Friday, October 31, 2008

Artefacts could be displayed in Egyptian synagogue

Outgoing Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosny has declared that Jewish artefacts could be displayed in an Egyptian synagogue. The Egyptian daily Masry al-Yom carried the story (with thanks: Roger).

This is the first time that a senior Egyptian government figure has publically welcomed an idea which the association Nebi Daniel, whose aim is to safeguard Egypt's Jewish heritage, has been pushing for some years. There were not enough artefacts for a Jewish museum, however, the minister said.

Speaking to members of an Egyptian-British business association, the minister said: "Egypt has never been biased against any religion. Instead, it has accepted all religions and Jewish (sic) have been on this land since the Pharaohs. We accept Jews' thought, religion, heritage and civilization away from politics, as politics have nothing to do with civilizations."

In the name of 'cultural diversification and acceptance of the Other', Hosny even went as far as to call for 'non-divine' religions to be accepted. "This is part of freedom of religion and if we reject them we are ignorant and backward," he said. Presumably he was referring to religions such as Buddhism, currently not recognised by the Egyptian state, unlike Judaism and Christianity. The minister has not tried to encourage cultural ties with Israel, however.

Farouk Hosny, an artist who has been Egyptian cultural minister since 1987, is a candidate for the post of Director-General of UNESCO, but has earned a reputation for controversial remarks. Jewish organisations questioned his suitability (see here and here) for UNESCO after Hosny had allegedly called for the burning of Israeli books in Egypt. He has since claimed that he used a turn of phrase which was misinterpreted.

Hosny is a strong contender to be appointed to the UNESCO post now that a Moroccan candidate has bowed out.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Egyptian Jews did not leave of their own free will

The Meretz USA blog has posted a further article (here and here) - first published in The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies in 2005 - by the Australian academic Philip Mendes, this time about the Jews of Egypt. He begins by asking: did they leave freely or were they pushed? but offers precious little evidence of the former. Was their expulsion inevitable? Probably, in view of the Nasser regime's lack of respect for minority rights.

In 1945, there were approximately 900,000 Jews living in Arab countries. But by the time of the 1967 Six Day War only a small number remained (Shulewitz & Israeli 1999:139).

Two dichotomous perspectives - both linked to contemporary political agendas and propaganda - have traditionally been used to explain this modern Jewish exodus.

On the one hand, there is what has been termed the pro-Zionist or alternatively “neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history” (Cohen 1991:55) which interprets the exodus as a response to a long history of Arab persecution. This perspective tends to assume that all Arabs at all times persecuted Jews in a manner commensurate to the persecution of Jews under Christian regimes, and that this vicarious persecution culminated in the widespread and uniform expulsion of Jews following the establishment of the State of Israel (Schechtman 1961; Katz 1973:32-37; Peters 1984; Meron 1995; Meron 1999; Levin 2001:xiii-xiv; Ye’or 2002). The political purpose of this agenda is at least in part to counter contemporary Palestinian refugee demands, and also to reinforce the claims of Oriental or Mizrahi Jews within an Israeli society founded primarily around a narrative of European Jewish suffering and persecution (Beinin 1998:15-16).

The “neo-lachrymose conception” has its obvious historical and political limitations. Any evidence-based analysis would confirm that Jews generally enjoyed greater tolerance under Islamic rule than that of Christianity (Cohen 1991:58-59). Equally, the modern Jewish exodus from the Arab world followed different paths in different countries. Whilst the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Jews were expelled in 1951, a sizeable number of Jews remained in Egypt till and beyond the 1956 Suez War (Beinin 1998:2). And the Lebanese Jewish community remained relatively secure until the 1975 civil war (Schulze 2001). (Schulze is incorrect - 5,000 Jews out of 6,000 left Lebanon after the 1967 war - ed)

On the other hand, the anti-Zionist perspective portrays a harmonious historical relationship between Jews and Muslims that was destroyed only by modern Zionist intervention. According to this perspective, the Jewish exodus was mainly voluntary. Jews were manipulated and persuaded to leave by a combination of Zionist and colonialist conspiracies. Anti-Jewish feeling played little or no part (Abu Shakrah 2001; Qumsiyeh 2004:51; Rose 2004:174-189). The political purpose of this perspective is to contest the legitimacy of the State of Israel which is based at least in part on its self-defined role as a refuge for all Jewish victims of persecution, whether from Europe or the Middle East.

This perspective also has obvious limitations. The historical relationship between Jews and Islam was often marred by institutional anti-Jewish oppression and discrimination including examples of violent persecution (Memmi 1975:20-24 & 31-34; Lewis 1984:168-170; Halevi 1987:199; Cohen 1991:59; Stillman 1991a:63; Beinin 1998:17). There is also little doubt that exclusivist Arab nationalism played a key role in defining the limits of modern Arab citizenship (Said 2001:208-209). In most cases Jews were excluded irrespective of their attitude to Zionism and Israel (Beinin 1998:21).

This paper aims to move beyond these polarized and inadequate perspectives to identify the complex push and pull factors that contributed to the Jewish exodus from modern Egypt. In particular, attention is drawn to the key historical events: the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, the 1956 Suez War, and the 1967 Six Day War that shaped the context which determined the nature of the exodus. It is argued that the exodus was a direct (and perhaps inevitable) by-product of the Arab-Israeli conflict given the progressive targeting of Jews as the enemy of Arab nationalism.

During the interwar years, it has been estimated that 75-80,000 Jews resided in Egypt. They were a culturally heterogeneous community including about 20,000 indigenous Jews, and immigrants from Italy, Greece, North Africa, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Yemen. There was a significant gulf between the Sephardic Jews and the Ashkenazic Jews, and also between the Rabbanite Jews and the smaller community of Karaite Jews. About 30 % of the community held Egyptian citizenship, but the rest were either foreign nationals or stateless.

Economically, most Egyptian Jews belonged to the middle, lower middle, and lower classes with at least 25 % living in significant poverty and dependent on charity. However, about 5 to 10 % of the community formed an affluent upper middle class. This group included professionals such as lawyers and doctors, bankers, owners of a number of large department stores such as the Cicurel family, and a high proportion of registered stockbrokers. As late as 1954, Jews still comprised about 15 % of the Egyptian economic elite. Most Jews spoke European languages, and few (except for the poorer communities) conversed in street Arabic (Landshut 1950:28; Beinin 1995: 103-106; Beinin 1998:260; Levin 2001:89; Oppenheim 2003:412-422).

Many Egyptian Jews (as per most Jews in the Arab world) identified with and benefited from ties with European culture and values (Golan 1978:4-5). This identification reflected not only self-interest, but in many cases a genuine fear of the ethnocentric intolerance of the indigenous population. Conversely, many Muslims resented this Jewish link with what they saw as colonialist interference in their traditions and culture. The gradual introduction of decolonisation undermined Jewish well-being and prosperity (Stillman 1991:63; Alcalay 1993:45; Tessler 1994:310; Beinin 1998:20-21).

Nevertheless, some Jews found acceptance within what was primarily a liberal and secular Egyptian nationalist movement. A number of Jews were active in the anti-British independence movement, and some were elected to Parliament (Beinin 1995:96; Beinin 1998:18; Oppenheim 2003:423-424). Jews were also prominent in the emerging Communist movement which would follow the Soviet Union in supporting the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. As a result, some conservative Egyptian leaders sought to link Zionism and Communism in an attempt to discredit both movements (Beinin 1998:142-148).

Zionism attracted little interest from Jews in the Arab world (Landshut 1950:23-24; Lewis 1984:189-190), and was actively opposed by the communal leadership in Egypt. Only about 4000 Jews – many of whom were recent immigrants to Egypt - departed for Palestine. There was some revival of the Zionist movement during World War Two, and Egyptian delegates even participated in the World Zionist Congresses of 1946 and 1947 although only 10 % of Egyptian Jews bought shekels. The movement then was suppressed as a result of the 1948 war, but continued to operate underground (Beinin 1998:121; Oppenheim 2003:426-427).

Anti-Semitism does not appear to have been a major factor in Egypt prior to 1948. To be sure, Egyptian ultra-nationalist and Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in the late 1930s, and began to target Jews and Jewish institutions. But these early attacks were condemned by the Wafd Party and other influential liberal and secular groups which actively distinguished between Jews and Zionists (Beinin 1998:61-64; Oppenheim 2003:425).

However, the 1945 Balfour Day riots provided a sign of things to come. Massive anti-Zionist demonstrations led by Islamic and nationalist groups resulted in the destruction of the Ashkenazic synagogue in Cairo, and attacks upon nearby Jewish shops and private homes. The Egyptian Prime Minister placed joint blame on the “mob”, and the Zionists who had allegedly provoked the attacks. Nevertheless, King Faruq and the Secretary General of the Arab League publicly regretted the incidents, most of the media condemned the riots, and the Egyptian Government offered to pay compensation for the destroyed synagogue (Kramer 1989:162-163; Laskier 1992:84-87; Beinin 1998:64-66; Oppenheim 2003:424-425).

A further source of concern was the passing of the 1947 Company Law which required the majority of Board members of Egyptian joint stock companies to be Egyptian nationals. Although the law was not specifically directed against Jews it did result in many Jews losing their jobs, and there was widespread concern that minority groups were being removed from public economic life (Kramer 1989:206-207). There were also some media campaigns against Jews, and significant anti-Jewish riots associated with the passage of the 1947 United Nations Partition resolution. However, in general, the government continued to defend Jewish life and property (Kramer 1989:208-211).

During the 1948 War, the government imposed martial law, and approximately 800 Jews were placed in internment camps.(Some estimates put it as high as 1300 - ed). Most were alleged to be either Zionists or Communists reflecting the government’s apparent belief that the two groups were acting in collusion. In addition, Zionism was declared illegal, Jewish organizations were required to provide the names and addresses of their members, and a significant number of Jewish families were expelled from their homes.

The property of about 70 Jewish individuals and firms was placed under state administration. This included a number of major Jewish-owned department stores, and other well-known businesses. But the anti-Jewish measures were characterized both by their excessiveness, and by their inconsistency. Some of the owners of these corporations were known to be Zionists, but others were not. Some leading Zionists were not affected at all.

Government actions were accompanied by a press campaign against local Jews. For example, a Wafdist newspaper published blacklists of Jewish businessmen (Kramer 1989:214). There were also a number of examples of popular violence directed against Jews. In June 1948, a bomb killed 22 Jews and wounded 41 in the Karaite section of Cairo. The Egyptian Government absurdly blamed the explosion on fireworks stored in Jewish homes, and conflict between Karaite and Rabbanite Jews. Later following an Israeli air attack on Cairo in July 1948, a number of Jewish-owned department stores and cinemas were bombed. A further explosion in the Rabbanite Jewish section of Cairo in September 1948 killed 19 Jews and wounded 62. A subsequent bomb in November 1948 destroyed a prominent Jewish publishing house.

The government was relatively inactive in protecting the Jewish community from these attacks which appear to have mainly been perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of the factors which may have contributed to government policy included their fear of the political strength of the Brotherhood, the Prime Minister’s personal anti-Semitism, and a general incompetence. However, no specifically anti-Jewish legislation was passed, and there is little evidence that the above events were linked to a deep-seated anti-Jewish campaign or public ferment (Landshut 1950:33-40; Kramer 1989:215-217; Laskier 1992:126-139; Beinin 1995:96; Beinin 1998:66-70 & 92-94).

The key question that remains to be answered is whether the Arab-Israeli War necessarily precluded a continuing role for Jews either in Egypt or the Arab world in general. On the one hand, a state based on genuinely secular liberal principles could reasonably be expected to maintain the rights of a minority population even whilst being in a state of war with that population’s neighbouring nation state. (My emphasis - ed). This was particularly the case given that the leaders of the Egyptian Jewish community persistently affirmed their loyalty to Egypt, and made significant (albeit almost certainly coerced) donations to the Palestine War fund (Kramer 1989:213-214; Beinin 1998:60).

On the other hand, the increasing threats towards Jews in Egypt and other Arab countries suggested that the distinction between Jews and Zionists was no longer maintained. The Jewish minority would inevitably be regarded as a potential fifth column, and hence excluded from the Arab nation. From 1944 to 1947, a number of threats were made by Arab leaders concerning the likely fate of Arab Jews as a result of events in Palestine (Meir-Glitzenstein 2004:21).

In November 1947, for example, the Egyptian Delegate to the United Nations Muhammad Husayn Haykal (known to be a relative liberal in Egyptian politics) warned that the Palestine Partition Resolution could lead to reprisals against Jews in Arab countries. According to Haykal: “Partition of Palestine might create in those countries an anti-Semitism even more difficult to root out than the anti-Semitism which the Allies were trying to eradicate in Germany…If the United Nations decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for very grave disorders and for the massacre of a large number of Jews” (Meron 1995:47; See also Beinin 1998:60-62).

Haykal’s warning was followed by specific resolutions of the Arab League in February 1948 dealing with the Jews of Arab countries. The resolutions implied concern for “the welfare and property of Jewish citizens”, and urged Jews to maintain their loyalty to their homelands, and to eschew any involvement in Zionist activity. But they also threatened that “any act of Zionist terrorism is liable to bring a holocaust upon the entire Jewish community”. It was unclear whether this clause referred to terrorist activities by Palestinian Jews, or alternatively by local Jews sympathetic to Zionism (Meir-Glitzenstein 2004:22; see also Landshut 1950:26).

Between 1948 and 1950 about 20,000 Jews left Egypt including over 14,000 who migrated to Israel. Many were lower middle-class Jews who found their economic prospects destroyed by widespread unemployment, and the ongoing campaign to Egyptianize business ownership and administration. Much of this exodus was openly organized by emissaries of the Mossad l’Aliya, the Israeli Institute for Immigration, which established a number of travel agencies inside Egypt in order to coordinate the process (Kramer 1989:217-218; Beinin 1995:96). (But Levana Zamir in her essay 'The Golden Era of the Jews of Egypt' points out that Aliya from Egypt was limited to a quota of a few hundred per month - ed)

Nevertheless for those Jews who remained there was some evidence that life was returning to normal. Between July 1949 and February 1950, most of the Jews who had been interned were released, and their property restored by the government. Many Jews continued to practice their professions in areas such as journalism, publishing, law, medicine and finance. Jewish sporting teams continued to operate as did communal institutions such as hospitals and schools although most Jewish newspapers ceased publication. In addition, King Faruq resumed his traditionally friendly relations with the Jewish community including the awarding of royal decorations to leading Jews.

Following the 1952 Free Officers Revolution, the new Prime Minister General Muhammad Naguib worked particularly hard to establish good relations with the Jewish community, and publicly assured Jews that they continued to be part of the Egyptian nation. Naguib visited a number of Jewish institutions including the Cairo synagogue on Yom Kippur, and the Egyptian Chief Rabbi was invited to attend national celebrations (Schechtman 1961:192-194; Golan 1978:40; Kramer 1989:215 & 220; Stillman 1991b: 168; Laskier 1992:139-141, 146 & 201; Beinin 1998:79-81).

Naguib’s replacement by General Gamal Abdel Nasser in March 1954 seems to have halted this trend towards better relations, and was followed by the unfortunate Operation Susannah episode. In July 1954, Egyptian authorities arrested an Israeli spy ring consisting of 13 operatives including an Israeli officer and a dozen local Jews. They had carried out a number of acts of sabotage including setting fire to the United States Information Service Library in Cairo, the Alexandria Post Office, and a number of cinemas. Little damage was done, and no fatalities had occurred. The two leaders of the group were sentenced to death, and the other defendants were sentenced to long prison terms.

The espionage operation – which later became known in Israel as the Lavon Affair due to a political scandal over who was responsible for ordering the bungled action – seems to have been intended to undermine western confidence in the stability of the Egyptian regime. In particular, it was hoped to prevent the planned withdrawal of British forces from the Suez Canal (Golan 1978:48-49; Woolfson 1980:201-207; Laskier 1992:216-219; Morris 1993:316-320; Beinin 1998:19-20; Shlaim 2000:111-112).

During the trial period, the Egyptian authorities and media were careful to distinguish between the minority of Zionist spies and Egyptian Jews, and emphasized that the majority of Egyptian Jews were loyal citizens (Beinin 1995:93-94). However, Operation Susannah does appear to have further undermined the rights and standing of Egyptian Jews (Kramer 1989:220-221; Stillman 1991b:169; Beinin 1998:86-87 & 95; Hirst 2003:294; Rose 2004:189).

The Second Wave of Repression: the 1956 and 1967 Wars:The second Arab-Israeli war was accompanied by harsh government measures against the Egyptian Jewish community. About 1000 Jews – both Zionist and non-Zionist - were detained, most Jews were placed under surveillance, many Jews were directly expelled from the country, and over 500 Jewish businesses were placed under state control. Significant measures were taken to exclude Jews from economic life. In addition, Zionism was declared a criminal offence, and Zionists were deprived of the right to hold citizenship. However, in contrast to 1948 there were few instances of popular violence directed against Jews.

Following the conclusion of the war, Jews were directly pressured to leave Egypt either by formal deportation orders, or via more covert methods of intimidation and harassment. Between November 1956 and March 1957 over 14,000 Jews departed Egypt mainly for Israel, including most of the key community leaders.

From mid-1957 to mid-1967 a further 17-19,000 Jews departed Egypt. Most of the key Jewish institutions including the school system were taken over by the Egyptian Government. In addition, the nationalization decrees of 1960-62 destroyed the livelihood of many Jews (Schechtman 1961:196-205; Golan 1978:242-243; Kramer 1989:221; Laskier 1992: 253-263; Beinin 1998:87-89, 107 & 185; Levin 2001:103-109; Oppenheim 2003:428-429).

At the time of the Six Day War about 7,000 Jews remained in Egypt (Beinin 1998:88). These Jews appear to have experienced a final wave of persecution including mass arrests and subsequent expulsion. The organized Egyptian Jewish community had come to an end (Peters 1984:106; Khedr 2003).

Summary and Conclusion: The Egyptian body politic appears to have been relatively more liberal and tolerant towards Jews than other Arab countries such as Iraq and Syria. Until the 1956 Suez War a sizeable Jewish community remained in Egypt, and active government or popular violence against Jews had been relatively restrained. Nevertheless by 1967 the formal existence of Egyptian Jewry had also come to an end.

The factors which led to the demise of Egyptian Jewry are complex, but nonetheless closely related to the onset of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Most Jews did not leave Egypt voluntarily, although it is true that some were active Zionists and positively attracted to the idea of living in Israel. However, more often than not support for Zionism seems to have been a defensive response to perceived insecurity and/or active persecution (Segre 1971:125; Lewis 1984:190).

Another factor was the general post-colonialist resentment of foreigners which led to their gradual exclusion from Egyptian social and economic life. Hence many Jews appear to have left Egypt because of economic factors such as loss of jobs and livelihood, rather than specific anti-Jewish persecution. Similarly a number of authors have noted that other foreign minorities such as the Italians and Greeks also experienced hostility, and left Egypt in significant numbers (Kramer 1989:234-235; Laskier 1992:299-301; Beinin 1998:18-21). But it was arguably the conflict over Palestine which specifically motivated ethnocentric groups and the government to target and scapegoat Jews.

A considerable number of Jews – perhaps the majority – seem to have departed as a result of systematic harassment or direct expulsion. It was perhaps inevitable that the Jews would experience some backlash as a result of being seen as holding potential dual loyalties to both their homeland, and the nation with whom that country was at war. But their wholesale departure suggests that the threats first uttered by Arab leaders in the mid-late 1940s ultimately came to fruition: that Jews in the Arab world were driven out as a direct and unapologetic retaliation for Jewish actions in Israel/Palestine.

CONFERENCE 3 November: 'The Multiculture of the Jews of Egypt'
And you shall tell your children - the Second Exodus film

The Association of Jews from Egypt in Israel is holding a conference at Bat Yam auditorium on 3 November 2008. Speakers include Prof. Nahem Ilan, from the Lander Institute Jerusalem; Miryam Frenkel, Deputy Director of the Ben Zvi Institute;Levana Zamir, President of the Association of Jews from Egypt; Yossi Ben Aharon, Jerusalem; Dr. Ada Aharoni, WCJE Haifa; Eyal Sagui-Bizawi. Email

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Azoulay calls for Israel to accept Saudi peace plan

Is Andre Azoulay, a self-styled 'Arab Jew' and adviser to the king of Morocco, right to support the Saudi peace plan when Israeli officials have rejected it? Or is he just a pathetic example of abject dhimmitude? Haaretz reports:

"A Jewish adviser to Moroccan King Mohammed VI called on Israel on Tuesday to adopt the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, which offers Israel normalized relations with the Arab world in exchange for its withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and to advance the peace process with the Palestinians.

"I am a Jew with a commitment," said Andre Azoulay. "I'm an Arab Jew. I advise the king of Morocco... The Arab mainstream sees Israel as the party responsible for preventing peace, not the Arabs," he added, speaking at a conference marking ten years since the founding of President Shimon Peres' peace center, held in Tel Aviv this week.

"Azoulay was recently appointed president of the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures in Alexandria, Egypt, and he is soon scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"Azoulay has been active in promoting dialogue between Arabs and Jews and between East and West for many years. He has visited Israel many times and met with countless senior Israeli officials over the years. He argues that his work to advance peace between Arabs and Jews is part of his duty and belief as a Jew.

"In his address at the Peres Peace Center Tuesday, he spoke about his trips to Saudi Arabia, who drafted the peace initiative, and about Saudi King Abdullah's call for dialogue between Islam and Judaism. "This is a revolution," he said. "In the past, I visited Saudi Arabia but I was asked to hide the fact that I was Jewish. Today, that is over. The climate has changed completely."

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Self-induced Nakba is self-perpetuating

A conference on 7-8 November at Columbia university will blame all the ills of the Palestinians on the West, instead of on thwarted expectations of Arab and Muslim domination, argues Philip Carl Salzman in History News Network :

"Palestinians and their partisans, such as those who will meet at the "Edward Said Conference" at Columbia University on November 7-8, explain their unfortunate situation as a result of Western imperialism and colonialism, which, they explain in terms of "postcolonial theory," are rationalized and encouraged by disparaging "orientalist" stereotypes of Arabs and Middle Easterners. The responsibility for any and all current disabilities of the Middle East, according to postcolonial theory, rests with Europe and America, whose interventions have only victimized and destroyed Middle Eastern society and culture.

"There is a certain inconsistency in the Arab and Muslim narrative about imperialism and colonialism. About the period of the 7th to the 18th centuries, when the Arab Muslim Empire spread by the sword from Arabia across all of the Middle East and North Africa to Morocco in the west, to Sicily, Portugal, Spain, and France in the north, and to Central Asia and India in the East, followed by Ottoman conquests in Europe, the narrative of imperialism and colonialism is triumphalist. Endless slaughter, forced conversion, slavery, and wholesale expropriation of property were all for the glory to God, and all good. But the rise of the West, and its relatively brief and limited interventions in the Middle East, are viewed as the height of evil. Why? Because God choose Muslims as his True Followers, and as such, they have a right—no, a duty—to dominate.

"The stagnation of the Muslim world in the 19th and 20th centuries, and its relative weakness in relation to the rising West, are today blamed by Palestinian and Arab partisans on Western intrusion in the region. But those directly facing the rising West at the time, the Ottomans and later the Persian Crown, knew that they had fallen behind, and sought Western civil and military technology and goods, and Western administrative and legal systems, in order to modernize and better face the challenge. This response is more consistent with our understanding of human life than the "postcolonial" argument that all is the fault of someone else, in this case, the West. One of the great Marxist students of imperialism, the anthropologist Eric Wolf, demonstrated that local peoples, at least those not murdered or enslaved, are not passive receivers of imperial and colonial culture, but shape their response according to their own culture and vision.

"Narratives of victimization, such as the Palestinian one, neglect to account for the active Arab response to the Jews and to Jewish immigration. Explaining all by Western imposition robs the Arabs of Palestine of their agency, and infantilizes them. In reality, Palestinians responded actively: Elite landowners sold the Jews land, while the populace in general closed ranks against the Jews. Following the tribally-based principle of those closer uniting against those more distant, the opposition to the Jews was both organizational and religious. Jews were not kinsmen and, worse, were infidels.

"Arab opposition to the Jews, expressed in riots and pogroms, was ratchetted up in the face of Jewish desires for national autonomy and independence. After all, it was believed that any part of the Dar al-Islam must remain under Muslim dominance forevermore. And for a thousand years, Jews under Islam had been a subservient and despised minority, cowering under the power of their Muslim masters. The Arabs in Palestine thought that the Jews could not and would not stand up to them, and they acted on that well established cultural principle. Honor would allow nothing less.

"The Arabs acted according to their tradition, according to their lights. They refused compromise with inferiors; they refused to divide and share, rejecting a UN settlement. Instead, they strove for complete victory, as their ancestors had. However, the thousand-year-old conditions did not obtain. The Jews they faced were not dhimma, and they did not cower; against the odds, and with little outside help, they fought and won. The Arab states answered the call, but were ineffectual, and failed. The "Nakba" was self-induced by the Arabs. They demanded all or nothing, and got nothing. But they have continued to hold to the rejectionist position, taking an annihilationist stance toward Israel and the Jews. So in reality the self-induced "Nakba" is self-perpetuating. The successful agitprop that obscures this both to the world and to themselves is also a result of Arab agency. The Edward Said Conference will carry on in the same tradition."

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Monday, October 27, 2008

The story of the Yemenite bean-seller

The Jerusalem Post has this fascinating insight into the life of Moshe Levi Nahum, who arrived in the land of Israel as a destitute orphan from Yemen:

"Inside the warren of narrow cobbled streets and old one-story houses that make up Tel Aviv's Kerem Hateimanim, the Yemenite Vineyard, lies Rehov Malan, named for one of the first inhabitants of the area, Moshe Levi Nahum, known by his nickname Mussa el-Ful after one of the activities in his long and active life - selling beans.

"Born in Yemen in 1891, Nahum was a towering figure in the Israeli Yemenite community. A handsome and impressive man, he always dressed in Western style and carried a silver-headed walking stick. He became known as the mukhtar (leader) of the Yemenites who lived in Jaffa and later in the Kerem, and labored for many years to improve their situation. One of his many children from several marriages - 80-year-old teacher Hephzibah Cohen - told me the fascinating story of her father's life. A book about him, Kerem Haya Leyedidi, by Shlomo Tivoni, based on conversations with Mussa el-Ful, tells his story in even greater detail and is also a fascinating account of what life was like for the inhabitants of the Kerem from its beginnings until today.

"He arrived in the country in 1905, an orphan of 14 who left Yemen in the company of two uncles and an older brother. After an adventure-packed journey in which he stowed away on several ships and worked his passage on some of them, he arrived in Eretz Yisrael without a penny in his pocket and landed in the Kerem Hateimanim, officially established in 1904. He was taken under the wing of a kind Yemenite tradesman who made it his business to help new immigrants - and who, years later, became his father-in-law.

"While he was ecstatic to have arrived in the Holy Land, he quickly realized that the inhabitants of the Kerem were all, like himself, desperately poor, and he could only rely on himself for his survival. Those first days and many later ones were spent hunting for a piece of bread. Sometimes he found one thrown out by the "rich people of Tel Aviv" as he called them. Once he even chased after a dog with an old loaf in its mouth and ate that in desperation.

"Not wanting to become a jewelry maker, which was what most Yemenite immigrants did in those days, he supported himself by selling the bean snacks which gave him his nickname. He would sell them to children studying at the Alliance school, trading them for a slice of bread and later for Hebrew lessons. He went on to learn French, English and Yiddish. He tried many different occupations, including construction worker, cobbler and bailiff. He also joined the Hashomer organization set up to defend the Jews against the Arabs and the Turks.

"During World War I, the Turks decided to expel all the Jews living on the coast for fear their presence would benefit the British during the battles that raged for possession of the land. Hundreds were driven north and Nahum was one of them. By this time married to his first wife Esther, the first of his many children was born there and called Yossi Haglili. Yossi's granddaughter Tsilla, a Tel Aviv University film student, also told me what she knew about her great-grandfather."

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Jewish refugees are key to grasping the Middle East

The continuous evocation of the plight of Palestinian refugees on campus and in the media has prompted Reut Cohen to ask how anyone can claim to understand the Middle East conflict when half its suffering victims are ignored. From Pajamas media:

"I am Jewish, but I am also Middle Eastern. I come from a traditional Sephardic/Mizrahi household. The food we eat, the way we pray, the music we listen to are all Middle Eastern in their style and origins. While I am very familiar with the situation of Middle Eastern Jewish refugees, it has always astounded, and even offended, me that the situation of my relatives who suffered and endured in refugee camps is rarely addressed.

"Up to one million Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa in 1945. These Middle Eastern Jews lived in communities dating back more than three millennia. Yet today these communities have been virtually wiped out by Islamic governments and only a few thousand Jews remain.

"Israel was a very poor country with a finite amount of resources, making life very difficult for diverse Jews who were breaking free of repressive regimes. While Israel absorbed the survivors of the Holocaust, it also absorbed an equal number of Jews from the Middle East who faced intense persecution under Islamic regimes that became very Nazi-like in their treatment of Jews.

"My paternal grandfather vividly recalls his experiences living as a Jew in Baghdad and the Farhud pogrom, which was a Nazi pogrom coordinated by Haj Amin al-Husseini. In a two-day period Arab mobs went on a rampage in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq. Nearly 300 Jews were killed and more than 2,000 injured; some 900 Jewish homes were destroyed and looted, and hundreds of Jewish-owned shops were robbed and destroyed. My older family members recall witnessing how Iraqi soldiers pulled small children away from their parents and ripped the arms off young girls to steal their bracelets; pregnant women were raped and their stomachs cut open. My grandfather hid his baby brother underneath his t-shirt when the violence began and ran home. My great-grandfather saved his entire family during the riots that broke out in Baghdad by claiming to be a Muslim when Iraqi troops came into their home with the intent of looting, raping, and killing. Eventually, when being a Jew was practically criminalized, my father’s family escaped to Israel with only the clothes on their backs — their belongings were confiscated — leaving behind everything that they knew. Their experience was not a unique one and was shared by several thousand Baghdadi Jews.

"Other Islamic countries treated their Jewish populations similarly. My maternal grandmother escaped from Syria during the mid-1940s. Her parents had died and she was forced to live with an older sister. As a 16-year-old girl, she decided to pay a Druze man with the gold her mother left to her and made the long, tedious journey to modern-day Israel. Because Syrian officials would incarcerate any Jew fleeing in the direction of Israel, my grandmother and other individuals making their way from Syria to what eventually became Israel would only be able to walk at night. Several Syrian Jews found it nearly impossible to flee. The last few Jews from Syria made their escape in the early 1990s. Our male relatives who arrived in Israel in the 1990s shared their stories with us. They were taken by Syrian authorities and tortured for unspecified amounts of time, experiencing unspeakable cruelty at the hands of Syrian officials.

"We rarely hear of the atrocities committed against Middle Eastern Jewry and only hear about the poor Palestinian refugees. Indeed the Palestinian refugees are a poor people, a scapegoat for repressive Islamic governments who despise Israel and who will not allow these people to become immersed in Islamic countries.

"My family is also indigenous to the Middle East. They are from communities that lived in dusty tents for years. They helped to build a country that was poor and barely habitable. They were refugees with a plight that has been unrecognized for decades.

"Rather than engaging in violence like the Palestinians, Middle Eastern Jews persevered and built new lives. They became Israeli citizens and they ceased being refugees. At first they had to overcome social discrimination, as two very different Jewish populations found themselves interacting so suddenly — European and Middle Eastern. However, it is crucial to note that Israel eventually absorbed populations from Europe and the Middle East without receiving assistance from the international community. The Middle Eastern Jewish community makes up more than half of Israel’s Jewish population.

"I believe that without honesty or a comprehensive view of the Middle East, individuals are simply deluding themselves into thinking they actually have a firm understanding of a very complicated conflict. I have never heard a single Middle Eastern department at any university bring up this issue. Instead, much of the dialogue surrounding the Middle East attacks Israel, which makes up less than one percent of the Middle East. We cannot omit important narratives simply because they would call to question what we already believe.

Read article in full

Friday, October 24, 2008

Egyptian Jews keep a low profile at Simhat Torah

Only six Jews attended Simhat Torah services in Alexandria this year. What is more pathetic is that they declined to identify themselves to Brenda Gazzar, the Jerusalem Post reporter, and were afraid to show any link to Israel. Yet Egypt is one of only two Arab countries which has signed a full peace treaty with the Jewish state.

"Inside the grand Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in this bustling seaside city, five mostly elderly women and a middle-aged man from the Jewish community here gathered Tuesday evening to commemorate the holiday of new beginnings: Simhat Torah.

"For the dwindling Jewish community of Alexandria, where fewer than 25 members now remain, six local attendees is nearly par for the course. And new beginnings seem far away.

"The last minyan witnessed by the synagogue was last Yom Kippur, when participants sent by the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and several foreign visitors attended services.

"Now you see what the situation is," said Naftali Twitoo, an Israeli of Tunisian origin who regularly visits the country to lead holiday prayers here, following the service he conducted. "It hurts me that there aren't [more] people [here], but there is nothing that can be done."

"At one point during the evening service, the soulful Mizrahi chanting of Twitoo was almost overpowered by the verses from the Koran emanating from a loudspeaker at a nearby mosque. At least 15 armed guards in uniforms stood watch around the high walls of the synagogue during the brief Simhat Torah service.

Members, who mostly spoke French among themselves, kissed the Torah during the service, feasted on rich pastries and then later congratulated one another with the traditional Arabic holiday greeting: "Kul Sana w'Antum Taibeen."

But it was hard not to notice that some familiar faces were missing.

In late July, the Jewish community of Alexandria lost its president of eight years, Dr. Max Salama, at the age of about 94. A native Alexandrian and long-time fixture of the Jewish community, Salama served as the dentist to the country's noble classes, including relatives of King Farouk's family and the brother of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Indeed, a few members of this rapidly aging community are now living in convalescent or nursing homes, including the meticulous registrar; a petite, spunky woman who has recorded all the births, deaths and marriages in the community for more than three decades.

And others in the community are finally leaving. One woman, who was born in Alexandria and spent all of her 86 years here, said she was making final preparations to leave Egypt and join her daughter, her grandchildren and great grandchildren in Australia.

"I feel the necessity to be with family," she said, later asking that her name not be used for the article. "I'm a bit lonely now. I don't go out much due to transport problems. It's not easy for me."

"This traditionally cosmopolitan city is said to have boasted a community of tens of thousands of Jews of both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi descent, but some were expelled as French or British citizens during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. Others were expelled and/or imprisoned for up to three years during the Six Day War. Some, too, left on their own accord, feeling that there was a brighter future for them as Jews in countries like Israel, America and Australia.

"It is estimated that there are no more than 75 or 100 Egyptian Jews in the whole country, with the majority being concentrated in Cairo.

"But others, including Ben Youssef Gaon, the new president of Alexandria's Jewish community, decided to stay, feeling that Egypt has been their only home.

"Gaon, 53, is one of the youngest members and says he has been treated well by other Egyptians because of the respectful way he treats others.(...)

Today, Gaon says, he is still accepted as a Jew. He is often invited to dinner by friends during Ramadan, for example, and brings his friends sweets during their traditional feasts.

But it is clear that many Jews here are careful not to draw attention to themselves. Several members of the community declined to be interviewed for this article or asked that their name not be used.

Some feared their children could be affected at their workplace if it was discovered that one or both their parents were Jewish.

Many of the women in the community intermarried with Christians or Muslims and quite a few members even converted to Islam to facilitate marriage or raising children.

"We'd rather have a low profile here," said one Jewish woman, 77, who asked that her name not be used. "We don't like our stories being known all over the place because our position is not clear. When people think about a Jew, they always mix us up with Israel... Of course it upsets me, as I have nothing to do with politics."

Another woman asked a foreign visitor to contact her friends in Israel for her since she did not feel comfortable calling Israel herself through an Egyptian clerk at a call center.

But some argue that such preoccupations may no longer be of concern within the next decade or two.

"We were only four ladies for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot," the 86-year-old woman who is moving to Australia said earlier this week. "We're very few. You feel very sorry to see this synagogue empty."

Read article in full

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Leftist blog highlights fate of Jews in Arab lands

Bennett Muraskin's article on the Meretz USA blog, adapted from a piece published in Humanistic Judaism (Summer 2008), is to be welcomed for two main reasons: first, it is evidence of a growing interest on the Left in the subject of Jews in Arab lands. The second is that, on the whole, it is a fair representation of their fate.

On the other hand, Muraskin displays a post-modern tendency common on the Left to give credibility to Arab claims - to see 'both sides' of the story, to see the Jews not as bona fide refugees, but the Jewish exodus as a mixture of 'push' and 'pull' factors. No such scepticism operates towards Palestinian refugees.

"These (anti-Jewish) trends were well under way before Jewish settlement in Palestine under the 1917 British mandate became a major issue and well before the Zionist movement gained a foothold among Jews in Arab lands. With the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Arab attitudes toward Jews worsened as German anti-Semitic propaganda flooded the Arab world. It is perhaps understandable that many Arab nationalists, suffering under the British and French colonial yoke, looked to Germany as an ally, but their adoption of Nazi-style anti-Semitism made it impossible for Jews to cooperate with Arab nationalists against colonialism.

"Between 1937 and 1939, a rash of bombings against Jewish targets occurred in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. These acts of violence were not the doing of the Arab governments, but neither were the perpetrators caught and punished. In 1941, in Iraq, the most prosperous Jewish community in the Middle East, a massive pogrom broke out during an anti-British, pro-German coup. Arab soldiers, paramilitary groups, and urban mobs killed 180 Jews, destroyed many homes and businesses, and left twelve thousand homeless. When order was restored, the pro-British Iraqi government condemned the violence, but Iraqi Jews had good reason to fear for their future. During the German occupation of Tunisia during World War Two, five thousand Jews were sent to labor camps, where half died. Jewish property was confiscated and Jews were subjected to periodic mob attacks. Many Arabs served the Germans as prison guards and police, informed on Jews to Nazi officials, and participated in pogroms. There were righteous Arabs as well who protected and saved Jews, but most Arabs were indifferent to their fate.

"After World War Two, but before the United Nations resolution for the partitioning of Palestine in November 1947, riots broke out in Egypt against Jews, Christians, and foreigners. The government apologized but took no steps to curb antisemitic propaganda emanating from Muslim clerics and Egyptian nationalists. In Libya, massive rioting killed 130 Jews, injured hundreds more, destroyed synagogues, and left four thousand Jews homeless. Opposition to the Jewish presence in Palestine was not the root cause of these outbursts.

"Jews in Arab lands who survived these persecutions lost faith in Europe and became ardent Zionists. When Israel was created, the long-suffering 44,000 Jews of Yemen departed for the new Jewish state en masse between 1948 and 1950, and 31,000 out of 36,000 Libyan Jews left in a stampede between 1949 and 1951. No amount of Zionist propaganda could have caused such a sudden evacuation.

"The situation in Iraq was more complicated. There, Zionist emissaries worked feverishly to speed the departure of the Jewish population, and the Iraqi government did little to reassure Jews that they could safely remain. By this time, Jews in North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) were better treated, yet they departed nonetheless during the 1950s and early ‘60s due both to their fear of Arab nationalism and the encouragement of Israeli agents. Many chose France or Canada over Israel as their destination, so it could not have been Israeli propaganda alone that caused them to emigrate. There was no ambiguity in Egypt, however, when in 1956, it expelled its entire Jewish population.

"In sum, the Arab-Israeli conflict was but one cause of the disappearance of Jews from Arab lands. Jews and Arabs experienced European colonialism differently – the former, as an opportunity to improve their status; the latter, as a threat to theirs. Jewish foreign ties and economic success angered the Arab Muslim majority, and this anger reinforced the tendency among Jews to seek the protection of the colonial power or the patronage of friendly but corrupt pro-colonial Arab leaders. Arab nationalists correctly perceived Jews as pro-European but failed to launch any serious effort to win them over. Instead some adopted anti-Semitic rhetoric imported from Nazi Germany. After the creation of Israel, Arab hostility to Jews in their midst increased. Jews in Arab lands, whether pushed out by Arab pressure or pulled in by the lure of Israel or the West, left their ancestral homelands forever."

Read post in full

But Muraskin 's opening and closing paragraphs are at odds with the main thrust of the article. He begins:

After the establishment of Israel in 1948, a massive exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands took place, extending into the mid-1960s. Whether Jews were driven out in reprisal for the Israeli victory in its War of Independence, which resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians or left voluntarily, encouraged or even prodded by Zionist organizations seeking immigrants to increase the Jewish population of Israel, is in dispute. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Why should the truth lie somewhere in between? The stark fact is that people do not leave their homes in large numbers unless they are compelled to do so. There are 25,000 Jews still living in Turkey. Before the 1979 Islamic revolution there were 80-100,000 Jews in Iran. There are only 4,500 Jews living in Arab countries today. Over 50 percent left Arab lands within five years of the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This can only mean one thing - that Turkey and pre-1979 Iran did not 'ethnically cleanse" their Jews, while the Arab states did.

Having disposed of the myth that only the creation of Israel provoked Arab hostility towards the Jews in their midst, and described the age-old tribulations of the dhimmi and how Jews sought protection and rights via the European powers, Muraskin's conclusion can only be construed as muddled thinking:

Is it fair, however, to equate the exodus of Jews from Arab lands with that of Palestinians from Israel in 1947-1949? If "they" did it to "us" does that justify what "we" did to "them?" Two wrongs never made a right, but beyond that basic moral principle, the circumstances were different. Palestinians did not want to leave. Jews did.

Muraskin is saying that the Palestinian exodus was revenge for the Jewish exodus. This is nonsense. Arabs left Palestine before Jews left Arab lands. There was no Jewish design to make Arabs leave. Muraskin himself admits: "
Outright expulsion, as suffered by the Palestinians, was the exception rather than the rule."

These are the facts:

Arab League drew up a blueprint to exploit and persecute their Jews as early as November 1947, before hostilities broke out in earnest in Palestine.

The Palestinians may not have wanted to leave, but their leaders colluded with Arab states to start a war whose effect was to make them leave.

Jews did not want to leave. But they had to.

Muraskin writes: Israel and the Zionist movement encouraged the "ingathering of exiles." Nothing justifies the harsh treatment meted out to Jews in Arab lands, but most left voluntarily.

Here Muraskin contradicts everything he has said before. Jews did not leave voluntarily, but after 1948 had somewhere to go to - Israel. There is a difference.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Succot in Baghdad, now and then

US soldiers inside the succah at the Balad army base in Iraq

Succot is the festival where Jews are enjoined to live in structures open to the sky to recall the forty years which the Children of Israel spent in the desert before being allowed to enter the Promised Land.

This is how the US army has been celebrating the Festival of Tabernacles in Iraq.

But how was it for the Jews who sojourned 2,700 years in the Land of the Two Rivers?

A friend remembers how, each year, her family would erect a succah composed of four upright wooden beams in the middle of the garden in Baghdad. The walls consisted of date palm leaves tied at the top and base to horizontal beams. Pomegranates and oranges hung from the roof. The roof had a trellis, but it too was bedecked with palm leaves. The whole succah was decorated with coloured lights. My friend remembers there was a large table in the centre and divans on three sides of the succah so that the family could sleep there.

Of course the weather was still very warm and there was never any risk of the downpours that make Succot so ill-suited to northern European climes. But the first rains would follow soon afterwards and Muslims were overheard telling each other: "the feast of the Jews must be over!"

North Yemen President 'was a trainee rabbi'

Revealed in Haaretz: the amazing story of the Jewish orphan who was forcibly abducted away from his family in 1918, converted to Islam, but rose to be the president of North Yemen. (According to the historian SD Goitein, the forcible conversion of Jewish orphans to Islam was the single biggest factor behind the Jewish exodus from Yemen):

"In advance of the period of the Jewish holidays, Dorit Mizrahi, a journalist at the ultra-Orthodox weekly Mishpaha, was asked to come up with a creative idea for an article. She decided that the time had come to write about her relative, Zekharia Hadad, the brother of Grandma Levana ("Kamar," in Yemenite), who was kidnapped as a young boy, forced to convert to Islam, and given the name Abdul Rahman Yahya al-Iryani before being appointed the president of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), in 1967.

"As a child, I remember the moment when I found out that my grandmother's brother had become the president of Yemen," says Mizrahi, a resident of Jerusalem. "The first trickle of information actually came from the United States when a letter, with photos enclosed, sent by a relative, posed the question: Doesn't he look like Grandma Levana? When my uncle brought the photos to his mother, my grandmother, she looked at them and said: 'That's him.' She said nothing further." (..)

One family member, Oved Taasa, told ( Dorit) Mizrahi that, "as soon as the news of the parents' death was known, before the Jewish community managed to hide them or marry them off, Zekharia and his sister were taken away by official representatives, who appeared on horseback. The family tried to object, offered them jewelry and money, pleaded and wept, but nothing helped. Their [older] sister, Kamar, who remained alone, fell ill from sorrow. From that time it was rare to see her laughing."

Young Zekharia was sent to the Iryani home, a well-connected family whose sons held public office and originated in the city of Irian, a two-day ride on horseback from Ibb. Zekharia's adoptive father was a qadi, a sharia judge, who had great power in the tribal society of Yemen of those days and armed soldiers serving under him. The judge gave his adopted son his name and raised him together with his biological children. During the first years, says Mizrahi, based on testimony of family members, Zekharia-Yahya still managed to keep in touch with his family, although he was threatened that if he ran away, his natural sister and her children would be murdered. "They said that he came on visits to Ibb wearing Arab garb, at risk to his life," she explains.

The last contact with him, about which there was even written documentation, was during World War II. Nissim Gamliel (Levana's son) enlisted in the British army in Palestine in 1942 and was taken captive by the Germans. From his captivity, and out of despair, he wrote several letters to his uncle Zekharia-Yahya in Yemen, whose address he remembered. His uncle, already a Muslim and an important public figure, replied in two letters and even sent food packages to his nephew. Gamliel saved the letters in his personal diary, which he wrote in secret in Rashi script, in Hebrew, in the prison camp. In 1945, at the end of the war, he was released from captivity and returned to Palestine, but over the years some of the pages of his yellowing diary were damaged and together with it the letters disappeared as well.

In 1948 Qadi al-Iryani participated in an unsuccessful coup against the imam. In its wake the rebel leaders were executed, including the qadi and his sons. Although he was not among the conspirators, Zekharia-Abdul Rahman Yahya decided to flee, out of fear that he would share the fate of the other members of the Iryani family. He found refuge in the Jewish neighborhood of Ibb, the city of his birth, but after a while he was caught and imprisoned for seven years. It was in the notorious Haja Prison that his political awareness became stronger and he became a sworn opponent of the imam and the royal family.

In September 1962 Imam Ahmed died, and was replaced by his son Mohammed al-Badr. The commander of the Yemenite army, Abdullah Sallal, and officers in the army, who drew inspiration from the ideas of the Egyptian Free Officers, exploited the situation. They deposed the new imam and declared the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic in north Yemen. This led to a civil war, between the royalists, who supported the imam, and the new government - a war that had roots in history as well as in the country's tribal rivalries.

Additional countries were swept up in the maelstrom of the war: Egypt under president Gamal Abdel Nasser supported the republicans and sent a military force that at one stage numbered about 30,000 soldiers. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, backed by Great Britain, supported the royalists. The battles, during which the Egyptians used chemical weapons (mustard gas), continued until 1967.

The republican camp was divided between supporters of president Sallal, who adopted liberal views, and that of Abdul Rahman Yahya al-Iryani, who was opposed to the connection with Egypt and to the presence of the Egyptian army, and believed in reconciliation with the royalists. The new rebels deposed Sallal and in November 1967, Iryani was elected the second present of the Yemen Arab Republic.

During his term, the civil war came to an end. The Egyptian army left Yemen and the new president tried to mend the rifts and heal the scars of war. His term lasted for six and a half years, during which he participated in Arab summit conferences (in photographs, he is seen beside his colleagues among the Arab leaders). In June 1974, another military coup took place in Yemen. Iryani was deposed and found refuge in Syria, where he died in 1998 at the age of 88. His body was flown to Yemen, where he was buried.

Dorit Mizrahi, whose impressions were published in Mishpaha about a week ago, remembers the moment when one of her relatives brought home an issue of the weekly tabloid Haolam Hazeh in 1967. In an article by Nurit Gertz, entitled "Zekharia the Jew, President of Yemen," several of her relatives were interviewed, she recalls: "The publication naturally aroused excitement, but the family wanted to maintain a low profile. The fear was that the discovery of his Jewish origins was liable to endanger his life."

Read article in full

Update 1: No 49 in the comments thread claims to be a member of the Iryani family. While he disavows the story of his relative being a convert from Judaism as a myth, this commenter says that his family did have Jewish origins in Spain.

Update 2: Yemen Online has now published its own version of this story which it turns into proof of Muslim-Jewish coexistence and harmony (by contrast with the oppression and humiliation awaiting the Yemenite Jews in Israel after 1950). It does not deny Abdul Raheem al-Iryani 's Jewish origins, but says we are talking of two different people here. Abdul Raheem was never president, but a guard, aide and companion to his childhood friend Abdul Rahman Yahya al-Iryani, who himself became president. (The latter is not to be confused with Abdul Karim al-Iryani, Yemen prime minister, who some say was also a Jew).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Philip Mendes's essay on Iraqi Jews: good in parts

It is unclear why the Meretz USA Blog has now chosen to resurrect the essay by Philip Mendes, an Australian academic, titled Why Jews left Arab lands, six years after he wrote it. On the whole, the article, which focuses on the best-integrated of communities in Arab lands, the Jews of Iraq, is nuanced, fair and a good summary of their plight. But I cannot agree with some of Mendes's conclusions. My comments appear in bold italics.

"To summarize, the massive and rapid Jewish exodus from Iraq arguably reflected a combination of push and pull factors. The key push factor was the strength of popular anti-Jewish feeling which was heightened by the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. Increasingly, Jews were viewed as a potential fifth column whose real sympathies lay with the enemies of Iraq.

"These feelings were intentionally exploited and strengthened by deliberate government policies which deprived Jews of their civil and economic rights (Kedourie 1989:49-50). On the one hand, the authorities cynically scapegoated Iraqi Jews in order to deflect attention from their military failures in Palestine. On the other hand, they appear to have held a genuine belief that the departure of a significant number of Jews would both contribute to a lowering of the communist threat, and undermine one of the key propaganda themes of the extreme right.

"The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said describes this "wholesale persecution of communities, preeminently but not exclusively the Jewish ones" as reflecting a "xenophobic enthusiasm officially decreeing that these and other designated alien communities had to be extracted by force from our midst" (Said 2001:208-209).

"An important role was also played by the Zionist underground movement which increasingly succeeded in convincing the Jewish community that emigration offered the best solution to their problems (Kedourie 1970:311-312). In doing so, they openly encouraged and arguably aggravated the existing tensions in the relationship between Jews and the wider Iraqi society (Gat 1997:193). However, the Zionist agenda only moved from the margins to the centre of Jewish life precisely because of the push factors described above (Hillel 1987:110-111).

"The existence of the State of Israel as a potential place of refuge also provided the Iraqi Jews with a new and attractive option which they had not enjoyed at the time of the 1941 pogrom or during earlier periods of persecution (Cohen 1973:35).

For many Jews, stripped of their citizenship, Israel was the ONLY option. It was more of an option than they had in 1941, but it was hardly attractive. Being stuck in a windblown tent in the Israeli desert was hardly a desirable option, but it was the only one they had. These Jews did not have the money or the connections to go elsewhere and no other country would have them.

" The Israelis and their supporters have often argued that the experience of the Jewish refugees can be equated with that of the Palestinian refugees. Both left their countries due to violence or threats of violence. Unlike the Palestinians, however, who remained in refugee camps rather than being offered homes elsewhere, the Jewish refugees were welcomed and resettled in the Jewish State of Israel. Their settlement inside Israel constitutes (so the argument goes) a direct and legitimate exchange of populations.

"The Arab view is almost dichotomous. The Jewish refugees were respected and equal citizens of Arab countries, but were persuaded to leave by malicious Zionist propaganda. Unlike the Palestinian refugees, they left voluntarily and are welcome to return at any time.

"As the above discussion has demonstrated, neither of these perspectives reflects the complexity of the Jewish exodus.

Mendes calls the Jewish exodus a complex blend of push and pull factors. This is debatable, and why just the Jewish exodus? Historians clearly state that the reasons for the Palestinian exodus were equally complex. Some Palestinian Arabs left of their own free will, some at the urging of their leaders, some out of fear that if they did not they would be deemed renegades, and some were, undeniably, expelled.

"To be sure, there are some superficial similarities between the two exoduses. However, the differences between the two exoduses are arguably far more significant. Firstly, the Palestinian expulsion occurred under conditions of external war and conflict, whereas the Jewish departure from Iraq primarily reflected internal political developments.

The two exoduses were indeed different. The Palestinian exodus occurred as a result of war - a war declared on Israel by the Arab states.
There is evidence that Jewish leaders, in Haifa for instance, appealed to them to stay. It was not a result of a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing, as Benny Morris admits. Had there been such a policy, one million Arabs would not be living in Israel today.

Jews have objected that equating the two - "letting bygones be bygones" - almost devalues the Jewish exodus by assigning responsiblity to each side for their own refugees, whereas the Arab side was responsible for both. They fear that this equivalence may also lead to compensation claims cancelling each other out, even though Jews lost ten times what the Palestinians lost.

Jews have argued that what happened to them was far more egregious: it was official Arab state policy to exploit the Jews, steal their property and deprive them of their rights, whereas the Palestinian plight was self-inflicted.

"In addition, the Jewish departure reflected far more diverse factors. As already noted, many Jews were strongly motivated by Zionist beliefs, and voluntarily left Iraq for Israel (Tessler 1994:309).

By claiming that many Jews were motivated by Zionism, Mendes contradicts his earlier assertion that the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Jews were not Zionist. As his piece states, a significant number of young Jews were communists who did not go willingly to Israel, but were forced to leave Iraq - like Shimon Ballas - out of fear of their lives. These ex-communists still harbour ambivalent feelings towards Israel today.

Secondly, the two exoduses did not concur chronologically. The Jewish exodus from Iraq and other Arab countries took place a number of years after the Palestinian exodus.

Since Mendes wrote his article in 2002, conclusive evidence has come to light that Arab League states had colluded to draft legislation as early as November 1947 branding their Jews as 'enemy aliens'. If anything, the intention of Arab states to scapegoat the Jewish population was premeditated, and occurred before hostilities got underway in Palestine.

The fact that the two exchanges did not occur simultanously reflects the messy reality of authentic 'ethnic cleansing'. The pressure on the oppressed Jewish population built up over time and had its peaks and troughs. The fact that 5,000 Jews remained in Iraq after 1951 testifies that there is always a kernel of incurable optimists who believes that things will get better. But even these diehards were eventually terrorised into fleeing and only six Jews still live in Iraq out of an original population of 140,000.

There is no evidence that the Israeli leadership anticipated a so-called population exchange when they made their arguably harsh decision to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees (Morris 1987:254-255).

The population exchange happened de facto. It did not happen with the Israeli government's approval. If anything, as Mendes himself writes, an exchange of populations was official Iraqi government policy. The Israeli government only came around much later to accepting the idea and with reluctance.

Accepting that an exchange of roughly equal populations occurred seems to me the only equitable solution. It may be rough justice, but it is the only way to achieve closure. Upholding the Palestinian 'Right of Return' three generations down the line is not only unrealistic, but a recipe for further violence.

"Thirdly, it is important to remember that the Arab States, not the Palestinians, were responsible for the Jewish exodus.

Here Mendes has swallowed the propaganda line that the Palestinians were 'innocent' victims of a situation not of their own making. This argument infantilises Palestinians, as if they were not responsible for their actions.
When the rampaging mobs of surrounding states shouted Filistin baladna, Al-yehud kelabna (Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs), they were stating that the Palestinian cause was a pan-Arab cause. Five Arab armies attacked Israel in support of the Palestinians. And vice-versa: for 25 years, the Palestinian Arabs had coaxed other Arabs into treating the Palestinian cause as their own. The Mufti of Jerusalem, the Palestinian leader, had allied himself with Hitler and spent years, through his speeches and radio broadcasts, inciting Arabs across the entire region against Jews. The 1941 Farhoud, which killed 180 Jews in Iraq, is a direct result of the Mufti's machinations in Baghdad.

Finally, Israel agreed to accept the Jewish refugees who subsequently integrated with varying degrees of success into Israeli society, and looked towards the future. Unlike the Palestinians, most of the Jewish refugees had little or no desire to return to their former homes in Baghdad or elsewhere. In contrast, the Arab states refused to facilitate an organized resettlement of Palestinian refugees. Consequently, most looked backwards, and held onto hopes of a return to Palestine (Segre 1971:126). This analysis demonstrates that the two exoduses are not identical in motivation and cause, and should be considered separately.

So what is Mendes suggesting? Should Israel be penalised for doing the right thing and absorbing its refugees? Should it also be held responsible for the Palestinian refugees? Should the Arab states be encouraged to do nothing, maintain the status quo or cling to the fantasy of a Right of Return? Why are the Palestinians the only set of refugees who can pick and choose where they should be resettled?

On the one hand, Arab denial of the contribution made by anti-Jewish hostility to the Jewish exodus from Iraq and elsewhere is insensitive and ahistorical. Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be entitled to some form of compensation for abandoned lands and property. There is no reason why organisations such as the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) should not be formally represented in negotiations between Israel and the Arab states (Goldberg 1999; Khalidi 1999:235).

On the other hand, it is equally insensitive for Israel to use the experience of the Jewish refugees as a justification for its treatment of the Palestinian refugees. The latter group also have a justifiable claim for financial compensation (Mendes 1996:96; Mendes 1997:208).

Read article in full

Sunday, October 19, 2008

'Ringworm' myth projects Mizrahim as Israel victims

The Blue Truth blog highlights another attempt by anti-Zionists in California to portray Mizrahi Jews as victims of the evil, colonialist state of Israel:

"One of the time-honoured canards of the anti-Israel forces is that Israel is a European colonialist state. The haters of Israel regard it as an highly inconvenient technicality that the majority of Israeli have their origin in the people of the Middle East and North Africa.

"When faced a group that was ethnically cleansed, with a population of nearly 900,000 in 1948 tumbling to 6,500 today- a group that haven't received a dime from the United Nations, what do the haters do? They scramble frantically- trying to rewrite history of the Mizrachi Jews and reframe the facts.

"The anti-Israel forces have been parading Reuven Abarjel about in a frantic effort to reframe these issues. Abarjel and his family came from Morocco to Israel in the 1950's. In a recent talk in San Francisco, Abarjel claimed the white colonialist Zionists practiced eugenics on the recent immigrants, subjecting them to bizarre medical experiments. Yes, its just another version of the "Damned Zionists-they are no better than the Nazis" song and dance we've heard so often.

"Reuven Abarjel was one of the "Ringworm children", treated by israel for tinea capitis; ringworm, a very common and very contagious fungal infection at the time. What Reuven has chosen to ignore is that his treatment was not "eugenics", but was the state of the art treatment , not just in Israel, but in Europe and America as well.

"According to a study published in California in 1949:

A recent epidemic of tinea capitis in children has revived a considerable interest in the methods of treatment of this disease. The most efficacious form of therapy for M. audouini infections is roentgen epilation. Cure was effected by this method in all of a group of 125 cases.

"Yes, this was 1949 in San Francisco!

"In spite of this, and dozens of other references in period medical literature Abarjel claims his treatment for this skin condition was really just part of a racist conspiracy from the white Zio-nazi colonial entity. Oh, those evil, evil Zionists with their evil, evil death rays!

"There has been a disproportionate number of malignancies reported in the hundreds of thousands treated for ringworm. Many nations have begun registries. In 1995, Israel began compensating those suffering from radiation related illness- and it remains one of the few nations of the world that does."

Read post in full

Seven myths about Jews from Arab lands

Friday, October 17, 2008

Why do 20,000 Jews still live in Iran today?

With tensions growing between Iran and Israel this past year over Iran’s race to go nuclear, why on earth would a Jew want to continue living in Iran?

Jews worldwide have been worried about what will happen to the nearly 20,000 Jews still living in Iran should a military conflict arise between the two countries.

Karmel Melamed of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles put the question to Frank Nikbakht, one of a handful of experts. As director of the Committee for Religious Minorities in Iran, his research has been used by US government officials in the State Department and by other prominent community leaders to shed light on the Iranian regime’s treatment of Jews, Christians and Baha'is still living in that country.

Listen to Melamed's podcast here.

Nikbakht rightly points out that the 20,000 who are left are the remnant of a much larger community. These are the people who either have most wealth or status to lose if they leave - or are too old or poor to contemplate starting over outside Iran.

But what about the discrimination faced by Jews? A Jew's life is worth half of that of a Muslim according to Shari'a law. Here Nikbakht makes an especially interesting point. Jews no longer notice the fact they are discriminated against. They are so used to saying good things about the regime that this submissive and delusional mindset stays with them a good decade after they have left Iran. I suppose Bat Ye'or would call it dhimmitude.

Nikbakht thinks that the West should react with greater firmness to the regime. Firmness worked in the case of the Shiraz 13, sparing several of those arrested on spying charges from almost certain execution.

It is harder to see how Nikbakht's prescription for Israel to pursue a more pro-active policy can help.

It seems to me there is a good reason why these Jews are still in Iran. Even in 1939 Nazi Germany, with all the warning signals, a fifth of German Jews were still living there.

These are the diehards. Nothing would make them budge, unless they are running for their lives. And in the case of a nuclear confrontation, it might be too late.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tunisian Jewish boxers once pulled no punches

Tunisian Jews were once strongly represented in professional boxing before Tunisia achieved independence. According to, the golden age of Tunisian boxing, which pitched different communities against each other, is now the subject a film by Hichem Ben Ammar:

"Under the glare of overhead neon lights, Jacques Chiche shows fledgling boxers a couple of moves in his lively Parisian boxing club. The world's most famous boxers, Mohamed Ali, Marcel Cerdan, and Mike Tyson stare down from the walls.

"A spritely man with a sharp eye, Chiche, a boxer of Jewish Tunisian origins, left his homeland in the 50s to pursue a boxing career in France.

"Today, his friend and former French champion, Felix Brami, is visiting his club, along with the Tunisian film director Hichem Ben Ammar. Together they flip through photo albums and discuss the golden age of Tunisian boxing.

"Ben Ammar has returned to Paris a year after finishing a documentary about the rise and decline of Tunisian boxing, "J'en ai vu des ├ętoiles," [I have seen the stars]. Before Tunisia gained independence, French colonial settlers, Maltese immigrants, Italians, Muslims, Tunisian Jews – a large community in Tunisia before the 1950's fought each other with their gloves on.

"Chiche recalls how he started boxing at the age of 14 after seeing a film about the Moroccan champion Marcel Cerdan, famous for his tumultuous love story with Edith Piaf. The trainer at a nearby club didn't believe the young Chiche seriously wanted to fight, "But I came back, and look I'm here 60 years later."

"For these boxers, the 30s, 40s and 50s represent the golden age of Tunisian professional boxers. It's an era that saw the country's greatest boxers, from the womanizing world champion "Young" Perez, who later died in the Nazi concentration camps, to Sadok Omrane, Tunisia's "iron-fisted fighter."

"To have a great boxing reunion, you need a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew," Chiche recalls. "Spectators came to support their clan. There were a few brawls but it always ended well. We celebrated, it was marvelous," says Chiche amid the sweat and roar of the club."

Read article in full

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How Bourguiba's Tunisia pushed out its Jews

Jean-Pierre Allali: "Bourguiba pursued a strategy of deception"

" The powers-that-be artfully got rid of their Jews while trying to make people believe that they were doing everything possible to keep them. Officially, they said they wanted to keep us while they ushered us towards the exit. In fact everything conspired to make us leave."
Dr Andre Nahum, Sarcelles

These pithy words, encapsulating the plight of Tunisia's 100,000 Jews - now reduced to barely 1,000 in 40 years - are quoted in Les refugies echanges by the author, journalist and academic Jean-Pierre Allali. While the main argument of Allali's book centres on the de facto exchange of populations between the Jews of Arab countries and the Palestinians, Tunis-born Allali has some particularly interesting things to say about how the community closest to his own heart was driven out in the years immediately following Tunisian independence.

While the Jewish majority remained suspicious and aloof, individual Jews threw themselves into the fight for independence alongside their Arab brethren. Socialist activists Serge Moati and Elie Cohen-Hadria openly supported Habib Bourguiba's Neo-Destour party which seemed to favour integrating the Jews into the new Tunisia.

The old regime under Lamine Pacha Bey had signed a decree on 21 September 1954 declaring Yom Kippur a public holiday. The decree never saw the light of day. It was consigned to the dustbin as soon as Bourguiba rose to power as independent Tunisia's first president.

Allali believes that Bourguiba pursued a strategy of deception, stringing the Jews along as long as Tunisia needed their skills, yet all the while intending to get rid of them.

This strategy had a precedent. In 1905 an association was set up by a Tunisian of Turkish origin to bring over Turkish Muslim artisans to break up the Jewish shoe and clothing monopolies.

The two Jewish ministers, Albert Bessis and Andre Baroukh, promptly disappeared from Bourguiba's government and were never replaced.

Bourguiba's socialism had no respect for pluralism. He no longer wanted any distinction made between Muslim and Jewish Tunisians. Kashrut and endogamy had no place, he told Charles Haddad and other shocked Jewish leaders in December 1956. Rabbinic courts were an aberration. Aid from the American Joint Distribution Committee to Tunisia's Jewish institutions should go to the entire nation, he raged.

With the 18th century Jewish cemetery requisitioned to make way for a park in central Tunis - bulldozers overturned Jewish graves before they could be exhumed - the razing of the old Jewish quarter and the dissolution of the Jewish Community Council, thousands of Jews chose exile, fleeing with half a dinar in their pockets. People were arrested for trying to smuggle out jewellery and other valuables.

The regime's socialism targeted mainly Jews. Those who remained could not run a business except in partnership with a Muslim. Import licences and official permits were handed out parsimoniously.

When Tunisia became independent there were few trained Muslim civil servants and technicians. The French went home to France and Bourguiba bought time, appointing Jews, until the Muslims were ready to take over.

Jewish civil servants soon found obstacles in their career paths. One Jewish lawyer was not allowed to sign off his work. Airconditioning units were installed in all offices except his. Muslims received promotion over Jews, and Jewish doctors were passed over in favour of their Muslim students.

In 1961, Arabisation was introduced overnight. Signs in French were taken down. Even shops in the European and Jewish quarters of Tunis were forced to put up signs in Arabic. Literary Arabic replaced French as the language of the courts. Many Jews, who spoke mainly French and a Judeo-Arabic dialect but had not mastered the alphabet, found themselves at sea. More psychological pressure to leave.

In 1967, a tidal wave of antisemitism swept over the remaining Jewish community: the main Tunis synagogue was burnt down and shops and businesses wrecked. Twenty centuries of Jewish life came to an end as those who had stayed on throughout the 50s and 60s decided that enough was enough.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Syrian Jews mark 100 years in Brooklyn

Children of Syrian Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century

Elie Sutton concludes 28 installments of his personal history of the Syrian Jewish community, serialised in
Image magazine under the title Alien at home:

"Our Brooklyn community is about to celebrate the centennial anniversary of its first landing on the shores of the United States, the most powerful country, the most protective, the most welcoming refuge of the oppressed. There were never better hosts than the Americans for the Jews, not even Spain in its glorious periods of the 12th and 13th centuries, prior to their eventual expulsion. Almost all Jews in America are prospering.

"In this context, the Syrian Jewish community’s development has been—and is—phenomenal. It will be recorded in history as unique. (...)

"On a personal note, born a Jew growing up in Syria, I became very quickly, one of approximately a million Jews living in Arab countries stretching from Yemen across the entire Middle East all the way to Morocco; a refugee in search of a new home, a country willing to adopt me, give me comfort, and an opportunity to strive for basic human desires and possibly the audacity to dream for liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While in Syria, the best I could wish for was to be an alien at home. As such, my lot is among the luckiest. In fact, the expulsion of some 50,000 of our Jewish compatriots from Syria took over two decades with only minimal loss of life. Jews from other Arab countries did not fare as well; particularly the Iraqis who suffered the most. Essentially, our losses were primarily financial, aggregating over $1 billion, besides breaking up families with serious consequences.

These Syrian expatriates found refuge in these countries: Israel (they were smuggled out of their home base), Milan (Italy), Mexico City (Mexico), Brazil, Argentina, Canada, the US and other destinations.

None of these refugees ever became a public charge, nor relied on charity to survive. Sooner or later, they adapted very well to the community, becoming productive members of society, taxpayers and charitable contributors. Some achieved prominent positions within their new communities.

There is no doubt that great injustice was inflicted on the million refugees from all the Arab countries.

In fact, in the last decades many organizations sprung up to document their suffering and their staggering losses. These statistics should be used to counter the other side's argument and debate in settling the so-called Palestinian refugees displaced during Israel’s War of Independence.

My travels took me to Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Panama. I have observed the lifestyles of these very same countrymen of mine, who were victimized and became refugees after they were declared persona non grata in their own homelands. They carried themselves and followed the same pattern as their brethren who settled in the US; their beginnings were humble, they are clannish as we are, traditional as we are. Their synagogues and their yeshivahs are duplicates of ours. They adapted our Takana*, the edict of 1935 with some minor variations dictated by their local circumstances.

Their drive to the top also duplicated ours— sometimes even faster and higher—which is possible in some countries. Particularly in a small community, in a small country like Panama, they climbed to the highest level in opulence, in hesed, in charitable support of institutions in Israel and the world over. Much credit is bestowed to their Rabbi Sion Levy for over 50 years of service. He nursed, guided, and transformed the community from a totally secular state to a regimented Orthodoxy. Bankers, real estate developers and holders of international trademarks are some of their accomplishments. Their hospitality, their homes, and their unselfishness are unparalleled.

Acknowledging that Americans are made up of immigrants, many success stories are recorded, but I dare say, ours are unique.

Read final article in full

*Ban on conversion to Judaism for marriage purposes