Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Iraqi archive: Harold Rhode' s story of miracles

 Harold Rhode wading in waist-high water to inspect documents and books found in the Baghdad secret police HQ in 2003.

Point of No Return Exclusive

Harold Rhode believes in miracles.

An orthodox Jew, one of the Pentagon's now-retired Islamic experts, Rhode is a self-confessed rationalist (like his Lithuanian-Jewish ancestors).  However, he sees a divine hand in the discovery and recovery of thousands of Jewish books and documents from the putrid, water-logged basement of Saddam Hussein's secret police headquarters in Baghdad 10 years ago.
The rest is history: the trove, a unique record of the life and times of a now-extinct Jewish community, airlifted to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in the 1950s,  was rescued, shipped out to the US for restoration, painstakingly preserved, catalogued and photographed in a second 'Operation and Nehemiah'. Its highlights are now on display at the National Archives building in Washington DC.

Miracle One: When the US began its invasion of Iraq in 2003, a 2,000- pound bomb was dropped on the secret police headquarters. Miraculously, the bomb failed to explode, although the water  system burst, causing the basement, which housed the  Jewish and Israeli sections, to flood.

Miracle Two:  As he began to sift through the trove,  Rhode found a Torah scroll opened at Lekh Lekha, the passage in the Jewish Bible where God commands Abraham to leave Mesopotamia and journey to a land which He would show him. For Rhode, the symbolism was inescapable. (Minor miracle: the documents were laid out on the grass beside a row of beehives, but none of the rescuers was stung. )

Miracle Three: the trove was packed in aluminium crates, loaded onto a US airforce airplane bound for the National Archives conservation depot in Texas and frozen, to arrest the documents' deterioration. On a refuelling stop in Cyprus, the electricity was routinely switched off for safety reasons. The archivist accompanying the trove requested that the plane be supplied with ground power to prevent the documents from thawing. Her request was refused.

She demanded to see the base commander. By another miracle, the commander appeared, wearing a kippa. What are the chances of a US airforce base being run  by an observant Jew - one who would understand the importance of salvaging the Iraqi-Jewish archive? The commander gave orders to  supply the power.

The greatest miracle of all - some would call it a coincidence  - is that the documents would never have been retrieved from Baghdad had Harold Rhode himself, a fluent Hebrew and Arabic speaker,   not recognised their importance. Their value lies not so much in the books, most of which are 'two-a-penny', as Rhode puts it, but in the handwritten notes  in the margin. These cast light on the way an entire community thought.

The US is now committed by a signed agreement to send the archive back to Iraq instead of restituting it to its Jewish owners in Israel and the West.

Now the archive awaits another miracle.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Solution in sight for Iraqi-Jewish archive

Handwritten document from the Iraqi-Jewish archive, now on view at the National Archives in Washington DC

What happens next to the Iraqi-Jewish archive? A tug-of-war for ownership between the government of Iraq and exiled Jews is being played out. This article in the December issue of Ami magazine by Machla Abramovitch suggests a softening on both sides:  the Iraqi government may finally concede a long-term loan arrangement. (With thanks: Carole)

 The scene at New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon, New York on the wet and chilly afternoon of December 15 was nothing less than surrealistic. Mingling sociably with over 100 Iraqi Jews who had come from far and wide was Lukman Faily, Iraq’s new ambassador to the United States, as well as dignitaries from the Iraqi Ministries of the Inte- rior, Foreign Affairs and National Security Council who had flown in from Baghdad for the occasion. Also attending was US State Department Director of Near East and African Affairs Anthony Godfrey and Doris Hamburg, Director of the National Archives and Records Administration preservation program (NARA). They had come to bury close to 50 fragments of damaged Torah scrolls and Megillos Esther that were beyond repair and had been part of the collection that has come to be known as the Iraqi Jewish Archives.

Dr. Stanley Urman, executive vice president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), was at the cemetery. “In the midst of continuing controversy over ownership of the Iraqi Jewish Archives,” said Urman, “it was quite startling to see them handling these Jewish artifacts with respect, symbolically laying to rest the heritage of a now-defunct Jewish community as Tehillim were being recited.”

The burial of the fragments was negotiated by Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Iraqi Jews (WOJI). The day had been long in coming. It had taken close to five years of negotiations for the Iraqi government, which claims patrimony over these sacred fragments, to agree to bury them. The burial of the fragments was negotiated by Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Iraqi Jews (WOJI).
These, together with thousands of priceless Jewish artifacts res- cued in 2003 from the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, had been brought out of Iraq only after an agreement between NARA and Iraq’s interim government was signed, legally binding the US to return the materials to Iraq by June 2014.

Once in the States, they were lovingly and meticulously cleaned, repaired, conserved and digitized by NARA under the care of Hamburg and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory, at a cost to the State Department of about $3 million. The archives are currently on exhibit in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, until January 5, 2014, when they are scheduled to be moved to New York.

This agreement, however, has ignited a battle. Many Iraqi Jews have galvanized into action to fight the return to Iraq of these priceless artifacts of their history. Citing security concerns that would prevent him and fellow Iraqi Jewish expatriates from accessing these materials should they return to Iraq, Edwin Shuker was just one of many who publicly voiced his opposition. But Iraq was not prepared to listen.

“The Iraqi government will not give up any part of these docu- ments. This is an Iraqi legacy owned by all the Iraqi people and it belongs to all the generations, regardless of religious, ethnic or sectarian affiliations,” declared Ali al-Moussawi on behalf of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

This position, though, wasn’t set in stone. Reports had been floating that a separate delegation would soon arrive to discuss a long-term loan of the archives to the US. Many hope this indicates a shift towards a new and more accommodating Iraq. “This is a statement by the government and people of Iraq that we are here to respect the heritage of the Jews,” Faily said following the burial.

Whatever the motivation, the change didn’t happen overnight. There had been indications for the past two weeks that both the Iraqi government and the State Department, the two major players, were beginning to soften their positions, and that the latter was prepared to facilitate a compromise between Iraq and WOJI, the representative body of world Iraqi Jewry. There is no question that Jewish advocacy played a key role in sensitizing these players and the public at large to what many saw as an injustice in returning Jewish property to the very country that had looted it.

Although the precise details of this extended loan are yet to be negotiated and the proposal might not address the matter of Jewish patrimony itself, activists like Urman see it as a small step towards a positive resolution to a story that began unexpectedly a decade ago under the strangest of circumstances.

Islamic affairs expert Dr. Harold Rhode vividly recalls standing in front of the bombed-out Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, staring into a gaping hole with a 2,000- pound unexploded American bomb protruding from it. It was May 2003, and the temperature in Baghdad hovered at around 120 degrees. Through the hole he could see the basement of the building, which had flooded with dark, putrid water after its pipes were destroyed. What he was now looking at, he was told, was a room filled with Baghdadi Jewish artifacts and holy books immersed in slime

The day before, Ahmad Chalabi, head of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, had been visited by a former Saddam intelligence official currying favor who informed him of the existence of this cache, which included a seventh-century Hebrew scroll on parchment that he claimed to have hidden inside the build- ing himself. Intrigued, Chalabi notified Rhode and Judith Miller, a former New York Times journalist who was embedded with the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, the American group searching for weapons of mass destruction. Gazing into the abyss, they, along with New York Sun reporter Adam Daifallah, members of the Iraqi National Congress and the 16-member MET Alpha team, solemnly considered the daunting task before them.

According to Miller, the water level had reached four feet, there were dead animals floating on the surface, the stairwell leading down to the basement was littered with shards of glass and fallen plaster, and a horrendous stench rose from the mess. How to find a seventh-century Hebrew scroll amidst all this debris?

Girding themselves, Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” L. Gonzales and two of the MET Alpha soldiers plunged in. Even though their job was to search for WMDs and not to retrieve reli- gious artifacts, they had been asked to make an exception by their commander, Colonel Richard R. McPhee, who was unwilling to leave this historic scroll behind. “They went into the muck again and again to pull things out, with a bomb sitting right there. It was an impressive effort,” Miller told Ami.
What they found astounded them. There was an “Israel” room that included, among masses of other items, maps highlighting terrorist strikes against Israel, a detailed model of the Knesset and other Israeli government buildings, and satellite photos of Dimona, Israel’s nuclear facility. There was also a sign in Arabic that read, “Who will send off the 40th missile?” (During the Persian Gulf War, a total of 39 missiles fell on Israel.)

Equally disconcerting was the “Jew” room across the sodden corridor, filled with thousands of books and artifacts that, as would later be ascertained, had been indiscriminately looted by Saddam’s thugs from Baghdad synagogues, Jewish community centers and schools. These constituted what would come to be referred as the “Iraqi Jewish Archives.”

The collection consists of some 2,700 books that correlate, ironically, with the 2,700 years of Babylonian Jewish history. Among some of the rarest finds were a Chumash published in 1568 by Giovanni di Gara, Abraham Brudo’s Birkat Avraham, published in 1696, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, and a Zohar from 1815, in addition to many fragments, standard prayer books, Chumashim and commentaries. A manuscript has just come to light that was identified as a missing piece of a Shabbos drashah given by the illustrious halachic authority and kabbalist Chacham Yosef Chaim, known as the Ben Ish Chai.  

Read article in full

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Reframing the debate at Limmud

Jews from Arab lands are marginal to the debate  about Israel, but there are several  good reasons why they should be central - Lyn Julius argues at Limmud, the highlight of the UK Jewish cultural calendar. Op-Ed in Israel National News:

Limmud conference, one of the highlights of the UK Jewish cultural calendar, is something between School and an academic Club Med. A cross-section of British Jewry hurries past you on its way to lecture theaters and seminar rooms offering  'food for thought’  to suit every interest, age and taste. Lunch in an improvised canteen is a democratic baked potato dispensed by staff wearing surgical gloves, or a DIY sandwich and a banana. One does not go to Limmud for the gastronomy.

On the day I arrived, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was about to make his much hyped-appearance with a lecture on the weekly Parasha - Shemot.

Along with 24 other presenters scheduled alongside the Rabbi - addressing such eclectic topics as ‘Are monks and nuns human?’ and ‘Lying beggars, magical wives and other rabbinic stories’  - we were vying for the attention of 2,500 Limmudniks.

While people queued up an hour in advance for a seat at the Mirvis talk, I wondered if I would be talking to myself.

Thankfully some 30 people did me the courtesy of turning up.

Whereas Rabbi Mirvis was drawing lessons of the Exodus from Egypt, my talk  addressed  a modern-day Exodus - Jews from Arab lands. More specifically, my topic was ‘How Jews from Arab lands can reframe the Israel debate.’

The 870,000 Jewish refugees dispossessed and driven out from Arab lands in a single generation have for too long been marginal to a debate fixated with settlements and security guarantees. Yet, I argued, the Jewish refugees are key - not just because they are an unresolved human rights issue, but because they are central to a fair and just peace settlement.

The real stumbling block to peace is not to do with territorial compromise - but the Right of Return, a right that  Palestinians cling to like a baby to its mother. A peace agreement would recognize that there was a permanent exchange of populations. The Jewish refugees were successfully absorbed in Israeli society and constitute a model for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in a state of Palestine or Arab states. Time for UNWRA, an exclusive agency dedicated to the care of Palestinian refugees, to be wound up.

Next I argued that Israel was a response, not the cause of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Proof positive was a  plan by the Arab League drafted in 1947 to persecute their Jewish citizens.
One young man was skeptical. Was this plan not a response to Zionism in general?

I told him that many other examples of anti-Semitism predated the creation of Israel, inspired by the growing influence of Nazism in the 1930s and 40s - the Iraqi Farhud, for instance, which claimed the lives of 180 Iraqi Jews. Rising religious fundamentalism and pan-Arab nationalism impacted not just on Jews, but on Copts, Kurds and Assyrians.

My final point was that the myth that Israel was a ‘white European colonial interloper’ needed to be turned on its head. Like Kurds, Berbers and Copts, Jews were an indigenous people of the Middle East - and themselves the victims of Arab colonization after the 7th century conquest. Along with Christians, they were forced to submit as ‘dhimmis’. In order to escape their inferior and humiliated status, Jews  collaborated with European colonialism. The creation of Israel marked the final deliverance of Jews in Arab lands from ‘dhimmi' status.

My audience was curious to find out why the Israeli government had for so long ignored the Jews from Arab lands issue. This question often comes up. The Israeli government was waking up from its long slumber with an awareness-raising campaign at the UN. But it was not enough, as long as chief negotiator Tzipi Livni refused to believe that Jewish refugees had anything to do with Palestinian refugees. Did she know that the Arab League had designated Jews in Arab states as ’the Jewish minority of Palestine’; that the Mufti of Jerusalem had gone from state to state whipping up anti-Jewish hatred?

I had been bracing myself for a question on the discrimination experienced by Mizrahi Jews at the hands of the Ashkenazim. Sure enough it came. Social discrimination was diminishing, with intermarriage rates running at 25 percent, I replied. A more serious form of discrimination is the attitude of many Israeli liberals who privilege Arab rights over those of the 52 percent of Israeli Jews who descend from Arab lands.

One of them is even conducting peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Read article in full

Friday, December 27, 2013

UK will mark Refugees Day too

A new Memorial Day in the Israeli calendar is about to be officially announced – the 17 th February - to Remember Jewish Refugees from Arab countries. Just as it has Holocaust Memorial Day and Independence Day, the Israeli calendar will have a Day to Remember Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Michelle Huberman writes in Jewish News (no link yet):

A bill is going through the Knesset to make the Day law. This date has been chosen because it is the day when the Arab League drafted a plan to strip their Jews of their citizenship, freeze their bank accounts and confiscate their assets. Nearly one million Jews were expelled from Arab countries. Most went to Israel where until the large Russian Aliyah in the 90’s, they made up 75% of the Jewish population. The rest went mostly to France, Italy, the Americas and the UK.

Although there are no official statistics here, the UK community is believed to be around 25,000 and growing. Despite the lack of money and resources in the early years, Israel made great efforts to absorb these immigrants, and despite the many problems of poverty and discrimination that they faced, the country was able to successfully absorb most of them. The assets they left behind have been estimated at around $4.4 billion.

There has been an enormous gap in the Jewish education system and as Moroccan born MK Shimon Ohayon (a former schoolmaster), states “Every Israeli child learns about the Kishinev pogrom, but has anyone heard about the Farhud in Iraq? Everyone remembers the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but hardly anyone knows about the Zionist underground activity in Arab states. The education system teaches about the first exodus from Europe, while the second exodus – the one from Islamic countries – is missing from textbooks.

“Whilst the predominantly Ashkenazi community in this country may have embraced Sephardi and Mizrahi cuisine, most are unaware of the persecution most of these Jews fled from, and know little about why they came to settle in Britain.

Most are curious to know why I, as an Ashkenazi, am busy promoting Sephardi history, but I strongly believe that what happened to Jews in Arab countries is as much our history as is the Holocaust. One cannot begin to understand the complexities of Israel and the Middle East without knowing how the Jews were treated by their Arab brethren.

There is a belief that everything was wonderful between Jews and Arabs until the State of Israel was born in 1948. However listening to the testimonies from these communities one soon grasps that this is a complete myth. In Iraq Jews were being executed for being ‘Zionists’. They could be arrested for having Hebrew books in their homes.  Jews could not work, travel and pursue higher education. Above all, they feared a repeat of the 1941 Farhud pogrom, in which 180 Jews were murdered.  In 1950, the Iraqi government finally consented to allow Jews to leave. Ninety percent did, but within a year their assets were seized.

 Aden, a British protectorate at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, was ravaged by a pogrom in 1947 in which 82 Jews were killed and homes and businesses destroyed. British passport–holders sought sanctuary in this country. In 1956 they were joined by Egyptian Jews who were given 24 hours to leave their homes. For many, their first taste of Britain was a refugee camp in the north of England.

Other Jews arrived later from North Africa, Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iran. Until very recently, successive Israeli governments have been criticised by the Sephardim and their descendants for their near silence on the issue - but now thanks to groups like JJAC in America and Harif in the UK, things are about to change.

 London based organisation Harif is dedicated to promoting the history, culture and heritage of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. We have a range of educational tools and hold regular events with guest speakers from here and abroad. We will also be commemorating with a Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries Week.

It will be kicked off on the new Memorial Day - the 17th February - with a plush Soirée Orientale (kosher Sephardi party) in a central London hotel with guest stars from Israel Yossi Alfi and acclaimed singer Sari Alfi. The evening is not just to commemorate, but also to celebrate. It will be followed the next day with a Briefing forpoliticiansandjournalists and other events during the week. More details on the Harif website.

Michelle Huberman is the Creative Director of Harif and can be contacted at michelle@harif.org

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christians: 'We may follow our Jewish brothers'

 Woman at a Catholic church in Basra, Iraq (Photo: AP)

At least 38 people have died in bomb attacks in Christian areas of Baghdad, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. Soon there may not be any Christians left. The  parallel with the plight of Iraq's Jews is not lost on Monsignor Pios Cacha of St Joseph's church, where 14 were killed. (With thanks: Maier)

A car bomb targeted a church in the Iraqi capital on Wednesday as worshippers left after Christmas Mass, killing at least 14 people, most of them Christians, security officials said.

The blast in the Dura area of south Baghdad also wounded more than 30 people, the sources said.

"The attack targeted the church, and most of the martyrs are Christians," a police colonel. "The attack happened when worshippers were leaving the church" after a service.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

"Attacks distort the image of Islam and religion, if they are carrying them out in the name of religion," Monsignor Pios Cacha of Baghdad's St. Joseph church said.

"The church is a place of love and peace, and not for wars," Cacha said.
Earlier in the year, Cacha had said that "maybe we will follow in the steps of our Jewish brothers," referring to a once-thriving community that is now practically non-existent.

Iraq has seen its Christian population sharply decline in the years since 2003.

Take a bow, kanoon player Yusef Zaarur

David Zaarur is reviving the music of his great grandfather Yusef Zaarur, kanoon player extraordinaire (The Forward)  

 With thanks: Ahoova

More proof that a whole new generation of Israelis are rediscovering the musical legacy of their antecedents, the Jewish musicians of 1930s and 40s Iraq.

First, there were the famous Al-Kuwaity brothers, the Bob Dylan and Simon /Garfunkel of their day. They adopted the name in honour of their royal patron, the Emir of Kuwait. Shlomo, son of Saleh Al-Kuwaity,  created an event to commemorate the centenary of the great violinist and composer's birth. Dudu Tassa, a musician in his own right, made a film about his grandfather, the great oud player Daoud al-Kuwaity.

Now it's the turn of David Zaarur to revive the memory of his great-grandfather, the kanoon player Yusef Zaarur.

David is the only musician in his family. This clip from the Forward explains that his great-grandfather played in the Radio Orchestra of Baghdad, which was mostly staffed by Jews.

The Orchestra carried off the first prize in the World Music Congress of Cairo in the 1930s.

Jews dominated the music scene in the mid-20th century. They were the last to leave Iraq for Israel in the mass exodus of 1950 - 51 because the Iraqi authorities detained them until they had passed on their musical skills to Iraqi Muslims.

In a moving sequence in the Forward's clip, Khalil, an Iraqi Muslim living in Baghdad, sends  a message to David in Israel. He apologises for the country's failure to recognise the massive musical contribution of musicians like Yusef Zaarur. In the Saddam era, their records were played on the radio and described only as 'the old music'.

Although the music of the al-Kuwaitys and others has experienced a notable revival in 'the new Iraq', Khalil says he is afraid for having spoken out in favour of Iraq's Jews.

The Al-Kuwaity brothers are back !

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'We could have been Honorary Aryans'

 The Venetian quarter, Livorno

Tunisian Jewry comprised two communities - the indigenous Jews and the relative newcomers from Leghorn (Livorno) - less religious, free thinking Italian patriots. In this fascinating piece on the Tunisian site Harissa, Giacomo Nunes describes his wartime experiences  as a schoolboy in Tunis (with thanks: Michelle):

 In my family we almost all shared the liberal Jewish ideas of my father. Only my Grandmother Eugenia was an exception. Her Cattan family were religious. They were also from Leghorn : I recently learned that their name is not from the Hebrew for "small" but is a contracted form of " Catalan " . Grandma undertook to supplement my education. She had imposed kosher food on her husband, my Grandpa Maurizio, and was shocked to discover him one day, hiding in the lounge, which was always locked and dark, eating unmentionables. Grandfather was a doctor and his Sicilian patients often paid him in kind, for example with home-cured hams, which he adored.

Grandpa Maurizio picked me up every day at 4 pm at the Regina Margherita school and I stayed with grandmother Eugenia. She prepared my tea and took advantage of my presence to compensate for my father's shortcomings in religious education. My mother came to pick me up at dinner time. I learned from Grandma not only the broad outlines of the history of the Jewish people but also the rules of kashrut and other traditions.

Without a moment's hesitation back at home, I demanded Kosher dishes for the approaching Passover holidays, while my father cried out:"She teaches him all these superstitions." In turn he tried to clear my mind of all " this nonsense. "  This is how I benefited from a dual education. I found it suited me well, I admit. I was both a liberal Jew like my father, but I'm also proud of my membership of this small nation - so gifted and resilient. And I also consider myself a citizen of the world as many Leghorn Jews did, heirs of the great ideas of the French Revolution.

This sense of belonging became even stronger when, during the summer of 1938, Mussolini introduced racial laws and the Nazis of the German Afrika Korps arrived after the German defeat of El Alamein in Libya. We were in our Kram villa, our summer residence, near a beach located about ten kilometers from Tunis on the day when our "dear Duce "pronounced the unbearable words: " Jews are not Italians ."

We were appalled. In our family we gave ample proof of our patriotism: Gastone Nunez, the brother of my father and Giacomo Cardoso, the brother of my mother, had volunteered during the 1914 -18 war in the Italian army and had died of disease and injury during the fighting. And we had  all maintained our Italian citizenship for at least 150 years in a Tunisian and French environment that did not necessarily favour us.

These Livornese were dogged nationalists; some were even fascists and a tiny minority remained so until the end. In our little family, Mussolini's 1938 proposals and laws wounded us deeply. That is why most children from Leghorn were made to leave their ItaIian institutions and found themselves overnight in French schools. Thus I entered 6eme (aged 11) in the Lycee Carnot in the autumn of 1938. I had to change languages, learn the horrendous French spelling, and find new friends: My classmates of the Regina Margherita school had turned their backs on me in the street. I had become a plague for them. One even called me: " giudeo cane" ( Jewdog ) . Being a Jew became a sin, worthy only of insult. 

 However, the Italian Consulate had offered us exceptional status : we could be considered Honorary Aryans : Mussolini hoped to replace France as an occupying power and we would have been the leaders of the Italian Community. This was a role that the Sicilian population, large but uncouth, could not play. Of course the Consulate's proposal was rejected by most Livornese ; we were barely believers but "Honorary Aryans?" - Heaven forfend. 

And voila, one disaster followed another : France was defeated in 1940, and the Vichy regime brought to power Petain and Laval and so many other monsters. At Lycée Carnot, our History teacher, Mr. Paquel, turned up in class half-drunk, made a Hitler salute and shouted 'you yids.' Because we were almost all Jews at the Lycée Carnot. To which the class replied with jeers.However, we had to learn the words to " Marechal nous voila " and march through the center of Tunis singing this soothing hymn. As there were very few French from France at the Lycée, they put a beret on our Jewish heads and baptised us  "Companions of France". The Petainist youth movement advocated the New Order of the French State and wore the Francisque, Gallic equivalent  of the German swastika and the Italian fasces.

But when the war and the Allied bombing of 1942-43 came, all the Jews at the Lycée Carnot had to join the Sadiki College reserved for Muslim natives. Only two or three teachers protested - they were dismissed. I have already said that thousands of young Jews were sent to dig trenches in areas of the country bombarded by the Allies. Jewish notables, including my father, were taken as hostages by the Nazis. Half of our apartment was occupied by three German officers. There were fines and other vexations.

I was too young to react to all this other than by helping my cousin Lucien Soria who roamed the streets of Tunis at night stuffing seditious leaflets into mailboxes. An armed struggle was unthinkable because we did not have weapons and had no support from experienced people. Almost all the country's inhabitants of the country sympathized with the regime or were opportunists.

ortunately, one day in May, the nightmare ceased with the Allies arriving victorious from Algeria. Later, once France had been liberated, I could continue my studies, get to know France, Italy and many other countries. But for people of my generation the memory of this period is indelible. This is why my writings are a reminder of  my small group of ancestors from Leghorn whom few recall and who managed to survive for centuries before disappearing as a community. 

Read article in full (French)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Kaddoumi: Palestinians were pro-Nazi

Farouk Kaddoumi admits that Palestinians were pro-Nazi (MEMRI)  

It's time to stop obfuscating the Palestinian-Nazi axis. We have it straight from the mouth of a PLO official - Farouk Kaddoumi - that Arabs have been enthusiastic supporters of the Nazis, according to this report on Arutz 7. Their support impacted on Jews in Arab countries, witness the Mufti of Jerusalem's part in the Farhud in Iraq. (With thanks: Lily; Michelle)

In an interview with Russia Today TV on December 7, Farouq Qaddoumi, the former political bureau head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said that Arabs were “enthusiastic supporters” of the Nazis during World War II.
The remarks were translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

“I don't think it would be wrong to say that we were enthusiastic supporters of Germany,” Qaddoumi said in the interview, when asked by the interviewer, “Were you sympathetic with Nazi Germany in WWII?”

The interviewer, seeking to clarify, then said, “You supported Hitler and his people.” Qaddoumi replied, “Germany, yes. This was common among the Palestinians, especially since our enemy was Zionism, and we saw that Zionism was hostile to Germany, and vice versa.”

These remarks are just the latest evidence of the Arab support for Nazis and for genocide of Jews.

Recently, MEMRI posted clips from two separate rallies at Al-Quds University, in which Islamic Jihad members, cheered on by other students, take part in a live performance at which they brandish imitation assault rifles and black Islamist flags, and give Nazi salutes.

The live "show" features terrorists killing Israeli soldiers and executing a "collaborator", who is denounced as a "traitor" and a "spy", and suggests that the initial pictures, which were first released by British journalist Tom Gross, were not from a one-off incident but evidence of a much wider phenomenon.

Many Israelis point to the lionization of Nazi and other anti-Semitic figures as a reason to doubt the sincerity of the Palestinian Authority's commitment to any future peace agreement.

Just this past October, for example, Jewish motorists were horrified to see a Nazi flag flying over a major road near the Arab town of Beit Umar. The flag had apparently been placed there by residents of the town, located near Hevron.
That incident was in fact the second occasion in which Beit Umar residents had flown a Nazi flag over the same highway, in an apparent "gesture" to their Jewish neighbors.

Later that same month, a youth magazine linked to the Palestinian Authority published a list of "famous quotes" from none other than Adolf Hitler, aimed at glorifying the Nazi leader.

Also in October, reacting to ongoing incidents of incitement and anti-Semitism by the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted the deep link between the Palestinian national movement and Germany's Nazi regime.

Read article in full

The myth of Palestinian innocence

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A market without Jews like bread without salt

Aomar Boum (right) is the son of illiterate parents of mixed Berber and Arab parentage

 This is a disappointingly bland interview with a Moroccan-born anthropologist, assistant professor at Arizona university Aomar Boum, by the Tablet magazine. Boum, who derives his research funding from Jewish organisations including the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC,  has written a book, 'Memories of absence', comparing the different responses to Jews by four generations of Muslims in the Anti-Atlas mountains. The Jews, peddlars and merchants, helped the Muslims to survive in a inhospitable environment.  It comes as no surprise to learn that the youngest generation has been brainwashed by the most virulent antisemitism (of 'Christian' origin, he claims). But while he makes out that the oldest generation had friendly relations with Jews, there was also 'anxiety, strife and enmity'. Tantalisingly, he never elaborates. (With thanks: Jonah)

In the early 20th century, nearly a quarter of a million Jews lived among Muslims in Morocco’s towns and villages, making common cause in commerce and culture. Over the course of the past century, nearly all of them have left. Now there are an estimated 4,000 Jews in Morocco. So few that most younger Moroccans have never met one.

Aomar Boum
, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, did meet Jews growing up in Morocco—that is, once he moved from his small village in the Anti-Atlas mountains to the city of Marrakesh for school. He went back to his birth country to find out what Moroccans—four generations of them—think of their former neighbors and acquaintances, particularly in light of current tensions between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. The result of his investigation is Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco.

Read article in full

My comment: One commenter objects to the term 'left', as opposed to 'fled', to describe the departure of Jews in response to antisemitism, but backs down when Boum himself intervenes in the discussion. The Jews 'left' because Israel had reached an agreement with Morocco, he says. The reasons why Jews 'left' are 'complicated'. But Boum never makes clear that Jews were forbidden from emigrating for six years. This ban in itself was a violation of their human rights. I find his tendency to blame antisemitism on Christian sources simplistic and politically-correct. What about home-grown bigotry?

The Jewish kingdom of Oufrane in the Anti-Atlas

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Preserving Burma's last synagogue

 Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue in Rangoon (Yangon)...more than just a building

 The last synagogue in Rangoon is a symbol of fast-diminishing religious tolerance, argues Michael Rubin in the Commentator (with thanks: Lily):

Voice of America picked up a fascinating story about efforts to preserve Burma’s (Myanmar’s) last synagogue:
The Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue is in a neighborhood typical of colonial Rangoon. Mosques, Hindu temples, churches, and Buddhist pagodas dot busy streets of markets, hawkers, and hardware shops. The protected heritage building dates back to 1896, and has been under the care of a member of the Samuels family for generations… Author and historian Thant Myint-U heads the Yangon Heritage Trust, an organization dedicated to saving Rangoon’s heritage buildings. He says the synagogue’s preservation effort is about more than just the building: it’s about recovering Burma’s past, to help people understand the city’s rich multiethnic history.

The whole story is worth reading, especially against the backdrop of the destruction of Java’s last synagogue earlier this summer, the razing of the Jewish quarters in both Sulaymani and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, the end of the Jewish community in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the start of what might well become a Jewish exodus from an increasingly intolerant Turkey. Sixteen years ago, I watched the Jewish community in Tajikistan build a guest house near the Jewish cemetery to prepare for the end of what they assumed would be that country’s permanent Jewish community.

Religious intolerance is spreading across the Middle East and many places in Asia as populist and radicalized clergy urge their followers to make life intolerable for Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist minorities. Traveling over the years in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Iran, I have heard older generations describe the cosmopolitan atmosphere of their youth, playing with friends of different religions.

Read article in full

Friday, December 20, 2013

Volunteers needed to clean up Karachi graves

A video, 'Cemetery of the lost tribe' was made about the Karachi Jewish cemetery

A project to clean up the Jewish cemetery of Karachi has launched a call for volunteers.

 F. Bhenkhald, who Tweets as @Jew_Pakistani, is looking for people to help him undertake the work. He blames 'government neglect' for the state of the cemetery.

Funds to maintain the cemetery have dried up. Six families live on the site, including the caretaker. A recent report revealed that there had been repeated attempts to take over the land, and that the cemetery residents themselves had paid towards building a boundary wall.

 There are almost 5,000 graves in the cemetery, now overrun by nettles and thorns. In its heyday the Jewish community numbered about 3,000 Jews. In the cemetery is the grave of Solomon David, an official of the Karachi Municipal Corporation, who also built the Magain Shalome synagogue in Saddar. The last burial was in the 1980s.

According to F Bhenkhald, there are up to 200 elderly Jews remaining in Karachi with their carers.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Iraqis make PR out of fragments burial

The burial ceremony of 49 parchments at the Montefiore cemetery, Long Island, NY (with thanks: Gina)

Iraq has embarked on a PR offensive following the burial of the 'pasool' Torah parchments in a New York ceremony. Below is the full text of a press release issued by the Iraqi embassy in the US. The Iraqis are anxious to show that the archive is Iraq's property. Allowing the ceremony to take place is a magnanimous gesture and evidence of their practising 'democracy' and pluralism - proof of the 'new Iraq'. In truth, Iraq's constitution, which stipulates equality for all regardless of religion, does not mention the Jews*, while antisemitic incitement remains rife.

"The Government of Iraq announces the burial of 49 Torah scroll fragments, which were part of the Iraqi Jewish Archive collection currently in the United States, in cooperation with the Iraqi Jewish community presented by the World Organization of Jews from Iraq. The burial under Jewish ritual custom took place on December 15, 2013 at the New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon, New York. The fragments were interred at the cemetery through a religious service ceremony, which was attended by Ambassador Lukman Faily, other Iraqi officials, and officials from the U.S. Government.

"Today, Iraq marks another milestone of practicing democracy by approving the proper handling of these fragments and the disposal of its sacred texts, which were no longer viable for religious purposes, and welcomed the opportunity to undertake this good will gesture and cooperate with the Iraqi Jewish community on this important endeavor.

"Iraq’s new constitution stipulates that all Iraqis are equal in their rights without regard to sect or religion. The Iraqi Jewish community, like other communities in Iraq, played a key role in building the country; it shared in its prosperity and also suffered exile and forced departure because of tyranny. The Government of Iraq also appreciates the support of the U.S. Department of State and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on this matter and for their continued contribution to the preservation of the entire Iraqi Jewish Archive.

"The Iraqi Jewish Archive is a collection of books, manuscripts, and records in Hebrew and Arabic languages, found by the Coalition Forces in 2003 and salvaged from a flooded basement in Al Mukhabarat building in Baghdad after the fall of the regime. The Archive is Iraq’s property (my emphasis - ed) and was brought to the U.S. under an agreement for preservation, conservation, and exhibition."

Iraqi officials attend fragments burial
*only five Jews remain in Iraq

Returning the archive without its owners

 A copy of the Babylonian Talmud from 1793

 The Jews of Iraq have found a champion in Nabil al-Hadairi, writing in the Gatestone Institute. Here the UK-based Islamic scholar inveighs against the return of the Iraqi-Jewish archive. The Iraqis want the books back, but are not prepared to give their owners their rights. (With thanks: Jonah)

The question is: How can the archives be sent back to Iraq without real guarantees, particularly as the government claims it has multiples of that volume in Iraq? If so, why does the government not fully conserve and maintain the existing volumes and then place them in museums and exhibit them so they can be of use?
The other question is: Where are the rights of the Jews of Iraq today? The Iraqi government should return to them their citizenship, then returned to them all property and assets unjustly and wrongfully plundered, and compensate them for the great losses they suffered. How can an archive be returned without its true owners? Such an act is unreasonable and unacceptable.
This fall, two Iraqi experts travelled to the U.S. to study the archival material of Iraq's former Jewish community, in order to prepare measures of conserving it so that they can take care of the archive when it is returned to Iraq. At present, work is progressing rapidly in the branch archives in College Park by a team of experts with high-tech equipment for cleaning and restoration and digitization of records and documents.

It is strange that there is much talk today about sending the Jewish archives next year to the Iraqi Department of Antiquities in Baghdad, although it is not clear where it is to be kept or exhibited. (The National Library of Iraq has been suggested - ed)

The question is: How can the archives be sent back to Iraq without real guarantees for its preservation, maintenance and access, particularly as the government claims it has multiples of that volume in Iraq? If so, why does the government not fully conserve and maintain the already existing volumes and then place them in museums and exhibit them so they can be of use?

The other question is: Where are the rights of the Jews of Iraq today? If the Iraqi government acknowledges their great history, it should return to them their citizenship, first and foremost. In the First Interfaith Conference convened in Suleimania last year this author demanded that they be given their parliamentary seats, just like other religions, then have returned to them all property and assets unjustly and wrongfully plundered, and be compensated for the great losses they suffered. How can the archive be returned without its true owners? Such a act is unreasonable and unacceptable.

Read article in full

More from Nabil al-Hadairi

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Growing up as a Jew in Iran

M is a Farsi-speaking intelligence officer in the IDF. His nail-biting escape from Iran was a bit like a scene from the film 'Argo' - but without the champagne. Riveting portrait in the Times of Israel by Mitch Ginsburg of what it is like to grow up as a Jew in the Ayatollahs' Iran.

School days started with communal chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” All of the Jewish students, he recalled, would cheat in the “Death to Israel” chant, replacing the Persian pronunciation of Israel with a similar word, which means “angel of death.” Greeting the students, though, on their way into school, was the Ayatollah Khomeini quote that Ahmadinejad later used*.
In sixth grade, during Friday night services, M., disgusted by the statement, found a sharp metal object and scraped away the quote.

One Saturday — sometimes a school day and sometimes not, depending on the generosity of the Education Ministry — the principal lined up the student body for morning assembly. After the customary chanting and the cleanliness inspections by the teachers, the principal went to the front of the hall and told the student body that “an un-Islamic deed had been done… and I know who did it.”

M. was ordered to the front of the hall and beaten in front of everyone. Then he was sent to wait for the principal in his office, where he was beaten again. And then the situation got even worse: The principal told him that his act was not a prank. It was a Zionist act, a product of his education at home, and that it had to be passed on to the state authorities.

The school janitor, a Jew, who had witnessed the affair, saw M.’s mother nearby and called her urgently into the school. The principal charged her with inculcating the children with an anti-Islamic education and insisted that he would report the entire family to the authorities. Only after three or four hours of arguing and pleading, was his mother able to settle on a bribe, a payment to the school and a commitment to have the Khomeini quote restored, at their own expense, as soon as possible.

A Jewish Iranian woman praying at the tomb of Esther (via Shutterstock)

A Jewish Iranian woman praying at the tomb of Esther (Jewish Iranian woman image via Shutterstock)

Immediately afterwards, the family began planning their covert immigration to Israel.

M. remembered his departure vividly. He said that watching the 2012 movie “Argo,” and its tense airport scene, gave him goose bumps. His family, too, he said, told no one that they were leaving. Only on the morning of their departure, he said, did he tell his two best friends that he was going to Shiraz, a code word among the Jews that meant Israel. He arrived at the airport along with his mother and two sisters — his father had to stay behind, as an entire family was not allowed to leave the country together — and sat in a departure terminal that resembled the one in “Argo.” He clutched his schoolbooks to his chest, he said, so that, if asked, he could contend that he was merely going on vacation to Istanbul and would be doing homework while away.

Unlike the movie, in which the US nationals escape on a Swiss Air flight and sip champagne as soon as the plane lifts off, they flew on an Iranian airliner and were terrified until they reached Turkey. Once there, they called a telephone number of an embassy employee, who sent a car to the airport and, within days, arranged Israeli passports for the family. “In Israel,” he said, “I first met my older brother.”

M.’s father remained in Iran for another year. He obtained a fake passport and was nearly ready to leave when IRGC agents knocked on his office door. They found the passport in his drawer and arrested him. “If you are caught doing this sort of thing,” M. said, “you usually never get out alive.”

The leader of the Jewish community, Siamak Mor Sadegh, demonstrating in front a Tehran UN building with Jewish students in a staged show of support for the Iranian nuclear programme (Photo: AFP - with thanks: Michelle)

After paying “tons of money” and pulling every string he had, he was allowed out on bail. Having helped many other Jews escape Iran, M.’s father had good connections with the Balochs, the desert dwellers who live on the eastern plateau. For two weeks he traveled with them by camel and jeep convoy to the border region and finally, with their help, slipped across the border into Pakistan, where, M. said, the Jewish Agency had a representative who was able to get him a passport and fly him to Sweden and from there to Israel.

M. was drafted into the IDF in 1995. As a testament to the priorities of the intelligence establishment at the time, he was slated to become a Merkava tank mechanic. Only once he had started basic training did the Military Intelligence Directorate tap him on the shoulder.

His job at the outset, he said, keeping his description deliberately vague, “was translating the intelligence data of what, we’ll say, was attainable.”

In those days the Persian desk at Military Intelligence was both smaller than today and mostly staffed by what the IDF calls lahagistim – those that knew the lahag, or dialect, either as a mother tongue or from relatives around the house. M. was sent to officers’ school, after repeated requests, and was put in charge of a platoon of soldiers that translated raw intelligence.

Read article in full 

*'Wipe Israel off the map'

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jews were scapegoats in Muslim world

 Jewish refugees arriving in Haifa from Libya

Non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries have the status of dhimmi, which means "tolerated" or "protected". But improved legal status did not necessarily translate into improved lives, as prejudice in Morocco, for instance, was deeply entrenched, Dr David Bensoussan argues in Asia Times.

This flows from the assertion that Jewish and Christian scripture was distorted by their unworthy depositories. It is legislated under the Pact of Umar which was amended several times with the addition of other discriminatory measures.

A dhimmi is in an inferior position within Muslim society: they have special taxes, wear recognizable clothing, are the subject of humiliating measures, and do not have legal status when they are involved in a legal matter involving Muslims. Shi'ite Islam considers Jews to be a source of impurity. While the conditions of Jews have differed between countries, some features overlap for Jews in Morocco, and in the Ottoman and Persian Empires.

In the 19th century, several travellers, consuls and educators, sent out by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, sent back alarming reports on the situation of Jews, including the following: daily humiliation, objects of scorn, submissive to the point of atrophy, constant insecurity, abductions, densely populated Jewish quarters, dramatic impoverishment and seriously unsanitary living conditions. They described nightmarish fanaticism on the one hand and resignation on the other.  

The difficult circumstances of Jews, who made up 0.5% to 3% of the population, depending on the country, was also raised by Muslim chroniclers. Jews automatically became the scapegoats whenever there was political instability, a military defeat or difficult economic conditions, as well as drought. Massacres and plundering happened on a regular basis. [3]

Generally speaking, the rulers were benevolent to a certain degree - of course there were exceptions - and their decisions were not always applied accordingly.

For example, the decree agreed to in 1864 by the Moroccan ruler and the philanthropist, Moses Montefiore, on the cessation of mistreatment of Jews, never actually changed anything.

Jews were accused of ritual murder in Damascus in 1840 and in Cairo in 1902. In the Ottoman Empire, there were reforms that ended the mandatory wearing of distinctive clothing and the special tax on non-Muslims, but once again, in the more remote areas of the Empire, this was never enforced.

The precolonial and colonial period
Being on the fringes of the 19th century expansion of Europe, many Jews sought consular protection, and the parameters were set down at international conferences in Tangier, Madrid, Lausanne, and so on. Algerian Jews obtained the right to French nationality in 1870, Tunisian Jews obtained it at their request in 1923 and Moroccan Jews maintained their status of dhimmi when Morocco became a protectorate.  

A large number of Jews acquired Egyptian nationality but this was quietly withdrawn in 1940 which left about a quarter of Jews without a nationality. In Yemen, Sharia law was applied in 1948 and Jewish orphans were taken in order to be converted to Islam, a practice that had been in use since 1922.

It should be pointed out that improved legal status for Jews did not always translate into improved lives, because mentalities do not evolve as quickly as one might hope. Overall, the Westernization of Jews in countries where the majority is Muslim preceded that of Muslims by more than one generation because of, among other reasons, the reach of the school network of the Alliance Israelite Universelle.

Under the colonial regime, Jews were finally able to live outside the Jewish quarter, the mellah or hara, and they no longer had to wear distinctive clothing. Many Muslims saw this as changing the Jewish status that they felt had been carved in stone by Islamic law. The tradition of prosecuting Jews during difficult domestic times, as well as the resentment against colonial power and the emancipation of Jews, were all key factors in triggering anti-Jewish actions, as happened in Fez in 1912, in Cairo in 1945, and so on.

In order to avoid antagonizing the Muslim majority and even the anti-Semitic European colonists, the colonial authorities often turned a blind eye to the abuse of Jews, for example in Baghdad in 1941. No doubt Jews were considering leaving their country if they could not achieve equal rights. During the Second World War, a pro-Nazi regime came to power in Iraq and the sweeping pogrom, the Farhoud, was carried out in 1941. The Mufti in Jerusalem was the self-appointed voice of Nazi propaganda and he encouraged Bosnia Muslims to join the Waffen SS. As well, Jews in Libya were sent to death camps in Europe and a number in Jews in Tunisia were made to do forced labor.

After the Second World War
After the war, there was growing insecurity in eastern Jewish communities. There had been a pogrom in Libya in 1945, anti-British and anti-Semitic riots within the same year in Egypt, in Syria, Yemen and Aden in 1947, and Jews were excluded from the Syrian and Lebanese administrations in 1947. The political committee of the Arab League, made up of seven countries, proposed in 1947, well before Israel's independence, that the assets of Jews be frozen. [4]

Israel's independence and their surprise victory over invading Arab armies was a miracle in the eyes of Jews. Pressure was put on Jews who were told to prove their loyalty by opposing the Jewish state and the Arab press was full of invective against Israel and Jews. People left in a panic for Israel from several countries despite threats to destroy the newly formed state.   

There were multiple anti-Jewish measures: non-renewal of professional licenses in Iraq, a prohibition on leaving Iraq in 1948 and Yemen in 1949, the withdrawal of Egyptian nationality from Jews, who then became stateless in the 1950s, and the withdrawal of the right to vote for Jews in Libya in 1951.

Add to that the pogroms in Djerada, in Morocco in 1948, in Damascus and Aleppo in 1948, in Benghazi and Tripoli in 1948, in Bahrain in 1949, in Egypt in 1952, and in Libya and Tunisia in 1967. There were arrests and expulsions in Egypt in 1956, economic strangulation by spoliation in Iraq in 1951, in Syria in 1949, in Libya in 1970, or by exclusion in Syria and Lebanon in 1947, in Libya in 1958, in Iran in 2000, or by allowing Egyptian business only in Egypt in 1961.

Jewish heritage was destroyed in Oran in 1961 and in Libya in 1969 and 1978, there was police abuse and abductions of young girls with forced conversions in Morocco from 1961 to 1962, Jews were kidnapped in Lebanon in 1967, there were public hangings in Baghdad in 1969, anti-Semitic cliches were used in the Arab press, and campaigns were used to increase anti-Jewish sentiment and incite hatred, using Zionism as an excuse. After the Six-Day War, this rhetoric increased considerably.

Even though there were assurances of equality before the law in countries considered to be moderate, such as Morocco and Tunisia after their independence, membership in the Arab League meant a full boycott in terms of relations or contact with Israel. Mail was prohibited, it was difficult to get a passport, and any media that did not portray Israel extremely negatively was prohibited from reporting. This boycott absolutely prevented any dialogue that could have led to mutual understanding.

Discriminatory measures that were taken against Jews and the state of Israel led to the quasi-disappearance of Jews in these countries. No Arab state has taken responsibility for the fate of its Jewish citizens. We are witnessing nowadays preservation measures of Jewish patrimony and increased Israeli tourism in Morocco. On the other hand, former Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric denies the holocaust and calls for the elimination of Israel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan acts as if it wanted the state of Israel to become a dhimmi state.

In conclusion, modern times opened the door to the possibility of the dignity of citizenship for Jews, and prejudice compelled them to leave their place of birth. The end of commonplace Jewish servitude in Muslim-Arab countries was dramatic for the Muslim world, which is why Arab nationalism has made Palestine its focal point for mobilization. Zionism represents Jews who have reclaimed their dignity and defend themselves, in other words the antithesis of dhimmis.

One must consider, furthermore, that the measures taken against Jews varied from one country to another. Once they were promulgated, the measures taken to protect Jews were rarely applied. In addition, it did not take much to arouse the people's animosity toward Jews, regardless of these measures.

The policy of terror and exclusion led to ethnic cleansing without regard for rights or a possessions that were lost, confiscated or abandoned, or to discriminatory measures along with their vicious propaganda, which ultimately led to an exodus that was practically forced, and often people left very quietly.

These discriminatory measures came in different forms and varied depending on the country. If it had not been for the Arab media's anti-Israeli frenzy and the discriminatory measures against Jews, it is highly likely that some of them would have decided to stay in their country. The feeling of insecurity constantly hung over Jewish communities. Their departure became necessary for their survival, otherwise it was just a question of time before they would be taken hostage by the potential unrest, which they were sure they would fall victim to next.

Jews who had been present in Arab Muslim countries for a 1,000 years were squeezed out in the span of one generation, and they had to choose exile to other countries.

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Tunisian group fights Holocaust amnesia

 Entry of the German army into Tunisia, November 1942 (photo: Yad Ben Zvi)

 A Tunisian group championing minority rights has co-sponsored a conference to ensure that Tunisia learns the lessons of the Holocaust, The Times of Israel reports.
Historians, scholars and authors spoke at Saturday’s conference, which remembered the 5,000 Jews subjected to forced labor in Tunisia during a six-month Nazi occupation of the country in 1942-43. Some were deported to Nazi death camps on the European mainland. 

It was among the first events focusing on the Holocaust to be held in an Arab country.

The conference also memorialized Muslims who saved Jews during the period, including Khaled Abdelwahhab, a Tunisian who successfully hid more than 20 Jews from the Nazis in a factory on his property.

The Tunisian Association Supporting Minorities, a Tunis-based NGO that works to defend the rights of the country’s tiny Jewish community, and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a New York-based group that focuses on Muslim-Jewish relations, sponsored the conference.

The forum was part of FFEU’s annual International Weekend of Twinning, during which thousands of Muslims and Jews in more than 30 countries around the world held joint events promoting Muslim-Jewish understanding and trust.

“Our work at this conference is to prevent amnesia and to ensure that something as terrible as the Holocaust should never happen again,” said Yasmina Thabet, head of the Tunisian Association Supporting Minorities.

“The terrible events of 1942-43 show us that we must be vigilant today in defending the rights of all Tunisians — including Jews and other minorities — threatened by religious extremists who in recent months have been allowed to attack their fellow citizens with near impunity.”

Read article in full 

New documentation centre opens on North African Jewry opens  at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem

Monday, December 16, 2013

Iraqi officials attend fragment burial (updated)

From top: A fragment of a Torah scroll. Doris Hamburg of NARA giving an interview. The fragments on view under a tent before their burial. (Photos: Edna Shohet; Lisette S)

 On Sunday 15 December, representatives of the government of Iraq attended the burial of 49 fragments of Torah parchment in the Montefiore cemetery at the aptly-named town of West Babylon in Long Island, New York.

Five days earlier, a delegation of Iraqi officials transferred the fragments in sealed boxes from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and delivered them to the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq (WOJI).

 Some 25 representatives of the Iraqi government, the US State Department, NARA and the National Endowment for Humanities had been expected to join members of the Jewish community for a religious ceremony at the graveside. The fragments were set out on tables for viewing before burial in a casket.

The Iraqi delegation was headed by its Ambassador to Washington DC,  H.E. Lukman Faily. Several officials came especially from Iraq, representing the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Security Council and the Council of Ministers.

Maurice Shohet, president of WOJI said: "We received many email messages from US officials following the religious ceremony. One of them wrote:“Congratulations on turning this very important page.  It has been humbling for all of us. It’s really an honor for us to be a part of this".

Another official wrote: “ What an amazing and spiritual day yesterday, very moving.  ... regards and appreciation .... for being able to attend this historic event”.  A third official wrote: “it was a moving and historic event to witness.”

 The fragments are part of the Iraqi-Jewish archive, shipped to the US for restoration by NARA, but too dirty and damaged to be restored. Mildewed fragments or whose smell 'cannot be eliminated' also qualify for burial.   According to Jewish religious law (Halakha) such fragments are no longer Kasher or fit for use.

 WOJI had been engaged in delicate negotiations with the Iraqi authorities for months in order to get their agreement to the burial of these fragments.

The rest of the Iraqi-Jewish archive, however, is now the subject of controversy:  Iraqi Jews have joined Jewish groups and US congressmen to protest its projected return to Iraq in 2014.

Prisoners for plundered Judaica in Syria?

 The Jobar synagogue, before it was looted


Footage of the synagogue (starts at 1 min 26), devastated by looting and bombing (with thanks: Raphail)  

Torah scrolls and other Judaica plundered from an ancient Damascus synagogue are being held by an Islamist group inside Syria, which is demanding the release of prisoners captured by the Assad regime in return for the items, The Times of Israel has learned (With thanks: Lily):

Reports on the destruction and looting of the millennia-old Jobar synagogue in Damascus emerged as early as March, but those responsible for the theft have never been clearly identified, as government and opposition forces traded accusations. 

The Jobar synagogue — said to be 2,000-years-old — was built on the site where the prophet Elijah is said to have concealed himself from persecution and anointed his successor, Elisha, as a prophet. It was badly damaged in March by mortars reportedly fired by Syrian government forces; some reports say the building was destroyed.

A source involved in negotiating for the release of the Judaica items and their extraction from Syria, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the objects were being held inside Syria by a group affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front, an Islamist organization associated with al-Qaeda and defined as a terrorist organization by the US. He said the stolen items include at least three or four Torah scrolls as well as ancient Jewish scrolls and silverware.

“They took everything they could get their hands on,” the source said. “They want prisoners held by Assad [in exchange for them].”

The source said that Qatar may become involved in negotiating the release of the items as part of its diplomatic bid “to play both sides” and demonstrate negotiating capabilities with the Assad regime. Members of the expatriate Syrian-Jewish community are also reportedly involved in the talks.

“They [the Qataris] have a certain interest in showing that they can handle elements they usually don’t get along with … The Qataris like to play on all fields,” he said.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why Iraq claims what it does not own

 Much of the archive was seized from the Meir Toeg synagogue in Bataween, Baghdad, by Saddam's henchmen. Richard Z Chesnoff took these photos in 1989 for US News and World Report. (Top and middle) The late synagogue gabbay,  Abraham Sofer, holding an ornate Sefer Torah; standing in front of the Ark. (Bottom): Community president David Reuven outside the synagogue, opened in 1942. Sofer had returned to Baghdad from London to reclaim property seized by Saddam Hussein. He never succeeded, and not being able to leave, spent his last years at the synagogue. (All photos c. Richard Z. Chesnoff)

The Iraqi-Jewish archive is not like material taken from national museums:  Iraqi Jews are its official heirs and the premise on which the US undertook to return the archive to Iraq is entirely flawed, according to JJAC executive vice-president Stan Urman. David Andleman of USA Today reports:  

The Iraqi artifacts were liberated from four feet of water and mold in the basement of Mukhabarat headquarters by American troops not long after their arrival in Baghdad in 2003. Deteriorating and badly maintained, they were immediately spotted by U.S. experts as a remarkable find and shipped back to Washington for restoration and preservation. But not before a pledge by the Americans that they'd go back to Iraq, not their owners, at some appropriate time. That pledge was made, of course, to the interim government the United States had installed. Now there are new individuals in charge. But the time for the archive's return is now drawing near.

"The entire premise is flawed," says "Stanley Urman, executive vice president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. "These were never Iraqi heritage materials, never the property of the Iraqi government. They were seized and looted from synagogues, schools, hospitals, private homes." In many cases, the owners relinquished them only to win their freedom. "They were allowed to leave [for Israel] only if they gave up their passports and all their worldly possessions," Urman continues in an interview. In short, it was part of the systematic destruction of what was once among the most vibrant and thriving Jewish communities in the Middle East.

At the end of World War II, there were more than 130,000 Jews in Iraq—a quarter of the population of Baghdad. By the time of the Six Day War in 1967, that number had dwindled to barely 3,000. Today there are at most seven Jews left — each fearful even of disclosing his identity — indeed not even a minion, the minimum number (ten) required for Jewish worship. But abroad, they constitute an enormous community, united under the banner of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, according to its president, Maurice Shohet who himself fled Iraq in 1970 at the age of 21. The largest single Iraqi Jewish community, outside of Israel, is in the United States. And this is where the Iraqi diaspora wants these artifacts to remain.

Just why the Iraqi government wants these items returned is an open question—likely a pastiche of the public position authorities have expressed to Urman, that it wants to showcase the "contributions of the Jewish people to Iraq," and the reality that they are aware of their enormous and unchallenged value.

"From our point of view, they were taken from us and as a result we are the official heirs of the material," Urman observes. "This is not like material looted from national museums. It was taken by force by intelligence agents."

And now, some substantial force is being brought to bear on their behalf. On November 13, a bipartisan group of 47 House Democrats and Republicans signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the State Department to "facilitate the return of these items to their rightful owners or their descendants, and not to the government of Iraq." Why? "The government of Iraq has no legitimate claim to these artifacts," the letter concludes.

But there is a larger issue at stake here as well. Across the Middle East, shards remain of once thriving Jewish communities — each with its own history, its own relics and its own documents. Only rarely are these artifacts carefully preserved or displayed. Cairo's Jewish community has shrunk from more than 100,000 to barely 100, with every Jewish school, hospital and club shuttered. Moreover, Urman says, few of its rich collection of artifacts are on display — most held in basement storerooms of a museum.

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