Friday, April 29, 2011

'Flavours of Babylon' - a feast for eye and soul

Linda Dangoor has salvaged the secrets of a robust and aromatic, but not spicy cuisine: Iraqi-Jewish cooking. Lyn Julius reviews Linda's new book, Flavours of Babylon, for The Sephardi Bulletin:

As the saying goes,"Culture is what remains when everything else has been forgotten." One might add that "food is what remains when all other aspects of culture have been forgotten."

With only seven Jews still living in Iraq, the ancient Babylonian-Jewish community is on the verge of extinction. However, the secret tastes of its food, aromatic but not spicy, can still be savoured in private homes in Israel and the diaspora. But as the exiled generation die out, the links with Iraq-Jewish culture and food will become more and more tenuous, unless they are immortalised in book form, as Linda Dangoor has done in Flavours of Babylon.

Initially, Linda compiled recipes for her interested nephews. The collection spiralled into a full-blown commercial enterprise - researched, written, photographed, laid-out and published using her newly-honed computer skills by this talented ceramicist-come-graphic designer.

Linda was only ten when she left Baghdad. Seventeen members of her family lived together in a house on the Tigris. She still has vivid memories of eating fresh produce from the garden. Food preparation followed the seasons: a huge amount of pickling and preserving fruit and vegetables took place in summer. She remembers picnicking on the small islands which emerged when the water level was down, and counting stars to sleep on the roof.

The cooking of the Iraqi Jews did not differ markedly from that of the local non-Jews. On special occasions stuffed sheep's stomach, Pacha, was eaten by all communities. In Baghdad, the cuisine was heavily rice-based ('A meal without rice is not a meal, it's a snack', the book tells us). The family's cook Gershone, was not especially assiduous preparing rice, and according to Linda, consuming his gritty dishes was like negotiating a minefield.

Meat stews were a staple for the whole region, but Jews often braised their meat (almost always lamb and chicken), making it go further in a sweet and sour tomato sauce, or stuffing it in vegetables. Olive oil was unknown in this part of the Middle East: so as not to violate the laws of Kashrut, Jews cooked in sesame oil, while the height of luxury for Muslims and Christians was to cook with butter. Another dish unique to the Jews was Urugh, a patty made with long-grain rice and fish, or meat. Every Thursday without fail Linda's family would eat the vegetarian rice and red lentil dish Ketchri, a variant of the Indian Kedgeree. But the signature dish of the Iraqi Jewish household was the Shabbat T'beet, chicken and rice flavoured with cardamon and baked on low embers with eggs that turned brown and sweet. They were eaten with umba, mango pickle imported in bottles bearing lots of medals and a ship on the label, a condiment almost as Iraqi as it is Indian, and nowadays popular in Israel.

Moving to England, Linda was at first bewitched by tinned peaches and instant cake mixes (just add water!). The infatuation with processed foods did not last long, and inspired by her Middle Eastern background, Linda was soon not only recreating her family's recipes, but inventing new ones, to which the second part of her book is devoted. "Let nothing which can be treated by diet be treated by other means", said the medieval rabbi and physician Maimonides, and this colourful book is nothing if not conducive to healthy eating.

And not just eating - Linda has a section on teas, infusions and other exotic drinks such as her all-time favourite - Hriri, the hot almond drink consumed at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

Flavours of Babylon is beautifully presented, a feast for the eye and soul, as well as the stomach. It brings welcome reinforcement to efforts to shore up the fragile memory of Iraqi-Jewish food.


* Iraqi-Jewish equivalent of Bon Appetit!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Two Jews killed in Moroccan cafe bombing

Michal Wizman, who died with her husband Mesod in the cafe bombing. Their son survives them.

Two Jews* are among the 15 people killed a bomb explosion in the Moroccan town of Marrakesh today, according to Israel National News in Russian.

More than 20 were injured. Almost all the victims are foreign tourists.

At first the authorities announced that the incident was a domestic accident - caused by exploding gas tanks - but soon they were forced to acknowledge that what happened had been a terrorist attack.

The Jewish couple who died arrived in Morocco for Passover to mark the holiday with an elderly parent.

* a third Jew, a travel writer of British nationality, also died.

Read article in full

Update to the update: a man on the run in a cagoule was arrested on 30 April some 80 kilometres from Marrakesh, and his bag of explosives detonated by police. (Source: Dafina)

Update (The Jerusalem Post): The dead were a pregnant Israeli and her Moroccan Jewish husband. Their two-year old son was being cared for by his grandparents in Casablanca.

The blast at the Argana cafe killed 15 people

Article in Lubavitch newspaper

Article in Irish Times

Couple buried in Israel

Hanania wants compensation - and so do I

A view of Jerusalem (Photo: Mattias Guggisberg)

Oh the injustice. Over at the Jerusalem Post the Palestinian Christian columnist Ray Hanania has been berating the Israelis for treating his family unfairly, by refusing to compensate his family for their land in Jerusalem. Here is an extract of his piece, followed by my comment:

"My family owns 33 dunams – about eight acres – adjacent to Gilo, the Jerusalem “suburb” many around the
world consider a settlement, which was founded several years after the 1967 War. That’s about 33,000 sq.m. It’s in a valley that faces Malcha and the sports stadium, surrounded by homes. It’s called the “Tarud” land, and was purchased by my cousin’s grandfather in the 19th century. Most of the brothers and sisters who owned the land have died, and only one cousin remains. He’s given me power of attorney to represent it.

I have tried. Israeli officials know that I own the land as its representative. Yet the government continues to announce plans to develop in that area. They have never contacted me or my cousins. The various reports on expansion have said new construction will take place on land owned by the Jewish National Fund and private land. “Private land?” What does that mean to Israelis? This whole conflict is about how we treat each other. And while Israelis always complain about how Palestinians treat them, only a few care about how they treat us. Jews have been severely mistreated and have had their land and property taken from them in European and Arab countries.

Many have already received compensation from European countries. As part of ending this conflict, perhaps those who fled or were forced out of Arab lands will also be compensated."

Read article in full

My comment: Yes, it is unfair that the Hanania family has not been compensated for land in Jerusalem. And I sympathise with Hanania's efforts to fight for compensation. He is relatively lucky, however: the Israelis are aware of Hanania's claims and he has been free to visit the property he claims is his.

ln what circumstances did he lose this land exactly? Gilo was under Jordanian occupation until 1967. So Hanania's land was not taken over by Israel in 1948. It could have been taken over in 1967, when Jordanian forces launched a second war of aggression.

There is this telling paragraph in Hanania's piece:

The mukhtar [leader] of the village of Sharafat has repeatedly refused to meet with me – an indication of the growing tension between Christians and Muslims in Palestinian territories that we are not supposed to discuss. It seems there’s discrimination from every direction.

Perhaps Hanania is not telling us the full story. Could it be that in the absence of the Hanania clan, like many Palestinian Christians who have for decades been living abroad, Muslim settlers from Sharafat have moved in onto Ray's land?

Be that as it may, there is enormous injustice on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide.

My family lost two homes with large gardens in a prosperous district of Baghdad, a cafe, an office building, and acres of oil-rich date plantations in the Basra area.

Given that there were once 150,000 Jews in Iraq, multiply these losses many times over. Bear in mind the property lost across 10 Arab countries by almost one million Jews, and you get a devastating picture of mass spoliation.

Because Jews have received compensation from European countries, Hanania suggests that Palestinians should receive compensation from Israel, as if Europe had anything to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and as if there is no cost for having instigated wars of aggression in 1948 and 1967.

Hanania rather cavalierly suggests that 'perhaps' Jews from Arab countries will be compensated for property they lost simply for being Jews. But Arab states have not even recognised the legitimacy of Jewish claims many times greater than Palestinian claims, let alone provided any compensation. Hanania's is a very big 'perhaps'. Even though Iraq is now nominally a democracy which respects civil rights, the chances of my family obtaining compensation for our property is, I'll admit, as likely as a snowstorm in August.

So perhaps Hanania and I should call it quits.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Moroccan Jews recognised as Holocaust survivors

For the first time since the end of the Second World War nearly 70 years ago, thousands of Moroccan Jews will be recognized as Holocaust survivors and receive compensation from the German government. It should be stated that Jews not only suffered under the Vichy 'statut des juifs', but North African Jews living in France were deported to the death camps. Ynet News reports (with thanks: Michelle):

According to the agreement drafted over the last few days between the Claims Conference and the German government they will each receive NIS 13,000 ($3,800) in compensation.

Romanian and Bulgarian Jews who were held during the war will be included to receive the same compensation received by concentration camp survivors.

The Claims Conference estimated that 7,000 new compensation requests will be submitted, half from Bulgarian and Romanian Jews and a third from Jews from North African countries, mainly Morocco.

Those eligible for the compensation are Jews whose freedom of movement was restricted in some way by the Nazis and their allies. Freedom of movement includes entrance to parks, movie theaters, and use of public transportation among others.

At the time World War II broke out, 260,000 Jews were living in Morocco. While Jews from Tunisia, Algeria and Libya were recognized over the passing years as Holocaust survivors and received compensation, Moroccan Jews were never recognized as survivors. So far, only a small number of Moroccan Jews who made aliyah to Israel before 1953 have succeeded in achieving recognition as Holocaust survivors and receiving compensation accordingly.

Read article in full

Jerusalem Post article

Misled are the peacemakers: a reply to Freedland

Last week, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland (pictured) took the part of the erstwhile Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in a role-play exercise. But the peace agenda discussed was seriously distorted. Writing in The Propagandist, Lyn Julius puts forward an alternative peace plan that addresses the 'right of return', Jewish refugees and democratic change in Arab lands:

For most of last week, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland was cast as the erstwhile Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in a role-play exercise , while Palestinians played Israelis.

Apparently, every time such exercises take place, it is the 'Palestinians' who seethe with righteous indignation as the underdog. The 'Israelis' suffered too, the negotiators recognise, but that was 'in the past'.

How has the peace agenda come to be so seriously skewed? The victims of a genocidal project to destroy the Jews in the Middle East have been turned into aggressors, and Jewish suffering downplayed. Who around the negotiating table remembers that it was the Arabs who rejected the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, and launched a war of annihilation against Israel in 1948? Who remembers the Arab League secretary-general Azzam Pasha's spine-chilling promise : 'This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades'?

It was a good week, writes Freedland. He negotiated Israel back to the 1967 borders.That was the easy bit, Jonathan. Did the 'Israeli 'negotiators' get the 'Palestinians' renounce their 'right of return' to Israel proper?

The 'right of return': This issue cannot be brushed aside lightly as 'rhetoric'. Not content with getting a Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza, even the 'moderates' of the Fatah camp have refused to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Most recently they again affirmed that their 'right of return' was non-negotiable . Thus Palestinians reserve the right to turn the Jewish state into a second state of Palestine, by overwhelming it with millions of returning refugees. The first act of such a Muslim majority-state would be to repeal Israel's 'Law of Return' which entitles Jews, wherever they may be, to automatic Israeli citizenship.

That's why, in the real negotiating world, Benjamin Netanyahu is right to make Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state the quintessential issue. (The real Erekat has said flippantly that Israel can call itself what it likes - but does the Arab side accept Israel's right to call itself what it likes?) If successive Israeli governments did not insist on this point in the past, it is because Netanyahu has realised that the much vaunted 'two-state solution' leaves room for ambiguity.

To put it bluntly, Arabs need to become Zionists if there is to be peace. They need to accept that the Jews are an indigenous Middle Eastern people with a right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland.

Refugees: The Palestinian negotiatiors at Freedland's role-play hold 'the moral high ground': the Palestinian refugees are seen as the main victims of an Israeli injustice. But this is another serious distortion.

The Arab refugees are the unintended consequence of a war the Arabs failed to win against the nascent state of Israel in 1948. But it is forgotten that the Arab waged a second war, on their own defenceless Jewish citizens, a war they won easily. This war was not a mere backlash to Israel - it was inspired by totalitarian Arab nationalism and by the rise of Nazism. The Jewish refugees - now comprising half the Israeli population with their descendants - were successfully 'ethnically cleansed'. Now it is the turn of other minorities.

The peace agenda espoused by Freedland and others misses the fact that the single largest group of refugees created by the Arab-Israeli conflict was not Palestinian. Almost a million Jews were expelled, not just from Jerusalem and the West Bank, but Arab lands, and their pre-Islamic communities were destroyed. In terms of lost property, the Jews forfeited land four times greater than Israel itself. As a matter of law, the Jewish refugees too deserve justice. Recognition of their plight and compensation for seized assets many times greater than Palestinian losses must also be included on the peace agenda. Two sets of refugees exchanged places in the Middle East. The parties to peace must recognise that the exchange is irrevocable.

The peace agenda needs to include a humanitarian solution for Palestinian refugees in Arab countries and their four million descendants. They need to be granted full rights in their Arab host countries - including the right to become full citizens in their countries of birth, just as Jewish refugees were granted full rights in Israel and the West. The Palestinian refugee camps, terrorist breeding grounds, need to be drained. The agency perpetuating Palestinians refugee status from generation to generation, UNWRA, must be dismantled and Palestinians allowed to be absorbed in wider Arab society.

Jihad-driven antisemitism: The peace process needs to address the very cause of the Jewish exodus - the same bigotry which drives the Arab and Muslim struggle against a Jewish sovereign state in the Middle East and marginalises minorities. The conflict is not just between Israel and Palestine; it is rooted in the Arab world's cultural and religious prejudice against non-Muslims ; and with the rise of Islamism, it is between western values and Iranian-backed Jihad.

Freedland's peacemaking simply does not address Jihad. Assume that Arab governments are willing to renounce anti-Jewish media- and mosque-driven incitement and violence. Assume they are willing to accept Israel as the state of the Jewish people: how do you deal with the spoilers intent on wrecking the peace? If Israel makes an agreement with the 'moderates' of the Palestinian Authority, what about Hamas? If peace with Hamas, what about Hezbollah? The history of the Middle East is littered with the corpses of moderates murdered by extremists. Make peace with one armed fanatic group, and another pops up elsewhere.

Only if democracy takes root in the Arab world can violent extremists be marginalised. Islamists have only become a powerful force because they control the mosques, the only conduit for popular political expression in failing or non-democratic states. To bring about a lasting peace, we need to adopt the Sharansky solution - incremental financial incentives to encourage liberal democracy, the establishment of civil society with real respect for civil and human rights, independent institutions and the rule of law.

If there is lesson for Israel from the Arab Spring, it is that peace deals with illegitimate dictators are at best tactical truces. Democracies do not need to distract their masses with an external bogeyman. Democracies do not go to war with one another.

Peace negotiators, real or make-believe, need to move on from the tired old cliches of the Oslo years. The issues are broader than conventional wisdom suggests. Would someone please tell Jonathan Freedland?

Read article in full

Cross-posted at Harry's Place and CiF Watch

A thought-provoking comment by Mettaculture at Harry's Place:

Democracies do not go to war with one another.

mmmmmmm. Well a bit of a sweeping cliché that one. I do not wish to rubbish completely the essence of this cliché, because it is the case that, generally, wars between opposing democratic nation states are defined by their lesser destruction, greater willingness to solve diplomatically and to make reparations (or to simply buy the land being fought over).

Now it is true that many nasty wars have been fought between constitutional Monarchies and Republics where there is a lot of definitional debate about exactly what is a democracy (and of course what constitutes a war vs an invasion or a skirmish, an intervention or a squirmish).

None the less four Anglo-Dutch Wars, the wars between the splintering Bolivarian republics post Nueva Grenada and in central America (Neuva España ) post independence, the Mexican-American War and even the 100 hour football war between El Salvador and Honduras were wars.

But the ‘democracies don’t wage war’ truism is least rue when we consider the really nasty wars, civil wars, revolutions and wars of independence that have consumed so many lives in the last two centuries.

The wars that arise from within a constitutional state either for territorial independence (for some geographically separated colony, province or part of a nation) or within a contiguos territory devided by region, class or ethnicity are often the most brutal wars of all. These wars destroy and disfigure whole civilisations their economic and cultural forms their families and for long decades after their future relationships.

The American Revolution (The American War of independence we Brits call it which indicates that it was British colonists rebelling against lack of local governance),The American Civil War, the first and second Boer Wars, the first and second Balkan war, The Graeco-Turkish War (along with the combined Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocide), The Spanish civil war, The Partition of India The first Kashmir War, The Invasion of Cyprus, and the Yugoslav war have all been ugly wars characterised by civil and ethnic fracture resulting in acts of barbarism between people who had lived previously as communities of part of a greater whole.

These fratricidal/ethnic/national self determination wars are also characterised by some of the most serious crimes against humanity.

All of these wars arose within the context of struggle for national or ethnic self determination where the constitutional (and increasingly violently contested) forms of relatively democratic government were inadequate to the task of resolving long standing societal or even civilisational factionalism.

Indeed what has always been a causative factor in these wars is that representation in governance has always lagged behind rapidly changing economic and social conditions, with the consequence that politically entrenched powerful groups become locked into a scrabble for resources with the newly emergent ‘demotic’ challengers.

Now it seems Lyn Julius is saying to important things (to crudely precis an important contribution) that we need to be place at the heart of the debate in relationship to Israel’s existential struggle for self determination:

First; There has been an exchange of refugee populations in the Middle East in the creation of Israel. This population exchange no matter how it happened (coerced, ethnic cleansing, voluntary) was done along principally confessional lines (but confessional lines that were believed to reflect ethnicity).

This caused terrible hardship for the refugees but it is done. What is more it was done in exactly the same way that modern nation states were carved out Independence movements from within two great Empires; the Ottoman and the British Empire in India (the third of the territory that remained as princely kingdoms and its preceding Mughal Empire).

The Modern state of Israel (and by the exact measure its surrounding sharp lined new post Ottoman Arab nations) therefore is a deeply rooted political fact of the modern global order of Sovereign Nations States, just as are, via exactly the same historical process) the states of Greece and Turkey (Armenia, Bulgaria etc) and Pakistan and India (Burma and Sri Lanka etc).

This is done we should, we must, accept these political facts as unalterable. Doing this allows us to then talk of compensatory payments to refugees (Jews and Palestinians) and their descendants.

I think this is the most important, the most robust, part of Lyn Julius article.

This should have always been the negotiation position. To have conceded the Palestinian refugee question as a self standing issue, irregardless of the entwined fates of the Jewish, Mizrahi, refugees has been to concede an argument and a set of demands that cannot be solved in those terms without undermining the right of Jewish self determination.

Refugees should be compensated and their civil and political rights recognised in the country of their residence and birth.

My Greek friend does not even consider that he has a right of return to the Anatolian Village that all four of his Grandparents were born in. My Palestinian friend (still after this argument) does believe that he should get his Grandmother’s house back in East Jerusalem and that there should be a ‘one state solution’ that allows him that.

He thinks this even though he is unsure of the chain of title for the property before 1948 and even though his grandparents migrated to the economically booming Palestine Mandate in the early 30’s (he came from Damascus where an elderly Christian Aunt still lives and a Jewish great grandmother died).

My Palestinain friend, an urbane and reasonable person (except on this issue) believes this because he has never really been challenged, within his liberal Anglo-Palestinian cultural millieu, to think anything different other than of his casually daily reinforced unproblematically viewed ‘right’.

The second part of Lyn Julius’ argument that is essentially ‘Israel must work with the Arab spring and democracy movements and do no more deals with dictators for short term security, because we all want democracy and democracies do not go to war’ is weaker.

Not because she is not right, ultimately, but because she may well be making a strategic mistake to see this as a prescription for action rather than the desired goal because, well, it can all go pear shaped in the short term.

Democracies are not easy to establish, or rather they are easy to establish utopically in an 1848 way

They can have a tendency to end briefly, up against a cemetery wall though.

Democratic emergence is also characterised by the release, the unleashing of long subdued ethnic, religious and economic tensions.

Power blocks battle for power and democracies, especially those born in independence movements or civil wars tend to be short lived.

Demotic forces are unleashed and democratic institutions (which take decades to build) can easily be undone.

Israel has fought a democracy, Lebanon, in several of its wars, it has invaded it twice.

This is not because Israel hates democracy or would rather do a deal with a dictator like Assad for stability, but because the Lebanese democracy allows for representation of sectarian and military interest groups inimical to Israel’s existence.

Lebanon may not be a perfect democracy, none is, but its’ electoral structure allows for a balancing of powers which is essential for enough stability in a democracy to build genuinely impartial and robustly independent democratic structures.

None of Israel’s wars with its only democratic neighbour have improved the institutional foundation of Lebanese democracy, on the contrary, Israel’s involvement in Lebanon is on a par with Syrias, in its threat to destroy Lebanese democracy, not by intention as with the Syrians, but by default for the simple reason that very few multi ethnic multi religious democracies are strong enough to resist melt down when drawn into wider conflicts.

Democracies do go to war and Israel and Lebanon with almost certainly be engaged in armed conflict, soon.

I still think that Lyn Julius is right in that unless Israel’s neighbouring regimes become zionists then there is little prospect for peace.

The irony is that only a stable democratic country that recognises another’s legitimate sovereign right for self-determination as much as it values its own can have a majority understand the universality of the principle of self determination and see that Israel’s right to this is unremarkable and that zionism (at least in the mature Westphalian sovereign state world legal order we live in) is quite unremarkably enough simply a political expression of Jewish nationalism.

I don’t have any easy suggestions as to how we get these mature Arab democracies surrounding Israel where a majority think ‘oh yeah Israel its just another country in the Eastern Mediterranean like Greece or Turkey’

I am sure, though, that unless the popular political discourse surrounding this issue begins to see Israel as an ultimate political fact, a geo-political consequence of the creation of Modern Nation States out of Old Empires involving unpleasant and never to be repeated population exchanges, just like the creation of Greece and Turkey or Pakistan and India; then we don’t even get to take the first step.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mizrahi Open Letter is an Israel-bashing exercise

Writer and poet Almog Behar, an Open Letter signatory

They're back.

A group of 'young' Mizrahi descendants of 'Arab Jews' in Israel have written another Open Letter to the Arab world. (Who are they? Israelis with at least one Jewish parent of Middle Eastern or North African origin. Those with one German, Polish or Latin American parent attest to the onward advance of intermarriage in Israeli society).

The signatories are all fired up by the revolutionary fervour sweeping the Arab world, and are begging to be part of the action.

Are they applauding the Arab protesters for wishing to aspire to the values of the only democracy of the region - Israel?

No such luck. The signatories feel they have been torn away from their true 'Arab' culture and language and have been repressed by Israel's domineering 'colonial, European' culture. Like the demonstrators of Tahrir Square, they live under a 'regime'. As leftist radicals they cannot help reverting to the well-worn slogans of 'solidarity' with repressed 'Palestinian-Israelis - a 'workers of the Middle East unite' type of solidarity.

Their ultimate goal reveals itself : an Andalusian model of interfaith coexistence. A 'golden era' revived.

My objections to this Open Letter are very much what they were to the last Open Letter, which this Mizrahi group wrote after President Obama's Cairo speech in 2009.

The letter-writers protest that their cultural past has been erased by Israeli racism, but they are in denial about their historical past - the Arab world's repression and persecution of their own parents. This is, after all, the reason why they are now Israelis. Their unwillingness to come to terms with the brutality and injustice of their past in the Arab world puts them at variance with the vast majority of Israelis who descend from Arab countries. Sharing a culture and language has never protected Jews from being 'ethnically cleansed'.

Next, the signatories commit the very mistake they accuse Israel of doing to them in reverse - they are asking to be taken into the comforting bosom of the dominating Arab, Muslim culture. The Andalusian model assumes thriving Jews and Christians are not equal partners, but under Muslim rule. Moreover, Arab Muslim culture has ruthlessly suppressed indigenous Berber, Kurdish, Coptic, Assyrian culture and language, and imposed dhimmi subjugation on Jews and Christians.

Is this what this tiny misguided group of starry-eyed Israelis really wants?

Here is an excellent comment from E. Eskel, who sums up the argument brilliantly:

"It’s amazing just how self-denigrating some of these individuals are, who claim to speak for all Mizrahim. While their intentions might be good, their naivety and ignorance is so painful that it drives them to try and reconcile with those who have no desire to reconcile with them, let alone acknowledge the tragic uprooting of millenia old Jewish communities throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

Our families never identified as Arabs. They were comfortable with speaking Arabic (more specifically our unique Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic dialect) and in fact Jews had used Arabic even BEFORE Islam. They participated in the society, contributed immensely to the economy, culture, arts, literature and music. But they also maintained their unique separate identity as Babylonian Jews who pre-date the muslim conquests by at least 1,000 years. It was only a minority from the more secular middle-upper class who identified as “Arabs” and even then, not all of them did. One needs to understand this in its proper historical context. The pan-Arab Baathist movement was founded by a Muslim and a Christian. But for many non-Muslims, it became a way of exiting their less-than-equal reality and create a new identity not modeled on religion, but one on a secular Arabness that would somehow unite Muslims, Jews, Christians…etc The problem was, most Muslims weren’t so immediately swayed by this development, and religion remained an important part in their self-identification with the Muslim Umma.

The price for that illusive equality was a downplaying of one’s non-Muslim or non-Arab identity, whether you were a Copt or Assyrian or Maronite or Syriac or Jewish or Berber. That to me, doesn’t speak of equality but of further inequality, one were Arab culture and Arabic language trumps older regional identities and languages. I challenge these young Mizrahim to find a period in history where Jewish communities voluntarily chose an Arab identity for themselves. Let them pour over the wealth of Jewish writing, literature, letters and historical record and find one such instance.

That is not to say that one can’t be an Arab-Jew if so they choose or even be an Arab convert. In Yemen for example, many Yemenite tribes embraced Judaism and were absorbed into the pre-existing and ancient Jewish community of Teiman. The same with Amazigh tribes in North Africa. However, these communities themselves came to view themselves as part of the Jewish nation and the Jewish people accepted them into the fold. We are an old and diverse people and that is what enriches us and makes us so strong.

The problem with many pan-Arabists is that if you say you’re not an Arab it means its an insult or you hate Arabs, which is of course ridiculous! What is an insult is imposing a foreign and politicized identity on people without their consent. That attitude is rooted in contempt for minorities and a belief in the superiority of everything Arab. That is why many of us Middle-Eastern Jews resent these paternalistic attempts to lecture us on OUR history and how we should identify and “rediscover” our Middle-Easterness or “true arabness.”

I don’t need to rediscover anything. My family has always known where it came from (Iraq) and took great pride in it, despite the violence they faced in Iraq and the discrimination in Israel. They are unapologetic Babylonian Jews who are loud, warm, love listening to Arabic classics (many many of which were composed or sung by Jews by the way) and cook with our strong and beautiful pungent spices.

That being said, it is unfortunate that many of the younger generation has lost touch with their parents’ culture but that is due to many factors: racism, eurocentric views of Jewishness but also the violent dispossession of Jewish communities throughout Arab/Muslim lands that dealt a massive blow. The culture and traditions are rooted to the land where one lives and one can try to preserve what they can, but one can’t expect it to remain the same as when our fathers and mothers lived in Baghdad or Zakho or Arbil.

If there is to be a true reconciliation, let be one where we stand on equal grounds. Let it be one where our Arab brothers and sisters open their eyes to the lies their governments and politicians have been feeding them for decades, and learn about the disappeared Jews who once lived in their midst. Let them acknowledge that we are the face of Israel and are a part of this landscape as much as they are, not more, not less. Let them look to how other minorities today are experiencing what we once experienced and maybe they could stop the disappearance of yet another fragment of diversity. Only then can we even begin to speak of a real, genuine dialogue."


Update: look who's now showing interest - card-carrying antisemite Gilad Atzmon.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Two million Israelis to celebrate Maimouna

The muffleta or pancake typically eaten at the Maimouna (Ofer Amran)

Tonight two million Israelis will celebrate the Maimouna, a Moroccan Jewish festive meal to celebrate the end of Pesah. This year, according to The Jerusalem Post, the occasion carries a pointed message protesting extremist orthodoxy.

According to historian Yigal Bin-Nun, the Moroccan Jewish Mimouna originated from “a feast day designed to appease a local she-devil.”

But over the years, Bin-Nun wrote in 2007, it adopted Jewish traits – epitomized by the importance of blessings recited over the delicacies consumed – as well as turning into “a symbol of Jewish- Muslim solidarity.

“Because the Jews could not keep hametz (leaven) in their homes during the Pessah holiday, it was customary to give all their flour, yeast and grain to their Muslim neighbors,” who would at the end of the holiday present their Jewish neighbors with flour and leavened goods.

This year, the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry decided that the theme of the celebrations would be the biblical command to “love the convert” in the wake of the recent maelstrom shaking Israeli society and world Jewry over the proposed conversion bill and the shadows of doubt cast over IDF conversions, which were eventually resolved.

Federation head Sam Ben- Chetrit noted that “we will be stressing the divine commandment– which appears in the Bible 45 times in different variations – to love, draw near, help and embrace the convert who wishes to join our people.

“This stands in contrast to the fact that only once are we commanded to love God. This shows the importance of the command [to love converts] for God’s sake.”

Ben-Chetrit also noted the planned “protest against extreme Orthodoxy, while quoting the rulings of North African sages, who taught and ruled in line with tolerance and lenience.”

Read article in full

Political indigestion from Maimouna pancakes

MidEast Christian fate is intertwined with the Jews

(Photo: AFP)

The beleaguered non-Muslims in the Middle East should recognise that their fate is intertwined with the Jews, argues the Il Foglio journalist Giulio Meotti. For Christians, Israel is a symbol of hope. Article in Ynet News (with thanks: Lily):

This is the saddest Easter in the long epic of Arab Christianity: The cross is near extinction in the lands of it origin. The much-vaunted diversity of the Middle East is going to be reduced to the flat monotony of a single religion, Islam, and to a handful of languages.

In 1919, the Egyptian revolution adopted a green flag with the crescent and the cross. Both Muslims and Christians participated in the nationalist revolution against British colonialism. Now, according to the Egyptian Federation for Human Rights, more than 70 Christians a week are asking to leave the country due to Islamist threats.

The numbers are telling. Today there is only one Middle Eastern country where the number of Christians has grown: Israel. As documented in the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the Christian community that numbered 34,000 people in 1949 is now 163,000-strong, and will reach 187,000 in 2020.

In the rest of the Middle East, the drive for Islamic purity is going to banish all traces of pre-Islamic pasts. This has affected not only Christians, but other non-Islamic communities too, such as the Zoroastrians and Baha’is in Iran (the latter also found refuge in Israel, in Haifa.)

The silence of the global forums, the flawed conscience of human rights groups, the self-denial of the media and the Vatican’s appeasement is helping facilitate this Islamist campaign. According to a report on religious freedom compiled by the US Department of State, the number of Christians in Turkey declined from two million to 85,000; in Lebanon they have gone from 55% to 35% of the population; in Syria, from half the population they have been reduced to 4%; in Jordan, from 18% to 2%. In Iraq, they will be exterminated. (...)

In Lebanon, the Maronites, the only Christians to have held political power in the modern Arab world, have been reduced to a minority because of Muslim violence and Hezbollah’s rise. In Saudi Arabia, Christians have been beaten or tortured by religious police. Benjamin Sleiman, archbishop of Baghdad, is talking about “the extinction of Christianity in the Middle East.”

The Christian Egypt was symbolically represented by former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Christian married to a Jewish woman whose sister was the wife of Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban* (sic). In 1977, Boutros-Ghali, who was then Egypt’s foreign minister, accompanied President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem.

Sadat, who as a child had attended a Christian school, was killed because the treaty his signed with the “Zionists,” among other reasons, and his cold peace is now under attack from the new rulers in Cairo.

In 1948, the Middle East was cleansed of its ancient Jews. Today is the Christians’ turn. Just as Islamist totalitarians have ruthlessly persecuted Christians in the Middle East, they have been waging war for the past 63 years to destroy the Jewish state in their midst. That’s why the fate of Israel is intertwined with the fate of the non-Muslim minorities.

Should the Islamists prevail, the Middle East will be completely green, the colour of Islam. Under atomic and Islamist existential threats, the remnant of the Jewish people risks being liquidated before Israel’s centennial in 2048. It’s time for Christians to recognize that Israel’s survival is also critical and vital for them. During the Holocaust, when most Christians were bystanders or collaborators, the Yellow Star was a symbol of death for the Jews. Today, the white flag with the beautiful six pointed star is a symbol of survival and hope for both Jews and Christians.

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A Happy Easter to Christian readers !

*Boutros-Boutros Ghali married Leia Nadler, a Jewish woman not related to the Ambache sisters, who married Abba Eban and Chaim Herzog.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

At Passover, Tunisian Jews ponder their exodus

The bottom has fallen out of Djerba's tourist industry where the Al-Ghriba synagogue is the main attraction. Meanwhile, Islamists are making a comeback. Tunisia's remaining Jews ponder whether they should stay. GlobalPost reports:

DJERBA, Tunisia — As Jews around the world celebrate the Passover holiday this week, which commemorates the Biblical migration of the Israelites from ancient Egypt, some in Tunisia’s Jewish minority are considering their own modern-day exodus.

In the three months since the ouster of former strongman President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s interim government has struggled to reinstate normalcy in this once prosperous Mediterranean nation.

For some in Djerba’s small Jewish community, many of whom work in the tourism industry, the financial uncertainty is becoming too much to bear.

The long absence of security on the streets in Tunisia seems to have scared away many foreigners and their vital tourist dollars, a large component of the country’s economy.

Most European tourists came for the whitewashed, dome-topped bazaars and lavish five-star hotels dotting the desert landscape on this resort island.

And with the conflict worsening next door in Libya — just a short drive from Djerba’s sunny beaches — Tunisia’s already battered tourism sector has largely dried up.

“I have only seen one customer all week long,” said Haddad Sion, the owner of a gold shop in Houmt Souq, the largest city in Djerba. “If business continues as is, I will have no choice but to leave, either to go to Paris or Jerusalem.”

Djerba has long been home to one of the oldest and largest communities of Jews in North Africa.

Their numbers have dwindled to about 1,500 over the past 50 years — only a tiny fraction compared to Tunisia’s nearly 10 million Muslim residents. At its peak in the 1950s, Tunisia's Jewish population numbered about 100,000, according to sociologist Claude Sitbon.

Djerba’s Jews have long coexisted peacefully with their Muslim neighbors, working side-by-side in the narrow alleyways of the old market in Houmt Souq that is now largely deserted.

Today, with secular Ben Ali out of the picture, Tunisia’s once-banned Islamists are making a political comeback – to the dismay of many of Djerba’s Jews.

“Ben Ali was good for the Jewish people,” said Daniel Sayada, a jeweler in Houmt Souq. “Since the revolution, being a Muslim is coming back in fashion. And I’m very uncertain on whether this is a good thing for us.”

The Islamist al-Nahda, or renaissance, movement has registered to form a political party and announced their intentions to compete in parliamentary elections scheduled for later this summer.

Al-Nahda members have argued that freedom and democracy in post-revolution Tunisia means that all political parties should have the chance to compete freely.

Still, some Jews here are fearful that Islamist leadership would drastically alter the laws in the secular North African state.

“We’re definitely scared about the idea of what a takeover by Al-Nahda would look like. I worry that many things here would change,” said Gabriel Attea, who has already moved his family from Djerba to Paris.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Escape from Egypt with my kitty cat Michmich....

The ship Aeolia

Reading Carolina Delburgo's story of her escape from Egypt by ship to Italy in 1956 brought the memories flooding back for Ermoza Bonavida, who left this moving comment on Point of No Return.

Dear Caroline,

"Fifty-three years later now, we did escape the same way, after a night of black-out. At three o'clock in the morning they came to arrest us, and (it is) likely our nextdoor neighbour told them we were not at home. So immediately my father made arrangements with HIAS, and also left in the middle of the night from Cairo to Alexandria, and took the ship Aeolia to Marseille and on to Paris until we got our visas for Los Angeles, California. Thank you HIAS!

"But the memories are still here, and reading your story made me go back to 1958 and I am very emotional about it. I remembered one thing not to forget, my parents did let me take my kitty cat Michmich, and bought her a ticket and (she) came with me on the boat. My boyfriend who loved me so much surprised me and came for me on the boat..surprises happened later and I hope one day to write a great life story - very interesting, From Egypt to America - I am just waiting for encouragement.

"The COJASOR in Paris were very generous with all the refugees from Egypt, helping feed us food-wise and money-wise. We really appreciated these years, waiting almost three years to get our visa. Now I have three great children, nine grandchildren - and am single!!! I live in Beverly Hills, California, but still miss the good times we had in Egypt before the war with so many friends, a big united family celebrating all the holidays together, and now everybody went all over the world.

"But as we celebrate Passover, Jewish history has repeated itself. It's very funny that my grandchildren see me as an Egyptian, and ask me if I wandered the desert for 40 years to escape slavery!"

Happy Passover everyone!


Ermoza Bonavida (School: Mission Laique, Cairo)

A leavened Passover

Friday, April 22, 2011

That old coexistence myth - again

Seafront at Alexandria today

Remember that old coexistence myth - you know, Jews, Christians and Muslims all living happily together in mutual respect, before Zionism came along? The inestimable Elder of Ziyon shoots it down again:

Whenever I see any Muslim group telling us that Islam was historically tolerant towards Christians and Jews, I feel compelled to dig up a new counterexample.

Today's comes from The encyclopædia of missions: descriptive, historical, biographical, statistical, Volume 1, published in 1891, meant as a reference for Christian missionaries in far-flung places.

It says, in the entry on Alexandria, Egypt:
The Mohammedans have acquired a very bitter feeling toward the Christians and the Jews, and are ever ready to join in any demonstration or insurrection against them, if they have any reason to suppose such a movement agreeable to the rulers of the city. Given a chief of police like the one in office in 1882, and another scene like that of June ll th of that year, with all its barbaric horrors and cruelty, would be enacted, for the elements suitable for such an act are ever ready.
Here's what happened then:
On 11 June 1882 a row over a fare between an Egyptian donkey boy and a Maltese man triggered a riot in the city in which several hundred people were killed, including about 50 foreigners.

Must have been those Zionists.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

The forgotten exodus tells its story

Professor Henry Green

Jews from Arab countries have found a willing listener for their stories: Professor Henry Green of Miami University, whose Sephardi Voices archive project is building up a head of steam. The Miami Herald reports:

As a boy, Ted Bekhor remembers swimming the Tigris, the ancient river mentioned in the Bible.

The Bal Harbour resident remembers the friendly neighbors – Jews and Muslims – and his family’s sprawling Baghdad estate.

But all that changed after World War II when a restless Middle East and North Africa wanted to break free of European colonists (a gross oversimplification: in fact conditions for the Jews deteriorated in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism - ed).

As tensions mounted, his frightened Jewish parents sent Ted, who was then 8, to a European boarding school in 1949, the year after Israel became a nation.

He never went back to Iraq.

By the late 1960s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was publicly hanging Jews on trumped-up charges.

Memories of the the terror are still too real to Bekhor’s younger cousin, Gladys Daoud, who remembers Iraqis being invited to picnic on the execution grounds.

“We just left with a suitcase,’’ said Daoud.

Now someone wants to hear their story.

The University of Miami’s Department of Religious Studies is partnering with Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Sephardi Voices United Kingdom to interview the Middle Eastern and North African Jews who have resettled all over the world. University of Miami professor Henry Green is leading the international effort task to assemble oral histories from the Sephardi Jews who fled North Africa, the Middle East and Iran after World War II.

Researchers began filming survivors in London in 2010. Others will be interviewed in Israel, Canada, France and the United States.

Green calls it the “forgotten exodus.’’

“If we don’t capture their stories, there will not be witnesses and their memories will be lost,’’ he said.

The project is modeled after Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute that has recorded the memories of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors.

The Sephardi Jewish refugees are grateful for the attention.

“It hurts so much that it is a hidden exodus,’’ said Liliana Zanzuri Leitman of Pembroke Pines whose parents were forced to flee Libya in 1949 when Leitman was still a baby. A relative was killed in Tripoli during a mob frenzy, she said.

Her extended family lost property in both Libya and Tunisia, Leitman added. An office building still exists in the Tunisian capital, Tunis that her extended family owned before they left the Middle East.

“Now we can’t even get in the door,’’ she said.

Once there were thousands of Jews in Libya, Leitman added. Today, she said, “None are left.’’

Leitman appears before any group that will have her to speak about what her family went through.

“People come up to me and say ‘we had no idea,’ ” Leitman said.

The refugees’ story especially resonates this holiday season as Jews celebrate Passover, when Moses led the Jews from bondage in Egypt, said Green, founding director of the Jewish Museum of Florida and former director of UM’s Judaic/Sephardic Studies.

Passover, he said, “is not just a story of the past. It has contemporary meaning.’’

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Missing 'mezuzot' and stolen Jewish properties

Jews have a ready-made symbol for their exodus from their homes in Arab countries: the mezuzah. Michelle Huberman says we should all be holding up mezuzot and asking for recognition and compensation. Read her blog, Clash of Cultures, at the Jerusalem Post:

The Palestinians are busy preparing for their Nakba day on 15th May, I understand they will be using the symbol of a huge key to represent their lost Palestinian homes . But what about the greater number of lost Jewish homes in Arab countries? Where is the outcry? When will the plight of the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities be recognised by the international community and by Arab states?

As we mark the Pesah Exodus from Egypt, let us spare a thought for the modern-day exodus of almost a million Jews, whose properties and wealth were stolen by Arab states, or abandoned overnight by their fearful inhabitants. What better symbol of their losses than the mezuzah? We should all be holding up mezuzot and asking for compensation for their properties.

Groove on a Fez doorpost which once housed a mezuzah (Photo: Michelle Huberman)

I grew up in the leafy suburbs of North London where having a mezuzah on the outside of your home is the norm. Everyone displays one the outside and once inside the house you'll find the same on every room barring the kitchen and bathroom. British Jews have been very lucky in the last century, we didn't experience the deportations of WW11 and there are no memories of the occupants of UK homes with a mezuzah being dragged out in the middle of the night. We have all been taught about the holocaust not just from books and documentaries, but from the holocaust survivors that live with us..
Across the whole Arab world, you will hardly find any Jews today. But you will find wooden door frames with a slanted slot indicating where a mezuzah was once posted - the sign that this was once a Jewish household. Were they removed by the Muslims who took over these Jewish properties? Or did the Jews remove them while they were still living in these homes, to hide their identities?

Moroccan Jews are fastidious about enclosing the mezuzah in large metal or wooden cases with the letters Shin, Daleth and Yud. However, during World War ll they removed them themselves, to hide their identities. "There are no Jews, only Moroccans," Mohammed V, the wartime king, was said to have proclaimed. Nevertheless, Jews were banned from public office, quotas applied and they were forced back into the Mellahs. The grooves that I have personally seen in doorways across North Africa clearly show Jewish households that have had a fear of announcing their identity to their neighbours.

With the mass immigration of North African Jewish communities to France in the early 1960s all that changed. Despite having experienced persecution and discrimination in their homelands, once on French territory they were happy to display and practise their Judaism openly. A prominent mezuzah on the outside of their homes and businesses was customary along with a High Five and kiss on entry. This was beautifully caricatured in the film La Verité Si Je Mens II: when the Tunisian gangsters rush into a home to beat up their betrayer, they all kiss the mezuzah before the onslaught!

These flamboyant communities have re-energised French Jewry. When I lived in Paris in the 1980s, I noticed that assimilated Ashkenazi families did not have a mezuzah on their outside doorposts. I soon discovered that this was to do with their terrible experiences of being dragged from their homes during WWII. A stroll around the Marais district bore witness to asymmetric nail punctures in the doorposts showing homes where Jews had once lived. I observed a great polarisation between the two communities, the older Ashkenazi community whose bitter experiences caused them to lie low and assimilate, and the newer Sephardi arrivals unafraid to proclaim their Jewishness. Their arrival in France represented freedom from the memory of repression and insecurity in their countries of birth.

Some 80,000 Jews fled Egypt, many of them expelled overnight by Nasser in 1956. Ellis Douek, who left Cairo, told me: "we generally placed mezuzot inside the door, not outside, in order to avoid asking for trouble. Hardly any of our large, successful and vibrant community were observant, so for them, it was no big deal. We just left, most of us in disgust and contempt, rather than anything else." I heard a similar story about the mezuzah inside the door from a friend who fled Iraq in the 70's.

Fleeing Jews were dispossessed of their homes, schools, synagogues, shops and hospitals in virtually every Arab town and city. The World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries estimates that over 100,000 square kilometers of Jewish-owned land was also seized or abandoned - four times the size of Israel.
If you’re Sephardi or Mizrahi wherever you are in the world, it’s important to share your experiences with the wider community. The stories of Jews from Arab countries are not known. You should be talking in your grandchildrens' schools, in synagogues, in churches, etc, and sharing your history so that the world knows as much about the plight of the Jews from Arab countries as it does about the Palestinians.

The author can be contacted at

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