Monday, November 30, 2009

Partition plan unleashed flight from Arab lands

The UN resolution to partition Palestine exactly 62 years ago unleashed violence and harassment of Jews living in Arab countries. It was the first stage in the ethnic cleansing of the region of its 900,000 Jews. Three Egyptian Jews recall those dark days for Lela Gilbert of the The Jerusalem Post:

'All I can remember... is the element of fear," Joseph Abdel Wahed writes, reflecting on the events of his 12th year. "People in the streets would mock us with the famous Arab insult, Ya yahudi ya ibn el kalb [Jewish son of a dog], or even more ominously Idbah el-Yahud [slit the throats of the Jews].

An antiquities employee...

An antiquities employee performs restoration work on the Ben Maimon synagogue in Cairo in August.
Photo: AP

"This really scared us because there was nowhere to hide. Many of us did not have travel papers and even if we did, the Egyptian authorities wanted to keep us as hostages and not let us out. After the revolution of July 1952, their attitude changed and they were only too glad to kick us out, but not before confiscating everything we owned - our businesses, farms, hospitals and homes and bank accounts."

From 1948 to 1968, between 850,000 and 1 million Jews fled or were expelled from their homes in Arab countries, including Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Some Jewish refugees refer to the shattering events as their Nakba, borrowing the oft-repeated Arabic word for "catastrophe." Others, particularly those who once lived in Egypt, call it the "second exodus," relating their experiences to the biblical Israelites' miraculous flight from Egypt. Most of these refugees, now in their sunset years, feel blessed to have escaped Egypt and grateful to have made their way to Israel with little more than the shirt on their back and - if they were fortunate - one suitcase.

Joseph Abdel Wahed and Levana Zamir, also from Egypt, now live at opposite ends of the world. But for both of them, the events of May 14, 1948 were, indeed, catastrophic. That was, of course, the day when Israel proclaimed its independence and declared itself a nation, on its own land as bestowed by the UN partition. To put it mildly, the response across the Arab world was anything but congratulatory. Wahed was 12 years old; Zamir was 10. Although they weren't acquainted at the time, they both lived in or near Cairo.

Levana Zamir

These days, Zamir speaks of her experiences in her breezy, sunlit Tel Aviv apartment, surrounded by colorful décor and a collection of fine art. In a quiet voice she explains that she, her parents and her six brothers were once part of an affluent community that, for generations, had enjoyed an elegant lifestyle that she describes in her book, The Golden Era of the Jews of Egypt, published in cooperation with the University of Haifa.

Then the "catastrophe" struck.

"On May 14, 1948," Zamir recalls, "we were sleeping. All of a sudden, exactly at midnight, people were knocking very, very hard on our door. We woke up and I saw 10 Egyptian officers in their black uniforms. I wasn't afraid because my parents were there and my mother was smiling to comfort me. But the soldiers opened everything. They went through everything. They were searching for something, but we never knew what.

"The next day I went to school [she attended a Catholic elementary school]. The headmaster of the nuns came to me and said, 'They took your uncle to prison!' My uncle lived in a big villa. He, my father and another brother owned one of the largest printing businesses in Cairo. I rushed home and asked my mother, 'Is it true? Is he a criminal?' My mother told me, 'He's not a criminal. It's only because we are Jews.' So then it was even more a trauma for me. I thought to myself, 'I am also a Jew! I too could go to prison!'"

Eighteen months later, when her uncle was released from prison like many others - on the condition of permanent expulsion - Levana and her family fled Egypt, leaving behind their sequestered assets and possessions.

Zamir describes her childhood world - before those terrible events - in nostalgic vignettes, illustrated with fading photographs. It was a way of life cherished by her parents, an epoch of almost fairy-tale quality. The affluent Jews of Egypt, like those of Iraq, Iran and some other cosmopolitan Muslim lands, were well connected with royalty. They enjoyed beautiful villas, social prestige and the best of food and education, so much so that they were able to overlook their dhimmi status vis-à-vis their Muslim friends and neighbors. Today, serving as president of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association, Zamir works tirelessly to fulfill her dream of restoring warm ties between Egyptians and Jews.

Today Wahed lives in California, in a small town called Moraga, east of San Francisco. He keeps in touch with scores of other Jews from Arab lands and works with the Jimena organization he founded (, seeking to provide recognition to those Jewish refugees and their families.

"I was 12 years old in May 1948," Wahed says, "living in Heliopolis [a Cairo suburb]. I remember the words of Azzam Pasha, the head of the newly formed Arab League, talking about the founding of Israel. He said, 'This will be a war of extermination that will be likened to the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.' The very next day, the Egyptian army [and four other Arab armies] headed toward the new State of Israel to 'throw the Jews into the sea.' It was supposed to be a slam dunk, but they lost.

"By then everything had begun to unravel and our previously secure lives in Egypt had fallen apart. The Jewish section of Cairo, the Haret el-Yahud, was bombed [frequently] until 1949, killing and wounding many innocent Jews. Accompanying this were the usual assaults on our synagogues and on Jewish individuals. The authorities sometimes played a part in these assaults, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which began in the late 1920s under the leadership of Hassan el-Banna. In 1967, about 400 Egyptian Jews, including my uncle and other relatives were thrown in concentration camps. They were treated harshly and forced to commit sexual acts. They were released in 1970.(...)

"Immediately after the UN approved the partition resolution on November 29, 1947," (Yossi) Ben-Aharon says, "Arabs attacked the Jews throughout the Middle East, including Palestine. Yet, since 1949, the Arab states, together with Palestinian organizations, have mounted an intensive propaganda campaign, based on a rewriting of history, in an attempt to shift responsibility for the Palestinian refugee issue onto Israel. They describe the events of 1948 - and the estimated 762,000 Arab refuges - as an 'ethnic cleansing' by Israel.

"The facts of history point to the opposite: ethnic cleansing was perpetrated by Arab governments against their Jews, as witnessed by the fact that 850,000 Jews were forced to leave the Arab countries, while more than 4 million Arabs continue to live in geographic Palestine, including more than a million in Israel. Now, 60 years after the events, the time has come for the historical facts to be recognized and for justice to be done."

"We Jews who were ethnically cleansed from the Arab world did not get one penny from the UN," Wahed adds, "while the Palestinians have received over $50 billion [including funds from the European Union] since 1950. They still are receiving financial assistance."

Read article in full

The Jew from Kuwait

Over the years, scores, or possibly hundreds, of Jews have married Muslims: their children are then lost to Judaism. A conspiracy of silence seems to surround the issue, but now and again one comes across articles such as this remarkable story from Aish. Mark Halawa found out that he was 'halachically' Jewish, but his Muslim background left him unprepared for such a shocking discovery. (With thanks: Lily)

"Growing up in Kuwait, I had the best of everything. My father owned a successful construction company, and provided us five children with amenities like piano lessons, swimming, calligraphy and trips all over the world. Although we were Muslims like everyone else, we were totally secular and my father always aimed to shield us from religious people whom he described as crazies.

"I grew up being told that Israelis and Jews were the lowest type of creature in existence, put on Earth only to kill us Arabs. In math class the teacher would say, “If one rocket killed X number of Jews, how many would six rockets kill?”

"My father was rabidly anti-Israel. He was a product of Nasser's school of thought: secular from a Muslim point of view, yet deeply dedicated to the idea of pan-Arab unity. Israel, he believed, was an American proxy in the post-colonial Middle East.

"My father was a supporter of the PLO since the 1960s when Yasser Arafat (who founded the PLO while living in Kuwait) was raising money from wealthy Palestinians working in Gulf States. As an engineer, my father participated in a program where the engineering association in Kuwait would deduct money from his monthly salary to be sent directly to the PLO. He insisted that war and resistance was the only way to deal with Israel.

"In the summer of 1990, when I was 12 years old, our lives changed completely. We were on vacation when Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. My father's business -- along with much of the country -- was ravaged. Our savings became worthless pieces of paper. We could not go back to Kuwait, so we immigrated to Canada. My father did manage to sneak back in for a few days to retrieve important business documents that would later be useful in recovering compensation from a United Nations fund.

"Praying in the Dark: Of my family, I’m the only one who stayed in Canada. My father never really adjusted to life in the New World, and he had good business contacts back in Jordan, so my parents returned there. All my siblings also moved back to the Middle East. One brother runs a successful company in Jordan, two brothers are studying in Egypt (one dentistry and the other business), and my sister lives in Dubai where she works in the banking industry.

"One evening in 2003, I was studying at the university library in London, Ontario, when I happened to notice an older man. From his chassidic garb, he looked like a religious Jew. My curiosity was aroused, so I approached him and asked, "Are you Jewish?"

"With a gentle smile on his face, he said, "No, but I like to dress this way." I didn't know whether he was joking or not. All the religious people I had come across in the past were pretty scary. Are Jews supposed to be funny?

"His name was Dr. Yitzhak Block, a retired professor of philosophy. We exchanged a few words and then he asked about my background. My family history is pretty complex, and I get a headache every time I have to explain it all. So I simply told him that I'm an Arab from Kuwait, and mentioned that my grandmother from my mother’s side is Jewish.

"My mother’s parents met in Jerusalem when my grandfather, an Arab from the West Bank, was serving in the Jordanian army fighting the Zionists. He was 18 years old and my grandmother was 16. Her father ran a school in Jerusalem -- the same school where she would jump off the wall to meet my handsome, uniformed grandfather. They fell in love, got married, and lived for a number of years in Shechem (Nablus).

"After my grandfather was discharged from the Jordanian army, the family moved to Kuwait, where oil profits were fueling huge business and construction projects. That’s where my mother met my father and got married.

"Knowing about my grandmother’s Jewish background always made me curious about Jews. Whenever we were on vacation in Amman, Jordan, I used to constantly watch the Israeli channel -- when my parents weren't around. My favorite was the Israeli national anthem, and I would stay up late waiting to hear them play it at the end of the TV transmission.

"Standing there in the university library, this religious Jew, Dr. Block, looked at me and said, “In Muslim law, you’re considered Muslim, since the religion goes by the father. But according to Jewish law, you’re Jewish, since Jewish identity is transmitted by the mother.”

"My head started to spin and memories of my childhood in Kuwait began to surface. I recalled how my grandmother had a funny name on her documents, Mizrachi, which I never heard before. She also had a small prayer book with Hebrew letters, and she prayed in the dark crying. (I thought the Wailing Wall was so named because crying was a part of prayer.)

"Aside from a vague family legend, my grandmother never mentioned anything about being Jewish -- but now the pieces were fitting into place. I thanked Dr. Block for the conversation, and ran home to tell my roommate what I heard. He smiled and said, “So you're a Mus-Jew!” I was not amused.

"I went to my room and called my mother. She rebuffed the story, saying, "Don't listen to people like that. We are Muslims and that's that."

"I decided to call my grandmother myself and bring up the subject.

"I beat around the bush a bit -- after all, she’d been denying it for the past 50 years -- and then finally blurted out, “Grandma, are you Jewish?”

"She didn’t answer the question directly, but she started crying and spoke about the years of Arab-Israeli conflict. She told me how her brother Zaki had been killed in Jerusalem before the rebirth of the State. To me that was sufficient confirmation of her Jewishness and I decided to leave it at that.

"Over the next few months, I avoided the whole issue of Judaism, mainly for the sake of not upsetting my mother. Besides, I was just finishing university, and career was my main priority. I was content with telling myself that I belonged to a mixed-faith family.

"Streaming Tears: About a year later, I was rollerblading one day in my neighborhood when I took a hard fall and badly sprained my wrist. The road was smooth so I couldn't figure out why I had fallen. I couldn’t stop thinking that it seemed like a push from Above. These thoughts caught me by surprise, since I wasn't into spirituality and I never had any religious connection. I was a bodybuilder, had tons of friends, and was on the heels of a successful career as a foreign exchange trader. So why had this happened?

"Because my wrist was heavily bandaged, I was forced to take off work for a few days. Dr. Block had mentioned the name of his synagogue, so that Saturday morning, I decided to go check out the scene. I was hesitant at the thought of everyone being from European background and me the only Middle Easterner, but I decided to go anyway.

"I called a cab and got dropped off at the synagogue. As I walked in, the first person I saw looked Indian. He shook my hand, said “Shabbat Shalom,” and handed me a kippah. Then I saw a black man which really surprised me. And Dr. Block was there, too.

"I was handed a prayer book, shown the proper page, and before I knew it everyone was singing, V'Shamru:

"And the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel, it is a sign forever that in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed."

"Something hit me and I felt as though I knew this song. I just stood there taking in the sounds, the smells and the sights. Everything felt whole and perfect. It was the opposite of everything I'd ever heard about Jews or Judaism. At this point my tears were streaming in freefall."

Read article in full

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Record numbers of Turkish Jews moving to Israel

An unprecedented 600 Turkish Jews are expected to flee harrassment and resettle in Israel in 2010, the Jewish Agency has predicted. Taking their cue from the antisemitic pronouncements of Prime Minister Erdogan, Turks are no longer as tolerant as they once were. David Bedein of the Philadelphia Bulletin writes:

Jerusalem – A nervous Rabbi recently appeared at The Bulletin’s bureau in Jerusalem and related that the small Jewish community in Turkey feels threatened by the new Islamic resurgence and by the new Turkish alliance with Iran.

As a result, there is a a significant increase in the number of Jews leaving Turkey and immigrating to Israel.

One hundred and thirty five immigrants from Turkey have made the journey this year, compared with 108 in 2008.

The Jewish Agency predicts that, by the year’s end, some 200 immigrants will have come, nearly twice as many as in previous years.

The assessment is based on the fact that, for the first time in many years, Jewish Agency representatives are being swamped with calls. As of now there is a 100 percent increase in those expressing interest in immigrating to Israel, inquiring as to their rights and obligations – and for the first time, a long list of Jews hoping to relocate their businesses from Turkey to Israel.

Most of those asking to register as new immigrants explain that this is due to the new extremist attitudes towards Jews in Turkey.

One of those who have registered, a 39-yard-old father of four who did not give his name, is the owner of a large and prosperous shop in the capital. The man decided to sell his business and move to Israel.

“We are being harassed, Turkey is no longer the same Turkey. They listen to the words of the prime minister and refrain from setting foot in Jewish shops. Turkey is falling into extremism,” he explained.

He said that many of his Jewish colleagues were leaving for the West, not only to Israel, and others were considering doing so.

“We anticipated that the number of people interested in moving to Israel was going to rise, but we didn’t anticipate that there would be such a large number of people who wanted to immigrate and so swiftly,” said a senior Jewish Agency executive. He said that 600 Jews were expected to immigrate to Israel from Turkey in 2010, which is an unprecedented number.

Read article in full

Friday, November 27, 2009

Nazi hate propaganda still poisoning the Arab world

The Mufti of Jerusalem meets Adolph Hitler

After the fall of Hitler, the Arab world never went through a process of recanting its sympathy for Nazi ideas. There is mounting evidence, Jeffrey Herf observes in The Chronicle of Education, that the antisemitism rampant in the Middle East has its roots in a toxic mix of Nazi hate propaganda and Islamist elements

At 8:15 p.m. on July 7, 1942, the Voice of Free Arabism played a remarkable program titled, "Kill the Jews Before They Kill You." The broadcast began with a lie: "A large number of Jews residing in Egypt and a number of Poles, Greeks, Armenians, and Free French have been issued with revolvers and ammunition" to fight "against the Egyptians at the last moment, when Britain is forced to evacuate Egypt." The broadcast continued:

"In the face of this barbaric procedure by the British we think it best, if the life of the Egyptian nation is to be saved, that the Egyptians rise as one man to kill the Jews before they have a chance of betraying the Egyptian people. It is the duty of the Egyptians to annihilate the Jews and to destroy their property. … You must kill the Jews, before they open fire on you. Kill the Jews, who have appropriated your wealth and who are plotting against your security. Arabs of Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, what are you waiting for? The Jews are planning to violate your women, to kill your children and to destroy you. According to the Muslim religion, the defense of your life is a duty which can only be fulfilled by annihilating the Jews. This is your best opportunity to get rid of this dirty race, which has usurped your rights and brought misfortune and destruction on your countries. Kill the Jews, burn their property, destroy their stores, annihilate these base supporters of British imperialism. Your sole hope of salvation lies in annihilating the Jews before they annihilate you."

This broadcast, which combined secular political accusations with an appeal to the religious demands of Islam, was unusual only insofar as it explicitly voiced genocidal intentions that were merely implicit in other declarations about the venality and power of the Jews. Two German historians, Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, recently uncovered evidence that German intelligence agents were reporting back to Berlin that if Rommel succeeded in reaching Cairo and Palestine, the Axis powers could count on support from some elements in the Egyptian officer corps as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. Mallmann and Cüppers also show that an SS division was preparing to fly to Egypt to extend the Final Solution to the Middle East. The British and Australian defeat of Rommel at the Battle of El 'Alamein prevented that from happening.

How was Nazi propaganda received by Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East? Research into this question has begun, but much more remains to be done by scholars who read Arabic and Persian. It is clear, as Meir Litvak and Esther Webman point out in their important new book, From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust (Columbia University Press), that the revulsion for fascism and Nazism that greatly influenced postwar politics in Europe was not nearly as prevalent in the Middle East. In a June 1945 report, the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, determined that "in the Near East the popular attitude toward the trial of war criminals is one of apathy. As a result of the general Near Eastern feeling of hostility to the imperialism of certain of the Allied powers, there is a tendency to sympathize with rather than condemn those who have aided the Axis." The OSS concluded that there was no support in the region for bringing pro-Axis Arab leaders like Husseini and Kilani to trial.

In the first months after the war, as the scope of the Jewish catastrophe in Europe was being revealed, Arab and Islamic radicals showed no sign of reconsidering their hostility to Zionism. On June 1, 1946, the OSS office in Cairo sent a report to Washington about a statement made by Hassan Al-Banna to the Arab League on the occasion of Husseini's return to Egypt. Banna, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, celebrated Husseini as a "hero who challenged an empire and fought Zionism, with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin Al-Husseini will continue the struggle. ... There must be a divine purpose behind the preservation of the life of this man, namely the defeat of Zionism. Amin! March on! God is with you! We are behind you! We are willing to sacrifice our necks for the cause. To death! Forward March."

Banna's hope that Husseini would "continue the struggle" indicates that Banna perceived the battle against Zionism as a continuation of Nazism's assault on the Jews. Sayyid Qutb, another extremely influential member of the Brotherhood, incorporated anti-Jewish ideas from Europe to forge a new jihadist ideology. In his essay from the early 1950s, "Our Struggle With the Jews," which became central in the canon of radical Islamist texts—the essay was republished in 1970 and distributed throughout the world by the monarchy in Saudi Arabia—Qutb argued that Jews are implacable enemies of Islam. As such, Qutb wrote, Jews merited "the worst kind of punishment." Qutb claimed that Allah had sent Hitler to earth to "punish" the Jews for their evil deeds. In so doing, Qutb justified, rather than denied, the Holocaust. This paranoid analysis, in turn, influenced the authors of the charter of Hamas, which blends Islamist fundamentalism with the Nazi ideology of mid-20th century Europe. The Hamas Charter holds Jews responsible for the French and the Russian Revolutions, World War I and World War II, as well as the founding of the United Nations—all of which were, Hamas argues, orchestrated for the purpose of furthering Jewish world domination.

Many decades and events stand between World War II and contemporary expressions of radical Islam. Yet the transcripts of Arabic-language propaganda broadcasts offer compelling evidence of a political and ideological meeting of minds between Nazism and radical Islam. The toxic mixture of religious and secular themes forged in Nazi-era Berlin, and disseminated to the Middle East, continues to shape the extreme politics of that region.

Read article in full

Mumbai's Jews : defiant but vulnerable

The spirit is one of defiance in Mumbai's tiny Jewish community on the first anniversary of the savage jihadist murders of six Jews - in India, a country with little history of antisemitism. Rhys Blakely reports for The Times: (with thanks: Lily)

The ten Islamist gunmen who stormed the city a year ago today were told by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of Gentiles. The wreckage of the only Jewish target — a centre that had offered visiting Jews kosher food, prayer and a place to sleep — bears witness to their ruthlessness.

Bullet marks still pock the wall where the bodies of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife, Rivka, the young couple who ran Nariman House, were found. Halfway up the central stairwell a grenade has blown away the side of the building. Shrapnel has left deep scars in the masonry. Some rooms are almost untouched while others have been obliterated by automatic gunfire. Not a single window remained intact.

Amid the rubble there are reminders that this was a family home. Crayon notches mark a door frame where Rivka had recorded the height of her son Moshe, 2, who survived, rescued by his Indian nanny. On the floor the couple had made their living quarters, the Holtzbergs’ shoes remain neatly stacked in a rack.

“This was a beautiful, vibrant place,” said Shloime Coleman, 22, a rabbinical student from Stamford Hill, London, one of many who volunteered to come to Mumbai after the attacks to help continue the work of the ChabadLubavitch movement, the Hasidic organisation that ran Nariman House. “It was turned upside down.”

The five-storey building became a war zone after two terrorists, named by police as Abu Umar and Babar Imaran, broke in at about 9.45pm, armed with AK47 assault rifles and grenades. The following dawn a squad of elite commandos were sent in to flush them out and save the hostages inside — an operation that would stretch for two terrifying days and end in failure.

Six foreigners, all Jews, were murdered in the house and three Indians were killed outside. Altogether 166 victims died in the Mumbai attacks, which have been blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group.

A year on, the spirit at Nariman House is one of defiance. Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, 33, the New Yorker sent to rehabilitate the centre in the wake of the atrocity, says there was never any doubt that his organisation would continue to have a presence in Mumbai.

“The attacks left a hole in our lives,” he said. “It will take time and patience to heal but we are standing in the front line against the War on Terror. We have a way of life that sanctifies life above everything. They do not.”

No decision has yet been made about whether Chabad-Lubavitch will move back into its former home. It is possible that another site will be chosen and its location kept low-key. Either way it is certain that tight new security systems will be put into place.

Mumbai’s Jews, who number only about 5,000 in a city of 18 million people, are a vulnerable speck in the cosmopolitan whirl. Scattered around Mumbai, however, are relics to show how they helped to build India’s commercial capital. For more than a century the most important has been the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. A grand colonial building in the heart of Mumbai’s financial district, its flaking turquoise façade stands testimony to how a handful of Jews helped to shape modern India.

Read article in full

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tunisian envoy snubs Oslo crash commemoration

The commemoration ceremony at the Oslo Children memorial in Israel (Eiran Campeanu)

One foggy day in November 60 years ago, two planes took off from Tunisia carrying Jewish children bound for a rehabilitation centre in Norway on their way to Israel. But one of the planes never made it. It crashed killing 27 children, their carers and the airline crew. Only one boy, the haggard son of a poor tailor - Isaac Allal - survived. A commemoration ceremony took place in Israel and at at the Norwegian town of Hurum on 22 November. But one dignitary was noticeable by his absence: the Tunisian ambassador to Norway.

"A memorial service was held in Moshav Yanuv on 22 November, in the presence of the Speaker of the Knesset, H.E. Mr. Reuven Rivlin. Another memorial service was held in Hurum, Norway, at the location of the plane crash, in the presence of State Secretary Elisabeth Walaas.

"Thin, dark-eyed Isaac Allal was the child of a poor tailor in the squalid Tunisian village of La Marsa; he grew up with the pale face and the weak lungs of a ghetto child. Then one day last month a glorious vista opened for him. Relief officials told the Allals that Isaac could go to a convalescent camp in Norway, and from there to Israel.

"This is the beginning of a story that was printed in Time Magazine, 5th of December 1949. Isaac Allal was part of a group of 28 children from Tunisian slums who boarded an airplane heading for a convalescent camp in Holmestrand, Norway. The airplane took off from Tunis airport 20th of November 1949, but never reached its final destination.

"After WWII and the establishment of the State of Israel, while the world was trying to heal its many wounds, the Norwegian government provided a rehabilitation facility, near Oslo, for Jewish youth. This provided the young people with a place of healing, rest and perhaps recovery from some of the horrors of the concentration camps. By 1949, working with the Jewish Youth Aliya Organization, Norway was accepting youth not only from Europe but from North Africa, Morocco and Tunisia, as the Jews there were badly affected by the Nazi invasion.

On the 20th of November 1949, a group of Tunisian children kissed their parents good-bye and together with their escorts embarked on a tragic journey.

"Two airplanes took off from Tunis, but only one arrived at its destination. At midnight the Norwegian radio announced that all contact had been lost with the one plane. Thousands of civilians, soldiers, planes and helicopters took part in the search. After two days of searching in the sea and snow covered forests the remains of the lost plane were discovered. Twenty eight children were on board the plane. Twenty seven children died as did four Dutch crew members and three adult escorts. One child survived: an eleven-year-old boy named Yitzchak Allal.

"Identifying the dead children was a long and painful task as there were no lists of names. No one knew for sure who was on the plane that landed safely and who was on the plane that crashed. The parents had to identify their children by the clothes they wore. The coffins of the twenty seven children were sent back to Tunisia where they were buried by their grieving parents, relatives and friends. Some buried as many as three and four siblings.

"The children were on their way, via Norway, to Israel. After resting, learning, and healing at the rehabilitation facility they were to reunite with their families who had planned to move from Tunisia to Israel.

"After the tragedy most of the parents immigrated as planned,their children being a sad reminder of the price and pain that went into establishing a homeland for the Jewish people.The surviving child, Yitzchak Allal, spent time in hospital and then joined his parents in Israel. His parents, together with about 80 young adult Tunisian immigrants were living in a field at the outskirts of a place that later became Moshav Yanuv.

"In early 1950, with this tragedy still fresh in the memory of the Norwegian people, the then head of the Norwegian labor party, Mr. Haakon Lie, raised funds in Norway to help Yitzchak Allal's family and the group who were living in the field, in tents. Fifty wooden huts were shipped over to Israel and thus the first homes were built and Moshav Yanuv was established. The first wooden home was given to Yitzchak Allal's family. This very hut was renovated last year keeping all the original walls and windows. It is now the Founders Home, with activities for the founders who are in their late seventies and early eighties. In the garden of this home is a large rock with the names of all 34 casualties. "

Read the rest of this post on the website of Norway's embassy in Israel

Writing in JSS News, the Tunisian journalist Ftouh Souhail has condemned the Tunisian ambassador to Norway for staying away from the commemoration ceremony.

He points out that Hurum is only a 40-minute drive from Oslo. The ceremony was deferred from the exact anniversary, a Friday, to a Sunday so as not to disturb the Muslim day of prayer.

The Tunisian decision to ignore the proceedings contrasts with its attitude 60 years ago. The accident plunged Tunisia into mourning. Tens of thousands of people attended the funerals of the 'Oslo children' in Tunisia, Muslims mourning alongside Jews.

"I'm sure that Tunisia will not forget this tragedy, but the attitude of the Tunsian ambassador to Oslo creates a serious precedent in the humiliation of Tunisian collective memory," Souhail writes. "The ambassador made a point of staying away without an apology or a word of explanation. It's the first time that a Tunisian envoy shows such flagrant contempt for the memory of the victims. It is contempt for the country in which they were born."

Souhail ges on to point out that such contempt - nay, antisemitism - is all the more hurtful since Tunisian Jews hailed President Ben Ali's re-election in October as a victory.

Norway has a special link to Moshav Yahuv, where it built 27 homes, each dedicated to a victim of the tragedy. The survivor Isaac Allal still lives in the Moshav, together with relatives of the crash victims.

"But the Tunisian ambassdor to Oslo boycotted the event despite being invited," Souhail continues." Apparently he as no compassion for Jewish victims in his country. Shame on him."

Read Souhail's article in full (French)

Update: article on Harissa site by Viviane Scemama Lesselbaum (with thanks: Michelle).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Islamist persecution speeds up Yemeni exodus

Article author Sudarsan Raghavan

It's the Washington Post's turn to run an obituary for the Jews of Yemen, the last of whom are fleeing for the US or Israel. But the widow of Moshe al-Nahari, killed almost a year ago, tells Sudarsan Raghavan she will not leave until her husband's murderer is executed: (with thanks Lily, Edwin)

SANAA, YEMEN -- The last remaining Jews in Yemen are vanishing, driven out by politics, war and hatred. Once numbering 60,000, one of the oldest Jewish populations in the Arab world now has fewer than 350 members.

In recent months, persecution by Islamist extremists has intensified, accelerating Jews' flight from Yemen. Many are heading to the United States. With the help of the U.S. government and U.S.-based Jewish organizations, 57 Yemeni Jews have been resettled in New York since July. At least 38 are expected to arrive soon and many more are eligible, American officials said. Others are seeking refuge in Israel and Europe.

In the capital, Sanaa, 65 Jews who fled their northern villages are living in a government compound under heavy security. Last week, police arrested two men suspected of planning to assassinate the community's rabbi, according to Yemeni news reports.

The exodus of Yemen's Jews -- who survived the rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and for centuries coexisted, if tenuously, with Muslims -- is the latest sign of this nation's social fragmentation. Yemen's weak central government is struggling with a civil war in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a growing al-Qaeda presence. Large swathes of the nation, the Middle East's poorest, are controlled by tribes, which resent any interference from the government.

Rabbi Yahya Yehuda, like so many in his shrinking congregation, is faced with a dilemma as he waits for a visa to the United States or Israel. His mind, filled with memories of killings, beatings and harassment, tells him to flee his homeland. But his heart tells him otherwise.

"We have lived here for thousands of years," he said. "I want to go. And yet I want to stay."(...)

The few hundred who stayed behind were concentrated in two areas -- in al-Salem, near the northern provincial capital of Saada, and in Raydah, about 45 miles north of Sanaa. There, they lived quietly under the radar of zealots, practicing Orthodox Jewish traditions. They attended synagogue, studied the Torah in religious schools and spoke Hebrew.

Many of the men were silversmiths, who made djanbias, the curved traditional daggers carried by Muslims. Others were blacksmiths, cabinetmakers or cobblers. Their curly locks of hair and their skullcaps differentiated them from Muslims.

In 2004, a Shiite rebellion broke out in Saada. The rebels, known as Hawthis, were an offshoot of the Zaydis. That December, they targeted al-Salem. They threw rocks at Jewish homes and damaged cars.

"They came at night, chanting slogans -- 'Death to America,' 'Death to Israel' and 'Curse the Jews,' " recalled Rabbi Yahya Yousef Mousa, 30, the target of the alleged assassination attempt.

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Egypt sues in Israel courts for King David shares

The King David Hotel (Ariel Jerozolimski)

Two Egyptian banks have petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to hear a case in which they claim Israel stole their shares in a luxury Jerusalem hotel after the founding of the Jewish state, The Jerusalem Post reports. Is this a sign of normalisation, or just chutzpa, given that many more millions were sequestered from Jews in Egypt? Should Jews counter-sue, or should all claims and counterclaims be saved for a final settlement? In any event, the Egyptians are likely to milk this case for all its political worth. (With thanks: Lily)

The Egyptian Arab Land Bank and the National Bank of Egypt, owned by the Egyptian government, are seeking damages over shares they purchased during the 1930s in the King David, Jerusalem's most famous hotel.

The banks claim that their shares in the hotel, originally purchased during the 1930s, were taken from them following the 1948 War of Independence between the newly declared Israeli state and its Arab neighbors.

Beginning their lawsuit in 2007 after the Egyptian government returned the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria, Egypt to its Jewish owners, the Egyptian banks are believed to be claiming $78 million, including decades of unpaid interest.

The story begins in 1929, when Jewish Egyptian banker Albert Mosseri, then the director of the National Bank of Egypt, financed almost half of the construction of Palestine Hotels, built on Julian's Way in Jerusalem. The bank claims to have purchased another 693 shares of Palestine Hotels between 1934 and 1943.

Following the 1948 war, Palestine Hotels was renamed the King David Hotel and Julian's Way became King David Street. Mosseri sold all his personal shares in the hotel but the bank held onto its shares until Israel's Absentee Property Custodian seized them in 1958 after the bank was declared an 'absentee' party.

The move took place in the context of a series of Israeli laws passed in the early 1950s to formalize state ownership over what was termed "absentee" land and property, mostly referring to somewhere between 500,000 and 4.1 million acres (2,000 to 16,500 square kilometers) of land abandoned or confiscated during the 1948 war.

Israel's Absentee Property Custodian sold the King David shares to private Israeli companies in 1993.

But the banks claim that according to international law the Israeli Absentee Property Custodian should have returned their shares in the King David.

"The shares were bought by the banks in 1929 and the 1930s before the State of Israel was established," Ahmad Al Arousi, the Palestine branch manager of Egyptian Arab Land Bank told The Media Line. "In 2007 they found the shares in one of the safes."

"Frankly speaking you can say that they didn't know they had it," he said. "When they found the stocks for the King David they got in touch with a lawyer in Israel and he took over the case."(..)

A spokesperson for the Israeli Justice Ministry said the case was civil and being handled by the Israeli Courts Administration.

Israeli Courts Administration officials claimed they could not find a record of the case, despite news of it appearing in Israeli press on Monday.

Officials involved in Israeli 'Absentee' property issues said the Egyptian banks were unlikely to see success.

"In some cases people claim that they are not supposed to be included in the absentee property laws and they sue the state," said Tuvi Peri, Director of Planning and Valuation at the Jewish National Fund, which was gifted large tracts of land by the Israeli government following the 1948 war. "They never get the property back but they get some money."

"I think it's a really interesting case but I don't think they will get anything in the end," Peri told The Media Line. "Unless it becomes a political question and the State of Israel tries to avoid a conflict with Egypt, I imagine that it will be rejected."

"I don't think that the absentee property laws mention nationality," he added. "They speaks about people who were absent at the time of the war. I don't want to seem naive - of course it was all about Palestinians - but I don't think it says the word Palestinian or Arab."

But Dr. Emad Gad, Director of the Israel research unit at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt, argued that the choice of Egyptian banks to use an Israeli court is much more significant than the claim itself.

"The claim itself is huge and complicated, but I see all this as a positive sign in Egyptian - Israeli relations," Gad told The Media Line. "You have to remember that any contact with any Israeli institution is seen as part of a process of normalization, which is a bad word in Egypt."

"I know that they have received permission from the Egyptian government and they are using official channels to deal with a problem rather than launching a media campaign to pressure Israel," he said. "So what is significant here is not the claim, but the fact that they are approaching an Israeli institution. It's a sign that they respect the Israeli legal system and a positive step towards dealing with Israel as a normal state in the region."

Read article in full

Alexandria's Cecil Hotel could be test case

Monday, November 23, 2009

Let's put economic peace before politics

Linda Menuhin

Attending an Iraqi wedding in Amman led Baghdad-born Israeli Linda Menuhin to ponder how economic normalisation between Jews and Arabs need not entail Israeli dominance; and reconciliation, based on a mutual appreciation of suffering on both sides, could begin at the grassroots level. The publication of Linda's original article on Elaph, the Arabic online magazine, is itself a breakthrough. With thanks to Ivy Vernon for her translation.

Two months ago I and my sister were delighted to receive a wedding invitation from an Iraqi family living in Amman, Jordan. We were privileged to have known the groom’s grandfather, who spent his law internship with my father, back in the Forties in Baghdad. Eventually he earned fame as an audacious lawyer in Iraq and abroad. Once, bumping into him in London a couple of years ago, I had approached him to seek help unearthing any clues about my missing father - kidnapped during Ahmed Hassan Al Baker’s time, and of whom we have heard nothing since.

Both of us have now become refugees, dispossessed from the country we once called home…but like the Arab poet Imru’e Alqais said, “Alas neighbour, we are both strangers here yet we are as kith and kin."

My younger sister and I embraced the invitation wholeheartedly. The visit to Amman lasted for two days only, yet for me it was the journey of my life. This rare opportunity enabled us to re- connect with our fellow countrymen, something which had proved to be out-of-bounds for almost forty years. They, too have had to flee from the persecutions, the wars and the troubled situation in Iraq to embark on a better future. The openness with which they treated us looked so natural. We understood each other as only refugees can, and the frank discussions and the wide-ranging debate even reached out to include the Iraqi Jewish community’s numerous contributions to modern Iraq. In no time we joined the joyful crowd in Arabic popular dance. We could not take our eyes off the columns of men dancing to the Kurdish tunes of the Choppi, the national Kurdish dance. We could not help but let out intermittent sighs for what used to be part of our heritage.

The next day we were taken to Amman’s modern shopping centre. We stood mesmerised in front of the Iraqi goldsmith’s window, admiring the far-fetched enamel designs. We immediately engaged in a lively conversation, sharing with him happy memories of the country, while contrasting it with the present situation; we found ourselves shedding tears over the tragedy of it all. Then we discussed together some of the opportunities for economic cooperation that could be developed between the countries of the region; a better income, longterm prosperity, both so very vital to the livelihoods of our friends and relatives from both camps. How can this encounter be framed? In terms of normalisation, openness or re-connecting, while bearing in mind that our interlocutors were well aware of our Iraqi origin and Israeli nationality.

Normalisation, according to strong voices in the Arab world, is a prize that Israel is not entitled to: its “bad behaviour” towards the Palestinians requires boycotting. Yet this approach has not yielded any positive outcome for Arab interests.

Israel has forged ahead in all directions to establish its presence as a leader in technology internationally, in spite of the Arab boycott. In the eyes of the majority in Israel, normalisation with the Arab world is worthy compensation for the suffering from enmity we endured in the last 50 years. Most notably we, Jews from Arab countries, have paid a high price not many are aware of, because of the social and cultural deprivations we have had to endure. Indeed even now there are communities of Jewish refugees who fled in the late Forties and early Fifties from Arab countries, still living in the far-flung development towns, suffering from lack of access to Israel’s economical, cultural and political hub.

The real meaning of normalisation: the abundant published material in Hebrew and Arabic reveals an enormous gap between how each party conceives normalisation. From the Arab point of view, normalisation will engender Israeli total dominance over the region’s culture and economy, thus threatening Arabic stability and continuity. In addition, the concept of normalisation as a whole arouses concern and fear, partly from the loss of the common enemy, Israel - substantial glue behind Arab solidarity. Normalisation was always conditional on time and circumstances. At one time Israel is required first to withdraw from Lebanon ….at others, it must evacuate all the territories it has annexed, and so on.

On the Israeli side, normalisation is the logical step to follow recognition by the Arabs, entailing an exchange of visits as well as dismantling any trade obstacles to economic cooperation. In practice, Arab countries are expected not to add to obstacles aiming to derail opportunities of cooperation with Israel in order to boost the Arabic economy, thus leaving economic initiatives to the private sector that will engender higher employment and eventually improve the standard of living. This approach will bring about tangible results on the ground. Accordingly, it is better to focus on openness rather normalisation as a whole, which seems frightening from the Arab perspective.

Global economic openness: Glasnost in the former Soviet Union in 1989 was applied before any process of political reconciliation was put in motion.The reason was a drastic need to shore up the collapsing Soviet economy at the time. In contrast, political openness is more complicated and requires more time, tolerance and a forgiving mindset. Even China underwent major pain to give birth to economic openness while trying to ignore the need to introduce democracy and political openness. Since then, though, she has taken vital steps that define her as an economic giant in the global arena.

The rules of the economic game have changed during the last two decades: America has ceded its leading economic place to growing nations like India and Indonesia. To maintain effective cost margins, big organisations are willing to travel long distances in search of cheaper labour. The distance between Israel and the countries in the region is indeed an asset because it is minimal. Israel possesses ample trading and marketing savvy in a variety of fields. When combined with development of Arabic labour and skills, these can form an unbeatable package capable of winning entirely new markets never before contemplated. It is a fallacy that Israel will inundate the Arabic markets: its products are far too expensive to sell in the region. Therefore the international markets are the only outlets.

There is no reason to roam uselessly in the labyrinth of what is called Israel’s economic dominance. Just like other growing nations, the Arabs stand to gain from the far-reaching changes which have swept across the world’s economic focus and which are set to open new horizons for all –as explained by Farid Zakaria, author of bestseller The Post-American World.

Openness before normalisation: Economic peace will allow the Israeli man in the street to be introduced to indigenous Arabic language and culture. Physical encounters between Arabs and Israelis will emerge, rather than meeting virtually via media such as the Internet, if they do at all. Direct conversations, hearing the truth on each side, will open up new vistas for both sides, influencing each other’s opinions.

A “people to people” roadmap will entail positive and frank discussions based on goodwill. Cordial relations will make inroads from a more established Arabic civilisation into a still nascent Israeli society open to different foreign cultures. Since reconciliation is based on truth, it is also very important for the Arabs to realize that Jews from Arab countries - in parallel with the Palestinians - have left behind vast amounts of property (estimated to be equivalent to four times the area of Israel). This is according to a survey made by Maurice Romano - as well as frozen portable and non portable assets estimated at $80 billion, losses that constitute far more than the amount left by the Palestinians. The price that Jewish refugees from Arab countries have paid has been cut out of the narrative of Arab-Israeli conflict.

To conclude: There is no doubt that we need to generate an atmosphere of goodwill to clear the air and encourage people to start talking! And even though an agenda for political recognition cannot be on the cards yet, we don’t need to aim so high: willingness to open up, awareness of each other’s needs - these should be enough initially to promote the process of opening up. It creates greater optimism on the horizon. It also gives us, the people in this region, a far better future to look forward to.

This article in Arabic by Linda Menuhin (nee Abdel Aziz) first appeared in Elaph on 26 October 2009. Linda is an active member of Israel civil society, a member of the board of the Smart Middle East Forum and a founding member of Israel-Syria peace society. Translated by Ivy Vernon.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Coca-Cola is guilty of 'Jewish persecution denial'

The latest showdown in the long-running case of Bigio v. Coca-Coca is taking place in a Manhattan courtroom. The Bigio lawyers are claiming that Coca-Cola's defence for having stolen this Jewish family's property is akin to Holocaust denial. Edwin Black, author of Banking on Baghdad, has written a long feature on the case, Coke and confiscation, for the Jerusalem Post: (With thanks: Lily)

In a downtown Manhattan courtroom, where the lawyers and clients up front outnumbered the observers seated in the back, where a forgotten Jewish Egyptian victim challenged an omnipresent multibillion-dollar multinational corporation; in a case where history itself was both on trial and being made, the Coca-Cola Company was publicly accused of being criminally enriched following the Nasser regime's Nazi-style expropriation of Jewish property. More than that, Coca-Cola was accused of obstructing, belittling and stonewalling a decades-long effort to obtain justice, and indeed trying to create a new revisionism that questions whether anti-Jewish persecution actually took place in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Bigio family.

The Bigio family

On November 10, 2009, Egyptian exile Refael Bigio drove down from Montreal, his attorneys Nathan Lewin and Sherrie Savett trained in from Washington DC and Philadelphia, Coca-Cola's chief of litigation John Lewis flew up from Atlanta and the company's defense counsel Richard Cirillo only needed to make a short trip from midtown to argue whether the Coca-Cola Company quietly but consciously benefited when the Nasser regime nationalized Jewish property. The Bigios' property had long been leased by Coca-Cola and their bottle-cap factory made the caps for Coke's products. This factory, the property and related business ultimately became a multimillion dollar asset in the giant Atlanta beverage conglomerate's overseas portfolio.

The Egyptian government takeover of the Bigio family bottle-cap and tin plating factory occurred in 1962, during the openly anti-Jewish regime of president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt's government subsequently ruled its Nasser-era seizure of the Bigio property was indeed illegal. Later, however, over the Bigios' objections, Coca-Cola entered into a joint venture to operate what is now the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Egypt on the Bigios' seized property, without compensating the Bigios, according to court papers. The Bigios claim that Coke is and has been trespassing on stolen property.

Now, after years of litigation and fruitless negotiation, Bigio's attorneys have fired a stinging motion for summary judgment, asserting that the uncontradicted facts surrounding Coca-Cola's actions were so blatant that the court should immediately find the corporation liable.

"Coca-Cola is not," wrote attorney Nathan Lewin in his motion, "as it likes to portray itself, a trusting and guileless American corporation that in 1994 innocently purchased a 'minority interest' in some remote business entity that utilizes the Bigios' property. The undisputed evidence establishes that Coca-Cola witnessed how the Bigio family - with which it was intimately bound in a mutually profitable business relationship between the 1940s and 1962 - was victimized by Nasser's ethnic-cleansing policy of taking Jewish property and expelling Jews from Egypt."

Years later, Lewin asserts, after the Egyptian government took minimal steps to remedy the religiously discriminatory brutality of the Nasser regime, Coca-Cola happily took control - through entities which it now claims cannot be "pierced" - of property that Coca-Cola knows was immorally and illegally plundered from the Bigios."

10,000 square meters, the...

10,000 square meters, the Bigio warehouse in Heliopolis, Egypt originally served as a shoe polish plant in the 1930s.

Lewin made the point simple: "Coca-Cola is, we submit, the occupier of stolen property. If this case concerned personalty [personal property] that had been taken in violation of international law from the Bigios, and Coca-Cola knowingly received and used that personal property in order to make enormous profits in Egypt, there would be no doubt that Coca-Cola would be civilly - and possibly even criminally - liable. The rule of law is no different when the stolen goods that are being used by the defendant are land and businesses. The receiver and user of such stolen merchandise cannot claim immunity on the ground that the entity that is directly using the stolen goods is only a subsidiary or an affiliate. Principles governing the tort of trespass and of aiding-and-abetting liability make all who partake in the illegal exploitation - and particularly the head of the entire enterprise - liable to the victims."

In response, Coca-Cola apparently has extensively disputed that the Nasser regime was actually engaged in anti-Jewish persecution, but was merely a socialist government seizing the property of many citizens. The company argues that it had no way of knowing that the property and businesses the Atlanta corporation acquired were made available only as the result of Nasser's anti-Jewish ethnic cleansing.

Bigio's lawyers answered by comparing Coca-Cola to someone witnessing a rape and murder, and then buying the jewelry stolen from the victim. (My emphasis - ed) Plaintiff attorneys added in their court filing that for Coca-Cola to deny persecution of Jewish citizens in Egypt is akin to "Holocaust denial."

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What will rebuilding Beirut's synagogue mean?

An epitaph to a vanished sect, or proof of the enduring cultural survival of the Jewish people - what will the rebuilding of the Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut actually mean? Point of No Return takes the more cynical view in this article for Jewcy weblog:

On November 11 Jewcy published a piece by Isaac Binkovitz applauding a project to renovate the Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut. "Although it would be a miracle if the community were ever to regain even a mere half of its numbers from just a generation ago", he writes, "Lebanon gives us reason to hope. ... For me it is a story which speaks to the ability of Jewish culture to survive in many corners of the world."

Given that there are no more than 20 Jews in Lebanon, and these are too frightened to reveal themselves as Jews, even Binkovitz's cautious optimism seems misplaced. The Jewish community in Lebanon is finished. A profusion of armed Islamic groups targets Jews and Israelis simply for being Jews. Until there is peace between Arabs and Israelis, there is no guarantee that Jews will ever feel safe in Lebanon. It may take a very long time before the few beleaguered Jews in Lebanon are emboldened to come out of the closet, let alone identify openly as Jews within the precincts of the Maghen Avraham synagogue.

While Binkovitz is ready to admit that Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews of Arab lands were nearly universally expelled and large Jewish communities in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Iraq, Yemen and Syria were violently uprooted - curiously, he idealises Lebanon.

.. "Lebanese Jews remained largely undisturbed through these decades, despite Lebanon’s 1958 civil unrest and American intervention. In fact, Lebanon’s 24,000-member Jewish community in 1948 actually grew as it absorbed Jews fleeing other Arab countries. This growth continued until the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975."

The vast majority of Lebanese Jews - and the numbers seem to be closer to 10 - 14,000 than 24,000 - actually fled from the repercussions of the Israel-Arab conflict, notably after the Six Day War in 1967, and not after the civil war of 1975. A revisionist history by Kirsten E Schulze, the author of Jews of Lebanon, the only book about Lebanon's Jews to be published in English in the last few years, tries to present all Lebanese, whatever their religion, as victims of the 1975 civil war. But while all sects were depleted through war and exodus, Schulze does not explain why the Jewish community was the only one to be wiped out.

One of the prime movers behind the project to rebuild Maghen Avraham synagogue is a Shi'a Muslim named Aaron-Micael Beydoun. Beydoun started a website called the Jews of Lebanon. Visitors to the site were under the misleading impression that it was by and for Jews of Lebanon, whereas it represented only the thoughts of Beydoun himself. In fact Lebanese Jews in the diaspora have given Beydoun and his website a wide berth.

Beydoun has a political agenda. His aim is to exploit the Jews to project the illusion that the multi-confessional system still exists. Yet thousands of Lebanese have left Lebanon, southern Lebanon is a stronghold of Hezbollah; the influx of Palestinian Arab refugees in 1970 and the 1975 civil war has upset its delicate political and population balance between Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians, Shi'a Muslim, Sunni and Druze.

Lately, Beydoun, who has even been quoted by journalists as a spokesman for the Jewish Community Council, has closed down his website and channelled his efforts into getting the synagogue rebuilt. For Maghen Avraham to rise from the rubble would be the perfect advertisement for Lebanese pluralism. It would enable Lebanon to boast its tolerance of religious minorities - " look, we even have Jews in Lebanon!"

Expatriate Lebanese Jews are reported to have pledged donations towards the restoration work. But other reports say that the donors have not followed through on their promises. Perhaps they have now realised that the synagogue will never again be at the heart of Jewish communal life. And although the reconstruction is said to be proceeding with Hezbollah's blessing, there is no guarantee that the synagogue might not be shelled by some militia or other in the future.

Beydoun's other purpose is to drive a wedge between Lebanon's Jews and Israel. This synagogue is being rebuilt to show that ' good' Jews, untainted by any association with Israel, coexist with other minorities in Lebanon, and have a future there. In her book Schulze also portrays Lebanese Jews as Lebanese of the Jewish faith, with little attachment to Israel. She conveniently ignores the fact that just under half of Lebanon's Jews - 4,000 - fled to the Jewish state.

It is true that between 1948 and 1967 Lebanon was unique, being the only Arab country where the Jewish community increased in size, swollen by Jews from Syria and Iraq fleeing persecution. But what Schulze does not say is that even Jews born in Lebanon of Syrian extraction were denied Lebanese citizenship. I learned from an Iraqi Jew that he moved to Lebanon in the late 1950s because the only countries open to him and his family were Kuwait and Lebanon. As Kuwait has not had a Jewish community since the 1920s, moving to Lebanon was a no-brainer.

Unlike Jews in other Arab countries the rights of the Jews of Lebanon were constitutionally safeguarded by a confessional system where each religious community's 'inalienable rights' were acknowledged under Le Reglement - a set of rules written after the 1860 Civil War. This established a system of power-sharing in which all the major religious communities were represented. The Lebanese Jews were one of 17, the largest of six minor religious communities. It is true that unlike other countries Jews were free to emigrate. It is also true that their property was never confiscated, unlike other Arab countries. However, although the government did try to protect the Jews, it could or did not prevent Jews in 1948 being arrested and interned as Zionist spies, antisemitic incidents such as the bombing of the Alliance Israelite school in the 1950s, rioting and incitement.

So is the rebuilding of the Beirut synagogue symbolic of the survival of the Jews? Or will it be a monument to an extinct race? Sadly, I feel it is the latter.

Read article in full

Der Spiegel: Beirut synagogue gets a new lease of life

Who bombed the Beirut synagogue? 'Not Israel'

Whenever the Beirut synagogue of Maghen Avraham is in the news, it is taken as 'Gospel truth' (if you'll forgive the mixed religious metaphor) that it was bombed by Israel after 1982. The assertion is commonly found all over the internet, and was repeated most recently in this Jewish Chronicle piece on the proposed restoration of the synagogue.

But the week after the article appeared, the newspaper published this letter from Joe Millis :

In an otherwise excellent piece about the Beirut synagogue (JC October 30) Josie Ensor stated that Israeli shelling in 1982 destroyed the synagogue. It did not. This was a claim made by Robert Fisk in his book, Pity the Nation. But the Shi'a group Amal occupied Wadi Abu Jamil, the former Jewish quarter, in 1982. At the time, Amal was very anti-Palestinian/anti-Syrian because its founder, Moussa Sadr, had been abducted by Palestinians on instruction from Damascus and was never seen again.
Now, of course, Amal, led by Nabih Beri is very pro-Syrian and works in the shadow of Hezbollah. But in 1982, the Israelis would not have shelled an area held by their then allies, Amal.

Joe Millis
London SE21

The question is, then: whodunnit?

the debate is continuing on this anti-Zionist site. One commenter has produced 'evidence' of Israeli guilt: the 1982 report of the incident in the New York Times.


"(DATELINE: BEIRUT, Lebanon, Aug. 11) Israeli shells have fallen on Beirut's only synagogue, sending dozens of Jewish families fleeing for safety, residents said today.

"Before the Israelis invaded Lebanon to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization, about 100 Jewish families lived in the quarter near the Maghen Abraham synagogue on Wadi Abu Jamil Street in the northern half of Israeli-ringed west Beirut. It is a few blocks from the so-called green line that divides the capital into Moslem and Christian sectors.

"Now the once-lively neighborhood is virtually abandoned. Seven Jewish families remain, members of the community said in interviews.

No Harassment by Arabs: ''My house is broken, my house is broken,'' an old Jewish woman, practically deaf, mumbled in French as she sat in a chair behind the synagogue.

"Jewish residents say they have not been harassed by their Moslem neighbors or the Palestinians since the Israelis invaded Lebanon on June 6.

"Neighborhood residents, including the Jewish families, said Israeli artillery firing from east Beirut and gunboats cruising offshore had persistently pounded the district, which is also populated by large numbers of Kurds and Lebanese Shiite Moslems.

The newpaper quotes 'neighborhood residents, including Jewish families' said.." Well they would say that, wouldn't they? The residents have reverted to their cost-free default position of 'blame Israel.' For the Jewish residents, their lives probably depended on it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Yemen foils plot to assassinate Jewish leader

Yemeni security forces have foiled a plot to assassinate the head of the local Jewish community, Yahiya Ben-Yousef, Kuwaiti Al-Siyasa newspaper said Friday.The report was picked up by the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Lily):

According to the report, three armed Shi'ite rebels were arrested when they entered the Jewish compound in the Yemeni capital Sana'a.

They were reportedly caught in possession of guns.

Yemen's tiny Jewish community has been in a precarious position in recent years, underscored by the murder of Jewish teacher and community activist Moshe Yaish Nahari last year, in Omran, north of Sana'a. Abdel Aziz Yehia Hamoud al-Abd, a retired Yemeni air force pilot, was sentenced to death for the murder.

In August, Israeli sources confirmed that the overwhelming majority of the final remnant of Yemen's ancient Jewish community was looking to leave.

"About 120 of the Yemeni Jews want to move to Israel, 100 want to move to the US,' a source told The Jerusalem Post. "And between 20 and 30 want to stay."

At the end of last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US State Department had recently spirited nearly 60 Jews from Yemen and resettled them in the United States.

Read article in full

Exclusive: Point of No Return can reveal that a London travel agent has been commissioned to make the arrangements for Yemeni Jews going to Israel. Details must remain secret at this stage.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Tractor meets Sephardi poet Moshe Ibn Ezra

How did a rock group with the unlikely name of The Tractor's Revenge find inspiration in the writings of the 11th century Sephardi rabbi and poet Moshe ibn Ezra? Barry Davis of The Jerusalem Post explains:

There's obviously more to Nikmat Hatractor (The Tractor's Revenge) than initially meets the eye, or the ear. Over the last 20 or so years the veteran rock outfit has built up a solid following for its earthy sound, the odd rough balladic offering notwithstanding, and is best known for tracks like "Mis'hak Shel Dmaot" (The Crying Game), from its eponymous 1990 debut album. However, although it may not be immediately apparent, the in-your-face stuff is heavily laced with some ethnic chestnuts.

Nikmat Hatractor.

Nikmat Hatractor (Photo: Roi Berkovitz)

Nikmat Hatractor frontman Avi Balili is delighted to have the opportunity to delve into the writings of 11th century rabbi and poet Moshe Ibn Ezra, a relative of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra and one of the literary giants of the Golden Age in Spain. Balili and the rest of the band, with sonar and visual enhancement from oud player Eliyahu Dagmi and video artist Shira Misanik, will present their own eminently contemporary take on Ibn Ezra texts at the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday, as the opening slot of this year's Jerusalem International Oud Festival.

In fact, Balili and ethnic and liturgical material are old pals. "We put selihot (penitential poems) to music 20 years ago, and we also recorded Ibn Ezra's 'El Nora Alila' back then. I've been into his writings for a long time. We're marking the band's 20th anniversary and the Oud Festival is 10 years old, so it's nice to come full circle musically as well."

The 46-year-old vocalist-bassist fed off a rich and varied musical pallet from the word go. "My family has Greek roots and my dad came from Egypt," he explains. "We also heard a lot of Italian pop at home, guys like Marino Marini, but my first musical love was [legendary Egyptian singer] Oum Kalthoum. My mother told me that‚ when I was very small, I'd fall asleep listening to music on an Arab radio station."

Read article in full

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Palestinians evicted from Jewish homes in Baghdad

After the first Israel-Arab war in 1948, 150 Palestinian families arrived in Baghdad and were housed in the palatial mansions of the Jewish district of Bataween, seized from their Jewish owners. The Jews had been expelled in an exchange of refugee populations that was never completed. After the fall of Saddam, however, it was the Palestinians' turn to be evicted by the Iraqis. Orly Halpern, an Israeli-American journalist who is writing a book about the year she spent in Baghdad at the time of the US invasion, describes one of history's strange twists of fate for Hadassah magazine in 2004.

Some of the Palestinians who fled to Iraq after 1948 had little idea that their fate would forever be intertwined with the residences of Iraqi Jewish refugees.

As Arab forces battled with the fledgling Israeli Army in the 1948 War of Independence, Akram Muhammad Rizak’s family fled its village home with its stone façade and eventually made its way across the desert to Iraq. There, as refugees, they were given housing and medical care by the Iraqi government.

Fifty-five years later, during the latest conflict to hit the Middle East, the Rizaks became refugees once again.

“I want to go back to my home,” Rizak said. But he wasn’t referring to his ancestral home in the village of Arrabeh, near Haifa. He was talking about the central Baghdad house in which the government of his adopted homeland had given his family living quarters almost 40 years ago. The residence, in the upscale Beitawin neighborhood, once belonged to Iraqi Jews.

In april 2003, one week after the American-led forces conquered the Iraqi capital, the Rizaks were forced to flee. This time it was not the fear of an Israeli advance that prompted the family to pack its bags, but the sudden appearance of a band of Iraqis wielding AK-47’s at their front door.

“They told us we had to get out of the house,” recalled Rizak, who begged the men for time to pack his family’s belongings.

Within days, Rizak, his wife, Wufaa’, and four of his children were living in a cramped 250-square-foot tent—a far cry from the 10,000-square-foot mansion (shared with 12 other families) from which they were expelled. Their tent was surrounded by 399 identical tents set up side by side in what was once the soccer field of the Haifa Sports Center for Palestinians in Baghdad. A single fluorescent light hung from a rope inside the tent. The light and the refrigerator were connected to a generator.

Rizak’s parents had chosen to flee to Iraq because they had seen Iraqi battalions fight for the Arab cause. When the Arabs lost the war and Israel was created, the Iraqi soldiers made their way back across the scorching desert, along with a few thousand Palestinians who had fought beside them. The Rizaks were among the 35,000 refugees who opted for refuge in Iraq. Rizak was born near Jenin, where his family paused during their flight.

The Baghdad government originally housed most of the Palestinian refugees, including the Rizaks, in old British Army barracks dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Then, as now, many Palestinians living in such barracks around Iraq had no running water and were forced to share common bathrooms.

In return for providing housing and medical care for Palestinians, Iraq was later exempted from paying annual dues to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The Palestinians in Iraq were therefore never registered with the United Nations.

In fact, the Iraqi government had hoped to welcome many more Palestinians and be rid of its Jewish citizens in what would have amounted to a formal population exchange. From the tail end of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949, Iraq spoke with the United Nations and American and British officials about the idea of transferring more than 100,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel in exchange for the same number of Arab Palestinians.

It was not a new idea. According to Ya’akov Meron, former head of Arab legal affairs at Israel’s Ministry of Justice, the plan had previously been proposed by high-ranking British officials. The Iraqi government in particular was keen to put the theory into practice. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Sa’id told an American diplomat in May 1949 of his desire to see a “voluntary exchange on pro rata basis of Iraqi Jews for Palestinian Arabs.”

His words were backed up by a scarcely veiled threat. If Iraqi Jews were not shipped out, he said, “firebrand Iraqis,” incensed by the creation of a Zionist state, “might take matters into their own hands and cause untold misery to thousands of innocent persons.”

His words proved prophetic. There was no official population exchange, and Iraq’s largely affluent Jewish community became the target of numerous attacks. Instead of taking part in voluntary emigration, Iraqi Jews found themselves forced to flee the country.

Only months after Rizak and his family had trudged to the safety of Iraq, Jewish families would escape across the desert, going west toward Jerusalem.

Some Jews tried to hang on, fearful of losing all that they owned. The initial trickle of Jewish refugees became a flood in 1950 when the Iraqi government announced it would allow Jews to keep properties and goods in Iraq and go to Israel legally if they relinquished the country’s citizenship.

It was the beginning of a mass exodus. Thousands had already gone, and by August 1951 more than two-thirds of Iraq’s 150,000 Jews had left, many abandoning luxurious homes and successful businesses.

Once out of the way, they were double-crossed. The Beitawin district, still known as Thawrat (Torah) because of the Jews who once lived there, was suddenly empty. A year later, the government froze ownership rights on Jewish property. In the 1960’s, Jewish property was expropriated altogether.

Rizak was 10 years old when he moved with his parents and four siblings into a handsome red-brick Jewish mansion. Theirs was one of 150 lucky Palestinian families selected to live in the expropriated houses and pay rents subsidized by the government.

“We lived there with three other families and shared the kitchen and the bathrooms,” he said. “As our families grew and sons got married and had children it got crowded. But we never wanted to leave.”

Most Palestinians lived in homes rented from local landlords and paid for by the government, while others were housed in government-owned buildings and paid subsidized rents. A few successful businessmen rented homes themselves from Iraqis.

But for the Palestinians, there was a downside to government assistance. Under Iraqi law they and their offspring retained permanent refugee status. “Because we have no citizenship we are not allowed to register cars or house,” said Rizak. In addition, the Palestinians were ineligible for secure, and much coveted, government jobs.

That was not the impression left with many ordinary Iraqis, who insist that Saddam Hussein favored the Palestinians—championing their cause when he came to power in 1968 and providing them with a luxurious lifestyle.

“They say Saddam gave us money,” said Dr. Anwar Salem Al-Awadeh, director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Iraq. “It’s not true, there are still Palestinians living in the old British Army barracks.”

Whether the property deed was in their name or not, the Palestinian residents of the once Jewish neighborhood considered themselves lucky. “I loved living there,” recalled Rizak. “For me it was a palace.”

The government’s financial woes in the 1980’s would eventually deal a fateful blow to the Palestinian dwellers of the grand Jewish homes. Iraq was in dire need of cash during the Iran-Iraq war and to get some, it sold the expropriated houses to Iraqis—on one condition: The new owners had to allow the Palestinian families to live there indefinitely. The government paid the rent.

Rizak was already married and the father of a newborn when an Iraqi man bought the villa he lived in.

Meanwhile, more Palestinian refugees came to Iraq, causing the government to rent more homes around the crowded capital in which to house them. First-time refugees arrived from the West Bank after the 1967 Six-Day War, while second-stage refugees arrived from the war in Lebanon in 1982 and from the war in Kuwait in 1990. Today there are almost 70,000 Palestinians in Iraq, according to Dr. Al-Awadeh.

For the owner of Rizak’s home, and for the other Iraqi landlords, the investment proved to be an incredibly bad deal. United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait weakened the economy and the value of the rents plunged. In the oil-rich Iraq of the early 1980’s the 7,000 dinars annually paid to landlords was worth almost $20,000. By 2002 the same rent—which the government would not allow landlords to change—was worth about $3.50.

So when Saddam’s government fell to United States forces on April 9, the Iraqi owners of the old Jewish houses, as well as those of other homes occupied by Palestinians, were quick to seize their expensive properties from the Palestinian occupants. There was no one to stop them.

“At about four in the afternoon, two days after the fall of Baghdad, 15 men with guns showed up with the owner and told us to leave,” recalled Rizak without emotion, sitting in his tent. “We were 12 families living in the house. We asked for one week and they said O.K.”

The new owners are now hoping to sell their properties to foreign investors and companies at high prices. One house, which was home to 16 families, was reportedly sold for the equivalent of $250,000—an outrageous amount in a country where the average person makes only about $70 a month.

Last summer the Rizaks were living in a tent camp with the ironic name of Al-Awda, “The Return.” Rizak’s son Umar, 23, had just married the girl from the tent next door. Rizak had dreamed of making a wedding in the large yard of the beautiful mansion in Beitawin.

Instead, the once fortunate Palestinians were playing the role of refugees in the country that had received them so willingly.

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