Thursday, September 30, 2010

Iranian blogger is jailed following visit to Israel

Hossein Derakhshan, sentenced to 19 years (photo: AP)

It's a sad day for all those who are trying to build bridges between Israel and the Muslim world. Canadian-Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan (nickname Hoder), whose account of his trip to Israel in 2006 was featured on Point of No Return, has been sentenced to a draconian nineteen-and-a-half years - for 'collaborating with foreign governments'. His blog ruminations have not always been critical of the regime - in fact some accuse Hoder of being an Ahmadinejad apologist. Nevertheless, Derakhshan will sacrifice the best years of his life for doing what is not a crime at all in most countries.

The Financial Times reports:

Iran’s most prominent blogger has been sentenced to more than 19 years in prison for allegedly collaborating with foreign governments.

Hossein Derakhshan, known as the father of Iran’s bloggers, was arrested two years ago when he returned to Iran after spending eight years living abroad.

The main reason for his arrest is believed to have been his visit to Israel in 2006, a country which Iranian citizens are banned from visiting.

Mr Derakhshan, who holds dual nationality, said he travelled there on his Canadian passport. But admitted on a blog post before his arrest that the aim of the visit was to try to connect the Iranian and Israeli peoples.

A website close to the government said on Tuesday that the Revolutionary Court, which deals with security charges, found Mr Derakhshan guilty of collaborating with “hostile governments”, spreading propaganda against the Islamic regime and launching obscene websites. The verdict is subject to appeal.

The US-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran described Mr Derakhshan as “a prisoner of conscience”, along with over 500 others who have been jailed for their opinions and writings.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do Israelis from Arab countries weaken democracy?

Now here's an interesting thought: have citizens from countries with no democratic tradition weakened democracy in Israel? That's certainly the opinion of two prominent Israeli writers of German-Jewish extraction, Tom Segev and the late Amos Elon - argues Seth Frantzman in The Jerusalem Post. There is a separate but related issue: should hardline Jews from the ex-Soviet Union be blamed for constituting an impediment to peace - an opinion recently voiced by Bill Clinton? Or could it be that immigrants to Israel from Arab countries and eastern Europe are the best guardians of democratic values simply because they know what it's like to live under totalitarian regimes?

Elon, who was then living in “exile” in Italy because he had become estranged from the Israel that had provided him with fame and luxury, called the country a “quasi-fascist” state with “religious people [who] would be better off behind bars and not in politics.”

He complained that Israel was no longer a democratic Western country, and summed up his views with: “There was provinciality here. [in Israel]. There was this upstart’s arrogance.

I’m not surprised when you look at the population. We know where it comes from. Either from the Arab countries or from Eastern Europe.”

Here Elon adds the category of Jews from “Arab countries” to the reasons why Israel became, in his view, a non-Western nondemocratic society. The argument over Israeli society’s lack of democracy thus tends to decline into the realm of blaming “others,” especially immigrants, for taking away the Western democracy that once flourished here.

But it depends partly on the background of the beholder. Segev was born in 1935 to parents who fled Germany that year. His first language was German, which his parents spoke at home. Elon too was born to German- Jewish parents; he explained to Shavit “my parents’ friends were all immigrants from Germany and Austria. The big library at home was all German... But they were really the first free Jews. And the first Europeans.

They built a civil society and believed obsessively in Bildung, which is self-improvement through the fostering of social concerns.”

From the perspective of Segev and Elon, who in many ways represent a very strong stream within elite Israeli society, the complaint can be boiled down to the fact that non-German Jews ruined their country. It is an extraordinary insult to the millions of Jews who have come here, especially considering that, far from being haters of democracy, many of them yearned to breath free in the undemocratic states they fled.

The Jews of the Arab countries, whether Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria or Iraq, were almost all firm absorbers of the latest Western ideas in the early 20th century. Some of them became ardent socialists before they became Zionists, if they became Zionists at all. The Jews of the Soviet Union, especially the refuseniks, were all democrats to the core.

There is a question that must be asked of those like Segev (Elon died in 2009 so he cannot be asked) who believe that it is the Jewish immigrants who came after 1950 that brought nondemocratic values with them.

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Iraqi Prime Minister's grandson a kibbutznik

Nuri al-Said and his wife (far left). Their son Sabah wearing evening suit is seated. (Photo: Iraq the lasting love blog)

From the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department: the grandson of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, who did more to drive out Iraq's Jewish community in the 1950s than anyone else, became an Israeli kibbutznik (according to an unconfirmed report, he later trained to be a combat pilot and fought in the Six-Day War) ! This piece in Time magazine dates back to 1958, the year when al-Said and the royal family were slaughtered in a bloody coup (with thanks: Niran):

Among Arab leaders, Iraq's late Nuri asSaid probably led all the rest in the bitterness of his public excoriations of Israel. But fate appears to have played a last weird trick on the murdered Iraqi strongman. Out of Jerusalem last week came a strange story: Nuri Pasha's only survivor may be a 16-year-old Jewish boy (he would now be 68 - ed) now living in an Israeli border kibbutz.

The boy's mother, Nadia Maslia, told Israeli newsmen that she met Nuri's only son, Sabah, in the early '30s when her family of wealthy Jewish bankers in Baghdad often did business with the Pasha. Though Sabah, an Iraqi air force officer, was already married to an Egyptian heiress, he fell in love with Nadia and kept trysts with her in London and Lebanon. Finally he asked her to become, as Mohammedan custom allows, his second wife. They were married at Mosul in 1939, lived in Nuri's household in Baghdad, and fled with the rest of Nuri's family to Palestine when a German-backed army coup momentarily toppled his government during World War II. On their return to Baghdad, their son Ahlam was born in 1942. Though at first opposed to the marriage, Nuri Pasha used to dandle little Ahlam on his knee, kept his picture on his desk.

After World War II anti-Jewish sentiment grew in Baghdad, and Sabah's Egyptian wife schemed successfully to get Nadia out of the house. In 1946 Nadia took her son and moved to the Jewish part of Palestine, which became Israel two years later. In Tel Aviv, where she bought a hotel and other property and sent Ahlam to a Jewish school, Nadia concealed her family connections even from her son until last week. Nuri's grandson, by Judaic law a Jew because his mother is Jewish, is due to be conscripted into the Israeli army within the next two years. He may well be Nuri Pasha's only descendant left on earth. According to Baghdad reports, all members of Nuri's family, including Sabah, his Egyptian wife and their two children*, were slaughtered in last month's bloody rising.

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*Sabah's artist son Issam survived until the age of 50

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Arabic TV focuses on rights of Jews from Arab lands

Jewish actor and producer Togo Mizrahi played a key role in pre-1948 Egyptian cinema

While western media and politicians have been transfixed by the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the Arab world has had bigger fish to fry during the current peace talks. There have been several discussions on the topic of Jews from Arab countries, especially on Al-Jazeera TV. The Qatar-based satellite channel has been broadcasting a Saturday morning programme called Melaf ( Le Dossier, or Factfile). The turning point has been the February 2010 Knesset Law on the rights of Jews from Arab countries equating both groups of refugees. Interviewees now fear that the 'right of return' will not happen, and Palestinians will get nothing. Levana Zamir has summarised the Al-Jazeera programme of 9 September:

The programme began with a discussion with two experts on the Knesset law on rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries: Dr.Khayreya Ma'amour and Mr Mamoun Kayawer. They concluded that the Israeli law was not good news for Palestinian refugees: they thought it might be used to offset the property of both parties and affirm the exchange of populations. When asked the question: 'Why has Israel just woken up now, after 62 years?' the interviewees' answer was that Israel wants an equation between Arab and Jewish Refugees.

Jews from Arab countries playing backgammon were filmed and interviewed in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Some said they left Iraq voluntarily, some complained about the discrimination they suffered on arrival to Israel. Although it was much reduced in their opinion, it still existed.

The interviewer responded by asserting the Jews of Yemen, for instance, were a source of cheap manual labour, etc.. He stressed that Zionism was a European movement that marginalised Oriental Jews.

Mr Moise Rahmani, a Jew from Egypt who today lives in Belgium and is a board member of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), stated explicitly that Jews were deported from Egypt in 1956. Nasser's government passed laws dispossessing the Jews of Egypt and stripping them of citizenship. Many Jews were forced to leave.

Dr Ma'amour replied that she was not aware of such laws (!) and added that the cause was Israel's 1956 invasion of Sinai.

An Israeli originally from Aleppo in Syria said that many Jews fled from Syria in 1947 after the UN Partition plan was passed. The Syrians torched synagogues, shops and homes. He was not allowed to leave Syria, fled to Beirut and from there went to Israel. He missed Syrian popular culture and Middle Eastern warmth.

The programme discussed various books on the Jews of Arab countries by non-Jewish authors.

Hassan II - et ses juifs by the French researcher Agnes Ben-Simon described how 100,000 Jews living in Morocco were allowed to leave for Israel after King Hassan II received
$ 1,200 per head. This book wanted to 'prove' that these Jews left of their own free will and that the King did not ransom the Jews, he just received financial help for his country.

A book in Arabic, Al - Yehud Phil Watan Al-Arabi, (the Jews in the Arab homeland) by Ali Ibrahim, described a number of persecutions, including the Farhud in Iraq.

In a lighter vein, the contribution of Jews from Arab countries to the Arab world was discussed. The experts mentioned that Egypt and Iraq had a Jewish finance minister. Dr Ma'amour added that the Jews of Egypt played a great part in the establishment of the Communist movement, whose newspaper was edited by Joseph Dwek and the politically-influential lawyer and writer Henry Curiel Raymond Dwek. Leila Murad and Togo Mizrahi played a key role in developing Egyptian cinema. All this came to an end in 1948.

Jewish refugees from Arab countries: is it an issue 60 years on? This event, at a London synagogue on Tuesday 12 October, will show The Forgotten refugees, a film made by the David Project. A Q&A will follow. Details on the Harif website.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lebanese feel sympathy for Beirut Jewish exiles

A Lebanese audience, packing the hall to overflowing (and reportedly including a few Jews), recently saw a screening of Nada Abdelsamad's BBC documentary about the old Jewish quarter of Beirut. The programme has had the curious effect of humanising Jews to a Lebanese audience. One Shi'a woman even confessed to feeling compassion for them! Magda Abu Fadil reports in the Huffington Post:

First came the book, then the documentary, on Lebanon's Jews who pine for their birthplace, singers Fairouz, Sabah and Wadih El Safi, and recall their life before heading to Israel and beyond.

"Most of Lebanon's Jews left quietly in stages to Israel and other countries; some returning as occupying troops during Israel's onslaught in 1982," Nada Abdelsamad narrates the opening scene of her BBC documentary "Lebanon's Jews: Loyalty to Whom?" on a community that remembers its days there with fondness.

Some, like Elie Bassal, even kept their identity cards and officer uniforms in Lebanon's security forces where they served with distinction.

Bassal's son Jacques, who still has his own Lebanese ID card and driver's license, shows off his father's 65-year-old braided costume to a reporter with pride. Bassal had refused to move to Israel, instead choosing Canada as his destination.

For former neighbors and friends, there's quizzical nostalgia about whether the Jews they knew in their youth were alive, and questions about what had become of their families -- all set against the reality of the festering Arab-Israeli conflict and how it had torn them apart.

Moukhtar Itani, 95, remembers Elie Bassal (Abou Jebrayel)

Nanogenarian Moukhtar Itani said Beirut's abbatoir was overseen by a rabbi called Salamon, and doctor Nassim Chams, dubbed "healer of the poor," tended the sick.

Itani's wife remembers how the Jewish neighbors she played with as a child suddenly disappeared and their house locked up, after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

"We sat at their doorstep and cried," she said.

Another older Beirut woman shows the picture of her former playmate whose family decided to go to Israel.

The Jewish girl had asked her friend not tell anyone of the family's destination, and like other families in the quarter, were missed by their neighbors.

The juxtaposed scenes from Lebanon and Israel enveloped in romantic Arabic music in the 47-minute film, are based on Abdelsamad's book on Wadi Abu Jamil, Beirut's pre-Civil War Jewish quarter.

The camera pans across remnants of civil war era pock-marked buildings in that neighborhood of the Lebanese capital where Jewish businesses and schools once stood, and where gentrification and stratospheric real estate prices have become the norm.

"I'm not Lebanese but I was born in Beirut, and raised in Beirut, and grew up in Beirut. Beirut made me," said a Jewish man choking on his words. "I'm very emotional about it."

He recalled how he left Lebanon on a one-way ticket with a "laissez passé," travel papers.

He and countless other Jews were from families that settled in Lebanon from Iran, Iraq and Syria after 1948, but who, increasingly, felt uncomfortable amidst growing Arab resentment at Israel's displacement of Palestinians to create a Jewish state.

During her research, Abdelsamad, a veteran BBC correspondent in charge of the Beirut bureau's Arabic service, met Zach, a Jew who had left Lebanon following Israel's Six-Day War in 1967 against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and had returned later in peacetime on a European passport.

But Beirut-born Marco Mizrahi, -- whose father Salim was Jewish and mother Marie was Christian, and had left as a teenager -- returned as a soldier with the IDF when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, partly searching for his old stomping grounds.

Marco Mizrahi (Abou Jebrayel)

"They called up the reserves from day one," Mizrahi remembers in his Tel Aviv apartment.

He told his commanding officer he had no qualms about killing a Lebanese soldier, if it were a matter of life or death, even if he knew the enemy from his youth.

But as a fresh conscript in the early 1970s, Mizrahi admitted he hesitated to join Israel's intelligence service Mossad that tried to recruit him for spying missions in Lebanon because of his knowledge of the language and country.

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Yemeni Jew's story coloured by nostalgia

Sarah Eden

It is sixty years since Israel organised the first great operation, Operation Magic Carpet, to airlift 49,000 Jews from Yemen. Sarah Eden is nostalgic for the land of her birth, in spite of the poverty and sickness, and has fond memories of her Arab neighbours. Benjamin Joffe-Walt describes the ups and downs of her life in the Jerusalem Post:

Contrary to the dominant narrative of Yemeni-Israeli Jews, Eden says the family’s relations with their Arab neighbors were warm.

“We had good relations with the Arabs,” she says. “No problems at all. They never did anything wrong to us. On the contrary, they always battled to protect and defend the Jews.

“For example, when my grandmother was widowed with four young kids, she worried that they would ‘Islamize’* her kids,” Eden remembers. “But everywhere she went she asked her neighbors to protect her kids and they did.”

Eden says that for most of her childhood, going to the Land of Israel was a distant dream.

“My mom had family in Palestine and they would send letters,” she says, showing a few of the letters she still has saved in an extensive album of memorabilia. “A letter would come and 15 people would crowd around.

“We were not fleeing Yemen and it was not about potential wealth,” Eden continues.

“The pull to Palestine was about religious ideology. We heard about Israel only through prayers. We had no idea what was there.

“People wanted to go to Palestine but they had no money, so it was really mostly rich people,” she says. “My mother used to travel to Sana’a and ask the rabbi, ‘When can we go to Israel?’ He would tell her ‘This is the door, and your day will come.’ “In 1942, my mom’s cousin arrived and told us all our relatives were at the airport, and that my grandmother was taking all her kids to Palestine,” Eden tells. “We had to pay to get to Aden and my rich uncle who was going was supposed to pay. But he said he would only give over the money if my father agreed to marry me off to his 25-year-old cousin.

There was a fight and in the end we didn’t go to Palestine.

“We never forgot what they did to us then,” she says. “My grandmother and entire family left us alone in Yemen.

There is tension that continues between us to this day.”

Five years later, after the United Nations proposed a partition of Palestine, a number of attacks against Jews took place in Yemen. Days after the UN plan was announced, Jews in Aden were accused of murdering two girls and Yemen’s principal port city erupted in anti- Jewish violence. An estimated 82 Jews were killed, 106 of the 170 Jewish shops in the city were robbed, four synagogues were burnt to the ground and more than 200 Jewish homes were burned or looted.

“There was no radio or newspaper telling you about any problems or pogroms,” Eden says. “We didn’t even know about it, so for us everything seemed quiet. But people who came to Sana’a would bring news, so a year later we heard that there was a State of Israel.”

Following the Aden riots and the formation of the state, Israel quickly mobilized to facilitate the immediate emigration of Yemen’s entire Jewish community.

“One day we heard that some Jews had gotten into Israel and everyone is leaving,” Eden remembers. “We went back to the village to sell our house, pack food for the journey and had to wait for my sister-in-law to give birth.

Then we walked five hours to Sana’a, and waited there three months for a ride on a cargo truck to Aden.

“On the way to Aden we would be stopped and they would check how much money everyone had,” she continues. “My sister had an eye patch and they even checked inside the eye patch for money! Each checkpoint would take 10 percent of whatever you had, and there were a few checkpoints along the way.

“When we got to Aden we were registered,” she says, referring to those on the ground running the emigration operation. “They took a picture of each of us. It’s the first photo I have of myself.”

The international operation, officially dubbed Operation On Wings of Eagles, but more commonly known by the nickname Operation Magic Carpet, became the first mass aliya after the foundation of the State of Israel.

In a period of 15 months about 49,000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted over in 380 flights in American and British planes from Aden to Israel.

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*Jewish orphans would often be abducted and converted to Islam.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Persian Jews welcome return of Cyrus cylinder

Cyrus the Great liberated the Hebrews from the Babylonian captivity so they could resettle and rebuild Jerusalem (CAIS)

The authorities in Iran may have underestimated the subversive effect the Cyrus cylinder, which they fought so hard to get back on loan from the UK, would have on ordinary Iranians. For Jews, it carries an unashamedly Zionist message. Brokhim Davidian reports for the London-based Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies:

LONDON, (CAIS) -- The Cyrus Cylinder loaned by the British Museum to Iran and currently on show at the National Museum in Tehran has attracted attention nationally and internationally and has excited all Iranians including the small community of the Iranian Jews.

The Cyrus Cylinder signifies humanity and kindness and it is considered by many scholars to be the world’s first declaration of human rights issued by the ancient Iranian emperor, Cyrus the Great in 6th century BCE.

Amongst Iranians the most excited for the return of the Cyrus Cylinder being home after forty years, is the small Jewish community. The Iranian Jewish population better known as ‘Persian Jews’, constitute the largest among the Islamic countries.

A Tehran Rabbi excitingly stating: “it is wonderful and I’m much exited to see that the Cylinder is home – in fact I am doubley exited, as an Iranian as well as a Jew.”

He continued: “the Cylinder is a Persian artefact, but its contents concerns the history of Jewish people as much as Iranians, which echoes the past and is the voice of our ancestors – it tells us about the history of my ancestors, the Hebrews who were liberated by the ‘anointed of God’ from Babylonian captivity and their return to the holy land. It is the history of my forefathers who stayed behind and who had chosen Iran as their home.”

Shahram, a young Persian Jew who travelled from the city of Shiraz to visit the Cylinder said: “when I laid my eyes on the Cylinder I start shaking and tears ran down my cheeks, which I had no control over. I felt a bit embarrassed but when I noticed that I am not the only one drowning in the tears of excitement I let my emotions to run.

”Maurice another teenager who was not lucky as Shahram to visit the Cylinder, said: “I am going to see it no matter how long it takes. From my childhood my family told me about Cyrus the Great and who he was. This artefact has importance for me for a number of reasons: first and foremost because I am an Iranian and second, this is a historical document that tells me how my ancestors were freed from captivity.”

Daniyal, a patriot Persian Jew from Esfahan and a veteran hero of Iran-Iraq war in moving words told me: “I defended my country during the sacred defence against the Arab aggressors and served in the frontline and I have a shattered leg to prove it. My feelings of knowing Cyrus’s Cylinder is home, is the exact feeling of joy and excitement that I had when I was ready to offer my life defending my country. If I have to sleep behind the doors of the National Museum, I will do it to see the Cylinder.”

According to Iran’s National Museum over 2,000 peoples are visiting the Cylinder everyday. The number could be have been three times but since the visitors are divided into groups of 20 to 25 individuals and at a time to be led to a special room where the priceless Persian artefact is kept, the numbers are currently limited to 2,000.

Some Iranians called for the museum to be open 24 hours while the Cylinder before its return to England.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Why courtroom worries plague Cairo's last Jews

An Egyptian policeman guards the community hall adjoining the Vitali Madjar synagogue in Heliopolis (Photo: Sarah Mishkin)

At last, someone has shed some light on the murky goings-on in Egypt resulting in the July indictment for fraud of the Jewish community's octagenarian leader, Carmen Weinstein, and the conviction of two Egyptian MPS embroiled in a scandal to sell off 12 private Jewish properties. Writing in The Tablet, Sarah Mishkin says the scandals have arisen because the Egyptian government is wary of Jewish claims for restitution; and Weinstein has neither the funds not the authority to maintain Cairo's crumbling Jewish heritage.

In the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis sits a stately three-story brick building that once housed a community center for the Vitali Madjar synagogue. Its doors now sit slightly ajar, and its glass windows are short a few panes. But the building remains a testament to the flight and expulsion of nearly all of Egypt’s Jewish population after the country’s 1952 revolution and the ensuing wars with Israel—and a symbol of the ongoing chaos in which those remaining have been left.

In mid-July, Carmen Weinstein, the 80-year-old president of the Cairene Jewish community, was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail for property fraud committed while selling the Heliopolis building, which is owned by the community. The court accused Weinstein of attempting to sell the property without having the legal authority to do so. Weinstein has since been caught up in a bizarre case of accusations and counter-accusations. At its heart is the predicament facing Egypt’s remaining Jews—a group that has dwindled from an estimated 80,000 before 1952 to 50 mostly elderly widows today—as they manage their cultural inheritance neglected by their own government. Who is responsible, now and after that community fades, for the synagogues and homes left behind during the exodus? And who should be?

Jewish claims to private property in Egypt are notoriously sensitive, since many properties were nationalized after Jewish families were expelled or fled after the 1952 revolution, and the government is wary of families claiming damages. Most famously, the Bigio family has waged war in court for years to claim damages for the nationalization of the Coca-Cola plant the family operated until the 1960s. Leaders of the Egyptian-Jewish Diaspora have been trying for years to make copies of old genealogical and temple registers, but they say the government has been reluctant to give them permission for fear the records could be used in such cases.

In contrast, since becoming the community’s president in 2004, Carmen Weinstein successfully lobbied the Egyptian authorities to maintain old synagogues, which won her praise from Jewish leaders abroad, including from Andrew Baker, a rabbi with the American Jewish Committee who has worked with Weinstein. Money, says Baker, remains tight, often too tight to provide for the upkeep of Jewish cemeteries on the city’s outskirts. The government, cash-poor and antiquities-rich, can only afford to maintain so many synagogues unlikely to earn the tourism revenue that Pharonic and medieval sites generate. (Jewish sites, when open to visitors, also require greater outlay for armed guards, given the sometimes virulent local anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.)

Cairo has been left in a unique position. Unlike Alexandria, whose Jewish communal leadership sold off all but two of their synagogues in the past few decades, Cairo still has more than 10—in various states of repair and disrepair.

But private property once held by Jewish families poses a different type of problem as it often has unclear ownership—in part because of the politically controversial nature of attempts by those families to claim old property. In a case unrelated to Weinstein’s conviction, two well-connected members of the Egyptian parliament were accused last year of forging deeds to property that had been owned by long-gone Jewish families and then using those fake deeds to swindle millions from investors.

That’s the context in which Weinstein’s actions are scrutinized. Tried in absentia, she was found guilty of defrauding the plaintiff, Nabil Bishay, during a deal to sell him the building for 3 million Egyptian pounds, about $500,000. According to the court’s verdict, when Bishay went to close the deal, he discovered that Weinstein had refused to transfer the title to him or return the down payments he had paid. Perhaps more disconcertingly, the court also ruled that Weinstein lacked the power of attorney to sell the community’s buildings, and its ruling was vague on who would have that right. Authorities don’t dispute that the community owns the land, but rather that Weinstein is the legal executor.

The case against Weinstein comes on the heels of a scandal in which two members of Egypt’s parliament had indeed forged documents that they then used to improperly and illegally sell Jewish property they did not own. According to reports in the local press, MP Yehia Wahdan—a former chief of Zionist and Israeli Affairs for Egypt’s State Security—approached investors beginning in 2006 to solicit funds to buy deeds to 12 homes left behind by Jewish families that he claimed Weinstein wanted to sell. Investors, most of them Egyptian, checked the deeds and soon realized that they and the signatures on them, from a supposed representative of the Jewish community, were fake. Government investigators attributed the forgeries to Badir Amr, a contractor and in-law of Wahdan’s.

Amr in turn accused MP Mohammed Abd El-Nebi of duping him into paying 1 million Egyptian pounds ($200,000) to buy land that turned out to be an old synagogue in Harat El-Yahud. Today, two policemen guard that synagogue, and its exterior wall has been bricked up. Ultimately, investigators cleared both MPs of charges in the synagogue deal, but Amr was sentenced this spring to five years in prison for fraud, and he is still on trial in Cairo for other aspects of the case.

In a government investigation made public this April, Weinstein was cleared of any involvement in the cases involving the MPs, although media reports say that she was unable to testify at the trial. Court officials tried to deliver a summons but apparently were told by her building manager that Weinstein had been away in a hospital since the prior week. Weinstein maintains close relationships with foreign diplomats, and rumors of her declining health seem substantial.

Members of the Jewish community, not surprisingly, have rallied to her defense. Raouf Fouad Tawfik, secretary of the Jewish community and general manager of its synagogues, says that, in all of these cases, it was never Weinstein who did anything wrong. He called both Bishay’s documentation and the man himself a “fraud” and said that the community will appeal the decision this autumn. According to Tawfik, Bishay had worked with Weinstein previously to buy other properties once held by the Jewish community in Harat El-Yahud, the old Jewish Quarter. In this case, Tawfik said, the businessman tried to defraud them.

More importantly, though, Tawfik intends to argue that records kept by the community show that its president has the right to sell non-religious properties on its behalf. And that it is essential that she retain this right, since funds are needed to support aging members and maintain synagogues, including Shaar HaShamayim in Cairo’s downtown, as well as the expansive Bassatine cemeteries, whose once-marble-fronted mausoleums lie on the capital’s outskirts. The community, which oversees all religious Jewish Sites and organizes holiday observances for Cairo, is governed by a president and a board who operate within established bylaws that, according to its chronicle, date back hundreds of years.

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More on the Weinstein fraud case

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Would the real Rav Ovadia Yosef please stand up?

Rav Ovadia Yosef receives visitors from Sderot in 2006

Is Rav Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, the Orthodox Sephardi party, a sophisticated man of peace or a racist rabble rouser? The leading halachic theorist of his generation or a populist reactionary? Anshel Pfeffer in The Jewish Chronicle speculates on what makes this powerful Iraq-born rabbi tick.

Thirty-one years ago, Rabbi Yosef, then the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, scandalised the religious world with his ruling that for peace, Israel should retreat from the territories it captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

But over the last two decades, the rabbi's actions and words seem to have worked for the opposite cause. In 1993, Shas, the political party he founded after being forced to leave the chief rabbinate and over which he still exercises complete control, abstained in the vote over the Oslo accords. In 2000, the party left the coalition on the eve of the Camp David talks and in 2005, it opposed disengagement from Gaza.

Three weeks ago, on the eve of the Washington summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the rabbi caused an international stir when he wished in his weekly Torah lesson that "our enemies and haters come to an end. May Abu Mazen [Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] and all those wicked men be lost from the earth. May God smite them with the plague of pestilence, including all those Palestinians."

The Americans demanded that he apologise for the remarks.

So who is the real Rav Ovadia?

A sophisticated man of peace or a racist rabble-rouser? The leading halachic theorist of his generation or a populist reactionary?

To try and understand his contradictory character, we have to go back to his early childhood in Iraq and remember that he was named after a grandfather murdered in a Baghdad pogrom; to take into account the three years he spent in his late twenties as a young rabbi in cosmopolitan Cairo; and that he has spent his entire life in struggle.

He fought against a domineering father who did not want him to pursue a life of study. He was banished from Cairo by the secular community leadership when he refused to fulfil only
a ceremonial role.

His early books were banned and even burnt by the Iraqi elders in Jerusalem for spurning the traditions on which he himself was brought up, preferring what he saw as a more authentic halachic system.

Even after earning recognition, he continuously took on both the patronising Ashkenazi Orthodox leadership and the secular establishment.

Over the last 40 years he became the most significant leader of Sephardi Jews in Israel and around the world.

He inspired not only the strictly Orthodox but also many "traditional" Jews, who warmed to his outgoing personality and his undying campaign for their cultural heritage.

But he also paid a heavy price.

Shas, a permanent fixture in almost every government since 1984, may have consolidated his political power and public influence, but it has also taken away attention from his real life's work; over 40 volumes of responsa, halachah and commentary designed to update Jewish law to
a daily modern law.

It has also forced him to acquiesce to the party's right-wing line rather than alienate voters.

His loyalists insist that he has not given up his pro-peace positions; he merely does not trust the Arabs.

Read article in full

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

'I'm not antisemitic, only anti-Zionist'- Ahmadinejad

President Mahmoud Amadinejad of Iran at the UN (photo: AFP)

President Ahmadinejad's annual visit to the UN in New York was another opportunity for him to announce that he had nothing against Jews, only Zionists, Ynet News reports:

NEW YORK – Speaking to reporters in New York Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed he was anti-Zionist, “not anti-Semitic.”

The Iranian leader did not mention Israel in his earlier speech at the United Nations, but in his talk with reporters later he denied the Holocaust again, describing it as "a historic event used as an excuse for war."

The United Nations' Millennium Assembly continued on Tuesday with world leaders examining ways to promote the UN's plan to battle poverty, hunger, and child mortality throughout the world.

Ahmadinejad was also on hand to speak before the special gathering of the General Assembly, using the opportunity to again slam the West.

"Those who only take their own interests into consideration will never be able to bring justice and prosperity to the world," he said in his speech, referencing his worldview that the sun is setting on leaders of the Western powers and capitalism.

The Iranian leader did not address his country's nuclear program, nor did he mention Israel during his speech. However, Ahmadinejad will have another opportunity to speak before the General Assembly on Thursday.

Speaking with reporters in New York Ahmadinejad once again denied the Holocaust and described it as "an historic event used as an excuse for war." He added that he was "not anti-Semitic, but anti-Zionist."

Asked about Holocaust denial, the Iranian president said that the subject warrants further investigation. "It is wrong to enforce only one opinion on the rest of the world," he said. "We must ask where this event occurred and why the Palestinian people continue to suffer because of it?"

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Iran claims Jews harvest Gentiles' organs

Iranian Jews are free, except when they are not

The new book The Ayatollah's Democracy: An Iranian Challenge is an attempt to understand what's happening a year after Iran's disputed presidential election. It explores what Iran calls a democracy. To prove a point, author Hooman Majd tells NPR Radio's Steve Inskeep that he met with members of one of Iran's minority groups: the country's estimated 25,000 Jews - and found they were free in some respects, but not in others :

During one of his visits to Iran, the writer Hooman Majd dropped by a synagogue. He found the Jewish temple in the capital of the Islamic Republic. Majd is the author of a new book called "The Ayatollah's Democracy." It's an attempt to understand what's happening a year after Iran's disputed election. And in exploring what Iran calls a democracy, he met with members of one of Iran's minority groups: the country's estimated 25,000 Jews.

Mr. HOOMAN MAJD (Author, "The Ayatollah's Democracy"): It's a fascinating story, because they're caught in this very strange world. They feel very Iranian. They've been there longer than anyone else, really, going back 2,800 years. At the same time, there's this sense - you know, you live in the Islamic Republic that is the enemy of Israel. And there's this feeling deep down that there's - you know, are there divided loyalties? That issue is always there, present.

INSKEEP: Well, as you pursued the question that's at the heart of your book -basically, can there be Islamic democracy and is there anything remotely like it in Iran, which professes to be a Democratic country - what drew you to go visit members of this very, very small minority in Tehran?

Mr. MAJD: Well, I think, one, it's interesting to a lot of people outside of Iran that there are Jews in Iran and they function and they've chosen to stay, also, in terms of the fact that there are minorities in Iran and the fact that it is not a monolithic society.

Now, of course, Iran is 97 percent Shia�Muslim. And these minorities are not big numbers of people. But they can be very influential and very important. If you look at parliament, for example, there is a Jewish member of parliament. There's a Zoroastrian member of parliament. There's a Christian member - two Christian members of parliament. And so they're represented in government. And, you know, in any democracy, the rights of minorities being protected is essential, I think.

INSKEEP: Well, if you talk to Iranian officials, somebody inevitably will bring up some of the things you just said. They'll say, look, we have religious freedom in this country. We have a Jewish member of parliament. But when you get down to whether people are really free, whether they can express themselves, whether they really have equality in the country, what did you find when you spent time?

Mr. MAJD: Well, that's the question. I think that it's nuanced. Jews are free, yes. The synagogues are free. There's no one checking from government to see who goes in and comes out. They're allowed to drink, for example, in a country where alcohol is banned.

On the other hand, do they have every right that every Iranian citizen has? No. Because they can't, for example, serve in government. They can have a member of parliament, but they can't become a minister, for example. You have to be a Muslim. That's part of the constitution. So that's discriminatory, obviously.

And then there's the other issue of are they free to express themselves politically and not just religiously. And, of course, the answer there is no, because although I doubt very much that most Iranian Jews would favor Israel over Iran - otherwise, many of them would've left, and they haven't. But when it comes to expressing any kind of sympathy for Israel or the idea of a Jewish homeland, no, they are not free to do that.

INSKEEP: In your writings, you mention in passing a celebration in Iran, an official celebration of the anniversary of the publication of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Mr. MAJD: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Would you remind people what that publication is and what was the celebration?

Mr. MAJD: Well, it was a forgery, a czarist Russian forgery, an anti-Semitic screed, to make it appear as though the Jews said there was a cabal of Jews who were out to control the world.

INSKEEP: Total fraud, but it's been published for more than a century now.

Mr. MAJD: Yes. And there are many people in Iran, unfortunately, who also believe it to not be a forgery. And I think the government of Ahmadinejad, in one particular year, chose to celebrate it as a public relations stunt more than anything else.

INSKEEP: Like, you turn on the television or the radio, and it's noted that this is the day when we can all celebrate the publication of this book.

Mr. MAJD: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So if you're a Jew in Iran, you just kind of have to let all that wash right off your back and focus on things more close at hand that matter perhaps more to you?

Mr. MAJD: I think so. I also think - well, I don't think, I know that when you're in Iran this kind of thing doesn't make news. I mean, in Iran - it was funny, even with that holocaust conference or the subsequent cartoon festival of people submitting offensive, anti-Semitic cartoons, if you were in Iran, it wasn't news.

INSKEEP: Because these events were being generated to tweak the outside world.

Mr. MAJD: I think so. And as the Jewish member of parliament told me, it's like, you know, if you went to the conference center or you went to the cartoon exhibit, there was, like, nobody there, except for foreign journalists.

INSKEEP: So you talk with Iranian Jews as one part of a book, who are granted all freedoms of citizens in Iran, so long as they follow certain strictures laid down by the government.

Mr. MAJD: Yes.

INSKEEP: And I wonder if that is also the overall approach of the ayatollahs in power to, quote, unquote, "democracy." It is a perfectly democratic system, so long as everyone does what they're told.

Mr. MAJD: Well, it was interesting, because when I asked one of my Jewish friends in Tehran about the paradox there that Jews are free as long as they follow the rules of the Islam, he said, well, that's true for Muslims, too. Which was a good point.

Because if you're a Muslim in Iran, you can't suddenly decide, oh, I'm a Muslim, but I really want to drink. You could theoretically be arrested and lashed for drinking or thrown in prison. Or if you're a Muslim who decides to convert - well, that's punishable by death.

Read transcript in full

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sanity of Cairo synagogue bomber is questioned

The Adly synagogue, targeted last February (Photo: Mohamed Abdel Ghany)

A Cairo criminal court adjourned until 16 October the case of a man accused of throwing a primitive bomb at a Jewish synagogue in Cairo, judicial sources said, al-Masry al-Yom reports.

In February, a small fire erupted in front of Adly Street Synagogue in downtown Cairo causing no damage or injuries.

At the time, the police said that Gamal Ahmed, 49, threw a plastic bag he had from a window of an adjacent hotel in the direction of the synagogue, which is 14 meters away.

A judicial source said that during today’s session Ahmed denied the accusations against him, and said that his confessions were taken under pressure and torture.

The defense lawyer requested that the suspect be referred to a panel of three experienced psychiatrists because his client suffered from mental deterioration, the source added.

Prosecutors have asked for the maximum sentence, charging Ahmad with possession of unlicensed explosives with the intention of carrying out a 'terrorist-like act.'

Read article in full

Monday, September 20, 2010

Something is rotten in German Mideastern studies

When an Islamist antisemite like Yusuf Qaradawi, the so-called 'Global Mufti', famous for broadcasting his fatwas on his Qatar-based TV show, is feted as a 'moderate' by leading German scholars, something must be rotten in the state of German Middle East Studies. One of those scholars is Gudrun Kramer, winner of doctorates and prizes and author of a study of Jews in Egypt which downplayed the role of antisemitism, Clemens Heni writes (with thanks : Lily).

Krämer wrote her 1982 Ph.D. dissertation about the Jews as a minority in Egypt between 1914 and 1952. In this study, which was published in 1989 by the University of Washington Press, she played down the role of anti-Semitism, and in the original German version she literally attacked brochures about anti-Semitism in Egypt which were issued by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in 1957 (“The Plight of the Jews in Egypt “) and early studies on anti-Semitism in Egypt by the Swiss writer Bat Ye’or and the British author Sir Martin Gilbert.

Describing the latter as “tendentious,” Krämer denounced the AJC as “particularly tendentious,” which is all the more astonishing because the AJC brochure is an early attempt to analyze Egyptian anti-Semitism of the time and the role of former Nazis in spreading anti-Semitism alongside Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East.

In 2006 Krämer served as special editor of an issue of the German-based International Journal for the Study of Modern Islam (Die Welt des Islams) which was devoted to anti-Semitism. Here, too, she downplayed Islamic anti-Semitism and attacked scholars like Matthias Küntzel. (Interesingly, Küntzel has quoted Krämer positively in several of his books and articles, a fact that displeases Krämer.)

Krämer was especially rough on Robert Wistrich, head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA) at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She accuses these scholars of being “openly polemical.” She also criticizes Wistrich for his “more aggressive approach.” Krämer takes exception, for instance, to the term “Islamofascism.” Her own analysis is based on the work of scholars like the anti-Zionist Edward Said, Saleh Bashir, and Hazim Saghiyeh.

The latter two argued some years ago in an article, “Universalizing the Holocaust,” that the Arab and Muslim world should not deny the Holocaust, but should rather accept and “universalize” it – their point being that the Shoah was not an unprecedented crime against the Jewish people, but a crime comparable to the historical treatment of Palestinians. Like Said, Bashir and Saghiyeh even accuse Jews of not having learned the “lesson” of the Holocaust.

Krämer praises Bashir’s and Saghiyeh’s criticism of “political Islam” and agrees with their argument that there is an effort to “silence criticism of Israeli politics” and that it amounts to a “Jewish and Israeli exploitation of the Holocaust.” If we look at the central sentence in the above-mentioned article by Bashir and Saghiyed, we can easily decode the anti-Semitic attempt to trivialize the Shoah by equalizing it with totally different issues:

The Turk in Germany, the Algerian in France, and always the black in every place, head the columns of victims of racism in the world and in them, albeit in different proportions and degrees, is the continuation of the suffering of the Jews of which the Holocaust was the culmination.

The Holocaust was not just a kind of “suffering”; racism in Germany or France in our time is not at all the “continuation of the suffering of the Jews”; and the black “in every place” had a quite different history (blacks were, for example, victims of Islamic slavery and later of Western slavery). The intention here is clear: Bashir and Saghiyed accept the reality of the Holocaust only so that they may then proceed to de-emphasize its specifically anti-Semitic nature and, most important, attack Israel. Today Muslims and scholars alike are operating in much the same manner when they wield the term “Islamophobia.”

So now Krämer and Gräf are going to be embracing the Islamist Qaradawi at the international literature festival in Berlin, where they will describe him as a “moderate.” This is the ultimate proof of the failure of German Middle Eastern Studies: one of its leading scholars, Gudrun Krämer, who has been awarded honorary doctorates and won prizes, has been busy since the early 1980s defaming critiques of anti-Zionist anti-Semitism and Islamic anti-Semitism while supporting one of the leading Islamists of our time, Qaradawi, a man who argues for a kind of gender mainstreaming when it comes to justifying suicide bombing in Israel.

This is the Islamist way to modernity and equality among the sexes.

Read article in full

' Ishmael's House' restores Jews to Mideast history

In her review in the Sephardi Bulletin Lyn Julius believes Sir Martin Gilbert's new book on Jews in Muslim lands will have a profound and welcome impact on the historiography of the Middle East - although the mass of facts, dates and names he assembles can be a little indigestible:

Perhaps for the first time ever, Sir Martin Gilbert's In Ishmael’s House makes accessible to a mass English-speaking readership the neglected history of Jews in Muslim lands, from Afghanistan to Morocco.

The popular historian has authored more than 80 books, including the authorised biography of Winston Churchill, The First World War and Second World War; Israel: A History; The Holocaust; A History of the Twentieth Century, and nine pioneering historical atlases, including the Atlas of Jewish History and the Atlas of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Spanning 14 centuries from the first encounter between Muhammed and the Jewish tribes of Arabia to the virtual disappearance of Jewish life in the latter half of the 20th century, In Ishmael’s House is an exhaustive and detailed study. It's built on a dichotomy of contrasts - ‘cooperation and segregation, protection and exclusion’ - experienced by Jews in Muslim lands.

There were times when Jews made great strides in the Islamic world. Who would have guessed that Al-Azhar university in Cairo, the most important centre of learning in the Arab world, was founded in 988 by a Jew, Yaqub ibn Killis? The cultural interaction between Jews and Muslims during the Spanish Golden Age is well documented and Gilbert tells us that Jews prospered under all but the most fanatical of Muslim regimes.

Gilbert seems to accept the verdict of Bernard Lewis, in Semites and Anti-Semites, that the experience of Jews living under Islamic rulers was "never as bad as in Christendom at its worst, nor ever as good as in Christendom at its best…there is nothing in Islamic history to parallel the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Nazi Holocaust".

But this is to set the bar quite low. Non-Muslims knew their place as inferiors. The thread running through this 400-page book is that Jews lived as dhimmis, condemned to second-class status, sporadic violence, arbitrary abuse, and a perennial state of precariousness and anxiety. Whatever Jews managed to achieve seems to have depended on them using all their powers to bribe, cajole and persuade the ruler of the day to act in their favour.

Sir Martin has assembled a vivid collection of vignettes, memoirs, letters, poems and first-hand personal testimony to chart the peaks and troughs of Jewish fortunes under Islamic rule. In keeping with his conceptual dichotomy, he bends over backwards to point out acts of kindness and rescue by Muslims of Jews. But 'horror story after horror story' - as one reviewer put it - tumble out of the pages, giving the overwhelming impression that dhimmi Jews and Muslims did not, contrary to Arab propaganda, always coexist peacefully.

Thus in the 19th century, Jacob Dahan died for employing a Moorish servant in Morocco, and in Iran as late as 1910, the witness to a dignitary beating two elderly Jews in Shiraz was himself murdered. Later still, in the 1930s 5,000 Jews were banned from leaving towns in Afghanistan without permits and made to pay the poll tax.

Having doggedly charted the disappearance of the Jewish communities following the establishment of Israel, and the Jewish refugees' search for recognition, Gilbert's concluding paragraph seems oddly politically-correct. As another reviewer has remarked, it's 'the triumph of hope over experience':

The Jews who left Muslim lands - and their descendants - can feel pride at what they and their forebears achieved in so many Muslim lands, over so many centuries, and can also feel justified in their sense of belonging within the Muslim world. The exodus and dispersal after 1947 of 850,000 of the Jews living in Muslim lands was a cruel interruption to a 1,400-year story of remarkable perseverance and considerable achievement.

Cruel interruption? More like inexorable demise.

At times the book is too broad-brush: Gilbert's disparate facts, names and dates spanning a vast geographical area, from the Atlantic to Central Asia, can be hard to digest.

The plight of Jews in Iran, Central Asia, Yemen and North Africa was worse than in the heart of the Ottoman empire, but one searches in vain for any distinction between treatment by Sunni or Shi'a, in areas where Jews were the only minority, or where Jews were one of many. There is no comparison between treatment of Jews and their fellow Christian dhimmis in the Muslim world. Gilbert fails to put the Arab and Muslim struggle against a Jewish home in Palestine, and the 20th century persecution of the Jews of the region, in its context of the oppression of all minorities by fascist-inspired modern Arab nationalism and islamism.

Moreover, In Ishmael's House is a misleading title: it suggests that the Muslims owned the house, while the Jews lived there under sufferance as tenants or guests. Yet for 1,000 years until the 7th century Arab conquest, the Middle East was populated exclusively by Jews and Christians. They were, so to speak, the original owners, until the johnny-come-lately of Islamic imperialism usurped the house from them.

Overall, however, the book is a triumph of truth over propaganda, and will make a valuable contribution to restoring Jews to the history books of the Middle East, from which they have been unjustly expunged.

Jewish Chronicle

More reviews here, here, here, here, here, here and here

*An Evening with Sir Martin Gilbert: Sir Martin will be talking about In Ishmael's House on 5 October at a synagogue in London. For details see Harif.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nothing is certain in Jews-of-Lebanon Wonderland

The Maghen Avraham synagogue, now restored

Did you know that Beirut has a restaurant run by Jews? Or maybe it doesn't. Or maybe it does, but the customers are sworn to secrecy.

Alice would have recognised Lebanon as Wonderland: nothing is certain when it comes to real facts about the Jews of Lebanon. Some say there were 22,000 in the community's 1950s heyday. Some say there were just 5,000. Today there are probably fewer than 50 - but if you believe Isaac Arazi, self-appointed leader of the Jewish Community Council, there could be as many as 300 (Arazi's figures are somewhat elastic: in other articles, his estimate is closer to 100 or 150). So how do you explain that in 2000, there were 5,965 Jews on the electoral register?

Curiouser and curiouser, concludes Michel Leclercq in a special issue of LIBAN FOCUS (No.64) on the Jews of Lebanon, timed for the renovation of the Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut.

Leclercq tells us some interesting factoids: the last rabbi left in 1977; kosher meat arrives from Damascus and is frozen by the community; a rabbi from Istanbul comes to supervise its preparation every two or three months. The dead are washed and 'embalmed' by Muslims, before being buried in the SODECO Jewish cemetery. It's hard to know what is true and what isn't. Leclerc also tells us that Lebanon welcomed Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Underlying the article is the assumption that the Jews are Lebanese patriots, guaranteed constitutional rights as Lebanon's 18th community. They did not flee Lebanon, but the PLO. They had little interest in going to Israel.

The article is partly influenced by fiction propagated by Dr Kirsten Schulze, whose book Jews of Lebanon exaggerates their numbers, posits them as anti-Zionist victims of Israel who preferred to flee to France or America, and claims that Lebanon was always a haven for Jews.

The morale of the story: don't believe everything you read - especially about the Jews of Lebanon.

The LIBAN FOCUS article is not available on the internet. A copy of the article may be emailed on application: Email

JC romanticises Beirut synagogue renovation

The Jewish Chronicle ('Hope for Beirut's Jews as synagogue is reborn' by Vikki Miller) is the latest newspaper to fall for the fiction that the decimated Lebanese Jewish 'community' is a phoenix about to rise from the ashes, now that the Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut has been rebuilt. Tellingly, the men behind the project (who probably live abroad mostly and wish to detach themselves from any link with Israel in order to further their business interests ) are too fearful of 'the authorities' to reveal their surnames to the reporter. Historian Dr Kirsten Schulze takes a few potshots at Israel and repeats the myth that 3,000 'Lebanese of the Jewish faith' left during the civil war.

All the other buildings in the block have been torn down, scheduled to be rebuilt as luxury apartments. Only one building remains standing - the last edifice of a once-thriving Jewish neighbourhood.

Rising out of a sea of rubble, its newly-painted white and gold facade gleaming in the harsh Beirut sun, the Maghen Abraham Synagogue is a powerful symbol of a community that refuses to be defeated.

Despite the evident security risks, a small number of Jews have remained in Lebanon throughout the decades of violence and are now just months away from realising their communal dream - the restoration of their biggest and most magnificent synagogue.

"We started from nothing and now we are so, so close," says Sameer, standing outside the synagogue. He is a businessman in his fifties who sits on the Jewish Community Council, the tiny community's organising body, and has been overseeing the restoration project. "I have a hope that Maghen Abraham will act as a focal point and bring people back to our congregation."

Life for Jews in Beirut is tough. They have not been allowed to work in certain professions, including government jobs or the police, since 1967 and, until last year, were obliged to have their religion marked on their ID cards. Once numbering more than 20,000, the community has today dwindled to a mere 100-150 members, most of them over 50 years old. Its leader is the 65-year-old Isaac Arazi, who has been at the forefront of raising funds for the restoration.

But the discrimination and ever-present security threat does not deter this small community who say they are, on the whole, happy with their lot.

"Some days it is hard, other days not. You never know which it will be," says Sameer. "But I do not hide that I am a Jew, I am open enough with my religion. It is important to be proud to be Jewish."

Before the restoration work began.

Before the restoration work began

They say they stayed in Lebanon because of a profound sense of feeling Lebanese. Beirut is their home and they have ties here - most own, or are employed by, small businesses in the city.

"Why would I move?" questions Sameer's friend and fellow businessmen, Joseph (both men have asked for their surnames not to be used - speaking to a western journalist may result in unwelcome attention from the authorities) (my emphasis - ed). "My life is here. Everything I have is here."

The main bugbear of the community is the Lebanese's wilful confusion of the terms Israeli and Jew. Not only is this perilous in a country where Israel is a reviled enemy, it also infuriates the Jews, who do not consider themselves Zionists.

"I am a Lebanese Jew, I am not Israeli," says Joseph. "They refuse to understand that Israel is not important to us. I do not feel warm towards Israel, the same as most people in my country. I feel Lebanese, I speak Arabic, not Hebrew."

The Maghen Abraham synagogue was once considered among the most beautiful in the Middle East. Opened in 1926, it was ironically damaged by Israeli shelling of Beirut in 1982 and was left abandoned until renovations began last year. (This might be a myth propagated by Robert Fisk - ed)


Contrary to its recent turbulent history, Lebanon has been a country that prides itself on its religious tolerance and diversity. Judaism is one of 18 officially recognised religions, and the country was historically a haven for Jews fleeing persecution. "If Jews in the region ever found themselves in trouble, they would always go to Lebanon," says Dr Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer on Middle East History at the London School of Economics and author of the book, The Jews of Lebanon. "It was the only Arab country whose Jewish population grew after the establishment of Israel in 1948, swelled by Jews fleeing countries like Iraq and Syria."

During the 1950s Wadi Abou Jmil prospered. Small Jewish businesses abounded and children attended Jewish schools there. The Maghen Abraham synagogue hosted grand weddings, lectures and study sessions.

The community's demise began in earnest after the 1967 Six Day War, which ushered in 200,000 angry Palestinian refugees and a negative change in attitude from the Lebanese authorities. "Around 50 per cent of the Jewish population left between 1967-70. It became a dangerous place for them," explains Dr Schulze. "Most people went to France or America. They didn't want to go Israel as they viewed it as a nanny state for those not able to cope on their own, for Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors. They saw themselves as strong and looked down on people who moved there."

The final blow to the community came at the start of the Lebanese Civil War, when the vast majority of the 3,000 or so remaining Jews fled as the country turned on itself. (Most Jews had already fled the repercussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. No more than 450 Jews were left at this stage - ed) The few who stayed have long yearned to rebuild Maghen Abraham, to bring some of the splendour of the old days back again, despite the risks.

Read article in full

How Syria and Lebanon became emptied of Jews

The whitewashing of dhimmitude in Lebanon

Update: the JC (24 September issue) has published the following letter in response:

I wish I could share in the optimism of Vikki Miller’s article headlined, ‘Hope for Beirut’s Jews as a synagogue is reborn’ (JC, 17 September). Just who will use the rebuilt Beirut synagogue? The few Jews (probably less than 50) are elderly, poor, and most live too far away to walk there.

As long as Lebanon remains a hostile collectivity of warring factions, Jews are terrified of identifying themselves. Those interviewed by your reporter will not reveal their last names for fear of ‘unwelcome attention from the authorities’: hardly the sort of environment conducive to the free and secure practice of Judaism.

Your feature whitewashes the antisemitism which eventually drove out the community: Jews interned in 1948, bombs exploding, Jewish youth organisations banned. It is true that numbers were bolstered in the 1950s by an influx from Syria and Iraq, but even those Jews born in Lebanon were denied citizenship. Incidentally, the oft-quoted but unsubstantiated claim that the synagogue was destroyed by Israeli shelling was first made in a book by Robert Fisk.

The truth is that the synagogue will never be more than a tourist attraction, or a mausoleum to a moribund community. Contrary to the impression given by your reporter, the Lebanese Jewish diaspora, which 40 years ago put down roots elsewhere, has not exactly rushed in with funding. The renovation of the synagogue brings prestige to those Jewish businessmen behind the project - who in fact spend most of their time outside Lebanon. It is good PR for Lebanon, allowing it to project a (bygone) image of pluralistic tolerance – but is it good for the Jews?

Mrs Lyn Julius
Harif – Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa

Friday, September 17, 2010

How can you talk to someone who wants you dead?

Iraq-born TV broadcaster Salim Fattal is unforgiving of Arab enmity towards the Jews; he believes the world's media bias towards Israel is a new form of antisemitism. Dan Pine interviewed him for the San Francisco J. News Weekly:

One day in the early 1940s, little Salim Fattal ran away from Muslim toughs in his dusty Baghdad neighborhood. The older boys finally caught the 12-year-old and slapped him around for no reason other than Salim was a Jew.

Bolting home, he cried to his mother, “Where is the justice?” Salim’s mother laughed out loud and replied in Arabic, “You are looking for justice? You are Jewish.”

Such was life for Iraqi Jews before the founding of Israel in 1948. Once Fattal and his family escaped to the Jewish state in 1950, they started life anew. But Fattal never forgot, or lost, his Mizrachi roots.

Fattal, 79, is a retired Israeli broadcaster and writer. He pioneered Israel’s Arabic-language radio and television. He directed acclaimed documentaries, including a three-part series on the Jews of Iraq and a six-part series on the Jews of North Africa.

BASalim (dan interv)
Salim Fattal speaks out for Jews from Arab lands. photo/cathleen maclearie

Fattal continues to speak out on behalf of Jews from Arab lands, dispossessed and exiled after centuries of coexistence. He was in the Bay Area late last month as a guest of Jimena (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), a local organization that draws attention to the history and plight of Mizrachi Jews such as Fattal.

“We could feel the superiority of the Muslims against the Jews,” Fattal told j. of his life in Iraq. “There were periods where they treated the Jews justly, but they were accustomed to seeing Jews submissive and inferior all the time.”

The Iraq of his youth was ruled by an authoritarian secular regime. Among the 120,000 Iraqi Jews of the time, most were poor. The wealthy had means to flee to Palestine, but for Jews like Fattal, there were few options for making a more equitable society.

He chose to join the Communist Party. In anti-communist Iraq, that led to additional layers of persecution. He was followed by secret police and eventually arrested. Ultimately he felt compelled to leave the country for good.

Once in Israel, he found work right away as an Arabic-speaking radio announcer, but his communist past caught up with him soon enough and he lost the job. He tried several other career paths, and each time he was fired for his past political beliefs.(..)

“[Israel] thought the best way to reach the Arabs and change their prejudices about Israel was through television,” he said. “We did shows for children [because] I thought the best thing to do to reach the heart of the Arabs was not to talk politics. Children have no brainwashing yet.”

In 1968 he created a show called “Sammy & Susu,” one of the most watched Arab children’s programs of the time. He also acquired programs from the BBC and American networks, all subtitled in Hebrew and Arabic.

Given his knowledge of Arabic and Islamic culture, Fattal has a deeper understanding of Israel’s Arab citizens and neighbors than do most Israelis. But he is unforgiving of Arab enmity toward Israel and the Jews.

“If you compare [Arab Israelis] with citizens in any other Arab country, they have a much better standard of living,” Fattal said. “Yet their leaders would like to do harm to Israel. We know there are problems. We don’t deny them. But because it’s a Jewish state, the whole world attacks Israel from all possible directions.”

He sees this as a new form of anti-Semitism. “If you scratch a boy from Gaza, the media says, ‘What did you do?’ But when a terrorist comes to Israel to bomb a bus, it’s only a matter of reporting what happened, and after two days it’s forgotten.”

Thus, he is skeptical about Arab-Jewish relations and seems pessimistic about the recently restarted direct peace talks. These or any talks.

“Until this day [Arabs] talk about annihilation of Israel,” Fattal said. “How can you negotiate with someone who wants you to die?”

Read article in full

How happy are Jews in Iran?

Who could have imagined that the happiness of the Jews of Iran could be of vital interest to the Irish people? Yet letters on the subject have been flying back and forth all week long in The Irish Independent.

It all began with a letter from one Dr David Morrison affirming that Iran was not a threat to Israel:

Thursday September 09 2010

John Fitzgerald (Letters, Tuesday) writes that Iran poses "the greatest threat to the Jewish people since the days of the Third Reich".

It is impossible to reconcile that view with the fact that Iran is home to the largest number of Jews in any state in the Middle East outside Israel.

Not only that, Iran's 1979 Islamic Constitution recognises Jews as an official religious minority and reserves one seat (out of 290) in the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, for them.

Mr Fitzgerald writes that President Mahmoud Ahmadin- ejad "has made clear his desire to wipe Israel off the map".

That is simply a fiction, which arose from a mistranslation from Farsi of a remark he made in a speech on October 26, 2005, as American Professor Juan Cole has pointed out.

The remark was an old quote from Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic, to the effect that "this occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time"

This was not a threat to destroy Israel by military action, but the expression of a hope that the Israeli regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did.

Dr David Morrison

Lansdowne Road, Belfast

Saturday September 11 2010

DAVID Morrison shows that if you say something often enough, then sooner or later, everyone will finally believe it (Letters, September 9).

He tells us that Iran is no threat to Israel and that all the shocking barbaric statements made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for Israel to be wiped off the map were mistranslated or misunderstood.

Hamas, Iran's proxy in Gaza, believes in the genocide of Jews all over the world, but that could also be a misreading, according to Mr Morrison's theory.

The well-documented Holocaust denial and the distribution of vicious anti-semitic material by Iran and her proxies is common knowledge. Maybe they were only joking as well.

Most of Iran's Jews were lucky to escape from this vicious regime to the West and Israel.

Their mother tongue is Pharsi and they understand Ahmadinejad as being intent on carrying out his threats.

Mr Morrison obviously thinks he has a greater understanding of Pharsi and Iran than these Iranian-born refugees.

The few remaining Jews in Iran are very downtrodden and have no freedom of speech.

Iran is no Garden of Eden for them.

Good try, Mr Morrison, but the Irish public are not that naive yet.

Iran is not only a threat to Israel and the Jews, but to Europe and -- believe it or not -- to Ireland.

Daniel Briscoe
Kiriat Ono, Israel

Tuesday September 14 2010

Dr Morrison writes "that Iran is home to the largest number of Jews in any state in the Middle East outside Israel". (Letters, September 9).

But what kind of home is it? Yes, it is believed that there may have been some 25,000 Jews living in Iran, but the numbers are falling.

They are allowed to practise their Judaism as long as they submit to Sharia law, show no links with Zionism and Israel, and do as they are told.

They are under the surveillance of the secret police, their Jewish schools are controlled by Iranian Muslims and are made to open on the Jewish Sabbath.

If this was happening in Ireland, then it would be the equivalent of Christians being allowed to worship provided they never mentioned Mary or Bethlehem, the entire Christian community living under Sharia law, all priests under surveillance to ensure there was no holy communion, and all the pubs either shut or not allowed to sell alcohol.

Clearly, the Jews are not under threat, and in similar circumstances Dr Morrison would be equally certain that neither were the Christians.

Lewis Herlitz
Essex, England

Wednesday September 15 2010

Daniel Briscoe says that the Islamic regime in Iran is viciously anti-semitic.

It is difficult to reconcile this assertion with the fact that around 25,000 Jews live in Iran, despite considerable efforts by Israel to persuade them to emigrate to Israel.

Substantial financial assistance is available to all Jews emigrating to Israel, but in 2007 a large additional package was offered to Iranian Jews.

In response, Iran's sole Jewish MP, Morris Motamed, described the $60,000 offer as "insulting", adding that "Iran's Jews have always been free to emigrate and three-quarters of them did so after the revolution but 70pc of those went to America, not Israel."

The offer had limited success: a total of 207 Iranian Jews emigrated to Israel in 2007.

Dr David Morrison, Lansdowne Road, Belfast

Thursday 16 September 2010

Dr David Morrison ('lranian Jews are happy at home', September 15) admits that three-quarters of the Iranian Jewish community left the country after the Islamic revolution. That only a quarter still remains is hardly a positive advertisement for the regime. Official anti-semitism and Holocaust denial is rampant.

There are many reasons why the remaining Jews do not leave Iran: compulsory military service is one.

Besides, it is not easy to uproot oneself and one's family from a country where Jews have lived for 3,000 years, especially the elderly. Although Jews can and do travel, they are said to be denied the multiple-exit permits normally issued to other citizens: in other words, members of the family are kept back as hostages.

Sharia law imposes certain handicaps: a Jew cannot occupy a senior post in the government or army. Jewish schools are run by Muslims. There is continuous pressure to convert to Islam: a convert to Islam becomes the sole inheritor of his family's property.

And, as in the well-publicised case of Sakineh Ashtiani, who is threatened with stoning for adultery, all Iranians -- including Jews -- could fall victim at any time to the human rights abuses of this appalling regime.

Mrs L Julius

Friday 17 September 2010

DAVID Morrison ('Iranian Jews are happy at home', September 15) seems to write from the heart when he argues all is well for the Jewish population of Iran, but he clearly knows very little about Iran or its regime.

As someone with a PhD in Persian Studies and a lifetime spent studying the country, may I be allowed to advance a different theory?

Mr Morrison's worst sin is that he blithely ignores Iran's largest religious minority, the Baha'is -- an indigenous community with origins in the country. They have been condemned for their belief in a prophet following Muhammad, whom Muslims consider the 'Last Prophet'.

Since the revolution in 1979, the Baha'is have been viciously persecuted. More than 200 have been executed, and many more imprisoned.

Their current elected leadership has just been sentenced to 230 years apiece for the crime of leading the community.

Baha'i shrines, several of which I have visited, have been demolished in acts of wanton vandalism.

Most professions are forbidden to Baha'is, and young Baha'is are prohibited from entering university. Baha'i women have been hanged for teaching Sunday school. This is the yardstick by which brutes like Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be judged.

I could go on, but I want to pause and ask why Mr Morrison is so intent on putting a smile on the face of a regime that acts like this?

Does he not understand a PR exercise when he sees one?

A bunch of murderers and bigots who openly make jokes about the Holocaust or deny it ever took place, threaten to 'exterminate' the Jewish state, hang gay men from cranes and stone women to death are given the kid-glove treatment by Mr Morrison.

The Islamic regime is one of the ugliest and most repressive in the world. Fellow travellers like David Morrison are a direct affront to human rights and the hopes of the Iranian people for freedom and justice.

Iran's Jews live under sufferance, as Jews have always done in the Islamic world. If a time comes when the regime wants to show another face, their days may be numbered.

Dr Denis MacEoin
Newcastle upon Tyne

Update: The exchange has entered its second week:

Wednesday 22 September 2010

DR DAVID Morrison (Letters, September 21) should not go unchallenged when yet again he repeats his unsubstantiated claim that it is a "fact" that "25,000 Jews have chosen to stay in Iran, when they are in a position to leave. . ."

The real truth is that Iran's remaining Jews have not freely "chosen" to remain. Rather, they have been forced to stay there for two simple reasons:

1. Any Jew who even dares to apply for a passport immediately gets interrogated and then placed under surveillance.

2. Any Jew who does eventually receive a passport and travels abroad is forced to leave a family member behind. This is clearly to ensure that Jews travelling abroad will be deterred from staying abroad.

In effect, the Iranian regime is holding the entire Jewish community of around 24,000 people captive.

In light of these facts, surely Dr Morrison is willing to accept that these people deserve our greatest sympathy for not having the right to emigrate freely, a right that both he and I enjoy, should we ever need to exercise it.

Dr Ivor Shorts
Dublin 16

Friday September 24 2010

Dr Ivor Shorts (Letters, September 22) writes that Iranian Jews remain there because they are "forced to stay" by the Islamic regime.

The US State Department paints a different picture in its 2009 International Religious Freedom Report for Iran, which states: "Jewish citizens were free to travel out of the country but were subject to the general restriction against travel by the country's citizens to Israel. This restriction, however, was not enforced."

In a similar vein, the BBC reported in 2006: "Gone are the early days of the Iranian revolution when Jews -- and many Muslims -- found it hard to get passports to travel abroad."

The report quoted Iran's Jewish MP, Maurice Motamed, saying that: "In the last five years, the government has allowed Iranian Jews to go to Israel freely, meet their families and when they come back they face no problems." Happily, it appears that Iranian Jews who wish to emigrate to Israel or elsewhere are free to do so, and many have done so since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Dr David Morrison
Lansdowne Road, Belfast

Saturday September 25 2010

Dr David Morrison (Letters, September 24), in quoting Iran's government-nominated sole Jewish MP, is actually unwittingly making my point for me.

He quotes the former MP Maurice Motamed as saying of Iranian Jews who travel abroad that "when they come back they face no problems".

This is precisely the point that I and others in your newspaper have been making to Dr Morrison: that these Jews are forced to return to Iran because they are fearful of what will happen to their family members whom they were obliged to leave behind.

But Dr Morrison quite disingenuously persists in equating the ability of Jews to travel abroad with their right to stay abroad, that is, to emigrate.

It is akin to claiming that a prisoner who has prison leave for a set period of time is the same as one who has been released altogether. Thus, by virtue of the restriction that they are obliged to return to Iran, the 24,000 Iranian Jews are in effect all being held on a tight leash, tantamount to being out on limited parole.

Dr Ivor Shorts
Dublin 16