle East:

Israel is perhaps the least efficient "ethnic cleanser" in the history of mankind, calumnies to the contrary notwithstanding.

In 1947 some 740,000 Palestinians lived in the British Mandate for Palestine. Today, the Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza, together with Arab citizens of Israel, comprise a total of over five million Palestinians (altogether over nine million people worldwide refer to themselves as Palestinian.)

Using a popular population growth rate equation, the Palestinian growth rate has been calculated as close to double that of Asia and Africa over a comparable period of time.

Drazen Petrovic defines ethnic cleansing as "a well-defined policy of a particular group of persons to systematically eliminate another group from a given territory." By this definition, only one type of ethnic cleansing has occurred in the Arab-Israeli conflict - that of the Jews of Asia and North Africa. Whereas before 1948 there were nearly 900,000 Jews living in Arab lands, by 2001 only 6,500 remained.

Those who claim Israel carried out ethnic cleansing of Arabs can point to no official command to that effect. Jewish ethnic cleansing from Arab lands, on the other hand, was often official state policy.

Jews were formally expelled from many areas in the Arab world. The Arab League released a statement urging Arab governments to facilitate the exit of Jews from Arab countries, a resolution which was carried out through a series of punitive measures and discriminatory decrees that made it untenable for Jews to remain in their native lands.

On May 16, 1948, The New York Times recorded a series of measures taken by the Arab League to marginalize and persecute the Jewish residents of Arab League member states. It reported on the "text of a law drafted by the Political Committee of the Arab League, which was intended to govern the legal status of Jewish residents of Arab League countries. It provides that, beginning on an unspecified date, all Jews except citizens of non-Arab states would be considered 'members of the Jewish minority state of Palestine.' Their bank accounts would be frozen and used to finance resistance to 'Zionist ambitions in Palestine.' Jews believed to be active Zionists would be interned and their assets confiscated."

IN 1951, the Iraqi government passed legislation that made affiliation with Zionism a felony and ordered "the expulsion of Jews who refused to sign a statement of anti-Zionism." This pushed tens of thousands of Jews to leave Iraq, while much of their property was confiscated by the state.

In 1967, many Egyptian Jews were detained and tortured, and Jewish homes confiscated. In Libya that year, the government "urged the Jews to leave the country temporarily," permitting each to take one suitcase and the equivalent of $50.

In 1970, the Libyan government issued new laws confiscating all the assets of Libya's Jews, issuing in their stead 15-year bonds. But when the bonds matured, no compensation was paid. Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi justified this on the grounds that "the alignment of the Jews with Israel, the Arab nations' enemy, has forfeited their right to compensation."

These are just a few examples of what would became common measures throughout the Arab world - not to mention the pogroms and attacks on Jews and their institutions that drove a major part of the Jewish exodus.

The economic suffering on the part of the two refugee populations was equally lopsided.

According to the newly released study "The Palestinian Refugee Issue: Rhetoric vs. Reality" by former CIA and State Department Treasury official Sidney Zabludoff in the Jewish Political Studies Review, the value of assets lost by both refugee populations is strikingly uneven.

Zabludoff uses data from John Measham Berncastle, who in the early 1950s, under the aegis of the newly formed United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), undertook the task of calculating the assets of the Palestinian refugees. Zabludoff calculates that their assets were worth $3.9 billion in today's currency.

The Jewish refugees, being greater in number and more urban, had almost double those assets.

On top of this equation, it must be taken into account that Israel returned over 90 percent of blocked bank accounts, safe deposit boxes and other items belonging to Palestinian refugees during the 1950s. This considerably diminishes the UNCCP calculations.

These facts are conveniently forgotten or not publicized, leaving the way open for Israel-bashers like Exeter University history Prof. Ilan Pappe to omit any mention of the Middle East's greatest ethnic cleansing.

Read article in full

Visit Ashley Perry's blog The Sephardi Perspective

Thursday, June 26, 2008

'Comment is Free' wakes up to the Jewish refugees

This piece by Lyn Julius on the notorious Guardian website Comment is Free is something of a breakthrough - the first time the website has agreed to post an article dealing with the Jewish refugees without trying to make the issue controversial*. (There is still a day or so left for you to leave a comment):

"This week, before an audience of peers and MPs, an 80-year-old Jewish refugee named Sarah told the story of her traumatic departure in 1956 in the wake of the Suez crisis. Her husband lost his job. Taken ill, she had remained behind in Egypt with her new baby, while he left to look for work in Europe. She departed with nothing – along with 25,000 other Jews expelled by Nasser and forced to sign a document pledging that they would never return. In a final act of spite, the customs officers ransacked her suitcase and even her baby's carrycot.

"Sarah was speaking at a House of Lords briefing as part of the Justice for Jews from Arab Countries congress. JJAC, an international coalition of 77 organisations, is holding its inaugural congress in London, and aims to highlight the neglected rights of (according to indisputable UN figures) 856,000 Jewish refugees like Sarah.

"The exodus began 60 years ago when Arab states, hell-bent on crushing the new state of Israel militarily, also turned on their peaceful Jewish communities. Street violence killed over 150 Jews. Within 10 years, more than half the Jews had fled or been expelled, following discriminatory legislation , extortion, arrests, internment and executions. Those who remained became subjugated, political hostages of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"Today 99.5% - all but 4,500 - have gone. As the historian Nathan Weinstock has observed, not even the Jews of 1939 Germany had been so thoroughly "ethnically cleansed".

"The displacement of Jews from Arab countries was not just a backlash to the creation of Israel and the Arabs' humiliating defeat. The "push" factors were already in place. Arab League states drafted a law in November 1947 branding their Jews as enemy aliens. But non-Muslim minorities, historically despised as dhimmis with few rights, were already being oppressed by Nazi-inspired pan-Arabism and Islamism. These factors sparked the conflict with Zionism, and drive it to this day.

"The Jewish "Nakba" - Arabic for "catastrophe" – not only emptied cities like Baghdad (a third Jewish); it tore apart the cultural, social and economic fabric in Arab lands. Jews lost homes, synagogues, hospitals, schools, shrines and deeded land five times the size of Israel. Their ancient heritage - predating Islam by 1,000 years – was destroyed.

"The Jewish state, which struggled to take in 600,000, many of them stateless, is both a response to Arab antisemitism, and the legitimate political expression of an indigenous Middle Eastern people. Half Israel's Jewish population is descended from refugees from Arab and Muslim lands.

"Arab governments have never admitted committing mass violations of Jewish human and civil rights, much less apologised or offered restitution. Over 120 UN resolutions deal with the 711,000 Palestinian refugees; not one refers to the greater number of Jewish refugees. Although peace initiatives have been worded to refer generically to the "refugee problem", Jewish and Arab, Israel has been reluctant to politicise the Jewish refugee issue, having successfully integrated them as full citizens: Arab denial has thus conspired with Israeli silence to airbrush Jewish refugees out of the picture, leading to obfuscation, distortion and decontextualisation.

"This April, JJAC scored a major success, however, when the US House of Representatives adopted its first resolution (pdf) on Jewish refugees; future resolutions mentioning Palestinian refugees must refer explicitly to Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

"The resolution is about recognition, not restitution, although Jewish losses have been quantified at twice Palestinian losses. Such resolutions could lead to a peace settlement by recognising that there were victims on both sides. Thus justice for Jews is not just a moral imperative, but the key to reconciliation.

"Moreover, a major hurdle to peace could be removed if the Palestinian "right of return" were counterbalanced by the Jewish right not to return to Arab tyrannies, recognising a de facto population exchange of roughly equal numbers.

"The Jewish refugees, who spent up to 12 years in Israeli ma'abarot (transit camps), could also serve as a model for the resettlement (in host Arab countries or an eventual Palestinian state) of Arab refugees languishing in camps.

"Meanwhile, awareness of the "Jewish Nakba" is growing: a Libyan Jew who fled in fear of her life has addressed the UN Human Rights Council. Jewish refugees were mentioned at Westminster and discussed on BBC radio. In the US, Canada and at the European parliament, the campaign for justice is steaming ahead.

"At Tuesday's briefing, Sarah will be testifying to the fact that two sets of refugees emerged from the Arab-Israeli conflict. The UK will be urged to look at what role it could usefully play in seeking to resolve issues affecting all Middle East refugees. Fifty-two years ago, Sarah rejoined her husband in England; they rebuilt their lives and put Egypt behind them. This does not mean that she should be denied justice."

Harry's Place


Two days earlier, CiF published A different kind of catastrophe by the historian David Cesarani. Although the article starts off well, it then casts doubt on whether all the Jews were bona fide refugees and comes to the perverse conclusion that if any deserve compensation it should be from Israel, which discriminated against them.

*Update: I spoke (wrote) too soon.
This being the Guardian website, along comes Another side to the Jewish story by Rachel Shabi which a) casts doubt on whether Jews were all refugees b) harks back to the harmonious relations between Jews and Arabs before Israel.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The other Middle East refugees deserve recognition

The Jerusalem Post pegs a hard-hitting leader on Jewish refugees to the JJAC congress now meeting in London. (With thanks: Lily)

The world knows of the pain and dislocation experienced by roughly 700,000 Palestinian Arabs when Israel was established; it knows little about the trauma borne by some 850,000 Jews from the Arab world who were uprooted from their homes.

The precise numbers and exact impetus for the departures, in these linked cases, remain in dispute. The motivations of the displaced in promoting their respective narratives are easily suspect because both Jewish and Arab refugee conundrums are tied to claims of "inalienable rights," for restitution and reparations, and (in the case of the Arabs) demands for repatriation.

In any journey toward genuine acceptance and reconciliation that the quest for peace demands, the two narratives will need to be mutually validated in some fashion.

The plight of Jews who left the Arab countries has drawn relatively little attention, notwithstanding the efforts of individuals such as Heskel M. Haddad, a New York-based ophthalmologist of Iraqi origin. Recently, however, this cause received a boost from a non-binding US Congressional resolution adopted in April which urged the administration to raise the Jewish refugee issue whenever the Palestinian one arises. And this week a group called Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has been holding a conference in London to ensure that the narrative of Jewish refugees is told alongside that of the Palestinian Arabs.

It would be a tragedy if this campaign were dismissed as an attempt at one-upmanship in an arena so long dominated by supporters of the Palestinian Arabs; suffering does not negate suffering.

One approach for fair-minded individuals is to consider the Jewish refugees as human beings rather than as pawns in a vitriolic political dispute.

This is why the recent publication of Lucette Lagnado's The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is so welcome. In telling the affecting saga of her family's forced emigration from Cairo to New York, and by sharing memories of her proud father Leon's decline from boulevardier, poker player and businessman - who rubbed shoulders with King Farouk - to a refugee unable to raise the few thousand dollars necessary to open a corner candy store, Lagnado puts a human face on the other Middle East refugee tragedy.

Read article in full

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

BBC distorts Jewish refugee issue on website

The good news is that the Jewish refugees issue has made the BBC website at last. The bad? The BBC has managed to distort and belittle their plight. Here are one reader's angry comments, interposed with the BBC article. (With thanks: Terry M)

Jewish groups from around the world are meeting in London to highlight the plight of Jews who left their homes in Arab nations after Israel was founded.

[They did not 'leave their homes' - they were actively oppressed by the states in which they were citizens. Many were imprisoned, and their belongings confiscated. It would be more honest to say "driven from their homes"]

The conference organisers, Justice for Jews, say they want to ensure the story of Jewish refugees is told, alongside that of Palestinians.

The American-based group says around 850,000 Jews lived in Arab nations before Israel was founded in 1948.

[It is not just "the American-based group" who gives these figures - these figures are widely and reliably documented. This phrasing gives an intimation that it could be an exaggeration - I can provide you with links to sites that document precisely how many Jews were driven from each country.]

It says most were forced to flee due to hostility when Israel was created.

[There are plenty of personal accounts online. If you wish I can put you in touch with some of those who were driven out in this way and have ended up living here in the UK]

Justice for Jews, which campaigns for compensation for Jewish refugees from the Middle East, says the international community has always focused on Palestinian refugees and never given due attention to Jewish refugees.

The BBC's Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi says the subject is highly controversial as the numbers of Jews who left, and the conditions under which they left, are disputed.

[This is the first I have heard that that this is "highly controversial". Of course it does spoil the narrative of Palestinian refugees now it transpires that there were so many Jewish refugees, and they were actually absorbed into communities rather than kept as a political pawns. Could it be that the only refugees Magdi Abdelhadi wishes the world to know about are Palestinian?]
He says one undisputed fact is that Jews were part of Arab societies for centuries, where they were fully integrated in their societies, until Israel was established.

[They were part Arab societies, although many had dhimmi status. Dhimmi status, that of being a strictly second-class citizen, is not the same way as we understand 'fully integrated' in the UK. Magdi Abdelhadi is being disingenuous by somehow 'forgetting' this salient and crucial fact]

Some left because they were Zionists, others because of growing hostility towards them after the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967, and there were also those who were encouraged to leave by the new Israeli state, our analyst adds.

[Jews, who had resided in the surrounding Arab states for centuries were 'reclassified' by the Arab states as Zionists, particularly at the time of the Six Day War. Having been thus labelled gave the Arab states a reason to oppress their loyal Jewish citizens. I feel you should maybe talk to some refugees who now reside here in UK because I know this flip assessment on the BBC site is both offensive and untrue.]

He says not all of them went to Israel - many went to France and America, where some of them still feel very passionately about the Arab cultures they grew up in.

An interesting anecdote from Ben Cohen on Z-Blog

The Volokh conspiracy

Just journalism report

Monday, June 23, 2008

JJAC conference opens tonight in London

A conference highlighting the plight of the Jews who left, or fled, Arab countries will take place in London this week, along with the first ever hearing in Parliament on Jewish refugees from Arab lands, Jonny Paul reports in The Jerusalem Post:

The first congress of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries will run from Monday to Wednesday in central London, with the parliamentary briefing on Tuesday in the House of Lords.

"When the issue of refugees is raised within the context of the Middle East, people invariably refer to Palestinian refugees," Justice for Jews said in a statement. "There is almost no awareness of the fact that 850,000 Jews living in Arab countries were forced out of their homes during the period surrounding Israel's creation."

The congress aims to highlight the human rights violations and the individual and communal losses suffered by members of Jewish communities that had lived for centuries in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf and who "were stripped of their jobs, businesses, homes, passports and ancient heritage by most Arab governments," according to the organizers of the two-day conference.

The conference's aims include conducting public education programs on the heritage and rights of former Jewish refugees from Arab countries, registering family history narratives, and cataloging communal and individual losses.

"Jews are one of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East and there have been ancient Jewish communities in countries such as Iraq for over 2,500 years, more than a millennium before the rise of Islam," organizers said.

"Today these historic Jewish communities have been effectively destroyed, with almost no recognition from the international community or the Arab countries themselves. From a Jewish population in the Arab Middle East of 886,000 in the year 1948 in places like Algeria, Morocco and Yemen, now there are less than 8,000 Jews living in Arab countries."

Organized by Congress of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries in association with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the joint parliament hearing will be convened by Labor Party MP John Mann and Labor peer Lord Anderson of Swansea.

This joint briefing will highlight that two refugee populations emerged as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict and will look at the most viable and appropriate role the UK should play in seeking to resolve issues affecting all Middle East refugees, the congress said.

Read article in full

Jewish 'roots' tourists protest to Egyptian envoy

Following the cancellation at three days' notice of a 'roots trip' to Egypt last month, the largest organisation of Egyptian Jews in Israel has lodged a formal protest with the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv.

In a letter to H.E. Mohamad Assem Ibrahim, the Ambassador of Egypt in Israel, the Chairman of the Union des Juifs d'Egypte, Arie Ochana, said that the cancellation of the trip was unacceptable, in view of the fact that it had been planned with the knowledge and consent of the Egyptian authorities and the active encouragement of the Egyptian embassy in Israel.

The Egyptian authorities in Cairo and Alexandria were to have provided the security measures at the hotel, bus and sites visited by the group.

The trip by 45 elderly Jews, led by Levana Zamir of the Israel-Egyptian Friendship Association, would have included a meeting with the Egyptian Minister of Culture, Mr. Farouk Hosni, in his office in Cairo, scheduled at the Minister's own initiative.

The reason given by the Egyptians for the cancellation was the inability of the hotel to guarantee the group's security.

Mr Ochana wrote: " If somebody or anyone tried to jeopardize this trip, we are surprised that the Egyptian Security and Government has given a hand to such a drastic occurrence, reverberation of which has been felt throughout the world. We, the Jews from Egypt in Israel, convey our deep respect and high esteem to the Egyptian authorities, and find it hard to believe their behavior in this case."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Jewish historians spread myth of Islamic tolerance

Professor Yomtov Assis, himself a refugee from Syria, explains to Sam Ser of The Jerusalem Post how the myth of Islamic tolerance was spread by Jewish historiography (with thanks: Lily):

'I remember very clearly," Prof. Yom-Tov Assis, head of the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, says of his youth in Aleppo, "how a Syrian officer entered our home with his gun and brought a Palestinian refugee, accusing my parents of being responsible for her terrible condition and demanding that we give her money and clothing.

"I remember the attempts to break through the gates to our building, all the occupants of which were Jewish. I remember how the people used to shout in the streets, 'Palestine is ours; Jews are dogs!' Demonstrations took place daily, from the time the United Nations decided to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab parts. Clubs and synagogues were burned. Jews were attacked."

In 1949, the Assis family fled the antagonism of Syria for the tranquility of Lebanon.

"We used to spend our summer holidays in the Lebanese mountains... It was paradise," he fondly recalls. When they left, "we pretended that we were going on our usual summer holiday... but we never went back."

Like the nearly 900,000 Jews who left - or were forced from - Muslim countries shortly after Israel's independence, Assis says, his family "left behind property, left behind wealth. We left behind everything."

From Lebanon, Assis moved to Turkey, and then to London, before making aliya in 1971. Ever since, the medieval scholar has had to disabuse people of what he calls "the fallacy of Jewish happiness under Muslim rule." That's the assumption that the "Golden Age" in Andalus (Muslim Iberia and North Africa), from the mid-700s to the mid-1100s, was both idyllic and common to Islamic rule in other times and places. Not only is that not the case - although Jews were generally better off under Muslim rule through the 10th century, there were large-scale pogroms in the 11th century - but, as Assis points out, it also disregards the fallout from the invasion of the Almohads, who "destroyed Jewish life" in the latter part of the 12th century.

"They left no Jewish community intact. There were many who were killed, many who were forcibly converted to Islam, many who had to escape - including the family of Maimonides, and other famous families," Assis says. "So to suggest that there was no persecution of Jews under Muslim rule is absurd."

Here's another disconcerting thought: One of the main causes of the relative tolerance that Jews experienced - a deep respect for the scientific and cultural contributions of others - has since been so absent from Islamic life that, in the past 1,000 years, the number of books translated into Arabic is less than the number of books translated in Spain in just one year.

Or, as Assis puts it, "Today, the literary and scientific production of the entire Muslim world in the course of one year is but a fraction of the output of tiny Israel." In such an environment, he adds, "the Golden Age cannot be repeated. There's no way that one could even think of it."

Given this reality, how has the myth of Muslim tolerance become so widely accepted?

"Jewish historiography is largely to blame," Assis says. "For a long time, it was very Europe-centric. Those who wished to emphasize the difficulty of Jewish life in Christian Europe (such as 19th-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz), pointed to the Jews' Golden Age in Spain as the standard of treatment under Muslim rule. But they never gave any other examples."

Read article in full

Andrew Bostom: Islam is inherently antisemitic

The Jerusalem Post carries a profile of Andrew Bostom, whose new book, The Legacy of antisemitism in Islam, argues that anti-Semitism cannot be explained by cultural influences but is, in fact, inherently Islamic: (with thanks: Gavin)

"Andrew Bostom has bats in his belfry. He literally has bats flying around in his home. Speaking with The Jerusalem Post about the release of his new book, The Legacy of Anti-Semitism in Islam, Bostom is still breathing heavily from chasing away the unwelcome guests.

"In his writing, Bostom tries to chase away a different kind of demon: the pervasive belief that the anti-Semitism common to so many Muslims today is a modern, and alien, influence on what more than 1 billion people call "the religion of peace."

"One look at the cover art of The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism is all it takes to discern what Bostom thinks of that. Alfred Dehodencq's vividly colorful but starkly ominous painting "Execution of a Moroccan Jewess" is a recreation of the actual public execution, in Tangier in the 1830s, of 17-year-old Sol Hachuel, who was falsely accused of converting to, and then renouncing, Islam. In an introductory note on the painting and on the heartbreaking tale, Bostom asserts that Sol's cruel fate was shared by countless Jews over more than a dozen centuries, wherever Muslims ruled. Then, in the several hundred pages that follow, he proves it.

"The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism calls to mind the work of Bat Yeor, who over the past 20 years has practically single-handedly forced recognition of the oppression inherent in what she calls dhimmitude - the institution of inferiority, humiliation and obedience that Muslims demand of non-Muslims under their control.

"But Bostom, who considers Bat Yeor a mentor, goes a step further. He provides an extraordinarily thorough look at the history of Islamic anti-Semitism in practice, from the dawn of the religion until today and in every place where Muslims predominated, using first-hand accounts of renowned Muslim scholars and historians as well as Western observers. The questions facing Muslims today - Will they deny this religiously motivated hatred? Excuse it? Use it for political gain? Reject it and reform Islam? - all require an in-depth examination of the Koran, the hadith (sayings and deeds of Muhammad and his companions), and the sira (the biography of Muhammad) as the textual roots of this hatred. And that is what Bostom provides in The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism."

Read article in full

Friday, June 20, 2008

BBC on Jewish refugees: opportunity or stitch-up?

This Saturday 21st June, the BBC World Service programme Newshour will be devoting 30 minutes to the story of the hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews who left or were forced out of Arab countries. The radio programme goes out at 12.05 GMT and will take calls and questions from listeners around the world. The planning editor has already taped interviews with two Iraqi-born Jews and an Egyptian-born Jew.

In addition, the BBC's World Have your Say has started a blog on which people can leave comments.

Is this our long-awaited opportunity to put the case for Jews from Arab Countries to an audience of millions? Or has the BBC something more sinister in mind?

The pre-recorded slots with Jewish refugees themselves will only amount to four or six minutes. The rest of the programme will feature so-called experts taking live calls in the studio.

It is not a good sign that this programme is being scheduled to go out on Saturday, when observant Jews will not be able to listen or take part, including much of the active leadership of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC). The planning editor only set about contacting Sephardi communities and websites on Tuesday - that's at five days' notice.

Neither is it a good sign that the 'historian' chosen to answer calls in the studio is an obscure post-Zionist leftist academic named Zvi Ben Dor whose main claim to fame is a research paper arguing that Iraqi Jews in Israel are in exile from their true homeland, Iraq. (Click on 'The invisible Exile'.)

Apparently the BBC was offered Sir Martin Gilbert, who is writing a book on Jews from Arab lands. After much prodding, the planning editor somewhat guiltily let slip that they had already chosen Ben Dor.

Thankfully JJAC are flying in David Matas, the human rights lawyer, from Canada to take part, but it is far from certain that the programme will not end-up being a stitch-up and a vehicle for the peddling of lies and myths.

If you are concerned that the case for Jewish refugees should get a fair hearing, please leave comments on the BBC Newshour blog and try to contribute to the live discussion by telephone.

Update: Mira Rocca has been asked to read passages from the book Memories of Eden on the programme.

Update to the update: some reactions to the programme have now been posted on the BBC's blog.

My reaction:. The discussion was designed to undermine the very premise that Jews were refugees. The programme mostly quoted Arab contributions to its blog. 'Historian' Zvi Ben Dor threw back in the Israeli government's face the rhetoric that the Mizrahi Jews were not refugees but Zionists returning to their homeland. The programme began with a report from Morocco, emphasising the symbiosis between Jews and Muslims over time and quoting two dhimmified Jews in the Moroccan public eye, Simon Levy and Andre Azoulay, whose statements should not be taken at face value.

JJAC's David Matas saved the day for the Jewish refugees. Yes, conditions did vary from country to country and Jews left for a variety of reasons, just as Palestinians had done. Even if the Jews were no longer refugees -their situation had been 'mitigated' and the Arab refugees' situation had been 'aggravated' - the Jews were still refugees at their departure. And bravo, David, for arguing that raising the plight of Jewish refugees actually legitimises the issue of the Palestinian refugees.

The presenter Claire Bolderson tried to appear fair, saying that the BBC was aware that observant Jews were not able to listen to the programme as it was being broadcast on Shabbat. The BBC would be repeating the programme that evening ( not realising that for many Jews around the world it was still Shabbat.)

Although Ellis Douek's pre-recorded interview made the point effectively that the Jews of Egypt had been persecuted and had no wish to return, what was most telling was what the editors chose to leave out: one Iraqi Jew's taped 20-minute account of post-1967 arrests, persecutions and harrassment must have been too hard for the BBC to swallow, as was Mira Rocca's reading of her family's experience of the 1941 Farhoud pogrom. (Now we can't disturb those preconceived notions of pre-Zionist harmony between Arabs and Jews, can we?)

All in all, though, the programme was not too bad - and thanks to David Matas, listeners were most probably left with the overriding impression that the Jewish refugees did have a case.

I would like to see the BBC use those interviews it taped but didn't use in a follow-up programme : If the Newshour editors have learned anything from planning this programme it may be this: that they have barely scratched the surface of this important story.

If you missed the programme you can listen again for the next seven days. Click on Newshour Saturday 13.00 GMT.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Uncertain homecoming for Syrian Jew

Herbert Hadad's family, now resident in the US, had been in Syria for 40 generations. He did not know how he would be received when he took his wife and children back for a visit, but he was pleasantly surprised. Here is an extract from his account for the International Herald Tribune:
When our van pulled into al-Hatab Square in Aleppo, I was seized by the feeling that I had been here before. This city had been my father's home. I was very comfortable as I gazed at the restaurant and coffeehouses, the jewelry and antique shops, and entered a store that sold spirits and cigarettes.
The middle-aged shopkeeper reached across the counter, took my head in his hands and kissed the top as if he had found a long-gone relative. In English and broken Arabic, I told him who I was and asked if he had ever heard of my family. I had already made more formal inquiries to no avail. He shook his head and sold me a bottle of red Lebanese wine.
But as I entered nearby Sissi Street, narrow and stone-paved, with the houses and other buildings rising boulder-like on either side, I decided that this street, this square, this neighborhood was where my father had lived as a boy, where he had played and fetched milk for his family and went to school. It made me happy to believe so.
Shortly after we arrived home, headlines announced that Syria and Israel had begun peace talks, mediated by Turkey. The e-mails and phones began to crackle with congratulations: "We don't know how you did it or what you did, but thank you, thank you." The last word came from our dentist: "When my lease is up, I want you to negotiate the new one."
Read article in full

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Now UK Egyptian Jews appeal to UNESCO

The Association of Jews from Egypt in the UK (AJE) has joined sister organisations in the US and France in entreating UNESCO to help safeguard Egypt's Jewish heritage.

Maurice Maleh, on behalf of the AJE committee, has written to the current Japanese director-general of UNESCO suggesting that his agency take over custody of the archives of the Jewish community.

The AJE letter was prompted by disquiet at the recent statement made by the aspiring Egyptian contender to head UNESCO, Mr Farouk Hosni: ‘I’d burn Israeli books myself if I found any libraries in Egypt’.

"These are regrettably not remarks one would like to hear from a candidate for this important position," the AJE letter said.

"However, we believe it would greatly repair the damage done if you could convince Mr Hosni to transfer the existing Archives and Registers of the Jewish Community in Egypt to the protection of UNESCO," the letter went on." We hope of course that you would be agreeable to undertaking this important mission. These Archives and Registers are absolutely fundamental to our ancient Egyptian Jewish identity and our collective memory of our time in Egypt."

Access to Jewish documents in Egypt has been severely restricted and the authorities do not even allow the photocopying of certificates and registers.

Egyptian Jews appeal to UNESCO to intervene

See article in JTA News

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Visiting the mellah of Marrakesh

The well-maintained and still used Marrakesh synagogue (Photo: Mya Guarnieri)

Visiting the Mellah of Marrakesh, Mya Guarnieri is saddened that so little remains of Jewish life, but heartened that something still does remain. Read her sensitively-written account in The Jerusalem Post:

"Omar clearly knows his way through the tight, winding passages, and he weaves us through them without a moment's hesitation, his Adidas pants swooshing rhythmically with his steps. I do my best to keep up, and in concentrating on following him, I become disoriented. Did we go right, right, left, left? Or was it the other way around? He gestures at heavy wooden doors, and slows a bit. "There is a Jewish family here," he says.

"Really? There are still Jews in Marrakech?" I ask.

"Not so many," he says. "A few."

We stop in front of an open doorway.

"Beit Haknesset," Omar says, pronouncing beit the Arab way - bait.

We enter the hallway. The upper half of the walls is painted light blue. The lower portion of the walls is a mosaic of white, sky blue and deep blue tiles - Stars of David, interlocked, and repeated again and again. At the end of the hall, before we enter a light-filled, open-air courtyard, a sign reads in Hebrew: Beit Haknesset Elazama Rehov Talmud Torah established in the year of 1492.

Though both my guidebook and Omar tell me the synagogue is still in use, looking around the courtyard, it's hard to imagine. Laundry - socks, underwear, sheets, towels - hangs everywhere, including the electric blue railing of the second story. An empty pink plastic washtub leans against a white bench, pitched on its side. The fountain in the center of the courtyard is dry and ringed with dead potted plants.

"Are there people living here?" I ask Omar.

"Yes," he answers.


"Poor people, old people."

"Jews?" I ask.


He seems uncomfortable with my questions and he walks me to the impressive bronze doors of the synagogue, which are secured with a padlock. In Arabic, he calls to a woman who is washing the floor. She comes and flips through a chunky set of keys, finds the right one, and slides the heavy padlock off. She pulls one of the massive doors open. She and Omar wait as I step inside alone.

The interior does seem to be fairly well-maintained and, indeed, it looks as though it's in use. The white walls are clean and the red oriental carpets on the floor aren't worn. A marble ark with a deep brown velvet curtain houses the Torah. The rows of wooden-armed chairs are tidy and neatly arranged, and some of the cushioned seats are occupied by bags containing tallitot. A box of tissues sits on the simple white bima. Prayer books are scattered here and there on surfaces throughout the synagogue. I look up at the women's balcony on the second floor, contained by a plain brown railing. Simple glass chandeliers interspersed with octagonal bronze lanterns - their windowed sides adorned with colorful designs - hang from the ceiling.

I stand there for a moment, engulfed by silence. I think of the thriving Jewish community that was once in Morocco and I'm saddened by how little remains. But I'm also heartened by the fact that small it might be, still, it remains.

I exit and see that a third person has joined Omar and the woman who keeps the key to the synagogue - an old man, his white hair covered by a kippa, his blue eyes squinted tight.

"Shalom," he greets me.

"Shalom," I reply.

From his movements, I quickly realize that he is blind.

We began to talk. My Hebrew is not very good, but it's our only way to communicate. He is patient during my halting, awkward sentences, and I am eager to hear his responses.

He tells me that he is Jewish and that he lives on the premises. He has lived his whole life in Morocco. Things are OK for him in Morocco, and people help to take care of him. And he tells me that, yes, there are some other Jews left in Marrakech.

I tell him I am from America and live in Tel Aviv - to which he enthusiastically remarks nice - and that I am a writer, working on a book. I tell him I am trying to learn Hebrew, but it's not so easy.

Our conversation stalls. Not just because of my limited vocabulary. We have generations and oceans and wildly different life experiences between us. But there we stand, outside the doors of a synagogue, conversing in a shared language, Judaism our common bond.

Read article in full

Hunting for kosher chicken in Marrakesh

Kabul's whisky-loving last Jew an 'embarrassment'

Who can blame Zebulon Simantov for exploiting his status as Afghanistan's last Jew? NBC's Martin Fletcher, however, reinforces the worst of anti-Jewish stereotypes:

KABUL, Afghanistan – Behind a metal door on Flower Street, past a courtyard piled with junk, up some steep concrete stairs and along a narrow corridor with ornate metal railings in the style of Stars of David, lives the last Jew in Afghanistan.

His home is a side-room off the synagogue; a thin mattress laid along one wall is his bed. In one corner, there is a small table with dusty prayer books, three folding chairs, a crumbling carpet, and a few pictures on the wall, including one of a bearded Hassidic Jew. In the corner by the door, opposite the guest’s chair, there is a small blackboard with his name spelled clearly in chalk: Zebulon Simantov. "So that journalists spell my name correctly," he said.

"Who do you work for?" Simantov asked straightaway.

"NBC News," I answered proudly.

Zebulon Simantov, 45, poses at the synagogue in Kabul on Jan. 25, 2005."So can you give me lots of money," he said, his tone turning a question into a blunt demand.

"No, I’m afraid not."

"Did you bring me whiskey?" The interview, which I had looked forward to ever since I received the assignment to visit Kabul, quickly became an embarrassment.

"That bastard," Simantov said, spitting out a nut, "he’s no friend of mine!"

Read article in full

Photo of Simantov AP , taken in 2005

Friday, June 13, 2008

Iraqi Jewish abductee joins her Israeli family

A 76-year old Jewish woman from Iraq is finally immigrating to Israel to join her family some 55 years after a Muslim neighbour abducted her (With thanks: Jerusalem Posts, via Atlas Shrugs). Ynet News reports :

Hannah’s fascinating story begins in the 1950s, when her Baghdad-native family – parents and seven siblings – decided to immigrate to Israel. Hannah, already married to a Jewish Iraqi, was also planning to make aliyah, when fate struck: a Muslim neighbor, who was aware of the family’s plans to immigrate, kidnapped the striking Hannah to keep her by his side. Her siblings only have a vague recollection of that horrible day. They went looking for Hannah, they say, but the earth had swallowed her.

Decades passed, the siblings made aliyah and the family expanded, all the while keeping their bitter secret to themselves. Shortly after arriving in Israel, Hannah’s mother died at 37, her heart broken by losing her child.

Six months ago, out of the blue, the family received a surprising phone call. The woman on the other side of the line was Ravit Topol from the Ministry of Interior, with an extraordinary story she was looking to verify.

It turns out Hannah had been forced to become a Muslim and had raised her neighbor’s children for 50 years. No one in the Baghdad neighborhood knew about her secret or her Jewish roots, and she was afraid her husband would kill her if she tried to contact her siblings.

When her husband died a year ago, the now 76-year-old Hannah escaped Baghdad under the guise of being being a war refugee. She was able to reach Europe through an Arab country and decided to locate an Israeli embassy.

“I am Jewish, I want to go to Israel,” she said in fluent Arabic and with great excitement. The embassy found it hard to believe her story; but when she named her relatives in Israel, the embassy officials realized the truly incredible nature of the story unfolding before their very eyes and quickly contacted the Ministry of Interior’s population administration.

Read article in full

Watch the reunion between Hannah and her brother on TV (With thanks: Iraqijews)

Whatever happened to Iraq's compensation vow?

Three years have passed since the Iraq Properties Claims Commission invited dispossessed Iraqis to claim compensation from the government. In that time, no Jew has yet received a dinar, let alone an acknowledgement that his or her claim form was received. No Arab or Kurdish claimant known to the Jewish community seems to have received anything either, although reports are regularly published in the Iraqi press that tens of thousands of claims have been settled.
The IPCC only deals with claims made against the Ba'athist regime since 1968. Yet Iraqi officials have affirmed that restitution would be made to Jews whose assets and property were frozen before that date.

Replying to a young Jewish questioner at the Iraq-in-Common Forum in May 2006 at the British Foreign Office, the Iraqi consul-general said that when Iraq was back on its economic feet, Jews were entitled to bring individual legal cases for compensation for lost property.

The diplomat cited a case where a stall-holder he knew in a Baghdad market owned by Jews was still paying rent into a frozen account. By some extraordinary coincidence, the Jewish owner of the market happened to be the grandfather of David Kahtan, the young man who had raised the question of restitution. The grandfather had died in Iraq, but his descendants (of British nationality) were not allowed to inherit the property.

Although some thought that the restitution money should go towards rebuilding Iraq’s future, many young Muslims and Christians approached David and congratulated him on raising the matter of individual compensation.

The British Foreign Office, with whom David Kahtan engaged in detailed correspondence, sent him a list of Iraqi lawyers who might be able to handle his claim. But the prospect of pursuing a claim in war-torn Iraq when you are in London is a daunting one.

On the premise that the word of Iraqi government officials is their bond, David, whose case was publicised in The Jewish Chronicle, is not giving up. Watch this space.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The deniers who misrepresent Arab-Jewish history

The next worst thing to Holocaust denial is the modern-day falsification of history to give the impression that Jews and Arabs had always lived in harmony, Myles Kantor argues at Front Page Magazine:(with thanks: Lily)

"Holocaust deniers are outcasts, but people who promote a similar lie often appear on television.

"I recently learned about Saree Makdisi while researching my FrontPage article about Hezbollah supporter and ex-professor Norman Finkelstein. An English professor at UCLA, last month Makdisi appeared on left-wing television program Democracy Now! for a debate with Finkelstein and Israeli historian Benny Morris on the occasion of Israel's 60th Independence Day.

"Toward the end of the debate, Morris criticized Makdisi’s proposal of a one-state “solution” to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Makdisi replied, “the great moments of Sicily and Spain, and so forth, and Baghdad, etc., were always moments where Jews and Arabs lived together and worked together.” Similarly, in a May 11 op-ed in The Los Angeles Times titled “Forget the two-state solution,” he claimed, “It [Israel] is an ethno-religiously exclusive state that has tried to defy the multicultural history of the land on which it was founded.”

"Others have argued that Israel’s restoration in 1948 deviated from a past of peaceful Jewish-Arab coexistence and created new animosity. CBS News Middle East analyst Reza Aslan asserted last year in a debate with author Sam Harris, “Before 1948, of course, there were tens of thousands of Jews living alongside their Arab neighbors without any problem at all.” Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of the anti-Israel organization Neturei Karta said at a June 3 protest of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “we are thankful…for the hospitality and safe haven and friendship that the Muslim people and the Arab people throughout the world has [sic] constantly given to the Jewish people throughout the ages.”

"Here are some important dates in Arab-Jewish history: 627, 1066, 1465, 1828, 1912, 1920, 1929, 1934, 1938, 1941, and 1967. These dates correspond to massacres of Jews by Arabs in Medina, Granada, Fez, Baghdad, Fez again, Jerusalem, Hebron, Constantine, Tiberias, Baghdad again, and Tripoli.

"Jews under Arab rule had to wear identifying clothing, pay special taxes, could not ride horses, bear arms, etc. The Spanish-Jewish sage Maimonides noted these abuses in his 1172 Iggeret Teiman (“Epistle to Yemen”), responding to violent anti-Semitism in that country. Maimonides described the Arabs as those “who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us...Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they.”

"Institutional degradation of Jews in Arab countries continued into modern times. Eli Moyal, the mayor of Sderot in southwestern Israel, was born in Morocco and has described his youth there:

"We lived quietly and in peace as long as we obeyed the rules. We had no political power, no say. It was against the law for a Jew to be involved in politics. It was a ghetto we lived in…We know the Arabs better than the Ashkenazim [Jews of European descent]. We obeyed Arab regimes for centuries; we know their traditional and cultural way of life—we ran away from the Arabs."

"Jews dispossessed and expelled from Arab countries after 1948 offer similar recollections in the documentary The Forgotten Refugees.

"Aslan, Makdisi, and Weiss misrepresent Arab-Jewish history before 1948 in a way that resembles the filth of Holocaust denial. While the abhorrent facts have been widely documented in both cases, these individuals whitewash the Arab world’s tyranny and terrorism against religious minorities.

"This falsification of history is today’s version of the blood libel. Not only did the Jews betray a tradition of multicultural peace; they initiated an era of death and destruction with their belligerent nationalism. The falsification is thus another attempt to delegitimize Israel."

Read article in full

Setting the record straight in The Independent

Sara Cohen* writes an excellent rebuttal to a piece of malicious revisionist nonsense* in The Independent:

Long history of Jews in the Middle East

Sir: P J Stewart (letters, 11 June) claims: "There was never any mass migration of Arabic speaking Jews [in 1948] or in any other year." He says Yemenite Jews "left in bewilderment", Moroccan Jews were mainly "contented", and Algerian Jews left for France at independence in 1962.

As a Jew of Moroccan/Russian descent, I have to conclude that the letter-writer is either woefully ignorant or wilfully compliant in the revisionist history of the Jew in Arab lands. After the United Nations General Assembly partition plan in 1947, the rights and the security of Jews in Arab lands came under legal and physical assault. The rise of Pan-Arabism and independence in many Arab states resulted in a multi-state organised campaign against Zionism.

In Syria in 1947, anti-Jewish pogroms struck in Aleppo; of the 10,000 Jews who lived there 7,000 fled. Anti-Jewish riots erupted in Aden and Yemen; in Libya, Jews were expelled or their citizenship revoked, and in Algeria, the state authorities issued several anti-Jewish laws causing nearly all of the 160,000 Algerian Jews to flee the country. About 800,000 Jews were forced to flee their ancestral Arab homelands.

Successive Arab states and western left/liberal elites have a shared interest in eroding Judeo-Arabic culture, because this revisionism presents the Jews as alien to the Middle East, and as colonialists, thus denying the nationhood of the Jew.

Yet in reality, Jews and Arabs have a long, entwined and shared history. Indigenous Jews have been a continual presence for 2,500 years in the Middle East, including Israel and North Africa. They were there before the birth of Islam, yet people continue to misinterpret and misunderstand the strange history of the Jewish people. We have been expelled from almost every country we have ever lived in, a wandering nation destined to roam the earth for thousands of years, from country to country, continent to continent, sometimes tolerated, mainly persecuted.

So when the Arab states expelled their indigenous Jewish population a few years after six million Jewish men, women and children were incinerated in the crematoria of Christian Europe, these Jews from Arab lands were absorbed mainly into the land of Israel. Where else did the world expect them to go?

Sara Cohen

Hove, East Sussex

*scroll down

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Yad Vashem delays naming Arab 'Righteous Gentile'

The former director of Yad Vashem's Department of the Righteous has expressed his dissatisfaction with Israel's Holocaust Memorial for an "unreasonable" delay in bestowing the august title of Righteous Among the Nations on the first Arab nominated for the award, the Jerusalem Post reports. (With thanks: Lily)

Tunisian aristocrat Khaled...

Tunisian aristocrat Khaled Abdelwahhab, who was nominated for Yad Vashem's highest honor.
Photo: AP

The unusual criticism of Israel's Holocaust Authority comes 18 months after a Tunisian aristocrat, Khaled Abdelwahhab, was nominated for Yad Vashem's highest honor.

"I am amazed what is causing such a delay which is way beyond a reasonable amount of time," said Dr. Mordechai Paldiel, the former director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, a position he held for 24 years.

Paldiel, who prepared the Tunisian diplomat's file for the Yad Vashem committee studying the case, said that Abdelwahhab met Yad Vashem's strict criteria for recognizing a non-Jew as a Righteous Among the Nations, and that he was surprised to see that the case had not been approved by the committee to date.

"I do not understand what is causing this delay," he said.

Paldiel, who is currently working with the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, said he felt that if he were still in his previous position, the file would already have been approved.

A Yad Vashem spokeswoman said this week that the case was still under discussion. She declined further comment on the issue, in keeping with Yad Vashem's policy of not commenting on such cases while they were under deliberation.

Read article in full

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jewish refugees not a central issue to peace - BBC

Last month, when Israel was celebrating its 60th anniversary, I complained to the BBC that its news reports insisted on putting a dampener on the festivities by juxtaposing them wth the lamentations associated with the 'Palestinian 'nakba'. The flipside of the Palestinian nakba, I argued, was surely the nakba of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. At first the BBC confused my complaint with someone else's gripe about the expression 'Palestinian land' and sent me the wrong pro-forma reply. Now I have just received a second reply, which though more relevant, leaves me more bewildered than ever.

"The specific issue of Palestinian refugees was mentioned in the context of the peace process. It is generally seen as one of the key stumbling blocks to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have covered the issue of Jewish refugees in the past, however, it is not something that is generally viewed as a central issue in the peace process in the same way the Palestinian refugee issue is. Should the issue of Jewish refugees become an integral part of the negotiations in the Israeli-Arab peace negotiations or a stumbling block thereto, we would of course look at them in a more in-depth fashion.

Overall, whilst focusing on the celebrations in Israel it seems fair to have mentioned the contrasting marches being held by Palestinians at the time."

Yours sincerely

Stewart McCullough
Complaints Coordinator

So there you have it. The BBC claims to have covered Jewish refugees in the past, but forgive me if I can't recall when. It does not consider the Jewish refugeees important enough to be mentioned, and certainly not as important as the Palestinian refugees. If Jewish refugees were to make a real nuisance of themselves - become a 'stumbling block' - then the BBC might sit up and take notice.

Update: reader Inna T has sent the following email to Mr McCullough at the BBC:
"Basically, you’re saying that until Jews start hitting and killing people, you really don’t care about Jewish refugees. Well, I have some wonderful news for you. A Jew hit a Palestinian couple with a baseball bat yesterday. This (along with the B’Tselem movie depicting the hideous violence) was widely shown on the BBC. So, now that a Jew has made a nuisance of himself, could we please have some coverage about Jewish refugees?"

But Inna, these Jews were just being colonialist Zionist imperialist oppressors.The bat-wielders should have remembered to wave the deeds to their lost homes in Baghdad and Tripoli while jangling the keys, to get their message through to the BBC!

Two contrasting tales of Iranian Jews

Moving story of Private Binyamin, who managed to bribe his way out of serving in the Iranian army in order to fulfil his dream of serving in the IDF (with thanks: a reader)

"Pvt. Binyamin, 24, immigrated to Israel on his own from Iran and enlisted into the IDF, and today proudly wears the red beret of the paratroopers.

"He was born in Shiraz in north west Iran (sic) . He was raised on stories about Israel a country where one could wear a kippa and tallis and walk freely he said, adding that from a tender age he knew that one day he would go to Israel.

"Out of a population of millions it is estimated that 25,000 Jews live in Iran today. Binyamin, who left his entire family behind, said he was forced to study in a Moslem school where there were very few other Jews. There at school he learned English and computers but Judaism and Torah studies he learned at the synagogue.

"Like so many other Jews in Iran, he was forced to keep his love for Israel and the Jewish people under wraps, confining discussions on the subject to his own home. His father, who suffers from a long-term illness, prevented the family from fleeing to Israel like many other Jewish families, said Binyamin, adding that his uncle also fled from Iran to Israel by himself 28 years ago.

"In Iran the government has imposed restrictions on certain internet sites and it is illegal to watch mainly foreign network sites that are related to Israel or the United States, he said. However, it was Binyamin’s computer skills that enabled him to bypass the government imposed filters and restrictions.

"The first internet site he ever saw was that of the IDF. Binyamin studied and learned about Israel, Jewish customs and the city of Jerusalem via the internet, and said he even watched Channel Two on the internet but was unable to understand the Hebrew. Only after he arrived in Israel and went to ulpan did he master the Hebrew language.

"In Iran the law requires everyone at the age of 18 to enlist in the army, the government also issues citizens with a passport and driving license in return, he said. Fully aware that he would never serve in the Iranian army he paid a few high ranking officers to issue him a waiver from service on medical grounds.

"After receiving his Israeli identity card two weeks after arriving in Israel, Binyamin began his attempts to enlist in the army. His initial request was rejected. (..)

"Today he is in the preliminary basic training course, suffers from the effects of the sheer physical effort and is still getting used to army style jargon and way of life, but has no regrets whatsoever.

"While he misses his family and admits to the hardships of serving in the army as a lone soldier, Binyamin said: " all I ever wanted was to live a free man in our country (Israel) just like in the Hatikva. Finally I can be proud of the flag, the religion and country without having to hide.”

Read article in full

Reading between the lines in this propaganda piece about the Jews of Iran in the Pakistan Daily, it is apparent that the Jews suffer from quite a few handicaps, even though the community's new parliamentary representative, Dr Mer-Sadegh, is so anxious to prove his loyalty he claims to share some of President Ahmadinejad's views:
Half of the remaining Iranian Jews live in Tehran, home to 20 synagogues, six Jewish schools, kosher restaurants and butchers, a Jewish library with more than 20,000 books, and a Jewish cemetery. Contrary to outside impressions, they say their daily lives have not worsened since Mr Ahmadi-Nejad took office.
“People expect it to be so bad for us here, but we have our religious freedom,” said Farangis Hassidim, a middle-aged woman attending the synagogue. “That is not to say we have no problems. We have Jewish schools, but the teachers are Muslim, and it is difficult for us to get jobs in government.”
Dr Mer-Sedegh says his main priority as the Jewish MP will be to push to change Iran’s heritage law, which stipulates that if a Jewish person converts to Islam, all his siblings are considered to have converted, too.
At the Tapo kosher restaurant in Felestine (Palestine) Street, Yossef Shoomer says Iranian Jews try to keep a low profile – as must every minority in a religious country.
Indeed, from the outside, one would not notice anything unusual about the restaurant, with its signs advertising Iranian staples such as kebab and rice.
“We don’t need to publicise the restaurant because most Jews know about us,” said Mr Shoomer, whose family has run the restaurant for 25 years.
“Many Muslims also know that we are kosher. Very devout Muslims might not come here, but the rest eat here happily.”
One of the women at the synagogue says she has visited Israel many times, but is always careful to get the frontier stamps on a separate sheet rather than on her passport.
As for Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s inflammatory anti-Israel statements, many Iranian Jews dismiss them as rhetoric. “We just ignore him – and so do many Muslims,” whispers one of the worshippers outside the synagogue.
Dr Mer-Sedegh says the president is anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, before adding that he shares some of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s views.
“I am in direct opposition to the inhumane behaviour of the Israeli government,” he said. “A lot of things that Israel is doing – killing innocent Palestinians – are not in keeping with Moses’s teaching.”
Read article in full