Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Biblical shrine of Oholiav in southern Lebanon

With thanks: Beitcafe

These pictures, showing the Biblical shrine of Oholiav in Lebanon, are a further reminder that ' Arab' lands are full of Jewish history. (As with many such sites, this shrine was apparently venerated by Muslims as well as Jews). Oholiav's shrine was recently the subject of a fascinating thread on the blog Shalom-Salaam. If any readers have any recollections of a pilgrimage to this shrine (at Lag La'Omer) or any other Lebanese holy sites, Point of No Return would be glad to post them.

The pictures show what remains of the shrine (bottom) after it was destroyed by fighting and (top) how the site would look if it were rebuilt.

Oholiav's shrine at Sojod (Soujud) in southern Lebanon is the presumed burial site for a minor, but significant, biblical character referred to in Exodus. Oholiav ("tent-builder" in Hebrew) was said to have been a carpenter and a builder of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

Posters on Shalom-Salaam suggest that the IDF demolished the site. Others point out that the area was already hotly-contested between the South Lebanon Liberation Army (SLA) and Hezbollah and the shrine could have been destroyed, and the village abandoned before the Israeli withdrawal in 2000.

An Israeli poster
points out that Sojod is associated with Hadi, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's son, who was killed there in 1997 at the age of 18. " There were, if Hebrew discussion forums are to be believed, many dreadful battles there", he writes. " The two helicopters that crashed in Israel, also in 1997, killing 73 Israeli soldiers on board, was bound for Sojod. There was also, last September, another helicopter story. Shot down this time, and by Hezbollah, over Sojod: a Lebanese Army helicopter in an embarrassing incident that cost its pilot his life. However you look at it Sojod saw a lot of action besides prostration on shrines."

The Jewish Theological Seminary librarian has this information on the shrine:

According to an article by Zvi Ilan "Towards a History of the Jewish Community in Lebanon in Modern Times" [the article is in Hebrew] in a journal called Kardom (March 1983) vol 26-27, p. 134-144: In Ottoman times Soujud was one of the most important sites of pilgrimage for Jews in southern Lebanon, being, according to tradition, the tomb of Oholiab Ben Ahisamakh. He was a Biblical figure mentioned in Exodus 31:6, 35:34, 36:1-2, and 38:23; he was described as a skilled artist and craftsman (engraver and embroiderer), appointed by God, to help Bezalel construct the Tabernacle.

Additional documentation connecting Sujud with the biblical Oholiab is from a website about the nearby village of Mlikh, which cites Dr. Estee Dvorjetski, of the University of Haifa as verifying the connection between Sujud and Oholiab Ben Ahisamakh.

You may have noted that various sources have spelled the site differently: Sajad, Soujud, Sijud. We are assuming that these differences are due to differences in local dialect, and the passage of time.We have not found reference to Sajad or Soujud in current gazetteers or maps, but we have found a location called Sijud (about 22 km north of el-Mutallah ) : map 16 in Atlas of the Historical Geography of the Holy Land, edited by George Adam Smith (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1915). Nineteenth century travelers to the Holy Land, who have chronicled their journeys, have also mentioned this place: Edward Robinson and Eli Smith, in Later Biblical Researches in Palestine and the Adjacent Regions: A Journal of Travels in the Year 1852 (Boston, Crocker & Brewster, 1856), p. 44 mention a wely called Neby Sijud [neby means prophet in both Hebrew and Arabic].

William M. Thomson, a missionary, mentioned that local Jews sometimes make pilgrimages to the shrine of Sijud; now [1886] the location is the tomb of a Moslem saint (The Land and the Book, or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1886, p. 168)

We have read many such travelers chronicles, and these two excerpts are quite typical.

A contemporary explanation of the term "wely" [also spelled weli] can be found in Karl Baedeker's Palestine and Syria: Handbook for Travelers (1906). In short, it is the tomb of a saint, or holy man, held in veneration by the local population. "In Syria, almost every village has its weli, venerated alike by Moslems, Christians and Jews." p. lxxiv. [At the time this was published, Syria referred to what is now Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, as well as Syria].

Other Biblical figures reportedly buried in Lebanon are Job (Ayyub to Muslims).
Job has a tomb in the Druze Shouf Mountains of Lebanon, but other tombs are claimed for him in Oman, Yemen and Turkey.

The tomb of Zebulun is located in Sidon, Lebanon. Towards the end of the month of Iyyar, Jews from all corners of Palestine would make a pilgrimage to this tomb. Zebulun was the sixth son of Jacob and Leah and the Prince of the Israelite tribe of Zebulun.

The tomb of the prophet Zephania is located more to the south closer to the Lebanon-Israel border. It is said to be atop an inaccessible mountain. It can be seen from afar but cannot be reached.

The tomb of Job in the Druze Chouf District, Lebanon. Another tradition locates it at Salalah, Oman

List of Holy Sites (Wikipedia)

Read Shalom-Salaam thread in full

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Aga Levy and the mystery of the hidden treasure

From the 'truth is stranger than fiction' department: The Israeli descendants of the Iraqi-Jewish Levy family, who settled in England in the 19th century, have so far failed to find any trace of their vanished fortune. Haaretz reports:

Many Jews who have immigrated to Israel from Iraq over the past several decades are convinced they are descendants of the Levys - an Iraqi merchant family that amassed a fortune in England at the beginning of the 19th century.

Every few years an additional piece of information comes to light about the dynasty's history, sparking new hope in tracing the family's fortune allegedly held at the Bank of England, only to be dashed again.

Sasson Aboud, a Tel Aviv insurance agent and the treasurer of the heirs organization Aga Levy, was close to desperation this week.

He had asked more than 750 families, all claiming to be related to the Levys, to raise NIS 500 each for yet another effort to track down the "Iraqi treasure," but only 25 of them paid up.

"People have lost faith in finding even a pound of the money," Aboud said.

According to one version, Elazar Levy was the father of Yair Refua, who had two sons - Elazar and Zecharia Levy. The two brothers were making a living selling scrap metal and junk in Iraq when they found a small package of precious stones in one of the old objects they were selling. They took the stones and settled in Venice, where they became wealthy merchants.

At the beginning of the 19th century they moved with their families to London, where they established themselves in senior government positions and even in the royal palace.

Aboud believes the brothers lent money to the royal family, enabling the digging of the Suez Canal. Another tale has it that the brothers had sold or lent the diamonds in Queen Victoria's crown. Some say they owned houses and land in the London and Kent area and that billions of pounds in their money, jewelry and gold are lying in Bank of England coffers.

A former Israeli government minister, attorney Moshe Shahal, was one of Aga Levy's founders. He wanted to carry out his late father's request to trace Aga (meaning "lord") Levy's property. "It's like a soap opera," he said this week.

Since the organization was set up in the early 1990s, it has tried to establish whether various people of Iraqi origin were related to the Levy family of London. Among those who helped was a man from the Netherlands who promised to provide documents and information, for a price. He found that one of the brothers had married a daughter of the Montefiore family who converted to Christianity and changed his name to Lawrence.

Shahal traveled to London several times in vain, at his own expense, to try to trace the family and its assets.

"For a week they let me check thick books a meter long and a meter wide, in handwriting, of all those who died in the London area. It was a mission impossible," he says.

The Bank of England provided a list of 13 banks, some of them no longer operating, in which the family allegedly had funds. But it was expensive to check their records, so Shahal gave up.

Around two years ago an Israeli Arab was recruited to go to Iraq to uncover the family's genealogy.

The envoy returned with documents purporting to be from the Iraqi population registry, but this only complicated things, adding another generation to the family tree that the descendants had outlined over the years.

The organization also enlisted a British private-investigation agency, which found that in 1930 16,000 pounds had been withdrawn from one of the accounts allegedly belonging to the Levy-Lawrence family.

"I don't believe we're going about it the right way," says James Becker, a professor at Ben-Gurion University who was once active in Aga Levy. He says that even in the best-case scenario - that Aga Levy has a treasure at the Bank of England - the organization's members have no proof the treasure belongs to them.

Read article in full

More about the Jews of Pakistan

This blog continues to draw much interest in the Jews of Pakistan. Jayzee Jehan tells us he was one of the first to write about the Jews of Karachi and met several in 2003. Here is his article, written in 2004 or 2005:

According to 1998 census there are no Jews living in Pakistan, but at the turn of the twentieth century, Karachi had a Jewish population of about two to three thousand. They were mainly traders and a few were civil servants. They spoke Marachi, which was spoken by most of Ben-e- Israel people living in various parts of the British India. The community was well-to-do, vibrant and fun-loving.

It seems under British jurisdiction, the Jewish people were treated with tolerance. A small community lived in Peshawar where, apart from the Bene Israel, the Baghdadi Jews and Bukharan Jews formed a small community and city had a synagogue. It has disappeared now. Few Jewish families lived in Rawalpindi and some in Lahore also.

Karachi had a couple of synagogues. The famous Magain Shalome Synagogue was built in 1893 in Karachi by Shalome Solomon Umerdekar and his son Gershone Solomon. Some accounts suggest that it was built by Solomon David, a surveyor for the Karachi Municipality and his wife Sheeoola bai. It soon became the center of a small but vibrant Jewish community.

There existed a variety of social and welfare organizations to serve the Jewish community. The Young Man's Jewish Association, founded in 1903, whose aim was to encourage sports as well as religious and social activities of the Bene Israel in Karachi; the Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund, established to support poor Jews in Karachi; and the Karachi Jewish syndicate, formed in 1918, to provide homes to poor Jews at reasonable rents. Abraham Reuben, one of the leaders of the Jewish community, became the first Jewish councillor on the city corporation in 1936.

After the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 and Arab–Israel war, things got ugly for the small Jewish community in Pakistan. The synagogue in Karachi was set on fire and Jews were attacked. The synagogue was later on repaired and restored by the community. The situation got worse and the plight of Jews became more precarious following disturbances and demonstrations directed against the Jews during the Arab-Israel wars in 1956, and 1967. Eventually most of the Jews moved to India, Israel and the United Kingdom. By 1968, the number of Jews in Pakistan had decreased to about 250 to 300.

Read post in full

Monday, April 27, 2009

'Lebanese Jews will no longer be labelled Israelis'

If you've ever wondered why Jews and Israelis are easily conflated in the Arab world, The Beirut Daily Star explains why:

BEIRUT: Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud proposed on Monday that the Cabinet amend the legislation that currently labels Lebanese Jews as "Israelis" to "Jewish Lebanese."

A press release by Baroud's office said on Monday that the interior minister has submitted the proposal to be discussed by the Cabinet.

Members of Lebanon's Jewish sect are referred to as Israelis on on their identification cards and on electoral lists.Baroud's proposal asked the Cabinet to adopt a draft law to differentiate between a sect "whose rights are legal and protected by the Constitution and between the subjects of an occupying entity."

"The Jewish sect in Lebanon is recognized, and its rights are guaranteed by the ninth article of the Lebanese Constitution that guarantees all the Lebanese freedom of religion," Baroud added.

Read article in full

The emissary who never came back from Algeria

As a new monument is unveiled in Israel to victims of terrorism and hate crimes around the world, Moshe Hassan reflects in The Jerusalem Post on the father he never knew:

Moshe Hassan's father knew the process of aliya inside and out.

"My father tried to come here from Tunis in 1946, but was caught by the British and sent to Cyprus," Hassan told The Jerusalem Post by telephone on Sunday. "He was put in a camp there, and that's where he met my mother. They immigrated to Israel in 1948."

They settled in Beit Hagadi, a religious moshav next to Netivot, but the elder Hassan would spend little time in his new country. Asked by the Jewish Agency to help bring Moroccan Jews on aliya, Ya'acov Hassan returned to North Africa in the mid-1950s to begin work as an emissary for Israel.

"He knew the area well," Moshe said. "By 1956 he was well-established in Morocco, going to far-flung places like the Atlas mountains, and beyond, and helping entire families come here. Sometimes, he was able to get hundreds of people out of Morocco a day."

His father would go to a synagogue on Shabbat, give a speech about Israel, and then ask people to sign up with him after Shabbat was over, Moshe said.

"Once they signed up, he would also teach them different agricultural techniques to prepare them for their aliya. He had a lot of success in Morocco - the communities there were very connected to the idea of coming to Eretz Yisrael, so many of them were anxious to come, and he assisted in thousands of cases of aliya."

But in 1958 - the same year that Moshe was born - King Muhammad V of Morocco joined the Arab League, and the aliya process became much more difficult. Around that time, the Jewish Agency decided to send Ya'acov to Algeria.

"You know, one gate was closing, so they looked to another one," Moshe said. "But Algeria posed difficulties as well. The Algerian communities were more rooted; many of them declined to leave, or preferred to go to France, so my father had a more difficult time there."

In any case, Ya'acov was made manager of the entire aliya project in Algeria, and along with Rafael Ben-Gera, another agency worker, they continued with the work of bringing Jews to Israel.

"But Algeria was also different than Morocco in that it was unsafe," Moshe said. "They knew it was dangerous, but they went anyway."

"Then, on February 17- we know this now - "my father and Ben-Gera were kidnapped by members of the FLN [the Algerian National Liberation Front], who, while they were fighting the French occupation of Algeria, were also staunchly anti-Israel. They informed the [Israeli] government of the capture and the government even negotiated with them. At one point they offered to pay a $1 million ransom for them both, but the FLN was hard to deal with, they kept delaying the process until the government just lost contact with them."

"We still don't know exactly what my father did," Hassan said. "We know it was probably something more than just aliya work, because he was recognized as a fallen intelligence officer by the army, but his files are closed - they pertain to activities conducted in an enemy country.

"We also know that they were murdered. The Red Cross told us that was the likely outcome after the negotiations fell apart, and the FLN later confirmed, in August of 1958, that they had been killed about six weeks earlier."

Read article in full

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Yemen Jews uneasy as Muslim hostility grows

Frank and comprehensive appraisal by the Associated Press's Hamza Hendawi of the remaining Jews' predicament in Yemen, printed in The Taiwan News. Hendawi does not seek to sugar-coat the history of the Jews in Arab lands, 'a narrative of discrimination and persecution, although also some prosperity':

"In this village in northern Yemen, where a kosher butcher slaughters chickens and the school bus carries young boys in side curls along a dirt track to their Hebrew studies, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Arab world is fighting for its survival.

"Yemen's Jews, here and elsewhere in the country, are thought to have roots dating back nearly 3,000 years to King Solomon. The community used to number 60,000 but shrank dramatically when most left for the newborn state of Israel.

"Those remaining, variously estimated to number 250 to 400, are feeling new and sometimes violent pressure from Yemeni Muslims, lately inflamed by Israel's fierce offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza that cost over 1,000 Palestinian lives.

"They face a Yemeni government that is ambivalent _ publicly supportive but also lax in keeping its promises _ in an Arab world where Islamic extremism and hostility to minorities are generally on the rise.

"There is hardly a mosque sermon that's free of bigotry. The government's own political rhetoric marginalizes the Jews, and civil society is too weak to protect them," says Mansour Hayel, a Muslim Yemeni and human rights activist who is an expert on Yemen's Jewry.

"The government's policies are to blame for the suffering of the Jews," he says.

The pressures have long existed. But an Associated Press reporter who traveled recently to the rarely visited north and interviewed Jews, Muslim tribal sheiks, rights activists and lawyers in Yemen's capital of San'a, heard complaints that the frequency of harassment _ including a murder and the pelting of homes with rocks _ has markedly increased.

"The testimony was particularly striking because Jews in Arab lands often refrain from airing grievances, lest they antagonize the government and provoke Muslim militants."

Read article in full

Same article in Haaretz

Washington Post

Jerusalem Post

San Francisco Chronicle

Cotler slams Durban 2 at Forgotten Refugees film

The keynote speaker at last week's screening of The David Project's Forgotten Refugees film in New York was Canadian MP and human rights campaigner Irwin Cotler, who had just returned from the 'Durban 2' conference in Geneva (with thanks: Sacha):

April 24, 2009 – New York, NY – More than 200 people crowded into the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan yesterday for a special DavidProject screening of The Forgotten Refugees, the award-winning documentary film about the mass exodus of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century. The audience was addressed by Irwin Cotler, Canadian Member of Parliament and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, who had just returned from Geneva and provided a gripping eyewitness account of the Durban Review Conference (Durban II).

Cotler, who also serves as Special Counsel on Human Rights & International Justice in Canada, noted that the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (Durban I) “was truly Orwellian. A conference that was supposed to be dedicated to the struggle against racism turned into a conference of racism against Israel and the Jewish people.”

Durban II, which took place in Geneva earlier this week, carried the process of debasing international human rights norms still further. Cotler denounced the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the conference. “Let there be no mistake about it,” exclaimed Cotler, “a person like Ahmadinejad who incites to hate and genocide, who massively represses the rights of his own people, who defies the UN Security Council, a person who parades the Shahab-3 Missile on the streets of Tehran draped in the emblem ‘Wipe Israel off the Map,’ such a person belongs not as the guest of the United Nations Council on Human Rights or International Human Rights conferences, such a person belongs in the docket of the accused.”

Cotler’s keynote address followed the screening of The Forgotten Refugees, an award-winning documentary film about the history, culture, and forced exodus of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the second half of the 20th century. Using extensive testimony of refugees from Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Morocco, the film recounts the stories – of joy and suffering – in order to tell how and why the indigenous Jewish population of the region declined from one million in 1945 to only a few thousand today.

The film, directed by Michael Grynszpan and produced by Ralph Avi Goldwasser, has been screened around the world and was awarded Best Documentary at the 2007 Marbella International Film Festival and Best Feature Documentary Award at the 2006 Warsaw Jewish Film Festival. An accompanying educational curriculum for middle school and high school students has recently been developed by The David Project and is offered to schools and communities.

The David Project’s deputy director, Lawrence Muscant, explained why the film was made. “First, this is an important story that had largely been ignored. Hundreds of thousands of people deserve to have their story told,” said Muscant. “Second, learning about the history of Jewish communities in the Middle East is critical to understanding the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict today.”

“We had the privilege to screen the movie last year, but twice is not enough; This movie has to be shown anywhere, everywhere, at any time,” said Rabbi Elie Abadie, the Rabbi of Congregation Edmond J. Safra who hosted of the event.

Abadie went on to speak about why the film resonated with him. “My parents themselves were refugees. They ran for their life as they were persecuted in Aleppo, Syria. I was born in Lebanon but no country would give me citizenship until I came to the United States and received my first citizenship of my life in 1990.”

“As a result of Arab leaders’ aggression, two sets of refugees were created – Palestinian Arab refugees and Jewish refugees from Arab countries,” said Cotler, who has been at the forefront of the campaign to promote rights and redress for Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. “We have to appreciate that while justice has been delayed, it can no longer be denied. It has come time to rectify this historical injustice, this expunging of Jewish refugees from Arab lands in the historical peace and justice narrative, and return this plight of Jews from Arab countries to the peace and justice narrative where they belong.”

Cotler explained that only education can bring about peace. “I think that we have to show The Forgotten Refugees in as many places as possible. Whenever we speak about the plight of the Palestinian-Arab refugees, we must also speak about Jewish refugees from Arab countries, he said. “If there will be no remembrance, there will be no truth. If there will be no truth, there will be no justice. If there will be no justice, there will be no authentic reconciliation. If there will be no authentic reconciliation, there will be no just and lasting peace towards which we all work.”

Friday, April 24, 2009

How interwar relations worsened in Morocco

In his new Histoire du Maroc (Editions Perrin), the Hebrew University professor Michel Abitbol sheds light on the deteriorating relationship between Jews and Muslims in Morocco between the wars. Here is a summary of extracts from Information Juive (March 2009) :

The colonial era in Morocco impoverished the native Arabs and Jews. Jews did, however, start to move out of the mellah (Jewish quarter). The few who decided to move into the medina (Muslim quarter) came up against vehement opposition from the French authorities on dubious grounds (Fez). Women entered the workforce. Most Jews were craftsmen, but the middle class in Morocco took longer to emerge than in Tunisia, for instance. The cleavage between colonials, native Jews and native Arabs deepened in colonial times.

Relations between Jews and Muslims worsened from the 1930s due to the Palestine issue, the rise of Nazism in Europe and the world economic crisis. There was political turmoil following the promulgation of the 1930 Berber dahir (to which the Jews did not react). Meknes saw riots - several Jewish shops were ransacked. Extreme right-wing parties with their mass-circulation newspapers fermented antisemitism after Leon Blum came to power in 1936.

The turning point was the Pan-Islamic Conference held in 1931 in Jerusalem. Jews and Arabs clashed in Casablanca (February 1932), Rabat (May 1933) Ksar el-Kebir (June 1933)), Tangiers and Tetuan. These incidents were played up by the Zionist and the Moroccan nationalist press. The latter, passing up no opportunity to vilify the French authorities for letting the Jews make donations to Zionist organisations, were largely inspired by the (Druze) Emir Shakib Arsalan's Syrian-Palestinian Committee in Geneva. Conflating anti-Jewish with anti-Zionist grievances, the Emir's Moroccan friends - Abd al Khaliq Torres, Mohammed Bennouna, Makki al-Nasiri, Mohamed Kettani and Ahmed Balafrej - accused the French of being pro-Jewish and allowing Zionism free rein, and called the emancipation of the Jews a violation of the Treaty of Fez. Pressure from some Jews for French nationality did not help matters.

Zionist activity did develop following (governor) Lyautey's departure, but it was not confrontational and was mostly concerned with running sports and cultural events. There was no talk of a 'mass exodus' to the Promised Land. Following the Arab Revolt in Palestine the governor of Morocco banned all Jewish fundraising for Palestine. Zionism was outlawed two years later and the editor of the Zionist magazine Avenir illustre expelled.

After Franco seized power in Spain and Spanish troops arrived in Melilla and Ceuta in 1937, German propaganda increased. Anti-Jewish tracts from France and Algeria circulated. Broadcasts by Radio Stuttgart, Radio Berlin and Radio Bari which now reached the remotest corners of Morocco, did have a cumulative impact: there were boycott calls against Jewish grocers and craftsmen. The Pasha of Marrakesh among others called on the authorities to stop Jews moving into the medinas or employing Muslim maids.

Leftwing intellectuals and workers tried to repair the breach. The Moroccan Union of Jews and Muslims was founded in 1936.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Iraq rejects $100 billion Jewish property claim

Iraqi officials have rejected claims for compensation by an organisation calling itself 'Nahum', and purporting to represent Iraqi Jews in Israel, as 'provocative'. (With thanks: Iraqijews)

A report in the London-based Arabic news Al Sharq-al Awsat, picked up by the Hebrew press, says that 'Nahum' has made public a claim for compensation for property and assets stolen or confiscated from Iraqi Jews fleeing to Israel in the 1950s.

'Nahum' puts the value of Jewish assets at $100 billion*. It says Jews controlled 80 percent of Iraq's economy.
Its secretary, identified by Al-Sharq Alawsat as David Moshe Salim Daniel, is demanding the return of property, bank accounts and money lost or stolen by successive Iraqi governments from Jews forced to leave for Israel. ( 'Nahum' is not well-known among Iraqi Jews - ed)

A Basra lawyer, Abdul Amran Hussein Safi, supports 'Nahum's' claims. He says that Jews were part of the social and economic fabric of Iraq for thousands of years. But Hashem Muhammed Ali, ex-manager of the Department of Antiquities, claims that most Jews either sold their property, or it is is now under the supervision of the department of religious affairs - such as holy places and tombs.

The Iraqi government believes that the Jews are entitled to claim restitution if they migrated by force. However, if the Jews left by choice neither they nor their children are entitled to make claims. Iraqi officials have been quoted as calling the claims 'provocative.' Other critics think the Jewish organisation's demands are designed to rob Iraq of its wealth.

* There is some confusion about the exact value of Nahum's claim. In the Arabic article the figure appears both as $100 billion and $one billion. In the Hebrew article it is $100 billion.

Read article in full (Arabic)

Update: Jewish woman gets her house back

In the first case of its kind, Azzaman reports that a Jewish woman is about to win back property seized in Iraq after 1968. The house is in Bataween, Baghdad. (The lawyer representing her first claimed that the woman was Christian).It seems that the authorities in Iraq are interested in settling all property claims of those who left after 1968.

Ed adds: The Iraqi Property Claims Commission was set up to consider all claims made against the government since 1968 when the Ba'ath regime seized power (see its website). However, claims for the bulk of Jewish assets seized in the 1950s are outside its remit.

Azzaman newspaper also mentions 'Nahum''s demand for property restitution.

Read article in full (Arabic)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A lifetime helping Jews in distress

By all accounts, Stanley Abramovitch is a remarkable man. Beginning his career in a German Displaced Persons' camp, Abrahamovitch went on to work for the American 'Joint', bringing relief to Jews in distress all over the world. The Jerusalem Post has this review of his autobiography, From Survival to revival.

"Even given his experience with Holocaust survivors, Abramovitch was unprepared for the poverty and illness he found among many of Iran's 120,000 Jews. Stretching his limited budget, he established a variety of medical, welfare and vocational programs in the schools.

"The availability of a decent lunch and the distribution of clothing could induce a youngster to stay in school instead of dropping out to pursue more petty opportunities such as peddling, shoe polishing and the like," he writes.

"In keeping with JDC's modus operandi of setting in motion a community's ability to meet its own ongoing needs, he involved sometimes reluctant natives in managing and funding any program he started.

"In Iran, this involved much haggling with the affluent class. He wearied of this drawn-out process because in the meantime he "had to contemplate and sometimes witness barefoot children shivering in rags in unheated classrooms during the harsh winter months." At one Teheran school, children lined up to give back their JDC Hanukka presents because they did not grasp that they were meant to keep them.

"In 1952, Abramovitch moved to the organization's Paris headquarters to begin "what would turn out to be a 30-year career in Jewish education in Europe, alongside missions of many kinds in the countries of northern Africa."

"For this wide-ranging assignment, Abramovitch used JDC resources to replace short-term relief programs - if they even existed - with professional services and solid communal infrastructures. Working with other organizations and agencies, he realized his goal of revitalizing Jewish education wherever he went, despite tremendous odds.

"It was his concern for his own children's education that prompted Abramovitch to make aliya in 1972. With the blessing of his wife, Noemi, he continued traveling to far-flung Jewish communities on behalf of the JDC. Sometimes, Noemi accompanied him, as she did in 1996 when he went to Yemen to tend to the community of fewer than 400 Jews in San'a."

Read article in full

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Arab and Muslim states are the worst racists

The spectacle of President Ahmadinejad of Iran (above) condemning Zionism as racism and Israel as the perpetrator of genocide at 'Durban 11' - on the very eve of Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel - should sicken any decent person on this planet. But Orwellian lies, disinformation and ignorance are so widespread that it is as well to restate a few basic truths.

The worst racism is to be found in the Arab and Muslim world. Over a million Jews have fled persecution, violence and harassment in Arab states over the last 60 years and only some 4,000 are left. There are no Jews living in Jordan, Libya or the Sudan, and Jews are banned from entering Saudi Arabia.

Iran has lost four-fifths of its Jewish population since the 1979 Islamic revolution and those who remain are under constant pressure. Other religious and ethnic minorities have also suffered persecution and ethnic cleansing.

Over 40 percent of the Jewish population of Israel consists of Jewish refugees from Arab or Muslim states or their descendants, indigenous to the region. It is an outright lie to suggest that Israel is a colonial outpost of Western Europe or the US.

History has been rewritten to suggest that the Arab and Muslim world was an innocent bystander while Europeans perpetrated the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. North African Jews did die - hundreds in Libyan camps. The fate of thousands of Jews would have been sealed had the Allies not defeated Rommel. The Palestinian leader, the Mufti of Jerusalem, was a staunch supporter of Hitler - spending the war years in Berlin - and an active player in the Nazi project to exterminate the Jews. He was directly responsible for the incitement that led to the Farhoud massacre of hundreds of Jews in Baghdad in 1941.

Although individual Muslims did save Jews, many had sympathy for the Nazis. One Jew tells how in the 1930s the gardener, who lived on the family property in Baghdad and worked for them for years, had named his baby Hitler.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The National's portrait of Egypt's dying community

Youssef Gaon, the youngest 'Jew' in Egypt (Photo: The National)

The Emirates newspaper The National is the unlikely source of this portrait by Jack Shenker of Egypt's dying Jewish community, 'Bearers of a dimming torch'. Shenker interviews Paris-based Yves Fedida of Nebi Daniel, who is fighting, not for compensation, but for access to Egyptian Jews' historical records.

The cracked headstones and marble tombs around him bear witness to people who first made this Egyptian city their home more than 2,300 years ago, and in their heyday numbered almost 80,000. Last summer, the final remnants of that vibrant community gathered here to bury their leader. So few of them were left that the Kaddish, a Jewish funeral blessing, could not be recited. The significance of that was obvious to all who attended; this once-cosmopolitan corner of the Arab world will soon entomb its final Jewish resident, and Mr Salaam (who tends the cemetery) will be left alone with the graves.

The death of Max Salama, 92, an Egyptian Jew who once served as King Farouk’s personal dentist, leaves 18 surviving Jews in what was once one of the religion’s greatest cultural capitals. The majority of those remaining are in their 70s or 80s and reside in old people’s homes, no longer interacting with the city they have always called home. At the tender age of 53, the new leader, Youssef Gaon, is now the youngest Jew in Alexandria by a considerable margin, and he is childless.

The overgrown El Shatby cemetery in Alexandria bears witness to a Egyptian Jewish community that once numbered almost 80,000. Earlier this year the community buried its leader here, leaving just 18 surviving Jews in the city. (Photo by Jason Larkin for The National)

“What can I say?” he shrugs, as he gives a tour of a beautifully decorated but deserted synagogue in the old city centre.

Jews have been an integral part of Alexandria’s history ever since the port city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332BC. Their numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years but reached a zenith in the early 1900s, when Jews from across Europe and North Africa flocked there to escape persecution.

“It was an immigrant community drawn from all corners of the world, especially the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire,” said Yves Fedida, an Egyptian Jew now living in France, whose grandparents emigrated to Egypt from Palestine at the turn of the century in search of work.

These were the rekindled glory days of Alexandria, an urbane melting pot of nationalities where poets, scientists and intellectuals mingled freely on the Corniche.

Egyptian Jews lay at the heart of the city’s revival, with individuals such as the anti-colonial Egyptian nationalist Yaqub Sana and the prominent psychologist Jacques Hassoun becoming household names in the region. But after revolutionary fervour swept Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952, the ancient city’s worldly reputation began to fade and subsequent hostilities with the newly founded state of Israel gradually eroded Alexandria’s Jewish population.

Mr Fedida’s parents were forced out in the first wave of expulsions, prompted by the outbreak of the Suez conflict. As Israeli tanks advanced on the Suez Canal, his father, previously the financial director of the national Egyptian Petroleum Company, was given 10 days to leave the country.

“He had to take us away and start again in England with just 20 Egyptian pounds in his pocket,” remembers Mr Fedida, who now works for the Nebi Daniel Association, a French group that brings together Egyptian Jews from around the world.

The exodus of Alexandria’s Jews continued following wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973, and many of those who clung to their homeland were imprisoned by the Egyptian state, suspected of being Zionist spies. Today, the remaining Jews at the magnificent Italianate synagogue of Eliahou Hanabi are vastly outnumbered by policemen and officials from the Egyptian ministry of the interior, who pay for the site’s security.

“We are in very good hands,” said Mr Gaon, anxious not to upset the fragile working relationship the surviving community has established with the Egyptian government. “Even after we have gone I know they will look after this place.”

But as the final echoes of Alexandria’s Jewish ancestry die out, a new battle is raging over their heritage. At stake is the set of religious and civil registers maintained by Egyptian Jewry under the Ottoman Empire, which devolved such record-keeping to its non-Muslim communities.

Mr Gaon and his elderly compatriots are the final custodians of these logbooks, which run to 60,000 pages detailing all the births, deaths and weddings of the community stretching back to the 1830s.

These documents are of vital importance to descendants of Alexandrian Jews such as Mr Fedida, as the Jewish faith requires individuals to prove their maternal Jewish bloodline in order to get married. The problem is that issuing such certification from Alexandria is increasingly burdensome for the small number of Jewish pensioners left and the process is often hampered by local bureaucracy. The Nebi Daniel Association is lobbying the Egyptian government to allow copies of the archives to be placed in a European institution where they could be more easily accessed, but so far their efforts have met with failure.

The reluctance of the current Egyptian regime to enable easy access to the documents springs from fears that the offspring of Alexandria’s Jews will use them to make financial compensation claims against the government for Jewish property confiscated under Nasser’s nationalisation programmes.

The issue is a sensitive one; last year an unspecified amount was paid by the state to the Jewish family who originally owned The Cecil, a luxury Alexandrian hotel immortalised in Lawrence Durrell’s novels The Alexandria Quartet and seized by the government in 1957. Earlier this summer, a planned Cairo conference of Jews hailing from Egypt was cancelled after local media questioned the intentions behind the event.

According to Mr Fedida, however, fears of compensation demands are misguided.

“We are absolutely not interested in financial claims,” he said. “Our generation are the children of those who really suffered from expulsion and imprisonment. Although our parents tried to reconstruct their lives elsewhere, we saw their grief and we need to do them justice by giving them back the identity that led to them being uprooted in the first place.”

Regardless of the outcome of this tussle over the logbooks, the human element of this once grand community will soon be extinguished and there will be no more burials at Abdul Salaam’s overgrown cemetery.

For Mr Fedida though, who was born in Alexandria, optimism prevails that Jews might one day make a return to the city.

“You never know; we lost it once before when the Byzantines kicked us out in 400AD,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful city, and I long for it on a daily basis. But deep down I know I’m longing for a world that no longer exists."

Read article in full

Friday, April 17, 2009

Yemen Jews trickle out to Britain and the US

No wonder the Jews of Yemen are migrating, says the Yemen Times. The Jews complain that their allowances have been cut, that the accommodation provided for them by the government is inadequate, that they are deprived of passports. And if the government of Yemen cannot guarantee the rights of Yemeni Jews, what hope for its ordinary citizens? asks Mohammed Bin Sallam:

The Jews of Yemen who preferred to stay in their country are guaranteed a decent life in line with all legal, constitutional, and religious rights. They are entitled to enjoy these rights in the same manner that other people in society do, regardless of their religious affiliations.

The land, history, and soil of this country have intertwined with their lives and made them who they are today. Their ordeals should be considered ordeals for all Yemenis and not just for Jewish citizens.

The aggression and intimidation practiced against the Jewish population during the recent period brings to light a number of questions. Where is the role of the government and its security and judicial apparatuses? And why does the government relinquish its commitments toward its citizens?

Millions of Yemeni citizens, whether Muslims or Jews, are suffering. Ignorance and a backward mentality of those who rule this country made everyone succumb to oppression. When a journalist heard that the US and Israel intend to transfer rest of the Yemeni Jews outside of Yemen, he said, “What about us? As the situation is depressing, who will help us to immigrate?”

Yemeni Jews are subject to pressure and intimidation which causes them to think of immigration to any other country in the world, even though they still love their land where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years.

“The Yemeni security and judicial apparatuses ignore the suffering of the Jews and refuse – directly or indirectly – to provide them with protection," said Khaled Al-Anisi, director of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms or HOOD. “These incumbent bodies fully realize the identification of extremists who harm Jewish citizens.”

Read article in full

Yemen Jews flee home of 2,500 years : Bloomberg

One man's race to save Shanghai headstones

The first Jews to settle in Shanghai were Baghdadi merchants. But traces of all Jewish settlement are vanishing as the city develops dizzyingly fast. JTA reports on an Israeli photojournalist's race against the clock to salvage headstones from the Jewish cemeteries (with thanks: Pablo):

SHANGHAI, China (JTA) -- In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Western philanthropists and volunteers are restoring dozens of historic Jewish cemeteries.

But in Shanghai, there are none to restore.

The four cemeteries that once served this city’s small but prosperous Jewish community disappeared in the late 1960s during China’s Cultural Revolution. The sites were paved over to build a factory, park, hotel and Muslim cemetery, their history forgotten.

Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal is trying to change that.

While the cemeteries may be gone, since 2001 Bar-Gal has made it his mission to track down as many of the original headstones as possible. He has located 85 and hopes to use them in a memorial to Shanghai’s Jewish past.

The project has kept Bar-Gal in Shanghai for more than seven years, and he is waiting for government permission to erect the memorial. The clock is ticking, he says.

“In a few years, the area where I found these stones will be gone,” Bar-Gal told JTA. “The villages I first visited have been redeveloped and are now upscale residences.”

Shanghai, a major port that is now China’s largest city, has had three waves of Jewish immigration. The first began in 1845, when David Sassoon, an Iraqi Jew living in India, moved his family business to Shanghai, which was China’s first city to open to the West. He was joined by two other Baghdad Jews, Elly Kadoorie and Silas Hardoon, and as the community grew they built Shanghai’s fortunes and their own.

Read article in full

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Iraq claims Jewish book collection as its own

The Iraqi government is demanding the return of thousands of Jewish religious books and documents, some very valuable, kept in the attic of the Messouda Shemtob synagogue in Baghdad, the Israel newspaper Maariv NRG reports: (with thanks Iraqijews, Niran)

An Iraqi Jew, David H, who had difficulty adapting to Israel and returned a few years later to his home in Baghdad, tried to distance himself from his Israeli past by helping the authorities and acting as agent of the Jewish community. The Jewish books were hauled from the Messouda Shemtob synagogue into Saddam's security headquarters.

The collection was found in the basement of the security headquarters by US troops after the American invasion in 2003. The building had suffered bomb damage and was flooded.
The books were then transported out to Washington and those that could be salvaged were restored at a cost of thousands of dollars. A press report in 2008 revealed that some books had found their way to Israel.

Regarding Iraq's ownership claim,"According to international law, the occupier is not allowed to take out items of property belonging to the state, because then it would be considered robbery," say Jewish-American sources associated with the government in Washington, "but in this case, the claim that the collection is the property of the Government of Iraq is not absolute. It was the property of the Jewish community, which is now outside Iraq. "

מרדכי בן פורת
Mordechai Ben Porat (Photo Archive: Reuven Castro)

Mordechai Ben-Porat, head of Babylon Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, argues that
the collection belongs to the Jews of Iraq in the whole world. A new organization is being set up that will be responsible for handling property of the Jewish community in Iraq - schools, synagogues, markets, shops, cemeteries, shrines and holy books. The organisation will be based in London.

"Official contacts between the Israeli government and the government of Iraq will not take place soon and will not discuss these issues," Ben-Porat says, "but I predict that Baghdad will be open for dialogue with non-governmental organizations. This property will remain the hands of Jews."

Original article in Hebrew

Google translation in English

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Exhibition records Jewish life in Moroccan south

Before the mass exodus to Israel in the 1950s (Photo: Elias Harrus)

Holland's Moroccan community seems fascinated by its Berber and Jewish roots. Now, according to the European Jewish Press, they have a chance to see the photos taken by Elias Harrus of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Dutch photographer Pauline Prior, before the Jewish community in the south of Morocco vanishes for good (with thanks: Sacha): 

AMSTERDAM (EJP)--- An exhibition featuring photos of the Jews of southern Morocco will open on Thursday 23 April at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. Fatima Elatik, leader of the Amsterdam district council of Zeeburg, will open this exhibition of photos by Elias Harrus and Pauline Prior, taken first in the 1950s, just before Jews in Morocco emigrated en masse to Israel. 

In 2008, Dutch photographer Pauline Prior visited the region to photograph what remains of Morocco’s Jewish heritage, and documented Jewish life in Casablanca today. In his photos, Elias Harrus (1919-2008) depicted the everyday life of the Jews of southern Morocco in the years preceding their mass exodus to Israel. For centuries they had lived side by side with the Berbers of the region. (...) 

 His photos have an intensity that only an insider can achieve.Harrus was closely involved in the welfare of the Moroccan Jewish community, as is also shown by his photos of pupils at Alliance Israélite Universelle schools. He worked for this international Jewish organisation, dedicated to the emancipation of Jews in Muslim countries, throughout his life

 In 2008, the Jewish Historical Museum commissioned Dutch photographer Pauline Prior to visit Morocco and to photograph the remains that testify to the centuries of Jewish life in the Atlas mountains and the Sahara. Prior also visited Casablanca, where a small Jewish community maintains the characteristic Moroccan Jewish traditions. 

These ancient customs are also kept up in the countries in which Moroccan Jews have settled. Prior photographed hillula ceremonies and celebrations in both Morocco and Israel marking the anniversary of the death of saints, deceased rabbis with reputed powers of intercession.

The exhibition Morocco: Photos by Elias Harrus and Pauline Prior will run from 24 April – 18 September 2009 at the Jewish Historical Museum, Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1, Amsterdam, Holland. Read article in full Radio Netherlands report

Monday, April 13, 2009

How Syria's Jews obtained their freedom

For the first time in 17 years Alice Eve Sardell breaks her silence on the story behind the exodus of the remnant of Syria's Jews in 1992. Alice Sardell was President of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, which could take primary credit for the Herculean and arduous task of lobbying US politicians, government officials and heads of state around the world for the freedom of some 3,000 hostage Jews. The Israeli government was not involved, and the name of Mrs Judy Feld Carr is notably absent from Ms Sardell's account in Image Magazine (March 2009 pps 92, 93 and 215).

"As the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews approached the 17th anniversary of our successful rescue of our 4,500 brethren from Syria, I received a phone call from my sister who told me that she met a woman in synagogue who did not know why she was allowed to leave Syria in 1992. She had heard about an organization, but was too young to know the story.

"Until now, I have not spoken publicly about our work for fear of recrimination against those few Jews who chose to remain in Syria. However, I believe that enough time has passed to allow us to begin to bring to light the story of the exodus of Syria’s Jewish community. Since 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel, Syria’s Jewish community had been held as hostages living under Syria’s Secret Police and subject to arbitrary arrests and systematic torture.

"Freedom for the Jews of Syria beginning in 1992 came about after a long and intense American and international human rights campaign led by The Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, with the United States government at the forefront.Our goal was to persuade Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad that holding its Jewish community hostage was no longer in Syria’s interest. Syria’s Jews were entitled to the same rights as every other Syrian citizen, and the right to travel was no exception.

"Our organization began at a meeting in Brooklyn in 1989, organized by the founders and led by Dr. Mayer Ballas. It was at our second meeting at the home of Mr. Stephen Shalom in Manhattan that we found our name, The Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews (CRSJ). We decided that despite past failed attempts of others, we were going to work to obtain the right for the entire Jewish community to leave Syria, and that we were not going to stop until every Jew in Syria who wanted to leave was able to do so.

"The first Jewish organization that helped us was AIPAC, in particular, Mr. Joel Schnur. He attended our first meeting and invited a few of us to start to meet with Congressmen and Senators at AIPAC’s office in Manhattan. AIPAC gave us immediate entree to the United States Congress and carried our message with them. They would let us know when an official was coming to town, invited us to their receptions, and helped to give the CRSJ enormous credibility.

"We were a very hardworking and dedicated group that worked well together and depended on each other. This was clearly a collaborative effort of thought, strategy, perseverance, courage and faith. Our vice-presidents, Marcos Zalta, Clement Soffer and Jack Mann, were the most passionate, committed individuals that I have ever met. Together, CRSJ with our Executive Director, Professor Gilbert Kahn and our executive assistant, Renee Shaab, were relentless.

"Most of the CRSJ’s work was done in Washington DC. We spent an enormous amount of time flying regularly to Washington, which though expensive proved extremely important to our success. It was in Washington that we began educating people in the White House, the State Department as well as the United States Senators and Congressmen about the fact that since 1948, Syria’s Jewish community had been held hostage and were unable to travel. Most
offices were not even aware that Jews still existed in Syria and were astonished to find out that they were monitored by Syria’s secret police and were under constant threat of imprisonment, torture, and even public hanging.

"Despite this, the State Department was skeptical and said that freedom for the Jews in Syria would never happen until there was peace with Israel. We made it clear that we could not wait until then, that the Jews of Syria lived a very tenuous existence and had to be freed.

"It was in Washington that we were able to meet with the United States Ambassadors to Syria, Edward Djerejian and Christopher Ross, and cultivated a relationship with Syria’s Ambassador to the United States Walid Al-Moualem, relationships that were pivotal to our success.

"The first congressmen to be involved in this issue were Congressman Stephen Solarz, Congressman Charles Schumer and Congressman Benjamin Gilman. Congressman Wayne Owens of Utah A”H welcomed us with open arms, and his office was our home base when we were in Washington. Congressman Tom Lantos A”H jumped on board, and it was at his invitation that I testified in front of the United States Congress’ Human Rights Caucus
detailing the situation in Syria for its Jewish community.

"Senator Joseph Lieberman, Senator Arlen Specter, Senator John McCain and Senator Richard Lugar were the first senators to take our issue to heart and were the sponsors of our first Senate letter. We worked closely with the senators and congressmen to write many letters on behalf of the Jews of Syria and on behalf of prisoners Eli and Selim Soued.

"These letters, signed by hundreds of senators and congressmen, were sent to President Hafez Al-Assad. Resolutions that we worked on with the United States Congress were passed by an overwhelming majority in both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate.
Many senators and congressmen visited Syria at our urging, and armed with all the information they needed, they asked President Hafez Al-Assad about Syria’s Jewish community.

"Congressman Owens A”H made many trips to Syria on our behalf and specifically asked President Hafez Al-Assad if he could visit with Eli and Selim Soued in prison. Senator Metzenbaum flew to Syria with a delegation of congressmen and met President Hafez Al-Assad, asking for the release of the Soued brothers and for the right to travel for Syria’s Jews.

"This was the first time that powerful politicians were traveling to Syria and consistently asking about the status of its Jewish community. In order to show appreciation for the many senators and congressmen, several families from our community graciously opened their homes to host political events, especially Abe and Barbara Chehebar, Joseph and Mindy Cohen, and Jake and Sari Kassin.

"The CRSJ’s strategy was to meet in advance with every King, President, Head of State, Congressman, and VIP who was going to meet with President Assad to inform them about the plight of Syria’s Jews.

"During the spring of 1990, we flew to Washington DC to meet privately with the President of Argentina, Carlos Saul Menem. The meeting was a success as President Menem, a Syrian by birth, vowed not to rest until all of Syria’s Jews were free.

"As a result of such meetings, President Assad was asked repeatedly: “What about freedom for your Jewish community?” President Assad slowly began to understand that the world was watching, that the world cared about the Jews of Syria, and that this issue was not going to go away.

"When President George H. Bush met with President Assad in Geneva, I fortuitously was able to help write his talking points. The plight of Syria’s Jews was finally on the White House agenda.
In 1991, we began to organize rallies and public information efforts. We were on television and radio explaining to the world that the Jews of Syria were being held hostage. We ran full page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post. We began with two rallies which the Jewish Community Relations Council helped us to organize—one in New York in front of the Syrian Embassy and the next day in Washington.

"We also helped to organize demonstrations in Europe and Australia. We worked with the European Parliament to deny Syria money three years in a row, due to the fact that Syria was holding the Jewish community hostage. In New York we met King Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, whose help we enlisted in denying loans to Syria and blocking financial borrowing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Italy and Belgium. Soon after, we were able to meet
with Robert Maxwell, who was acting as an advisor to President Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the USSR. He enlisted Gorbachev, who denied Syria spare parts to their Russian MiGs until Syria released all their Jews.

"It was becoming harder and harder for Syria to hold onto its Jewish community. The first sign of success came when the Syrian Ambassador told us that the divided families would be permitted to be reunited. The first children who were released were the two Alfie children, who had been separated from their parents for six years.

"We were ecstatic and together with Sephardic Bikur Holim, led by Joseph Beyda A”H, were at the airport to greet them with their families. This was a dramatic and heartwarming moment that I will never forget.(...)

"We kept the international pressure on Syria, and after some very complicated political maneuvering; Syria finally relented and announced on April 28, 1992, that they would allow its Jewish community the right to travel. This was front page news in the New York Times.

"We then started to work closely with the US State Department, the US Embassy in Syria,
and the US Ambassador to Syria and all of his staff to begin the process of obtaining exit visas.
Once we realized that we were really going to obtain the permission for Syrian Jews to travel out of Syria, a secret organization was formed called the Transmigration Committee.

"It was headed by the UJA-Federation, and included the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, Sephardic Bikur Holim, NYANA, HIAS, the Jewish Agency, and several other Jewish organizations that would be involved with the resettlement. The UJA-Jewish Federation quietly raised and spent 26 million dollars to pay for all the services and needs of the resettlement. With the generosity of Mr. Edmond Safra A”H, we organized the flights and arranged for tickets to the United States for those who could not afford them. We also worked to obtain the status of political asylum for everyone with then-Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger. This status was granted by the United States government. As the Jews began to leave Syria, Sephardic Bikur Holim took over the huge task of resettling them into their new homes in our community in Brooklyn.

"On November 3, 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States, the doors closed on Syria’s Jewish community. President Assad wanted to renegotiate with America’s new President. This was not to be. The plight of Syria’s Jews was on the radar, and we were asked to write the position paper on the status of Syria’s Jewish community for the new Clinton administration. In the Clinton White House we were blessed with President Bill Clinton, Martin Indyk and the spectacular Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who went to Syria and who single-handedly did not allow President Hafez Al-Assad to back down on his word given to the Bush Administration to let the Jewish community have the right to travel from Syria. The door opened again and the exodus resumed.

"There have been other people and other governments that have tried to take credit for our accomplishments. There are those that dedicated their lives to bringing out individuals in the years prior to our effort, and we applaud and recognize their important work. However, we will not allow anyone to rewrite history and take credit for work that they did not do.

"Neither they nor the Israeli government were responsible for freeing the entire community. The release of the Jewish community from Syria was and always will be a human rights effort led by the United States government and our community’s Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews. It was the CRSJ that globalized the effort by meeting heads of state and their representatives from governments around the world. It was the CRSJ that enlisted Congress and the State Department in the effort. It was the CRSJ that inspired, educated and coordinated the other Jewish organizations.

"Together we traveled this journey to obtain freedom for our brethren. During the years that The Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews worked to make this miracle happen, our community was in its finest hour. Everyone’s hands were open, their hearts were open, and the support for the cause was bountiful. It was a wonderful time for our community and a testament to our determination and love for each other. The entire effort took nearly four and a half years. We were told over and over again that freeing the Jews from Syria could never happen. But in the end, it did.

"It was a complicated and Herculean effort. There were so many wonderful people that we had the good fortune of meeting and who helped along the way to make this happen. For those whom I did not mention in this account, please forgive me."

Read article in full (p92 and 215)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Yosef-Eliahu Chelouche: coexistence campaigner

Scion of a Jewish family from Algeria who sailed to Palestine in the 19th century, Yosef-Eliyahu Chelouche - pictured here with his wife and children - was perhaps the first peacenik. Through his writings and the founding of Hamagen, a group of Arabic-speaking Tel-Avivians aiming at coexistence, he tried to steer the Arabs of Palestine away from extremism until his death in 1934. Alas, in vain. Sarah Honig writes in The Jerusalem Post:

"In 1880, 10-year-old Yosef-Eliahu was lured out of Jaffa's winding alleyways by his father's Arab acquaintance and marched through the undulating shadeless wilderness beyond. It was a horrendous, almost impassable and seemingly interminable tract, without landmarks or signs of habitation. The kidnapped boy's feet kept sinking in the sand; he was thirsty, beaten and terrified. At night, however, salvation came to Yosef-Eliahu as a silhouetted figure on a donkey approached. It was Yisrael Simhon, guard of the Montefiore orange grove, near where the Azrieli Center currently dominates Tel Aviv's skyline.

"To his last day, despite decades of distinguished public service, Yosef-Eliahu was known as the "abducted child." The barren expanse through which he was forcibly dragged now lies beneath bustling downtown east-central Tel Aviv, intersected by the country's busiest traffic arteries.

"His early trauma notwithstanding, Yosef-Eliahu tirelessly campaigned for coexistence. He was perhaps the first peacenik. In 1913, to counter already rife judeophobia and incendiary agitation in the Arab press, Yosef-Eliahu, along with other Arabic-speaking Tel Avivians, founded Hamagen (the shield), an organization dedicated to persuading Arabs that they and Jews share economic and cultural interests and can only improve each other's lot.

"Yosef-Eliahu published an Arabic-language daily in Jaffa, Saut el-Othmania(Voice of the Ottomans), and cultivated close contacts with leading local Arabs in the hope of stemming already-rampant hate mongering.

"The unprovoked five-day Jaffa-generated Arab riots of 1921, in which 49 Jews were massacred and more than 150 wounded, effectively brought down the curtain on Jaffa's Jewish community and boosted adjacent Tel Aviv as a separate, independent, viable, modern and thriving alternative entity. The carnage should have disheartened Yosef-Eliahu, but he wouldn't abandon his peace-quest.

"It seemed mission-impossible after Yom Kippur 1928, when notorious Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini raised a shrill cry over a flimsy cloth partition positioned to segregate male and female worshipers at the Western Wall. The British lost no time in tearing down the offensive screen. Jewish opinion of all political shades was outraged.

"On October 6, 1928, Yosef-Eliahu published an article entitled "To the Arabs," his last-ditch plea for sanity. "You crudely disrupted and battered congregants who came to pour out their souls to their Father in Heaven at the place and date holiest to them," he wrote. "Then you declared holy war against your victims, charging they assailed your holy shrines... You prepare for outright bloodbath and jihad against the infidel desecrators. What desecration?... How can such absurdity be allowed to foment religious hostilities between Jews and Muslims? My good brothers, you are manipulated by wily politicians... How can anyone begrudge Jews the pitiable remnant that is their Western Wall, the sole relic of the brokenhearted?"

"But the mufti's disciples didn't heed Yosef-Eliahu. Their premeditated harassment grew increasingly violent, till trumped-up tales of Jewish takeover attempts at the Temple Mount sent Arabs rioting countrywide on August 23, 1929. The slaughter lasted an entire week.
The rampages began in Jerusalem, but the most notorious carnage took place in Hebron, where 67 men, women and children were hideously hacked to death in a homicidal frenzy. Hebron's centuries-old Jewish community was dispossessed. Smaller Jewish enclaves in Gaza, Jenin, Tulkarm and Nablus were likewise dislodged."

Read article in full

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Afghan Jew was offered $50,000 to convert

(With thanks: anonymous)

There are 10,000 Afghan Jews in Israel, Brooklyn and Bangkok (Bangkok?) but Zablon Simantov prefers to be the last Jew in Afghanistan. A journalist from The New York Times is the latest to do a piece - video clip - on this bizarre tourist attraction. Simantov shows him round what is left of the synagogue in Flower St after it was ransacked by the Taliban.

Simantov has nothing good to say about the 'donkey' Taliban. They offered to pay him $50,000 if he converted to Islam, but Simantov jokes he offered them $80,000 to convert to Judaism! No Jews will return to Afghanistan while 'there is no proper government' (Obama please note). Even Simantov's skull cap is a provocation to the jihadi groups who terrorise the population.

The NY Times does not answer the question why Simantov left his family in Israel to return to the hellhole ironically named Flower Street, but you can bet a bottle of whiskey that it pays better.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Stamford Hill to welcome Yemenite exodus 2009

Gaunt Yemenite Jews demonstrate for the resumption of government financial and food aid

One of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, the Jews of Yemen, looks likely to come to an end as rescue operations begin to bring Yemeni Jews out of the country to escape persecution from Islamist extremists. London’s strictly-Orthodox community is working with Immigration Minister Phil Woolas to ensure at least 120 people can move to Stamford Hill, north London, The Jewish Chronicle of 2 April has reported.

"The Home Office is expected to agree before Pesach to allow them to settle in Britain. In parallel to the British initiative, the US government is thought to have agreed a deal with the strictly Orthodox Satmar community to allow those Yemenite Jews who do not come to Britain to move to New York state.

It is not known whether an emergency airlift operation will be deployed, as the Yemeni government is likely to facilitate the arrangement of passports and freedom to travel.

The majority of the country’s 400 Jews live in Raydah, around 50 miles north of the capital, Sana’a.

Those who move to London will be reunited with family members who have already left. They are of all ages, from children to pensioners, and include professionals and skilled trade workers. They speak Yiddish, Hebrew and Arabic; some have learnt English.

The cost of their arrival is to be covered by private Charedi donors who have provided written pledges of funding and arranged housing support.

Chanoch Kesselman, executive co-ordinator of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, said the operation was being co-ordinated by the Ezras Yisroel support group.

“It’s a life-saving effort. There has not been enough time for writing letters and administrative matters. It’s a small organisation and they have just got on with the job quietly and modestly,” he said.

Threats to Yemeni Jews have increased dramatically in the past three months. Last December, yeshivah teacher Moshe Yaish Nahari was shot dead by extremists.

Jewish homes have also been targeted by grenade-throwing local tribesmen.

A private meeting took place on March 16 between Mr Woolas, Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott and members of the Jewish community.

The JC understands Mr Woolas told the meeting that a rescue operation needed to take place “pretty damn quick”.

Mr Kesselman said: “The situation in Yemen is pretty dire. Their lives are in danger. Mr Woolas was very supportive and realised the need for them to escape the danger.

“It’s a particularly lawless country with armed tribesmen running around. A lot of the Jewish girls are being abducted and forced to marry local tribesmen. The Jews have it pretty tough there.”

Read article in full

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Jewish refugees squeezed out of Mideast studies

Tiqva was forced out of her native Iraq, but stories like hers are glaringly absent from what is taught in western schools and universities about the Israel-Arab conflict. The Jewish refugees will continue to be written out of the teaching of the Middle East's history as long as it remains a vehicle for Palestinian propaganda, argues Daniel Ledeen in Herald Jewish-Voice. (With thanks Allan and Rachel L)

On March 16, Owls for Israel had the good fortune to learn about a subject long gone from the curriculum in most American universities today - Jewish refugees. Asked to speak to a group of students during lunch, Hebrew Professor Baron Tiqva described what it was like to be forced out of her home in Basra, Iraq, in 1948. Tiqva told the story of her family and how they suffered under Nuremberg-style Iraqi laws forbidding Jews to hold bank accounts, serve in government, walk on the sidewalk, attend public schools or own land. In one of the most striking moments of the story, Tiqva described her childhood memory of the day her family finally was forced out of Iraq.

Allowed only one suitcase, young Tiqva wore layers upon layers of clothing as her family set out for the airplane destined to Cyprus. Once they arrived at the gate, however, police forced Tiqva and her entire family, including her grandmother, to strip down naked. Looking for the last remnants of wealth in the form of gold or jewels, the Iraqi Police stole even the wedding bands from Tiqva's mother, father and grandmother. There they were, a once prominent family with wealth stretching throughout the most fertile regions of the biblical lands - now naked with nothing but each other.

Tiqva's family, like many of the nearly one million Jews who were robbed, abused and kicked out of Arab lands in 1948, traveled to the newly created State of Israel, where they would begin anew the long arduous task of building out of nothing. It was brutal work and Tiqva described to us the squalor of living conditions, the lack of clean water and the immense poverty that was characteristic of the early camps for immigrants within Israel. Refugees from Europe and refugees from the Middle East - people with nothing in common except for the shared joys and, unfortunately, the shared pains that came along with being Jewish - set out to create a nation that would guarantee their protection.

Tiqva's story is heart wrenching and inspiring but, most of all, it is glaringly absent from history books, lectures and academia. The Israel of today bears little resemblance to the barren and harsh land that Tiqva saw when her family first arrived. Within a generation, the country established itself as a leader on the world stage in everything from medicine to technology. Perhaps the story of the refugees has been lost within the skyscrapers and stock exchanges of Tel Aviv, and yet, the success Israel enjoys today is only because of the backbreaking work of those earliest immigrants - a kind of work too many today would be unable to recognize.

While the story of Jewish refugees has fallen between the cracks, Palestinian refugee issues continue to dominate discussions. Sixty years later, the Palestinians enjoy the patronage of a separate refugee organization within the United Nations (UNRWA). While every single other refugee from Darfur to China is served by the UN's High Commission for Human Rights, the Palestinians have enjoyed the utmost attention along with an unimaginable amount of funding and education. Tiqva made the case that all of the wealth confiscated from Jews in the Arab Lands could have provided an ample start for Palestinians - a start that Jewish refugees should have had when they came to Israel.

So, why is it that we don't hear about Jewish refugees? Why is it that a separate UN organization exists entirely for the Palestinians? Perhaps the answers can be found in looking at the recent actions from the so-called UN Human Rights Committee. Run by a group of the world's worst human rights violators - countries such as Iran, Libya, Cuba, Egypt and Angola - the committee has turned into a UN-sanctioned anti-Semitic bully-pulpit. Not surprisingly, in the first conference held in 2001, a draft declaration was written that called Jewish self-determination racist, Israel an apartheid state and went on to question the existence of the Holocaust. Israel remains the victim of numerous resolutions of condemnation, and it remains the only country to be specifically condemned.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Bahrain embraces its Jews - all 36 of them

Is the Bahraini king's charm offensive to his Jews an attempt to gain brownie points with the USA - or a genuine show of loyalty and affection? Whatever your view, a community of 36 Jews is hardly more than a remnant. Fair report in The New York Times, marred only by the irritating (and inaccurate) expression 'Jewish Arabs':

MANAMA, Bahrain — It’s O.K. to be Jewish in Bahrain.

Actually, that may be an understatement.

“It’s fashionable,” said Rouben Rouben, 55, an electronics dealer who proudly displays his name, a recognizably Jewish one, on the sign above all four of his shops in Manama, the capital.

In the tense landscape of the Middle East, there is little room left for Jewish Arabs, a tiny minority in this country as well as in places like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. But in Bahrain, the king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has taken unprecedented steps for an Arab leader to show his support for his dwindling Jewish population. Last year, he appointed a Jewish woman, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, as ambassador to the United States, the first Jewish ambassador posted abroad by any Arab country.

Then he made a personal visit to London to appeal to expatriate Jews to return to Bahrain. He has also appointed Jewish business leaders to the Shura Council, which acts as an upper house of Parliament. Those measures went against the tide in a region where anti-Semitism is often preached from government-controlled mosques and hating all Jews has become interchangeable with hating the state of Israel.

“The fact that Bahrain has a Jewish community that is in the open and still plays a role in that society is significant and an important symbol for the region,” said Jason F. Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

However, it is a community of only 36, and most are older adults. They are mostly descendants of merchants from Iraq and Iran whose families have lived in Bahrain for centuries, experts here said.

Mr. Rouben said that there were about 600 Jews in Bahrain before 1948, when Israel became a state, “but with every war, more left.” He said that most moved to Europe or the United States.

Few here expect the community to survive unless some expatriates can be enticed to return. So far, there appear to have been few takers.

Being Jewish in the conservative Persian Gulf region still presents challenges, even in Bahrain. Though it has preserved its last synagogue, the building has not had a religious use for decades and all Jewish symbols have been removed. Nevertheless, it is defaced with graffiti that says, in Arabic, “Death to Israel.”

Most of the Jewish merchants did not want to draw attention to their lives and so declined to be interviewed. Mr. Rouben said that was because “we don’t want to be thought of as separate.”

Some people here take a cynical view of their king’s outreach. Bahrain is a close American ally of great strategic value to Washington. It is near Iran and allows the United States Navy to base its Fifth Fleet here. Many people said the king’s overtures were a safe and convenient bid to cement ties with Washington.

“We always believe here that control of America is governed by the Zionist lobby,” said Salman Kamal al-Deen, a businessman and the head of the Bahrain Human Rights Society. “The media and the money are all in the hands of the Jews. We believe if we have a Jewish ambassador and Jews in the Shura Council, this is a positive indicator for the country.”

There is also some resentment at the king’s support for the small Jewish community. Bahrain is hot with sectarian tensions: the king, a Sunni Muslim, is accused of discriminating against Shiite Muslims, who make up a majority of the native population. Shiites are barred from almost all positions in the military and security services, and they say they are not given the same employment and education opportunities as their Sunni neighbors.

Shiites complain that the 36 Jews are treated better than they are, and that the king’s Jewish outreach is intended to make Bahrain appear to be a tolerant society, papering over the systemic discrimination they say they experience.

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