Friday, January 31, 2014

Sultana's story for the weekend

When she is not commenting on Point of No Return, our regular reader, Egyptian-born Sultana (aka Suzy), is busy writing memoirs of her family. She is pleased to announced that 12 of her stories, titled Sephardi Peregrinations, are now online. Here is an extract from the first story - about her ancestor Yehuda, who moved his Souery family from Iraq to Egypt : 

Yehuda addressed himself to his sons:“Weladi, my children, I have gathered you because the situation for us Jews is not good – not good at all! We must make a decision. But whatever we do we must remain together.” 

 “What can we do baba, father?” Asked his oldest son Moussa, (Moses)..“We must leave before the situation gets any worse.” “But Baba, how will that be possible? Leave everything, our home, our synagogue, friends and go?”

 “Yes! Ya ebni, my son, that is what we must do whether it breaks our hearts or not. For the moment we are still safe here but for how long? I have thought about that very seriously since the turmoil and aggressions started on our community. 

 "We shall form a caravan with donkeys, pack up everything and leave during the night when everyone is asleep. Then at one of the hams, caravan serail, we shall rejoin the camel caravans that spread out in many different routes. One of these routes is Samarkand on the Silk Route but that is not our goal.

 "We shall take the one going through to Syria and then Egypt. ”Egypt by then had developed and with the inauguration of the Suez Canal (Nov.17, 1869), would know a massive Europeanised era. 

 "Every one who longed to leave Iraq, and they were many, opted for Egypt because of the same language, a sound Jewish community and great possibilities offered.

 "At that time the Jewish Community was a small one in Egypt but with the on-coming Jews who chose Egypt it grew and became an important one. 

Consequently, apart from both the dangers and difficulties of an eventual voyage through the Desert, they would have fellow Jews to guide them once they reached Egypt. That was essential because mutual assistance from fellow Jews was not a vain word! 

 Any Jew going anywhere knew that if he went to his synagogue he would be directed to the right people who would in turn do what they could for the newcomer.

Read story in full 

Suzy Vidal's memories of a shattered world

Kerry deal 'to compensate Jewish refugees'

 John Kerry (left) with Martin Indyk (photo: Martin Stern)

Update: MK Shimon Oyahon welcomes inclusion of compensation to Jewish refugees in Kerry peace deal framework (Israel National News)

Update to the Update: 'State Department officials cautioned that the process could take longer than a few weeks, and they said the issue of how to treat families of Jewish refugees had not been settled. '(New York Times)

Martin Indyk, lead US envoy in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, has reassured US Jewish leaders that Jewish refugees will received compensation under a final peace deal.

The Washington Post reports:

"Indyk also told the group that a final peace treaty could provide for compensation to Jews forced out of Arab countries after the founding of Israel in 1948. That would give descendants of those refugees living in Israel a potential financial stake* in a deal long assumed to also provide compensation for Arabs who left land in what is now Israel."

 Yediot Aharonot (Hebrew) reports: 

"The framework agreement will address  Palestinian refugee compensation, but for the first time there was also talk of compensation to Jewish refugees from Arab countries."

The reports corroborate an article in the Jerusalem Post where senior Palestinian official Yousef Abed Rabbo talks of a solution to the refugees problem - not  Palestinian refugees specifically.

Unconfirmed sources quote Indyk as stating that the US does believe that Jewish refugee compensation ought to be addressed, although the Palestinians could not be held responsible for compensating Jewish refugees.

However,  Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni is reported as still firmly refusing to raise the Jewish refugee issue. The issue has been discussed notwithstanding.

Her reticence, exposed by Point of No Return, has caused concern among advocates for Jewish refugees and had led to MK Nissim Zeev tabling a motion to create a committee to monitor the implementation of a 2010 Knesset law. That law requires that compensation for Jewish refugees be on the peace agenda.

The impetus for the Knesset law came from the US. In 2008 the US Congress passed a resolution insisting that whenever Palestinian refugee rights are discussed, Jewish refugee rights must also be discussed.

*My comment: The expression 'potential financial stake' is an interesting one and suggests that the US is seeking to provide a financial incentive to the sector of the Israeli electorate most mistrustful of a peace deal - Jews from Arab and Muslim countries. However, compensation without Arab recognition of the Jewish refugee 'narrative' may not be enough. 

Report suggests Jewish refugees under discussion

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Report suggests Jewish refugees under discussion

 An advertisement appeared today in both the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom drawing attention to the Big Nakba ('for those who know and those who need to know') - namely the forced exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Half of Israeli Jews, it states, are refugees from Arab countries. (These outnumber Palestinian Arab refugees by as many as two to one.) 

The unattributed advertisement appears to be timed to coincide with reports of what a final peace deal brokered by the US Secretary of State John Kerry would look like.

Activists on behalf of Jewish refugees have been worried by news (broken by Point of No Return) that Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, did not see a connection between Jewish and Palestinian refugees. There is anxiety in some quarters that Ms Livni is still failing to include the Jewish refugee issue on the peace agenda. 

MK Nissim Zeev took steps to call Ms Livni to account by tabling a motion calling for a Joint Knesset Committee to ensure that recognition and compensation for Jewish refugees are included in peace talks, in accordance with a Knesset law he introduced in 2010.

This year the UN has declared the Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian Refugees. MK Zeev has called for it to be declared the Year of Solidarity with both Palestinian and Jewish Refugees.

However, other sources say that the issue is on the table and is being discussed.

Confirmation from the Palestinian side appears  in this Jerusalem Post article, they say. The article quotes a response of PLO Executive Committee Secretary General Abed Rabbo to the Kerry proposals.

Abed Rabbo said: “the plan proposes Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the establishment of the Palestinian capital in a part of East Jerusalem and solving the refugees problem in accordance with former US President Bill Clinton’s vision.” 

 Abed Rabbo does not mention Palestinian refugees, referring instead to "the refugees problem" in the plural - language echoing the wording of UN Resolution 242  covering both refugee populations – Jews and Arabs.

 He also refers to Bill Clinton's vision or plan. The major component of the Clinton plan is the International Peace Fund, which would provide compensation to both Jewish and Arab refugees.

An Algerian life: Maxim's and Macias

 The great synagogue, Oran

Claude Rouas (see his videotaped interview here) was born in Oran, Algeria in 1933. He overcame great hardships to finally settle in California, but returned to Algeria to visit to his mother's grave in 1985. He tells his story to JIMENA on the Jerusalem Post:

Orphaned at a young age after both of his parents died of cancer, Claude was raised by extended family including his uncle “Papa Isaac”, and his brother, who was the eldest of 5 siblings. Growing up in poverty and without parents, Claude learned the art of hard work early on. His childhood jobs included selling movie tickets, peddling goods on the street, tailoring and working as a pastry chef. He lived on an all-Jewish street in the city of Oran, bordering an Arab Muslim neighborhood. Claude recounts some fights between the groups, but overall he remembers Jewish-Muslim relations during this time as peaceful.

Claude’s family migrated from Algeria to France in 1937 in hopes of finding better opportunities and a more secure life. Their first home in Paris was a store they rented, sleeping in the storage room and using the storefront as a makeshift dining room. They returned to Algeria in 1941, where Claude remained until moving to the U.S. in 1963.

Though he doesn’t come from an observant background, Claude was raised with a value of preserving Jewish tradition, and recalls fondly practices from his childhood such as studying for his Bar Mitzvah and going to synagogue on Passover. Every Friday evening his family gathered together for a Shabbat meal of couscous and d’fina stew. Jewish custom was an integral part of mourning and life cycles growing up.

The holiday of Yom Kippur holds significant meaning and memory for Claude. He remembers the hunger-fueled intensity and sullen temper of his congregation members at La Grande Synagogue d’Oran, some of whom even passed out at services. But Claude still looked forward to the holiday every year for a different reason. As it is customary to don new clothing for Yom Kippur, it was a busy time of year for the 9-year-old tailor. Working longer hours than usual, Claude stayed at his boss’s house for extended periods of time. Here he was guaranteed a cup of hot coffee and a slice of bread and butter every morning – a luxury that felt like “a dream life”. Nowadays Claude feels even closer to his faith, which he expresses through practices including lighting Shabbat candles weekly and wearing tallit.

One of the most profoundly sentimental mediums that invoke Claude’s memory is the French-infused Jewish Algerian music. Ingrained in Claude’s mind are the lyrics of Enrico Macias, which intone stories of Jewish expulsion and migration to France. The melodies bring up such strong emotions of longing that he avoids listening to them altogether.

At the age of 14, Claude took a major step towards a more promising future when he left his family to attend a hotel and restaurant school. As the only Jewish student, he faced some of his most marked experiences of anti-Semitism the hands of his teacher, Monsieur Soleil, who was the head of the dining room department. Mr. Soleil had cordial relationships with other students in his department, who were 90% Arab Muslim, but with Claude he was physically and verbally abusive, asserting that Claude didn’t belong in the school because he would “never survive in this industry.”

Claude excelled above and beyond these hardships, graduating at #2 in his class and building a career in the hospitality business. He served for two years in the French Army as a butler to a general in Paris. Here he went on to work at some of the most renowned restaurants and hotels in Paris and London, such as Maxim’s and Hotel Mirabelle. In Paris he also met the owner of San Francisco’s acclaimed Ernie’s restaurant, who invited him to work there. He was promoted to General Manager at age 32, and oversaw the institution as it grew to be San Francisco’s most successful restaurant of its time. In 1981, he opened a Napa Valley restaurant which subsequently grew into a world-class luxury resort - aptly named Auberge Du Soleil, a fitting comeback to the instructor who told Claude he would never succeed in this industry.

Claude’s last visit to his birthplace was in 1985, when he returned with his two daughters to see his mother’s grave. Claude found the Algeria of his childhood was unrecognizable: the street names were changed and beautiful landmarks had been destroyed. A road ran straight through the middle of the Jewish cemetery, which had become a “wilderness”, and it was impossible to find his mother’s burial plot. Miraculously, his daughter happened upon the very patch of land where his mother’s tombstone still stood. For Claude, the entire trip was worth this very moment.

Read article in full

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Loving Umm Kalthum - In Israel

 Umm Kulthum performs for Gamal Abdul Nasser (8.56 mins into the clip)

 Politics and music are two different things in the Middle East, but it's no reason to ignore cultural connections between Israel and the Arab world, according to this story in the Times of Israel:

That Umm Kulthum is highly, even increasingly popular in Israel, despite being an iconic symbol of the 20th century Arabic nationalist movement, is no surprise to Elad Gabbay, a prominent qanun (eastern zither) player and a teacher of Middle Eastern music and piyutim (Jewish religious poetry) at the Musrara School of Eastern Music in Jerusalem.

“For us, music is art, music is joy,” Gabbay said. “We love her, because her songs are beautiful. We grew up on them and we sing them. It doesn’t matter who she was.”

There was “never a question” in Israel, he added, of rejecting Umm Kulthum because of her background, because in the East, music and politics “are two different things.”

In the Western world, music gets mixed up with “spirituality, politics and ideology,” Gabbay asserted, but in the East, music is just “a job, a profession.” Just like “a Jew will go to an Arab carpenter to buy a good table… the Jews have no problem to listen to Umm Kulthum. We love her music, and that’s it.”

Of course, Israel’s Mizrahi Jews are not politically naïve and know very well “who our enemies are,” Gabbay said. Some people “look at old photographs of Arab and Jewish musicians playing together in Morocco or Iraq,” he said, and think that back then it was all “shalom and kumbaya, but it wasn’t. They played together, but afterwards one was a Jew and one was an Arab. The communities were separate, and there was anti-Semitism, and later they [the Arab countries] wanted to get rid of the Jews… but it didn’t affect the music.”

Those old photographs are part of the vision of conductor Cohen, for whom it is important to give Middle Eastern music “a place of honor, because we are living in this culture. All the time, we are looking at differences and problems between Israel and our neighbors, but we can look at our connections as well, for example this music.”

Arabs mark Holocaust for first time

 Yamina Thabet, president of an association in Tunisia to defend minority rights

Two unusual events relating to Holocaust remembrance recently took place in the Arab world – a first official conference on the Holocaust in Tunisia and the first visit by an Arab diplomat to a Holocaust memorial site, when Bahraini ambassador to France Nasser Al-Balushi visited a memorial near Paris, The Jewish Press reports.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reports that Tunisia held the Arab world’s first official Holocaust conference in December, attended by historians, clerics, authors, and journalists who dealt with the Tunisian Jewish Holocaust.

 The purpose of the conference was to commemorate the 5,000 Tunisian Jews who were sent to labor camps or European death camps during the Nazi rule of the country. Speakers praised Tunisian Muslims who helped Jews during the Holocaust, including Khaled ‘Abd Al-Wahhab, who hid 20 Jews in his factory.

The president of the Association to Support Minorities, Yamina Thabet, said that “the conference aims to preserve the issue of the Holocaust in public consciousness… and ensure that a depraved act such as the Nazi Holocaust will never happen again in any form.”

The event sparked harsh criticism from some elements in the Arab world, who claim that the Holocaust is a fabrication, and that these measures constitute normalization with Israel and ‘a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.’”

Also last month, AFP, reported Bahraini ambassador to France Nasser Al-Balushi visited the Holocaust memorial center in Drancy near Paris. This was the first visit by a Muslim diplomat to the site, which was established in September 2012. The Bahraini ambassador laid a wreath on the monument and said, “It is our duty to act together to combat any expression of intolerance and hatred. Bahrain is a Muslim country, but its laws enable coexistence with other religious groups. Alongside mosques, [Bahrain] has synagogues, churches, and [other] houses of worship.”

 Bahraini MP Khaled Al-Maloud of the Al-Asala Islamic bloc said that the visit was “shameful” and did not represent the Bahraini people, who stands alongside the Palestinian cause and is proud of its Arab and Islamic principles. He added: “Islam forbids harming innocents… But in today’s world it is known that the so-called Jewish Holocaust is a lie and a deception whose disgraceful [nature] is clear to all, and which was meant to harm the rights of the Palestinian people and [facilitate] the theft of its lands. The real Holocaust is the one taking place against Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and all the Palestinian territories, where they have been suffering killing, expulsion and uprooting by the Zionist gangs for close to 100 years.”

Read article in full

'Quenelle' crops up in Tunisia

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Forty-five years since the Baghdad hangings

 Of the nine Jewish 'spies', four were under the legal age for execution. A tenth, Jamal Hakim, also underage, had a Jewish father.

Holocaust Memorial Day coincides with the day in 1969 when nine Jews were hanged in Baghdad. The Germans have done much to show contrition for the Holocaust. When will the Iraqis apologise? Lyn Julius blogs in the Jerusalem Post:

Forty-five years later, the community and its representatives are still reeling with the consequences of that fateful day.

Following the defeat of Arab armies on all fronts by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War and the 1968 ‘war of attrition’, the 3,000 Jews who remained in Iraq following the mass migration of the 1950s were being singled out for vengeance by the Iraqi regime. Dozens of Jews had been arrested and imprisoned. The remainder were placed under virtual house arrest. One Jewish girl remembers that secret service men installed themselves in armchairs opposite her house in order to keep her family under 24-hour surveillance. The tension was such that she and her mother made a suicide pact.
       Jewish bank accounts were frozen. Jews lost their jobs. Jewish students were not allowed to pursue their university studies. Foreign trade agencies were taken away from Jews and handed over to Muslims. Telephones were cut off. There was no escape: Jews had to carry yellow identity cards and could not obtain the necessary passports in order to leave the country. They were virtual hostages to the regime.
      Antisemitism intensified with the rise to power of the Ba’ath party. Saddam Hussein was its deputy leader. Before long the regime had concocted a story of ‘Zionist espionage’. The stage was set for a show trial of unspeakable cruelty and cynicism. Of nine Jews falsely accused of being Zionist spies, four were under the legal age to face execution. No matter – the regime falsified their ages. Five other victims were Christians and Muslims.
      Morris Abdulezer, an Iraqi Jew now living in Canada, describes the lead-up to the hangings:
 “These innocent men were tortured then put through a televised mockery of a military trial, which culminated in nine of them being publicly hanged, one acquitted. 

 “I can recall precisely how terrified and confused we were throughout the entire trial and, more precisely, the night of January 26 when the guilty verdict was announced by the military judge. We did not believe that the sentence of death by hanging would be carried out because the whole court process did not make sense, from the defendants who were not allowed to appoint their own lawyers, to the stories and accusations that were outrageous and full of lies, where the defendants were being asked to bear witness against each other.
 “We waited in fear, praying and trusting in our Jewish faith and hoping for pressure to come at the last minute from the international community to end this mockery.” 
      But when international pressure did  come - it was too late.
 The reign of terror continued. Iraq’s rulers promised that there would be further hangings. Every citizen was urged to inform against their Jewish neighbours.      Linda Menuhin, a columnist living in Israel recalls that her own father was abducted on the eve of Yom Kippur 1972 on the way to the synagogue:  “We don’t know what happened to my father exactly. Until today we have never said Kaddish for him.” Her search for information on her father is now the subject of a film, Shadow in Baghdad.
       Raphail Soffer was a small child when his father was arrested on trumped-up charges and executed in Abu-Ghraib prison in Baghdad on 25 August  1969. He was one of around fifty Jews executed, abducted, or who simply vanished without trace. While the hangings triggered the mass illegal departure of the remaining Jews, Raphail’s mother could barely feed her children, let alone hand over bribes to the authorities, or pay Kurdish smugglers to spirit the family over the northern border into Iran.
       During the Iran-Iraqi war in the 1980s, Raphail was among 13 Jews conscripted into the Iraqi army. He was one of just 20 men out of 120 in his artillery unit to survive the war. Raphail, his mother and his two sisters, one of whom was mentally disturbed since being beaten aged three over the head by her teacher, had to wait to leave Iraq until Jews were permitted passports in the 1990s.
       The advent of ‘democracy’ in Iraq has changed little for the Jews. Iraq is no safer for Jews or less hostile than it was.
There is much unfinished business. The Iraqis have never acknowledged their responsibility for the suffering and forced exodus of 150,000 Jews, the country’s most ancient community. The government has never compensated them for confiscated property. The World Organisation of Jews from Iraq, based in New York, has made repeated calls for information on Iraq’s 'disappeared ones’, without success.
        A current source of friction is the fate of the so-called Jewish archive. In June 2014, the US is committed to returning to Iraq - and not to its exiled rightful Jewish owners -  thousands of documents, books and Torah scrolls seized from the Jewish community and shipped to Washington for restoration. The Iraqis claim the archive is part of their national heritage. Although only five Jews still live in Baghdad, post-Saddam Iraq says it tolerates minorities and values their contribution.
       While the events of 27 January 1969 in Baghdad cannot remotely compare to the enormity of the Holocaust - the impulse for both was the same: man’s inhumanity to man. There the similarity ends. The Germans have done all they can to show contrition for the Holocaust. When will Iraq issue an apology to its Jews?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Exploding the myth of the Arab bystander

 The Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem in Berlin. He was an ally of the Nazis and shared their aims: to exterminate the Jews

While most Arabs and Muslims were indifferent to the Holocaust, a sizeable number sympathised with the Nazi objective of the extermination of the Jews, and leading Arabs were among active promoters of it. Shimon Ohayon, MK for Yisrael Beytenu  - spearheading the drive in a Knesset for a memorial day for Jewish refugees from Arab lands - explodes the myth of the innocent Arab bystander.  The article appeared in the Jerusalem Post and was timed for International Holocaust Memorial Day(with thanks: Ashley)

 In recent years many writers have attempted to grapple with the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict by trying to create a metaphor to demonstrate a shared injustice perpetrated both against Jews and Arabs.

The general theme is along the lines: “Suppose a man leaps out of a burning building... and lands on a bystander in the street below. Now make that burning building Europe and the luckless man the Palestinian Arabs. Is this a historical injustice?”* This metaphor for the conflict was apparently created by writer Jeffrey Goldberg and has been approvingly cited by others, including by polemicist and author Christopher Hitchens.

Quite apart from the facts that the metaphor does not relate to the historical connection of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, and that the ancient historical impulses for Zionism are unrelated to persecution, it also displays a stunning ignorance of history, especially surrounding the enduring trope that the Palestinians in particular and the Arab world in general were mere bystanders to the Nazi genocide.

This fabrication of history allows for a complete innocence on the parts of the Palestinian and Arab populations during the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the Arab stance toward Hitler and the Nazis has been firmly and historically established as an ally and supporter.

The Arab masses and leadership gleefully welcomed the Nazis taking power in 1933 and messages of support came from all over the Arab world, especially from the Palestinian Arab leader, Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was the first non-European to request admission to the Nazi party.

Husseini, who was to be arrested for his role in the bloody Arab Revolt 1936-9, had fled to Germany in 1941 and was immediately granted a special place among the Nazi hierarchy.

The Mufti and Hitler relayed many declarations to each other explicitly stating that the main enemy they shared was the Jews.

However, the Mufti’s ideology transcended words and directed his actions. In 1945, Yugoslavia sought to indict the Mufti as a war criminal for his role in recruiting 20,000 Muslim volunteers for the SS, who participated in the killing of Jews in Croatia and Hungary.

Adolf Eichmann’s deputy Dieter Wisliceny (subsequently executed as a war criminal) in his Nuremburg Trials testimony stated: “The Mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and adviser of Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of this plan... He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures.”

On a visit to Auschwitz, Husseini reportedly admonished the guards running the gas chambers to work more diligently. Throughout the war, he appeared regularly on German radio broadcasts to the Middle East, preaching his pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic message to the Arab masses back home.

Even the Mufti himself explained that the main reason for his close cooperation with the Nazis was their shared hatred of the Jews and their joint wish for their extermination.

“Our fundamental condition for cooperating with Germany was a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world,” the man who was known as the “Fuhrer of the Arab World” wrote in his post-World War Two memoirs.

However, the affection, emulation and cooperation with the Nazis were not just found among the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine, they were replicated across the Arab world.

Many have suggested that the Ba’ath parties of Assad’s Syria and formerly in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were strongly inspired by the Nazis. The most influential party that emulated the Nazis in the Arab world was “Young Egypt,” which was founded in October 1933.

The party had storm troopers, torch processions and literal translations of Nazi slogans – like “One folk, One party, One leader.”

Nazi anti-Semitism was replicated, with calls to boycott Jewish businesses and physical attacks on Jews.

Sami al-Joundi, one of the founders of the ruling Syrian Ba’ath Party, recalls: “We were racists. We admired the Nazis. We were immersed in reading Nazi literature and books... We were the first who thought of a translation of Mein Kampf. Anyone who lived in Damascus at that time was witness to the Arab inclination toward Nazism.”

There was of course the infamous pogrom in Iraq led by the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali al-Kaylani in 1941. Kaylani also asked of Hitler the right to “deal with Jews” in Arab states, a request that was granted. Apart from the secular pro-Nazi stance, there were many other religious Arab leaders who issued fatwas that the Arabs should assist and support the Nazis against the Allies.

From June 1940 to May 1943, the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators and their Italian fascist allies applied in Arab lands many of the precursors to the Final Solution. These included not only “racial” laws depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence and free movement, but also torture, slave labor, deportation and execution.

Thousands of Jews perished under Nazi and Axis control and in most cases, like their European counterparts, the local population at times assisted, collaborated and participated in this oppression and murder.

Robert Satloff has written extensively on the Arabs and the Holocaust and he found that much of the local Arab population willingly participated in this institutional Jew-hatred. One example Staloff provides is in an interview with a survivor from the concentration camp in Djelfa, in the Algerian desert. When asked whether the local Arabs who administered the camp were just following orders, he replied “Nobody told them to beat us all the time. Nobody told them to chain us together. Nobody told them to tie us naked to a post and beat us and to hang us by our arms and hose us down, to bury us in the sand so our heads should look up and bash our brains in and urinate on our heads.... No, they took this into their own hands and they enjoyed what they did.”

Satloff’s book Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Reach into Arab Lands chronicles much of the nature of the Holocaust in Arab Lands. He tries to show that there were Arabs who helped rescue and hide Jews during the Holocaust, but just like in Europe these examples are exceptions to a sadly more pervasive assistance or indifference to Jewish suffering and murder.

In Libya, many Jews were sent not only to local concentration camps but also to European camps like Bergen-Belsen and Biberach. In a film titled Goral Meshutaf (“Shared Fate”), some Tunisian eyewitnesses claim that the Nazis had begun building gas chambers there. If the Allies had not won the decisive battle at El Alamain, perhaps the fate of North African Jews would have been the same as befell European Jewry.

A willing or indifferent local population was an important ingredient in the destruction of European Jewry and it was certainly present amongst the Arabs of North Africa.

Many of the current leadership in the Middle East owe their power base to the emergence of their predecessors during those dark times. The Palestinians still revere Husseini and many of terrorist groups are named after groups he founded.

The myth that the Arabs were innocent bystanders to the Nazi Holocaust is unfortunately widely accepted at face value. It is about time that this capricious fallacy was exposed, not just out of respect to those Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and their allies everywhere, but also to deconstruct the simplistic notions used to explain the history of the conflict, especially that the Arabs were not responsible for the suffering that resulted from their continued recalcitrance.

Read article in full 

* A more suitable analogy of the man jumping out of the burning building would be: the Palestinian Mufti was one of those who set fire to the building in the first place. Other arsonists were the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ba’ath party, the proto-Nazi youth movements. The Assyrians, Kurds, Maronites and Copts have been jumping out of the windows too.

The myth of Palestinian innocence

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Jew in Saddam's army

 Soldiers crawl through a swamp during the Iraq-Iran war

One of 150 Jews then living in Iraq, a young dental surgeon named Eliyahu served in both the Iran-Iraq war (1980 -88) and the Gulf war (1990 - 91) - on the Iraqi side. At one point he was plucked from the jaws of death. Here's an extract from his story of hardship and heroism, as told to the Sephardi Bulletin (September/October 2000):

As a Senior House Officer and Registrar at Basra general hospital (during the Iran-Iraq war), Eliyahu found himself assisting in complicated surgery to the face and jaws of injured soldiers. Conditions were primitive and standards of care abysmal. Dressings were infected. Eliyahu took on feeding and nursing his patients himself.

Because of their injuries, the patients jaws were locked together and they could only take liquids. The nurses cared more about the liquidiser breaking down than about the welfare of their starving patients. The matron tried to undermine Eliyahu and after a row she deliberately broke the liquidiser. He repaired it. Later, when the war was over, she apologised for her misconduct.

In 1990, just when Eliyahu was about to leave for England to study for an MSc FDS, having won a scholarship, fate thwarted him once more. The Gulf War broke out  on 2 August  following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Eliyahu went back to Basra Hospital and in November was called up to the army. He was based only 50 km from the front line and subject to regular American and British bombing raids. He introduced himself to his Iraqi major as a Jew. "We are fighting Israel (Saddam had fired several Scud missiles at Tel Aviv - ed)   and they send me a Jew?" the officer exclaimed.

Food and water were desperately short and starving soldiers would break into the military food stores. The doctors had to make do with whatever came their way. Eliyahu used an old car battery to make a radio work. Eliyahu wore his old uniform from the Iran-Iraq war and his old boots. He had no helmet but managed to lay his hands on a gas mask belonging to an escaped Kurd.

There was no electricity. "I will bring you light. Buy me five candles," said Eliyahu. The soldiers thought he was mad. As he used to do with his grandmother's Friday night candles as a child, he recycled them continuously by melting the wax and made a wick in a porcelain cup.

One day he found the candles in a dustbin and the porcelain cup shattered into pieces. A Shi'ite officer watched Eliyahu retrieve the candles from the dustbin. Painstakingly he glued the cup back together, piece by piece. "Now I know why you are called the chosen people," he said admiringly.

Eliyahu had the chance to escape with a Sunni doctor friend but decided against it." He's a Muslim, I'm a Jew," he reasoned. He thought of his family, who had not heard of him for months." If I die I am one and they are four. If I escape, Lord knows what terrible things would happen to them."

Worse was yet to come. Eliyahu was needed at the Basra military hospital. He was driven there one night  of heavy allied bombing: the driver became confused, switched off his headlights but continued driving. Eliyahu could only see the blackness of the night and the fire of the bombs. He was sure he was going to die. The last thing he remembered before being knocked unconscious was reciting the Shema and the verse said on Yom Kippur: Haya, Hoveh Yihieh (God was, is and will be).

Later Eliyahu learned how close he had been to death. His commander told him:"You have Heaven on your side!" I was informed that the ambulance carrying you was bombed. It turned over. I pulled you through the windscreen. You were unconscious, bleeding. I put you in a lorry to take you back to our unit. An officer doctor examined you. He said you were dying."

Eliyahu was placed with the other bodies. The soldiers buried them one by one. But just as the orders were given to lower Eliyahu into his grave,  the soldiers noticed his toes twitch. "This is a message from heaven,"they told the commander,"Please lift him out." 

The commander rushed Eliyahu into intensive care. When he came to, he was puzzled : why was he in the hospital where he used to work? He began recall the events leading up to his black-out and examined himself for fractures. There were none. "Mash'allah ( Allah protect you), said a nurse, watching him get up and leave the room. He had been unconscious for two hours. For a week he had no memory as a result of concussion to his brain.

In hospital there was no food, no water - except for some oranges which a girl he had previously helped in the hospital brought him. Eliyahu survived by drinking intravenous infusion fluids.

Eliyahu's adventures were, however, far from over. He managed to escape to Baghdad with some Palestinians who had been captured by the US in Kuwait. At first they refused to take him but a Sh'ite doctor friend threatened the driver:"If you don't take my friend I will shoot your tyres."

The Gulf war had ended. Iraq was defeated, but now it was in the grip of civil war between the Shi'ite majority and the regime. The Americans had bombed all the bridges and there were pockets of fighting everywhere. On the road to Baghdad the bus came under fire. A journey that should have taken seven hours took two days. The passengers had no food, only suspect water and disgusting soup. Eliyahu had to share with a soldier his spoon.

Skin and bone, Eliyahu finally arrived home.

In September 1991 Eliyahu finally left Iraq. He now lives in the UK. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

This miraculous find does not belong to Iraq

 Hand-painted Haggadah, 1930s

The US shipped tens of thousands of documents out of Iraq after its invasion, but the forlorn and random reminders of Iraq's Jewish community are the only documents Iraq is insisting must be returned, writes Lyn Julius in her Huffington Post blog: 

On a chilly December morning, in the presence of Iraqi government officials, the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq held a ceremony to bury unusable or pasool fragments of Torah scrolls at a Jewish cemetery in the aptly-named town of West Babylon, NY.

But the rest of the archive is scheduled to go back when the digitizing process is complete - probably in June 2014.

The prospective return of the Iraqi-Jewish archive has sent Iraqi Jews into paroxysms of outrage. US Jewish organisations, congressmen and senators have raised their voices in indignation. Several articles have appeared in the mainstream press and media calling for the archive not to go back to Iraq. Nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition.

Iraq is adamant: It wants the archive back. "They represent part of our history and part of our identity. There was a Jewish community in Iraq for 2,500 years," said Samir Sumaidaie, the former Iraqi ambassador to the United States. "It is time for our property to be repatriated."

Repatriated? That assumes that the archive was Iraq's property to begin with. There is a bitter irony in Iraq, which has driven its pre-Islamic Jewish community to extinction, having dispossessed them on the way out, demanding the return of 'its property'. It should be noted that the US shipped tens of thousands of documents out of Iraq after its invasion, but the forlorn and random reminders of Iraq's Jewish community are the only documents Iraq is insisting must be returned.

Legally, the US government did the correct thing to sign an agreement. Morally, it was a singular act of blindness.

The archive is the cultural property of the Iraqi-Jewish community, and save for five Jews still in Baghdad out of a community of 140,000, Jews no longer live in Iraq, but in Israel and the West. To return the archive to Iraq would be like 'returning stolen property to the Nazis'.

When Iraq did have a Jewish community, the regime took every step to persecute and destroy it. What is there to stop Iraq losing interest in the archive the minute it arrives back on Iraqi soil? Or more likely - selling the items off on the international market to the highest bidder?

There are practical objections to return, too. Despite assurances to the contrary, Iraq itself does not have the resources to conserve and store the archive safely. Daily bombings and the advance of Al-Qaeda on Iraqi soil hardly inspire confidence.

Even if the archive is digitized and accessible online, Iraq's Jews and their descendants, 90 percent of whom are in Israel, will be debarred from access to the original documents.

The issue of the archive not only draws attention to the mass spoliation of nearly a million Jews driven from the Arab world, but is a test case. Here at last is a unique opportunity to return Jewish property to its rightful owners. Will the US take it up?

The petition asking the US government to stop the archive returning to Iraq may be signed here.

Read article in full

Friday, January 24, 2014

What is the truth about Jobar?

 Over the last year, reports have been rife that the Jobar synagogue, one of Syria's oldest, has been destroyed. Other reports say the synagogue is intact. Adam Blitz reviews the evidence in the Times of Israel. One thing is certain: both the Assad regime and the opposition rebels are using the synagogue as a propaganda football: 

Ideology aside, the headline of The Times of Israel’s article, “Syria’s ‘Destroyed’ Ancient Synagogue is Still Intact”, should not come as a revelation. The video posted by the Dubai-based pan-Arab al-Aan broadcasting corporation on 23rd June 2013 entitled, “Jobar Synagogue and Bashar al-Assad?” [24] shows some damage to the traditional poplar-beamed ceiling of synagogue and its roof. There is also some residual debris; but it is fully evident that the synagogue is far from destroyed. Moreover, the interview with F.S.A. fighters indicates that they are protecting the synagogue – a claim not too distant from The Times of Israel’s story (except without reference to the much sought after Judaica).

Jobar Synagogue. Hole in poplar-beamed ceiling. From al-Aan video June 2013

On close inspection al-Aan’s account consists of earlier video footage from March. It also insists that Jobar was “the oldest synagogue in the world”, that it housed the oldest Torah in the world” and that town of Jobar was once home tothe second largest concentration of Jews”.  Despite these grandiose and false claims the footage contains important evidence. Whether the video was disseminated by al-Assad’s foes or not, it is a critical witness in a conflict where validation is increasingly dependent upon videography and partisan reportage.  

The task, of course, is to know where fact begins and credibility ends. What is apparent is that December’s coverage in The Times of Israel takes matters one step further. The article omits the collateral damage to the ceiling and roof. No mention is made of the very real consequence of regime bombardment if the F.S.A remains encamped in the sacred site.  Of the scrolls, one is noticeably desecrated (although there is nothing to associate the object in the photograph with Jobar as the newspaper rightly reports). More significant is the image of the synagogue with mysterious “card” in situ. It does not, of its own accord, constitute proof of the synagogue’s endurance in December of 2013.   Surely the Skype-friendly rebels can do better than that.
The largely intact Jobar synagogue with the mysterious 'card' on the rail shows the picture was taken recently

What the image does show, which previous video coverage from March and June had not shown, is proof of a prayer hall bereft. Gone is the large menorah which sat upon the stone attributed to Elijah; so too are the many hangings and carpets that once “muffled” the walls as Colin Thubron, author of “Mirror to Damascus”, put it [25]. At its very least, The Times of Israel prayer hall photo may be one of the most recent images to emerge from Jobar post-June 2013.  

Sadly, if the coverage from April of this year helped to preserve the synagogue, perhaps because the site provided no further political purpose, the latest news may yet have the opposite effect.  Judaica, Syria’s Jewish past, has gained currency. It has entered the discourse of rebel strategy, whether in actuality or virtuality. Syria’s Jewish legacy now stands and falls with international perception of a conflict far away from these shores.

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Prisoners for plundered Judaica in Syria?

Peace? Recognise injustice to Jews

 As the Palestinians harden their position in the 'peace talks',  it is more important than ever to insert Jewish refugees on to the agenda. If the Arab world is serious about peace, it needs to recognise the injustices done to almost a million Jewish refugees,  Rachel Avraham writes in the Jewish Press:

(...) Despite the many talents that the Mizrahi Jewish community possessed and their contributions to Arab society, almost all of them were compelled to leave their homes following waves of anti-semitism.   From 1947 to 1948, anti-Jewish pogroms and riots erupted, Jews were systematically persecuted, and much Jewish property was confiscated.   Official expulsion edicts would be issued in some Arab countries like Egypt and Iraq.   

Ruins of Central Synagogue in Aleppo, Syria after 1947 pogrom

Ruins of Central Synagogue in Aleppo, Syria after 1947 pogrom Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Mazal Elijah, a Jewish refugee from Iraq, told the Jewish Press: “Right around Israel’s declaration of independence, continuous massacres against Jews occurred in Iraq and during these massacres, Arabs broke into Jews' homes, stole whatever they wanted, and then they flooded the homes, so that Jews would not be able to live there any more.  Furthermore, Iraqi Jewish women used to make preserved foods so that certain types of vegetables would be available in the winter months.  The Arab thieves would eat up all of the preserves that the Iraqi Jewish women worked very hard to prepare, thus leaving Iraqi Jewish families with nothing.  Rapes occurred all the time and if an Arab barged into your home and demanded to marry your daughter, it was impossible to refuse them.”

 Flora Cohen, a Jewish refugee from Morocco, told the Jewish Press: “It was a common practice in Morocco for some Muslims to abduct young virgin Jewish girls, forcefully convert them to Islam, and to make them marry Muslims.”  She stated that one of her relatives suffered this fate.  In addition, both her grandfather and his brother were murdered by Arabs, leaving her grandmother a widow with two children.  “In June 1948, bloody riots erupted in Oujda and Djerada, resulting in the death of 44 Moroccan Jews while many more were wounded. An unofficial boycott was initiated against the Moroccan Jewish community that same year,” Cohen emphasized.   

Nevertheless, despite all of this, Cohen insisted that the situation was still tolerable as long as the French were still controlling Morocco.  However, Cohen stressed that once the Moroccan people rose up against the French, the situation dramatically deteriorated for the Jews. “Terrorism was widespread within the country and Jews were also the victims of such violence, not just the French, since the Jews supported the French,” Cohen stated. She professed that her brother was almost murdered by Arabs and it was soon after this incident that her entire family moved to Israel.

 Levana Zamir, a Jewish refugee from Egypt, reported that 10 Egyptian Army officers came to her family home the day that Israel was declared to be a state.  Her uncle was arrested and taken to prison, under the charge of being a Zionist, and was forced to remain there a year and a half.   “They confiscated our businesses.   After three months, they had an auction.  My family had one of the biggest printing businesses in Cairo.   And suddenly, we had nothing. They came one day and did an auction of my house.  I started to cry when I saw them selling my piano,” she stated.    “They told us that if we want to be free, we have to leave Egypt.   We left our home in the middle of the night, like thieves.”  

The life stories of Mazal Elijah, Flora Cohen and Levana Zamir is also that of numerous other Jews who hailed from numerous other Arabic speaking countries such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, etc.  Close to one million Mizrahi Jews became refugees, a number which some studies claim is twice as high as the number of Palestinian refugees, who according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, consistituted 550,000 people.   The academic Benny Morris claims there were 750,000 Palestinian refugees, a number still significantly less than the number of Jewish refugees from Arabic speaking countries.  These Jews arrived in Israel with virtually nothing and were forced to live in refugee camps.  In many cases, they gave up property and possessions that amounted to significantly more money than what the Palestinian refugees left behind.

According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine appraised that Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war lost $350 million.  If Palestinian losses from the 1967 war are added into the equation, Palestinian refugees accumulatively lost $450 million, which in 2012 prices adds up to $4.4 billion.  Jewish refugees, to the contrary, lost $700 million in 1948 prices, which amounts to $6.7 billion in 2012 prices.   If the Arab world is serious about making peace with Israel, then they need to recognize the injustices they committed against Mizrahi Jewry, to pay compensation to Jewish refugees from Arabic countries, and consent to the lack of a Palestinian right of return to Israel proper, since it isn’t a feasible solution and such demands ignore that the suffering was two-way rather than one-way.   

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Yossi and Sari Alfi perform in London

Sari Alfi

 To mark the first international day commemorating the exodus of Jews from Arab countries, singer Sari Alfi is coming with her father, the celebrity storyteller Yossi Alfi, to London as guest stars in Harif's Soiree Orientale on 17 February. But the singer was not always as fascinated by her eastern roots as she is now, she tells The Jerusalem Post:

"I joined the family business. Show business, that is.”

As the daughter of storyteller and poet Yossi Alfi and sister of renowned comedian Guri Alfi, performing runs in musician Sari Alfi’s blood. With a multicultural background, Alfi intertwines her ethnic roots to create her art.

“I once asked my daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up. She answered, ‘Iraqi,’” says Alfi. “Coming from my family, that does not surprise me. We are all artists who come from different places. My father is Iraqi, my mother is British, my husband is Australian, and we live in Israel. Let’s face it, we are mutts.”

In her new album, Yamim Hamim, produced by Roy Sela, Alfi blends authentic Babylonian melodies with contemporary Western music. She writes and composes all her own music and lyrics.

Her album includes guest performances by traditional Iraqi musicians, such as singers Ismail Fadel and (Ehsan) Iman and violinist Yair Dalal. By using more traditional musicians, she gives Iraqi culture a modern twist with edgy electronic beats.

In her younger years, Alfi identified more with her mother’s British background. As she matured, she began to embrace her Iraqi roots. The turning point occurred at her wedding. She surprised her father by singing an Iraqi melody. That song ignited a lifelong love affair with Iraqi music.

“When I was a kid, I hated Iraqi music. I thought it just sounded like moaning,” says Alfi.

“The second I stepped on stage and started singing at my wedding, I had a movie moment. I sang ‘Fog El Nahal,’ one of the most traditional Iraqi songs. I realized the beauty and complexity of the music and wanted to learn more.”

By discovering Iraqi music, Alfi’s bond with her father increased immensely. As she began to study Iraqi musicians and styles, she delved into her family roots. In 1949, Alfi’s father escaped from Iraq as part of the Jewish exodus to Israel. He came as a three-year old, but he always stayed true to his Iraqi roots. As a storyteller, he incorporates stories from his family history into his show.

“The older I get, the more I learn about my family’s history,” says Alfi. “I’m named after my great-grandmother, Rima. I used to hate my middle name. I said, ‘The day I turn 18, I’m changing my name.’ Then I heard my father’s story about how she never learned to read or write. She used to sign her name with a handprint. When I got my bachelor’s degree, I wrote out my name as ‘Sari Rima Alfi.’ Now I’m proud to be named after Rima,” she asserts.

On February 17, Yossi and Sari Alfi will share the stage to mark the first international day commemorating the Jewish exodus from Arab countries.

Sponsored by HARIF, a UK organization promoting the heritage of Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, the concert will be held in their Central London venue.

“I can’t believe my dad and I will perform together in my mom’s country,” says Alfi. “My family comes full circle. My only wish is that my grandparents could be there. I want my Iraqi grandparents to see us embrace our culture. I want my British grandparents to see me perform in the middle of their home. Not having them here is bittersweet for me.”

As a parent herself, Alfi wants to pass down her Iraqi culture to her children. Her family observes many Iraqi-Jewish traditions. From singing Shabbat prayers with Arabic tunes to cooking traditional Iraqi dishes, Alfi wants to expose her two daughters, Liri and Yahli, to their Iraqi heritage.

“When my family originally came to Israel, many of them were embarrassed by their Iraqi roots,” says Alfi. “Now my father is sharing stories, my brother is telling jokes, and I am singing with traditional Iraqi rhythms. We share the stage together as one big Iraqi family. We have even performed for President Shimon Peres. We have proven that Iraqi culture should be celebrated, not hidden.”

Read article in full

To book your place at Harif's Soiree Orientale on 17 February in London, click here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Israeli song is a hit in Yemen

A song from an Israeli singer with Yemenite roots – but who has never visited the country – has become a surprise hit in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, the Economist reported on Tuesday. Re-published in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily).

Zion Golan's song "Sana’a al-Yemen" is frequently heard blaring from stereos and minibus speakers. "Come with me to Sanaa," Golan sings in Yemeni Arabic. "Sanaa, my home, you'll like it."

But although the lyrics refer to Sana’a as home, Golan has never been there. As an Israeli Jew he is forbidden to travel to Yemen.

Golan is one of more than 300,000 Israelis who trace their roots to Yemen, once home to a significant Jewish community dating back to at least the 2nd century, the Economist writes.

The bulk of Yemen’s Jews left when Israel was founded in 1948, escaping Yemen's instability, poverty and instances of anti-Jewish violence. Today barely a hundred Jews remain.

But cultural ties have survived. Yemeni restaurants in Israel’s Tel Aviv serve traditional cuisine and some markets discreetly stock qat, a leafy mild narcotic popular in Yemen.

Israelis of Yemeni descent such as Golan and the late Ofra Haza, a pop star famed for her fusion of western and eastern sounds, continued to write music that found an audience in Yemen, since it is grounded in the traditions of their ancestral home.

The artists' bootleg albums have long been bought and sold underground (trade with Israel is illegal in Yemen). More recently, the internet has made the songs more accessible. Young Yemenis watch performances on YouTube, sharing them on social networking sites such as Facebook, where they often express astonishment at the resilience of Yemeni culture and lament the Jewish community’s near-extinction in Yemen.

Read article in full
Israeli song becomes Syrian protest soundtrack

Blurring good guys and bad in Hebron

There is something disturbing about Hillel Cohen's new book (Hebrew) Tarpat - about the Hebron massacre in 1929, the decisive breaking point in relations between Jews and Arabs. Unlike his previous book, Army of Shadows, a fascinating account of 'Palestinian collaboration with Zionism' in the 1920s and 30s, Tarpat takes a massacre of Jews by Arabs and blurs the dividing line between murder and self-defence,  'good guys and bad guys'. Reminiscent of the fashionable revisionism that holds that the Farhud was notable for the numbers of Muslims who saved Jews, Tarpat seems to fit with the current post-modern orthodoxy in academic circles which holds that there is no historical truth, only 'narratives'.  The Sephardim here are viewed as 'another people entirely' by Ashkenazi Zionist 'colonialists'.   Unsurprising for Haaretz, Moshe Sakal files a rave review. 

Cohen, a lecturer on Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, cites S.Y. Agnon’s famous line regarding his own, changed attitude toward the Arabs in the wake of the 1929 riots: “Now my attitude is this. I do not hate them and I do not love them; I do not wish to see their faces. In my humble opinion, we shall now build a large ghetto of half a million Jews in Palestine, because if we do not, we will, heaven forbid, be lost.” Cohen notes that these are early signs of the separation mind-set, which became official Israeli policy at the beginning of the 21st century. Yet, it is doubtful whether, after those riots, it was still possible to realize that which Agnon aspired to.

“Tarpat” is a spectacular stew, with every ingredient tossed into the mix, for discussion. The triangle of Mizrahim-Ashkenazim-Arabs (Yosef Haim Brenner: “What good will the one language do? One language for whom? For me and Sephardim? And are we really one nation with them? Say what you will: In my opinion, that is another people entirely”); the subject of Zionism as colonialism; the direct connection between 1929 and 1948, the year of independence; Uri Zvi Greenberg, Jacob Israël de Haan, Albert Einstein and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Gershom Scholem and Brit Shalom; desecration of mosques; Suha Arafat and Thelma Yellin; and the reality of Arabs prostrating themselves on the doorsteps of Jewish homes in order to preserve the lives of the residents within, and of Jews spiriting Arab families away and saving them from being lynched.

Cohen quotes the witty words of the British judges at the trials following the 1929 events, who try with all their might to understand who was responsible for the first kill (spoiler: all sides were). He writes about the age-old dispute over the Western Wall, about Chabad at the forefront of the fight against Zionism, about pro-Zionist Muslims in Hebron and about the Tomb of the Patriarchs there, about the issue of land purchases from the Arabs, about morality and moral superiority, about massacres of all kinds – and specifically about the horrifying massacre in Hebron – about truths and lies, about the press (“No understanding between you and us is possible unless the Balfour Declaration is nullified,” the newspaper Falastin wrote in September 1929. “There shall be no understanding before you realize that Falastin is not part of Wild Africa, and murdering people is not as easy as in Rhodesia and the rest of the countries settled by Negroes, who do not put up any resistance”), about the Koran and about victim-hood and hangings.

The book is organized according to the main sites where the uprising occurred: Jaffa and Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Hebron, Motza and Safed. But its frame narrative is actually an unknown story: The murder of the Awan family in Jaffa by Simcha Hinkis, a “Jewish police constable,” as the case is described in the book “Biladuna Filastin” (“Our Land Palestine”), a geographical encyclopedia by Mustafa Murad al-Dabbagh.

Cohen traced the life story of the man who murdered the Awan family, Hinkis (who was sentenced to death, but saw his sentence commuted). This incident brought to his mind several burning questions. Cohen realized that from a Palestinian perspective, the story of Tarpat is different from the one he knew. And this is what interested him: How did it happen that the Arabs perceived reality so differently from the Jews?

The book also makes gentle leaps forward – up to the victory of 1967 and sometimes nearly to our day – but always in an almost silent manner, as though it is too early and we cannot yet judge the present or even understand it. After the 1929 riots, Cohen describes Yaakov Pat, a senior member of the Haganah (Israel’s pre-state militia), who was traveling by train from Haifa to Egypt, when he encountered Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. “I went back and stood at the window and the smug ugly face of the mufti looked back at me. Here, come a step closer to me, and stick out your hand and act (for this time you have a weapon!),” he imagined to himself.

Pat debated whether to take hold of the weapon and take the mufti’s life, until suddenly his “thinking cleared. It was clear to me that I was not allowed to do the deed, not while I am on duty and fulfilling an assignment. To the contrary. It is clear to me it would be an act of treason.”

Haganah soldier Ephraim Tzur’s soul, too, yearned to murder the mufti, as Cohen relates. Tzur sent a letter to Rachel Yanait: “I wrote that I can and want to finish off the mufti.” But her response was firm: “For God’s sake, do not do that.” Even in insane times such as those could “targeted assassination” have been deemed a foolish, immoral action. Even treasonous.

There will be readers who will fidget uncomfortably in their chairs as they read about Jews who perpetrated reprisals against Arabs, and even lynched them, and about Arabs who saved Jews (and vice versa). Cohen’s story is not biased with regard to the truth of any particular side, maybe because there aren’t really two “sides.” No border can really pass between these two peoples, because the land is one, and the story – convoluted and complex as it may be – is shared by both.
Cohen’s readers have undoubtedly heard about the massacre of Hebron’s Jews in 1929. Whoever visits the museum in Hebron today, which is housed in Beit Hadassah, will be able to see photographs of dead and injured Jews, people without limbs, and even get a close look at the very axes that were used, according to the museum’s organizers, by the Arab assailants. On my visit to Hebron last month, I saw on one of the street signs that relate the city’s story to pedestrians a marker about 1929, headed “Destruction,” with the following text: “Arab rioters massacre Jews. The community is expelled and destroyed.”

“Tarpat” makes use of Israeli scholarly works, testimonies from the archives of the Haganah, minutes from Mandatory-era courts, clippings from the archives of such newspapers as Haaretz and Doar Hayom, medical files and more. Cohen juxtaposes the reports written by Jews against a host of Palestinian sources from the period and from our own time, and shows – time after time – just how often history, as the people involved tell it to themselves, is partial at best, and even misleading. By means of writing, we sometimes perform an action that is ostensibly the opposite of writing; if it seems at times that silence is concealment, then these books “are primarily engaged in concealing by means of writing.”

So, Hillel Cohen set out in search of answers and came up with a major question. And perhaps this is what distinguishes his book from many others written about the conflict over the years. He uses few maps and diagrams, offering little prescriptive advice. He also refrains from expressing remorse, lecturing or becoming mired in despair. Cohen does not forget that as an Israeli Jew, he cannot write from a “neutral” viewpoint or even – for the sake of the intellectual game – cross the lines. He doesn’t want to, either. But he understands something basic, which many people choose to ignore systematically: In order to plan your actions (as a person, as a people), you must understand the other side – its desires, its frustrations, its secret feelings and its anger. He understands that, more than it is important to understand what actually happened and who suffered the first fatality, one must understand how each side perceives the actions it performed and those performed by the other side.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Algerian writer Sansal blasts UNESCO

 Boualem Sansal in Jerusalem

Professor Robert Wistrich is fuming about UNESCO's cancellation of its Israel exhibition after two years in the planning. But equally furious is the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, whose letter to Irina Bokova, the UNESCO Director-General, I have translated below. Sansal's condemnation of UNESCO's decision is all the more courageous because he still lives in an Arab country. (With thanks: Ahuva)

"I am sending you this letter to tell you of my surprise and discomfort following your decision to cancel the exhibition " 3500 years of ties between the Jewish people and the Holy Land ".

"Your honourable institution actively participated in its preparation and agreed to host it at its premises at its headquarters in Paris. The cancellation has strengthened my decision and my pride in being part of the Honorary Committee of the exhibition alongside such eminent personalities as Elie Wiesel, Esther Coopersmith, Father Patrick Desbois, Lord Carey of Clifton and Mr Irwin Cotler.

" It seems that your decision was taken at the request of the Arab Group at UNESCO. They considered that such an exhibit would harm the peace negotiations and efforts by the U.S. secretary of State John Kerry, and undermine the neutrality of the UNESCO. I personally find it hard to believe that cancelling a cultural exhibition at the world headquarters of Culture and Science promotes current peace negotiations. This is at the very least to prejudge the content of the exhibition, and it surely introduces an additional hurdle to negotiations. The cancellation can be seen as a boycott and therefore adopting a political position.

"As a writer, my weakness is to believe that free expression is peace, it is the exchange of ideas, the dialogue with the Other, and as an Algerian, I know how the lack of democracy in our Arab countries prevents peace and breeds violence. Putting out the fire in one's house, it seems to me, is more urgent than firefighting cultural exhibitions across the world.

"It is to have a narrow view of neutrality to demand that an institution have nothing to do with the Other. Neutrality means nothing; an institution like UNESCO does not have to be neutral: it must let everything and everyone see and be seen. A dialogue based on each and every individual reality can start and  be profitable.

"The Arab Group can now celebrate its victory: it got an exhibition cancelled for exposing the Other. This suggests that far from being objective and neutral, UNESCO is being partisan. Now let's hear about the lack of democracy in these countries which in the last three years alone has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.

"I'm sorry, Madame Director-General, to see you complicit in an affair that ultimately harms everyone's name.

Yours faithfully

 Boualem Sansal

Read letter in French 

Is Nazism resurgent in Egypt?

'Egyptians should re-assess Jews'

 Azazeel, a novel by Youssef Zeidan

Egyptians should re-examine their thinking about Jews and Israel, philosopher Youssef Zeidan tells Jacky Hougy in Al Monitor. That process should begin with acknowledging the Israiliyyat, controversial hadiths by Jewish converts to Islam  in the spirit of the Torah.  Modern antisemitism, he says, speaking for a small group of Egyptian intellectuals, mainly takes its toll on Arabs and serves the interests of their military rulers.

It’s not every day that a well-known Egyptian intellectual makes pronouncements of the kind made by philosopher Youssef Zeidan. The Egyptian and Israeli media missed what he said at the end of a Dec. 30 interview with journalist Lamis El-Hadidy on Egypt’s CBC TV channel, even though it went to the heart of the ties between Cairo and Jerusalem and between Arabs and the Jewish world.

 Zeidan is a researcher of ancient manuscripts. He is also a greatly admired writer, the author of several excellent novels, most prominently “Azazeel,” which has been translated into 16 languages and was recently even published in Hebrew. Toward the end of the interview, Hadidy asked him how he sees the year 2014. Her guest’s answer was surprising: He suggested that Egyptians reassess their ties with the Jews.

“We should reconsider our notions regarding the Jewish question. We are not even aware how much this affects us. [It] has become a common trade, benefiting all our politicians. Any politician who wants to gain popularity curses Israel, but when he comes to power, he has no problem with Israel. Youssef Zeidan made some of his pronouncements in the above MEMRI TV clip (with thanks: Raphail)
“That's stupidity. Stupidity that is connected to the ignorance of the people. We should reconsider this. Nobody looks out for our interests. We should be aware of this.”

 This fresh thinking, in his view, should start at the very beginning, meaning from the dispute over the Isra'iliyyat. These are chapters included in the sayings by the Prophet Muhammad, known as hadiths, which originated with Jews who converted to Islam, offering interpretations of stories from the Quran in the spirit of the Torah. As a result, some are considered by Islam to be unreliable. For centuries, to this day, Muslim commentators have been seeking to uproot the Isra'iliyyat from hadith literature. There are even those who suspect that they were inserted into the hadiths to corrupt them.

 Zeidan’s words appear to question whether it isn’t time to minimize the importance of this debate, which overshadows the relationship between the two religions. Zeidan didn't stop there. He also called for rethinking “the so-called Middle East problem, which I do not consider to be a problem at all” — in other words, the dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

 “The Nasserists have been oppressing the people for 60 years under the pretext of the Middle East problem,” he said. As a result, “wars were fought and people were killed.” He then suggested that his listeners change their perception of the Holocaust. He even provided an example from the Egyptian school system: the Balfour Declaration — the 1917 British promise which looked favorably on the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

“About Balfour,” Zeidan recalls, “We were indoctrinated at school: ‘What do you think about the Balfour Declaration?’ According to the system of ready-made answers, we were expected to respond: ‘He gave what he did not own to those who did not deserve it.’ That's it.”

The Egyptian philosopher’s statements are a call for a reform in thinking. They express the views of a small group among Egyptian thinkers, which sees the disgust that has developed between the Arabs and Israel as a problem that takes a toll mostly on the Arabs. Zeidan thinks that hatred of the Jews is sweeping and comprehensive: it is rooted in history, religion and contemporary politics.

He is not acting out of a love for Israel. Zeidan is a patriot who believes that resolving the fracture between Egyptians and Jews could serve his countrymen, first and foremost. His courageous pronouncements undermine the deeply rooted Egyptian perception, encouraged from on high, of Jews as a threatening, demonic entity, and of Israel as a danger.

Two and a half months before the interview, in October 2013, the Egyptian daily Al-Masri al-Youm published an article by pundit Gamel Abu Al-Hassan. Abu Al-Hassan, a regular contributor to this newspaper, attacked the armed resistance policy adopted by the Arabs toward Israel. He directed his arrows toward the holiest of holies — the military elites in the Arab states.

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Addendum: Has Zeidan changed his views? Professor Menahem Milson mentions Zeidan in connection with the notoriously popular antisemitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (with thanks: Lily):

The following incident is very revealing: In November 2003, the Arabic translation of the Protocols was put on display next to the Torah and the Talmud as part of an exhibit on the sacred books of the three monotheistic religions. Dr. Yousef Zeidan, director of the Centre for Arabic Manuscripts at the Alexandria library, proudly reported this cultural achievement to a correspondent of the Egyptian weekly Al-Usbu': "When my eyes fell upon the rare copy of this dangerous book, I immediately decided to place it next to the Torah. Although it is not a monotheistic holy book, it has become one of the Jews' sacred [texts] and part of their basic constitution, their religious law, and their way of life. In other words, it is not merely an ideological or theoretical book. Perhaps this book of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is more important to the Zionist Jews of the world than the Torah, as they conduct Zionist life according to it… Thus it is only natural to include the book in this exhibit."

After an international outcry, the Protocols were promptly withdrawn.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Camus was (almost) 'one of us'

He's been listed as an Arab Nobel prize winner, but the celebrated writer and playwright Albert Camus was neither Arab nor Muslim. He was an Algerian pied noir whose father was French and mother Spanish. However, it seems that during his short lifetime - he was killed in a car accident aged 46 - Camus was close to Jews, shared their humanist values and was a supporter of Israel.  

 Albert Bensoussan, writing in Information juive (December 2013), tells how the young philosopher was taken under the wing of the Jewish community of Oran during WWll. Camus, who suffered from tuberculosis, was not allowed to teach in a state school. His friend Andre Benichou, himself dismissed from his teaching post at the Lycee Lamoriciere by the Vichy race laws, employed Camus between 1940 and 41 in his 'Jewish school' for all those pupils excluded from state lycees. Oran was the backdrop for Camus's novel La Peste, an allegory for the spread of Nazism.

Jewish friends apparently introduced Camus to his second wife, Francine Faure, who had a Jewish grandmother. He might have modelled his famous character Meursault in L'Etranger on his friends Raoul and Loulou Bensoussan. In Oran he was treated for tuberculosis by Doctor Cohen. As Doctor Cohen's surgery was closed down by the Vichy regime, his consultations took place at his brother-in-law's home, Dr Pariente.

Albert Camus was a committed supporter of the Resistance, and a defender of oppressed Kabyles and Jews in the underground journal Combat.  Israel's right to exist must be defended after the Shoah, he asserted. "We think it right and just that the survivors should have a country we have neither managed to give them nor preserve", he wrote. He wrote the preface to the Tunisian-Jewish writer Albert Memmi's memoir 'Pillar of Salt'.

In his outlook, his friends and his values - Camus was (almost) 'one of us'.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Articles on archive in Haaretz and Al-Jazeera

 No issue has galvanised Jews exiled from Iraq more than the fight against the return of the Iraqi-Jewish archive to Baghdad, scheduled for June 2014. Read Arlene Prusher's report in Haaretz (with thanks to all those who emailed me) :
Edwin Shuker's school certificate....abandoned identity

Edwin Shuker, who left Baghdad for England in 1971 at the age of 16, is among the people with the most at stake in the fight against the archive’s repatriation. While visiting Washington in November, he went to the National Archives to see highlights from the collection, on display for the first time. The curators had chosen 24 items from among the tens of thousands of documents, 2,700 books and other Jewish artifacts collected from Saddam’s abandoned headquarters as U.S. forces took control in Baghdad a decade ago.

The last thing Shuker expected was to see his own face staring back at him. By chance, one of the documents selected for the exhibition was his government-issued certificate showing he’d passed the nationwide exams given before high school. Attached was a photograph of him as a 12-year-old student at Frank Eini, Baghdad’s main Jewish school.

“I looked at this kid and I felt that I had just looked for the first time at my abandoned identity, not just my abandoned school certificate,” Shuker explains in an interview. “I felt as if I was looking into the eyes of that boy I left behind in 1971. When we left, our identity was completely cut.”

It’s wrong, he says, for the documents to go back to Iraq and be relegated to another basement. “This collection means a lot more to me and my community than pieces of documents,” he says. “It became an issue that has galvanized us around the conviction that this collection will not go back.”

Shuker told his personal story in an interview with Haaretz as well as at a larger forum on Monday at Jerusalem’s Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, at an event sponsored by the World Jewish Congress-Israel and the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations. Shuker’s family chose not to join the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq in 1951, known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. With a growing Zionist underground, Iraq’s Jews came under suspicion and harassment following the establishment of Israel in 1948, and a series of bombings targeting the Jewish community in 1950-51 spurred thousands to sign up for aliyah.

Despite that, many Jews felt themselves to be an integral part of Iraq and decided to stay, Shuker’s parents included. But things got worse for Iraq’s Jews after the 1963 coup by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party in 1963. But the real turning point, many community members say, was the roundup of Jews in 1968 amid charges of spying for Israel, followed by the 1969 hanging of 14 men, nine of them Jews; the regime encouraged Iraqi to come walk beneath the bodies and celebrate. Many Jews with connections to Israel were imprisoned. Most of the remaining families, including Shuker’s, began leaving in secret, often with false papers identifying them as Muslims.

“After the hangings, it was a living nightmare. My father announced one day that we had two hours to say goodbye to life as we know it, and that we could each bring one thing. I couldn’t chose, so I took nothing. We left our identity cards, but more important, we left our identity,” Shuker says.

The archive, which is mainly composed of communal documents but also includes some traditional Jewish books, 48 Torah fragments and a wooden “tik,” as the hard case in which Torah scrolls were usually housed in Middle Eastern communities, underwent a $3 million restoration. The collection has now become the symbol of the richness of Iraqi Jewish culture, which began during the Babylonian exile 2,600 years ago and flourished into the first half of the last century, when there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Iraq. Iraqi Jewry was gradually decimated, first with the Nazi-inspired pogrom in 1941 known as the Farhud, and later as droves of Jews were encourage to immigrate Israel given the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. Saddam’s persecution in the late 1960s was the final death knell, and by the time of his overthrow in 2003, fewer than 60 Jews remained in Baghdad.

“We will explore every avenue to make sure that my children and my grandchildren and our community’s grandchildren will have safe access to this collection,” says Shuker. He is working on behalf of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, of which he is vice chairman, to coordinate what he characterized as “ongoing discussions” with the Iraqis and the State Department to find an acceptable solution.

The journey of the documents from a flooded Baghdad basement to a laboratory in Fort Worth, Texas is one of the more bizarre sidebars of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Harold Rhode, who was then working of the Coalition Provisional Authority on behalf of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, got a call from Ahmed Chalabi, a theretofore exiled Iraqi who was favored by the Bush administration to be the next leader of Iraq. While looking for documents in the intelligence headquarters, they had come across Saddam’s storehouse of information on the Jewish community. The basement had been flooded, whether willfully or accidentally, and was under four feet of water.

They spent two days pumping out the water, and then pulled out reams of waterlogged books, documents and religious texts. They laid them out in a large courtyard to dry. Rhode was at a loss over how to save a wet Torah, but he got permission from a rabbi to save it by rolling it out on the ground in the open air, despite the usual prohibitions against putting a Torah on the floor. Under some pressure to find a solution, the State Department decided to fly the entire mess to the United States. To that end, the materials were packed into 26 trunks that were frozen, to prevent further deterioration and mold. After sitting in Texas for years due to lack of funding, an intensive preservation and documentation effort began. The archive was digitized and presented to the public in November.

Since then, many Iraqi Jews have examined the collection online, and found it a poignant surprise to see their school records and personal documents there.
“I found my own parents’ marriage registration in these documents,” says David Basson, who is one of many Iraqi Jews trying to stop the archive from being returned to Baghdad. “There is the Judaica element, which is perhaps nice for the Jewish people, but the personal element touched all of us who left after 1951,” says Basson, who is now a Tel Aviv investment consultant. “We are the last generation that can identify these items and remember, and we are still alive and well. We are people who can read and know exactly what belonged to us.”

Rhode, for his part, thinks the documents should find a home in Israel. “There is only one Museum of Babylonian Jewish Heritage in the world, and that’s here [in Or Yehuda], and that’s of course where the documents belong,” he says. The United States never signed any kind of formal agreement with Iraq, which at the time was under occupation and without a government, for the return of the documents. But U.S. officials made several public promises to return the archive to Iraq after its restoration. “The only way to solve this now is the Iraqis demit and agree to letting the Americans have it on a longer loan, or that so much time passes that they forget about it,” Rhode says.

The State Department maintains the archives will be returned to Iraq as promised, and it has already funded the training of Iraqi archivists in Washington to further that goal. In a recent interview, Saad Eskander of the National Library in Baghdad said he is gladly awaiting the archive, which he believes should not have been removed from Iraq in the first place.

The archive goes on display at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage on February 4, where it will remain through May 18.

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This article by Rosiland Jordan comes from al-Jazeera and is representative of the considerable interest the Arab media have been showing in the question of the Iraqi-Jewish archive (with thanks: Gabi) :
In May 2003, US troops searched the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s former spy headquarters in Baghdad, for weapons of mass destruction.

They didn’t find any weapons.

But in the flooded basement, soldiers DID find thousands of materials connected to Iraq’s once-thriving Jewish community.

The collection was both comprehensive and random. Everything from religious artifacts – Haggadahs for the Passover Seder, prayer books, various sections of the Torah – to photos, letters and government records dating back to the years of British colonial rule.

All of this material, some of it hundreds of years old, was nearly ruined for posterity by the floodwaters.

The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority contacted the National Archives in Washington for help in cleaning and preserving the artifacts.

The interim Iraqi government soon signed on to the project, with the caveat that once everything was restored, that it all be returned to Baghdad.

And so the Archives obtained three million dollars in funding from the State Department and private sources, hired a team of preservation experts, and got to work.

Maurice Shohet – the descendant of a Chief Rabbi - was born and raised in Baghdad.

He was shocked to learn the government had spied on him and other children – the evidence in the form of classroom registers listing him and his childhood friends.

Iraqi Jews suffered increased harassment and persecution in the late 1960's, especially after the Six Day War.

Shohet said that drove his family to pay smugglers to get them out in 1970. It was a big risk, but eventually his family made it to the United States, and Shohet became a leading figure in a group that represents a community now scattered around the globe.

His group, the World Organization of Jews from Iraq, picked him to consult with the preservation team as it started its work.

Much of the restoration work is complete – mold remediation, pages repaired, bindings re-sewn.
24 of the artifacts were recently displayed at the National Archives in Washington.

They will soon be put on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
Afterwards, the materials will be returned to Baghdad – something the US agreed to do back in 2003.

But that bothers Shohet. He and others in the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora say they’d like to see the agreement between Iraq and the US renegotiated, this time, with the community at the table.
Shohet told us, “What came to be known as the Iraqi Jewish Archive were confiscated from the Iraqi Jewish community... accordingly, it's the patrimony of our community, so we believe it has to be returned to our community here in the United States."

A State Department spokesman told AL Jazeera, the US government understands Shohet’s concerns.

"The United States remains committed to returning the collection to Iraq in accordance with the 2003 agreement but we also understand the sensitivities surrounding these items and, in that regard, we are open to any discussion the Government of Iraq is willing to have on the future disposition of the collection,” the spokesman said.

He also said the State Department has reached out to the Iraqi Embassy to possibly extend the loan to the US so that all interested parties can view the relics.

For now the cultural heritage of a community 2500 years old will live online – for the entire world to see.

But that isn’t the same as a community possessing and caring for the very proof of its existence across centuries.

Shohet hopes that might yet come to pass.

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