Friday, February 28, 2014

Could Moriscos return to Spain?

 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain made Islam illegal

 This is an interesting take on the draft Spanish nationality law - which thousands of Sephardi Jews may benefit from - by an Egyptian writer living in Jerusalem, Khaled Diab. What about the Moriscos (Muslims), he asks in Haaretz. One reason why Spain may be more interested in attracting Jews may be their 'investment potential'.

Spain has further opened its doors to the descendants of Jews expelled from its land half a millennium ago – though the actual application process remains as mysterious as alchemy.

It is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However, what is overlooked in Spain’s public atonement is that it was not only Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.

A decade or so after the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews who refused to embrace Christianity, Muslims were given the option either to convert or leave. But even the converts, known as Moriscos, were forced out a century later.

This omission has caused some anger among North African Muslims. Jamal Bin Ammar al-Ahmar, an Algerian professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in Sétif, was outraged by “the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population of Andalusia who are still suffering in the diaspora in exile since 1492."

There have actually been some low-level attempts in Spain to address this. For example, in 2006, the Andalusian parliament considered the issue of granting the Moriscos’ descendants Spanish citizenship.

But even if Spain were to extend an equivalent right of return to the descendants of Moriscos as it is offering Sephardi Jews, it would involve enormous practical difficulties. It is already a major challenge determining, some 20 generations later, who exactly qualifies as a descendant of an Andalusian Jew. In fact, many Jews, including those not belonging to Sephardi Judaism, and even non-Jews, could have Sephardi ancestry.
Four centuries after the expulsion of the last Moriscos, ascertaining who their descendants are is even tougher, given that they blended into the general population far more than the traditionally more isolationist Jews did.

Intriguingly, however, all these centuries down the line, there are still pockets that proudly identify as Morisco and trace their families back to Andalusia. For instance, there are even Morisco towns in Tunisia, such as Sidi Bou Said, Testour and Sloughia which maintain their unique Andalusian identity.

“It was very rare for Andalusians to marry ‘outsiders’, that is, Arabs not of the same origin,” explained Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, one of the foremost experts on Morisco influence and heritage in the Arab world, in an interview in the early 1990s. “This is one of the biggest reasons so much of their heritage still exists today.”

And many still feel nostalgia towards the old country. “Being Morisco to me is belonging to a historic time that comes from Valencia, a civilization, culture, art, agriculture,” Moez Chtiba who is from Zaghouan but traces his family back to Andalusia was quoted as saying.

And I can understand the source of the nostalgia. In its heyday, multicultural Andalusia was the most advanced and cultured place in the Europe of the time, where science, philosophy and art flourished. As I discovered when visiting Spain, this can still be detected in the region’s architectural gems, from the Mesquita in Cordoba to the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada.

Andalusia also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, even defining the concept of Western “cool” and teaching Europeans how to “love” in a courtly and tormented fashion.

Yet Spain has failed to recognize Moriscos, while embracing Sephardi Jews. One Moroccan journalist called the oversight “flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time."

And this is partly true, given the centuries of bad blood between Muslims and Christians and the rampant Islamophobia on the European right, as reflected in a U.K. opinion piece arguing Spain has no reason to apologize for expelling its Muslim population and freeing itself from “Islamic Jihadist rule."

But another reason is simple and straightforward demographics. While there is potentially a couple of million Jews who could theoretically qualify for Spanish citizenship, probably only a few thousand at most will actually bother to apply.

In contrast, there are unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims who may be able to trace themselves back to Andalusia, from Morocco in the Maghreb to as far afield as Turkey, where the Ottomans gave refuge to Andalusian refugees.
If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilizations,” this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.

Then, there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and live in their midst.
Though true, this misses a number of important nuances.

One is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, Islam became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in its extensive fossilized remains in modern Spanish.

Moreover, the Moriscos, like other Conversos, were so attached to their homes that they preferred to, at least ostensibly, abandon their faith rather than be banished from their homes.

Regardless of whether or not the descendants of Moriscos will ever be granted the right to move to Spain and become Spanish citizens, Spain at the very least owes them an apology.

Much closer in terms of space and time, as a first step towards reconciliation, Israel owes the Palestinian an unreserved apology.  Likewise, the Arab countries that were once home to significant Jewish minorities need to apologize unreservedly to their former citizens and would-be citizens. (My emphasis)

One day perhaps we will even see Arab countries and Israel extending some kind of right of return, which would be a boon to a region that has seriously lost its diversity, would spell the end to exclusionary nationalisms and would prove that Arabs and Jews are “brothers” and “sisters," not feuding “cousins."

Read article in full 

Spanish citizenship creates huge interest

Anti-Zionists find oppressed Jews normal

 Sderot's residents terrorised by Hamas rockets. Most are refugees from Iran, Morocco and Kurdistan.

It's Israel Apartheid Week. The smear is being refuted by a grassroots counter-campaign called Rethink2014, videos and articles. But few rebuttals get to the heart of the issue like Lamia's eloquent comment on Harry's Place.  I am reproducing it here:

Although I think it makes very good practical sense, I don't see any compelling moral reason why Israel should give the Occupied Territories back. They won them in wars that they did not initiate, by people who waged those conflicts as wars of extermination with the intent to completely destroy Israel and drive the Jews of the mandate into the sea, into dhimmitude or into the grave.

If, in trying to burn down your neighbour's home in order to make him have nothing, you start a fire that leaves his house standing and your own destroyed, then whose fault is that? Yours, not his. The Arabs are to blame for their misfortune, because they wanted for themselves to have everything and the Jews to have nothing.

It was Arab spite and greed, honed on centuries of treating Jews as lesser human beings than themselves, that made them overreach themselves against Jews who finally fought back and kicked their lordly arses.

If the Arabs had won, that would have been a case of winner takes all, with the few remaining Jews living as a second class citizens again. And we wouldn't have today's 'anti-Zionists' complaining about the 'Arab-occupied territories' and apartheid. They'd have been either gloating or shrugging about the fate of the Jews of the Middle East for decades.

This isn't speculation. It's born out by the fact that there was a massive persecution and expulsion of Jews by Arab countries (and Iran) around this time - and yet 'anti-Zionists' have never shown the slightest concern, let alone outrage, about the plight of those Jews, or the injustices done to them.

Their blank indifference testifies that for such people there is no injustice in hundreds of thousands of Jews being hounded out of the country of their birth or forced to live as inferiors. For these supposed humanitarian opponents of injustice and racism, when oppression, persecution and expulsion happen to Jews in the Middle East, well that's just the natural order of things.

They've had decades to register a protest about this, but they have not bothered. If they ever make any mention of such people, it's to falsely characterise and denounce them as 'European colonialists' if they have sought refuge in Israel.
Take for example the city of Sderot, constantly attacked by Hamas rockets. Most of the population are of refugee origin from Morrocco, Iran or Kurdistan. Yet those people are characterised by 'anti-zionists' as 'colonialists' - or more probably 'western colonialists'. No mention is made of where they actually came from or why.

Well if Arab countries and Iran hadn't been so keen to make life unbearable for the Jews of their countries then:

a) they would have a more believable claim that there is no need to have a Jewish state and that Jews could live as equally as Arabs in the countries of the region.
b) those refugees wouldn't have had to go to Israel and swell the population there - and remain there because the Arab countries are as intolerant as ever. Some of them won't even allow a single Jew back in.

The haters of Israel, both Arab and non-Arab, should be forced to explain where they would prefer those people to live and why, and why there really is no necessity for Israel to exist as a Jewish-majority state and that a one-state, tolerant, democratic Palestine is both just and likely.

History shows they have nothing at all to back up such a claim, and thus no reason at all why anyone should believe any promise that this time they really will treat Jews as their equals rather than as lesser human beings.

Read post in full 

In the Apartheid Oscars, Arabs win hands-down

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Pakistani seeks recognition as a Jew

Point of No Return readers will be familiar with Fishel Benkhald's campaign to clean up the Karachi Jewish cemetery and restore the synagogue. Now Benkhald, who was born to a Jewish mother, is set to become a test case in Pakistan, a state which refuses to recognise Judaism as other than apostasy. Marc Goldberg interviewed Benkhald for The Times of Israel:

  His real name is Faisal Benkhald, though he has recently adopted the Yiddish first name “Fishel.” He was born in Karachi in 1987, the fourth of five children born to a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. Though registered at birth as Muslim, he considers himself Jewish and is now fighting for state recognition of his chosen religion — an apostasy.

As far as the Pakistani authorities are concerned, Fishel is still Faisal, a Muslim. That’s what’s written on his documentation. But he wouldn’t be the only Jewish Pakistani to have a Muslim identity card: The Jews of Pakistan learned to disappear long ago. Some, like Fishel’s parents, registered their children as Muslims to blend in, and all tried to hide. 

Except Fishel.

In a series of Twitter exchanges and emails in recent weeks, The Times of Israel explored Fishel’s unique story.

His earliest childhood memories include the aroma of his mother’s challah, baking in the oven every Friday afternoon. Before dusk he would watch her recite blessings over the Shabbat candles.

“When she used to put her hands over her eyes it felt so serene as if she has no worries of worldly life, reciting the blessing welcoming the holy day. Her lovely eyes and smile looking at me are engraved in my memory, I always prayed with her.”

Fishel, once known as 'Faisal,' was born to a Jewish mother and Muslim father in Pakistan. (courtesy)

Fishel, once known as ‘Faisal,’ was born to a Jewish mother and Muslim father in Pakistan.

He says his mother would prepare only kosher food for him at home. She was born to religious Jewish parents who moved to Pakistan from neighboring Iran. He knows of his maternal grandparents only through the stories his mother told him as a boy.

Fishel is all that remains of what was once a small but thriving Jewish community. Estimated to have numbered about 2,500 people at the start of the 20th century, Pakistani Jewry consisted mainly of migrants from Iraq ( the community was mainly B'nei Israel - ed). Following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the central synagogue in Karachi (demolished in 1988) became a focal point for demonstrations against Israel. The majority of Jews left Pakistan for India or Israel around this time.

Fishel’s family spent as much time abroad as possible to escape from oppressive Pakistan. His father was a mechanical engineer whose work ensured they spent long stints living in North Africa. Both parents had died by his 13th birthday.
Once his parents passed away Fishel was sent to live with an uncle, a period of time he is loath to talk about. He’s estranged from two of his brothers and the other two have every intention of ignoring their Jewishness.
Fishel is an anomaly in choosing to reclaim his mother’s heritage.
“After Rosh Hashanah in September 2009, I remember just feeling sick of hearing the constant anti-Semitic propaganda and conspiracy theories popping up from the Pakistani government and media. They are constantly blaming everything wrong on an imaginary Jewish/Israeli conspiracy. My political side outgrew my fear; I felt less hesitant to claim my religion more publicly than I would have before. I couldn’t be silent anymore about my Jewish roots,” says Fishel.

As an adult Fishel chose the same path as his father and became an engineer, also taking short-term positions abroad. Anti-Semitism is the reason, he says, he spends as much time away from his native Pakistan as he can. But he is about to complete a contract in Tunisia, and is now preparing to go back to Pakistan.

Fishel's mother as a young girl. (courtesy)
Fishel’s mother as a young girl.

Fishel is not planning to reveal his chosen religion to his neighbors and colleagues upon his return, but he is certainly going back with a mission. He intends to enter the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and change his official religious status from Muslim to Jew.

If NADRA permits him to do so (which he thinks is unlikely), he will be committing the crime of apostasy, punishable by death.

“It is dangerous but I will go at least once to record my request to change the status of my religion from Islam to Judaism so that their response can be documented,” says Fishel.

In his quest to discover more about his Jewish identity, Fishel contacted the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals in New York City. He has been guided by the founder and director of the institute, Rabbi Mark Angel, ever since. Fishel hopes together they can unlock more of his heritage.

The Jewish graveyard in Karachi has become a haven for vandals and drugs, says Fishel. (courtesy)
The Jewish graveyard in Karachi has become a haven for vandals and drugs, says Fishel.

Speaking from New York, Angel tells The Times of Israel the kind of details he explained to Fishel would help him prove he is halachically Jewish: “If his mother had siblings who continued in their Jewishness, or if his mother’s mother/grandmother are buried in a Jewish cemetery. I don’t think these are easy things for him to find out, but I believe he’s trying his best,” says Angel.
Perhaps this is why Fishel is intending to fulfill his dream of cleaning up the old Beni Israel Jewish graveyard in Karachi. If one of the graves there belongs to a blood relative, he will have a much better chance of persuading halachic authorities of his Jewish roots.

Fishel insists, however, that the goal is wider than his own quest for family knowledge.
“My dream for the near future in Pakistan is to gain some empathy from Pakistani Muslims for cleaning the Jewish graves. Later I will try to harness it in getting support and help in the legal process for a small synagogue in Pakistan. After getting that little piece of paper in my hand stating that legally we are allowed to have a synagogue, my dream will come true,” says Fishel.
Even from his temporary position in Tunisia, Fishel has not been idle in pursuit of this goal. He has repeatedly emailed and called Pakistan’s National Peace Council for interfaith harmony to gain permission to enter the cemetery, though so far with no reply.

Fishel has already snuck into the cemetery on several previous occasions to document the state of the graves. Upon his return he plans to step up his campaign to get the Pakistani government to provide him with the access he needs to clean the Beni Israel graveyard undisturbed.
The derelict Jewish graveyard is located within Karachi’s larger Mewa Shah graveyard. According to Fishel, it has fallen into a state of disrepair and is known as a hangout for drug addicts and criminals.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Enrico Macias moving to Israel

 Enrico Macias  in Tel Aviv (Photo : Ilan Costica/Wikimedia Commons/CC.BY.SA 3.0)
The Jewish French-Algerian singer Enrico Macias has announced that he will apply for Israeli citizenship and settle in the country permanently, according to the Times of Israel (Could his decision have anything to do with this?):

“I feel free, I feel babayit sheli [at home],” Macias told (Israel) Channel 2.
The 75-year-old explained that the increased threat of European anti-Semitism spurred his decision to relocate to Israel.

“For a long time I 've been wanting to do it, but I think now is the moment,” Macias said. “I think the anti-Semitism in France will grow, and I teach to my family, to my grandchildren. I will give the example to go, to live in Israel.”

Jews and Kurds 'almost never fought'

 Rabbi Zechariah Barashi (photo: L Berman)

The world's oldest Jew is also the world's oldest Kurdish Israeli - Rabbi Zechariah Barashi, who came to Jerusalem in 1938. Jewish-Muslim relations in Kurdistan were excellent, Barashi tells Lazar Berman, writing for Rudaw, a Kurdish online news medium. Traditionally, the Jews were under the protection of the Agha, the local tribal chieftain, and were desperately poor and illiterate. (With thanks: Dominique)    

In a humble apartment in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, about a mile south of the walls of the Old City, the world’s oldest living Jew goes about his daily ritual. As he has for over a century, the rabbi rises in the morning, puts on his tefillin, or prayer phylacteries, with the help of one of his students, and says his morning prayers.

Then, he sits to learn the Torah, Talmud, or kabbalah, examining it with the same fervor and passion he did when he started learning as a teenager. In addition to being the world’s oldest Jew, Rabbi Zechariah Barashi, 114, is also the world’s oldest Kurd.

Barashi, still sharp and gregarious in his old age, remembers details from events 80 years ago with surprising clarity. He gives exact dates, names, and even prices of bus rides as he recounts his time growing up in the Badinan region of Kurdistan, and his journey to the British-controlled territory that would soon become Israel.

He was generous with his time to sit with me for three hours to answer questions and tell his story. Born in Barashi in 1900, Zechariah was the last child born to Rabbi Eliyahu Barashi and his wife Simchah. Six of his siblings died in their childhood, leaving him with two older sisters, Sarah and Reichana.
His parents worked in traditional Jewish trades, including farming vineyards, dates, and nuts. Jews, Barashi told me in his home, also sewed Kurdish clothing, which were seen as especially well-made by their Muslim neighbors. At the age of eight, Zechariah moved with his grandfather to Atrush itself. His father eventually joined them, becoming the rabbi of the Jewish community there, which only numbered about 100 people.

 His family continued to move from village to village as Barashi’s father served the Jews living in the region’s small communities. “He would leave the house on Sunday and return on Friday,” Barashi recounted. “Sometimes he would come home after two weeks.”

 Life was not easy for the Barashis. He remembers a difficult three-year famine after the First World War. “The Turks looted whatever they could after the war,” he recalled, “and whoever survived the war died of hunger.”

It was also difficult for Jews to study Torah and Talmud, as there were no yeshivas, or study halls, in the region. However, the larger communities, like Duhok and Sindor, enjoyed large synagogues with opportunities for study.

But, as opposed to many other Jewish communities across the world, 90 percent of the Jews in Kurdistan could not read or write. Less than one in ten even knew how to pray. “Despite this,” Barashi emphasized, “the Jews kept the Sabbath and the holidays, family purity, a strictly Kosher home, fear of heaven and parents, and respect for their elders.”

Because of the lack of education, the rabbi had to explain the meaning of the Hebrew prayers in Aramaic or Kurmanji at the end of the service so the community would understand. Despite the challenges, Rabbi Barashi has fond memories of his childhood.

When he wasn’t studying the Torah with his father at home, he was out playing with the children of his village, Muslims and Jews together.

“We had excellent relations with the Muslim Kurds, like brothers. We almost never fought. If there ever was a fight, they would quickly inform the Agha, who would warn the parents that if their child acted up again, he would expel the entire family.”

He sees no comparison between today’s tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and the relationship between Jews and Muslim Kurds in Kurdistan. “It was like the Garden of Eden there,” he said. “Today, everything is madness.”

 Barashi remembers a man named Mirza as the Agha of Meriba, the town his family was living in. He was as “an important man, one of the greatest governors in the mountains of Kurdistan.”

Mirza’s wife saved Barashi’s life at the age of 11. It was after the Passover holidays, and not one speck of food remained in the house. For two days, the family did not eat, and Zechariah fell sick. His father was away trying to buy meat on the black market. After having lost so many children, his mother was determined to save him. She went to the Agha’s wife, and begged her for food.

The wife hesitated at first, saying she was afraid her husband would find out, and be angry that he would now be forced to give to everyone who asked. Barashi’s mother persisted, her only son’s life was at stake, and assured her that she would hide the food under her dress, and no one would know. The Agha’s wife agreed, and the boy recovered.

Read article in full

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Minority rights champion insulted

Human rights and women's groups in Yemen understand the importance  for society as a whole that minorities - such the dwindling numbers of Jews ( there are fewer than 100 now) - should be granted equal rights.  It is therefore disheartening to see attempts being made to discredit activists such as the Nobel-prize-winning Tawakkul Karman. From Elder of Ziyon:

Arabic media reports:

"People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" is applicable for Tawakkul Karman, a hijab-wearing Yemeni Muslim woman, who demanded (on video) that Yemeni Jews be given the right to be nominated to presidency, local councils and the parliament, in a step that Yemenis described as "outrageous".

Yemeni activists said: "It is not strange for someone who belongs to the (Muslim) Brotherhood to say this. After all, Issam Eryan also demanded that the Jews return to Egypt and that their possessions be given back to them. This video is the price that Tawakkul paid for getting the Nobel Peace Prize."
Karman did receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

Here's the video, from a UN webcast, that is getting her these insults:

Kerman: Concerning the religious minorities: We stress the necessity of equality for Jewish Yemeni citizens to their fellow citizens in enjoying all political rights, including the right to be nominated to the parliament, to local councils and the presidency.

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Yahya Youssef's last stand

No cool campus speaks for Jewish refugees

No cool campus group spoke up for Jews from Arab countries in the 1970s - or now - writes Cairo-born Lucette Lagnado, an alumna of the Seven Sister college Vassar (pictured), where Jewish students have called for a boycott of academic exchanges with Israel. Read her piece in the Wall St Journal (with thanks: Lily):

Recently I was contacted by a fellow Vassar alumna through Facebook. She wanted to know if I was aware that our genteel alma mater had become a hotbed of anti-Israel, pro-boycott sentiment.

Suddenly, my stomach was in knots—a feeling that Vassar has managed to evoke in me ever since I went there in the 1970s. An Orthodox Jewish girl from Brooklyn on a full scholarship, I fixated on this Seven Sister school as my entryway to the American dream, the epitome of style and grace that also prided itself on teaching "critical thinking."

In this case the cause of my angst was a young woman named Naomi Dann, the president of the Vassar Jewish Union. She had penned a piece for the campus paper strongly supporting the recent move by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic exchanges—a decision denounced by college presidents across the country, including Vassar's.

Her piece strung together all the familiar buzzwords and clichés used by Israel's critics: "atrocities," "oppressive," "abuses," "colonial," and, of course, "apartheid." Signed jointly with the co-president of Students for Justice in Palestine, Ms. Dann even slammed Vassar's president and dean of the faculty for daring to oppose the boycott against the Jewish state.

There was more to fuel my Vassar angoisse. The head of the Jewish Studies Program, a professor named Joshua Schreier, had also expressed support for the boycott movement. Prof. Schreier was quoted in the campus paper ruminating that while once "instinctively against" the boycott, he had heard more "substantiated, detailed" arguments on its behalf, and as a result "I am currently leaning in favor of it," he concluded delicately, as if choosing a flavored tea.
As for Vassar's rabbi, Rena Blumenthal, she was MIA—on leave in Israel, no less—and emailed to say she couldn't weigh in from afar. Huh?

To be sure, I had been aware that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement had taken off on some college campuses, even in the Ivy League. It had become chic to attack Israel even—especially—if you were Jewish. I heard from an alum who was stopped by his own child, a Vassar student, from taking a public stand against the BDS movement. The student was fearful of being ostracized for having a parent who supported Israel.

Suddenly the toxic essence of this movement to make Israel and its supporters pariahs in the groves of academe and the cocktail parties of polite society hit home in a way it hadn't before. It also brought back painful memories about my own Vassar experience, and the shattered illusions that had marked it.

I had gone to Vassar a naïf, a sheltered girl from an immigrant community. Mine was a neighborhood of Jewish exiles thrown out or pressured out of Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s—in my family's case, Egypt. We were victims of the Middle East conflict who were barely mentioned in the history books. 

Though we had been mistreated and denied our homelands, we suffered alone and in silence. No cool campus groups spoke up for us then, or now.
(My emphasis - ed)

Our values were God, faith, family and Israel. We were passionate about the Jewish state, a country that took so many Middle Eastern Jews in when, one after another, Arab countries had forced or pressured us out. I was raised as a Sabbath observer, a keeper of dietary laws, and, oh, expected to marry young and refrain from sex before marriage.

Those were the quaint values I carried to Vassar, which I had chosen from among a multitude of schools for the old-fashioned ideals its name evoked. I had read a brochure alluding to a tradition of students drinking sherry with faculty. To someone more familiar with Manischewitz wine, sipping sherry with my professors epitomized what I wanted on this earth: a life of civility and grace. This was Jackie Kennedy's Vassar.

Instead, I found myself on a campus in the throes of a 1970s rebellion. There was a drug culture and a drinking culture, but no sherry culture I could find. Vassar prided itself on being edgy and embraced open sexuality and every other cause of the tumultuous era.

My disillusionment came fast. My first day I wandered to the "ACDC"—the forbidding central dining hall—and timidly asked a manager where I could find the kosher section. She looked at me as if I were from another planet.

What followed were months of kosher TV dinners, in big aluminum packages. It was incredibly decent of Vassar to obtain those for me, yet every time I lugged one these dinners from the kitchen to the table in their silver foil, I felt the stares of my fellow-diners.

It never got easier. I could never take that train from Grand Central back to Poughkeepsie on Sunday nights without the blues setting in. And now, so many years later, my Vassar blues were back.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Don't let down Jews when justice in reach

 Singer Sari Alfi with storyteller Yossi Alfi at Harif's Jewish Refugee Day celebration in London (Photo:

 The addition of a 'Jewish Refugee Day' to the calendar will help gain recognition for Jews forced out of Arab countries, but Israel's incompetent management of claims is stymying efforts to gain compensation, Lyn Julius argues in the Times of Israel:

They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.

It’s a fitting description of the event my organisation, Harif, held this week to marked the first ever ‘Jewish Refugee Day’. 

Over 300 guests, many dressed in tarbush hats and kaftans, came to enjoy the food and entertainment. They also came, not just to remember the forced exodus of 870,000 Jews from 10 Arab countries, but to celebrate their freedom from oppression, persecution and violence.

The celebrated storyteller Yossi Alfi told how his grandmother had smuggled him as a three-year old from Iraq into Israel under her skirts. As the Jewish underground did not allow children under ten, Alfi’s grandmother pretended Yossi was a midget!

Accompanied by oud, violin and tabla players, Yossi’s daughter Sari Alfi sang what has become the anthem for refugees from Arab lands: Fog-An-Nahal.
Inspired by Harif’s example, we hope that people will start marking Jewish Refugee Day around the world. Like Holocaust Memorial Day, Jewish Refugee Day will provide a focus, and a corrective. Jewish children learn about the Kishinev pogrom, but how many have heard of the Farhud in Iraq? Official ceremonies, school projects, TV programmes and events in Israel and worldwide would spread awareness not just of Oriental Jewry’s history and exodus but their rich, pre-Islamic culture and heritage.

After decades of neglect by successive Israeli governments, the Jewish refugee issue is emerging like a mole blinking into the sunlight. Advocates for Jews from Arab Countries are finally seeing the work of decades come to fruition.

If Jewish Refugee Day is a means of achieving recognition, a recent development brings within reach the prospect of compensation: American senior envoy Martin Indyk has told US Jewish leaders that Secretary of State John Kerry is considering including in his framework peace agreement compensation for the thousands of Jews forced to abandon Arab lands.

For the first time in living memory, the influential Economist magazine published an article on Jewish refugees and their losses.

Critics say that the US is trying to “buy off” the most recalcitrant sector of the Israeli electorate, the right-leaning Mizrahim, in return for far-reaching territorial concessions, but MK Shimon Ohayon, who proposed the Knesset bill for a Jewish Refugee Day in the Israeli calendar, has welcomed the prospective compensation clause as “a step in the right direction”.

It is high time that a peace settlement took into account the rights of both sets of refugees – Jewish as well as Arab. An appreciation of the tragedy that occurred on both sides would help foster reconciliation and peace.

However, there is a large fly in the ointment — Israel’s own chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni. Despite a 2010 Knesset law requiring Jewish refugees to be on the peace agenda, Livni has opposed raising the very question, claiming there is “no connection” between Jewish and Palestinian refugees.

History has shown otherwise. The Palestinian leadership incited anti-Jewish hatred in the Arab world well before Israel’s creation, and dragged the Arab League into war against the newborn state.

But a damning report by Israel’s state comptroller, Joseph Shapira, blasts the Israeli government’s half-hearted and under-resourced approach to collecting claims from aging Jewish refugees before they die, and its failure to computerise 14,000 old claims. Haaretz reported: “Even if peace were to break out tomorrow, Israel would be hard-pressed to present a solid claim…”

The possible reasons for this, Haaretz continued, are ‘many and absurd.’

Read article in full

Harif marks Jewish Refugee Day in London

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Muslims tolerated Jews under their control

 A Moroccan dressed as a Jew symbolises how Arab regimes (the donkey) are manipulated by Jewish power

This fascinating article by anthropologist Aoum Boum in The Tablet blames European influences for the modern demonisation of the Jews in the Arab world. Traditionally in Muslim societies, Jews had powers of good but also evil. As long as Jews were controlled, they were tolerated.
In the streets of Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia as well as in those of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, one of the most shared and lingering perceptions between liberal and Islamists, Shi’a and Sunni alike, remains their belief in a Jewish plot behind the social, economic, and political chaos that disrupts the peace of Arab cities and states, undermines their Islamic solidarity, and threatens to destroy their fragile economies. Jews have largely vanished from the Arab world, but those looking for a scapegoat, as Drumont did, have found a way to reanimate the “collective powerful Jew,” imagining a hidden Jewish hand that conspires to throw their cities and countries into turmoil. Tweets, Facebook postings, radio and TV commentators, graffiti, and banners circulate around virtual and real landscapes stressing how Jews are bringing down Arab governments and replacing them with new subservient allies.

But it’s a relatively recent idea. In fact, Jews were historically frequent, and eventually essential, mediators and intermediaries in traditional Middle Eastern and North African societies. In most villages and towns, local residents held Jews in good faith. Even sultans surrounded themselves with Jewish traders, advisers, and ambassadors and sought their advice to revive economies and establish relations with foreign powers.

Indeed, while Jews could embody threatening forces in many traditional Middle Eastern world-views, their cultural identity in Arab societies tended to be associated with the same kind of danger presented by women—which meant that as long as Jews could be controlled, like women, then their Muslim patrons had nothing to fear. Jews and women alike were, for example, forbidden from entering granaries or gardens and barred from getting close to beehives, because their presence was thought to threaten the annual yield.

This equivalence explains why it was widely accepted throughout many parts of the Arab world to leave a Jewish man in the presence of Muslim women without the company of male member of the household: He was assumed to be weak and controlled and therefore safe. In practice, that meant Jewish peddlers had access to Muslims’ households, while Muslim traders were denied such access.

Jews were also thought of as rainmakers who could bring a good harvest by guaranteeing the fertility of the soil. Folk narratives of Arab and Berber tribes throughout North Africa stated that the Prophet Mohammed and his companions prayed for rain after a severe drought and only met with success when an old Jew went to a grave, took a bone, and started praying with his fellow Jews: In the middle of their prayers rain began to fall. Arabs and Berbers alike attributed this power to the fact that Jews smelled bad, and so, therefore, God granted their wish for rain showers—but nevertheless, in times of drought, Jews were called upon to pray for rain, even though they were typically not allowed to get close to the village spring, out of fear that they might desecrate it.

Curing sickness was in many occasions the exclusive province of Jewish rabbis and saints. Barren Muslim women turned to local Jewish “saints” in hopes of becoming pregnant; families sometimes sought rabbis’ blessings to cure infertility, mental illness, paralysis, and epilepsy. Women, and sometimes men, visited nearby Jewish shrines in their local villages, leaving candles or some coins on site and sometimes attaching a piece of cloth to a tree or plant by the tomb representing their wish. (In some places, these traditions persist: Visitors to the region around Errachidia in southern Morocco, also known as Ksar Souk, will notice piles of clothes, body hair, chains, and sometimes women’s bras and underwear on a shrub around the tombs of three rabbis locally known as Yihia Lahlou, Moul Tria, and Moul Sedra.)

Yet Jews and sometimes Christians—their fellow outsiders in the Muslim world—could also be associated with evil in some contexts. The curse of a Jew was believed to be more fearsome than those from fellow Muslims; religious pilgrims went to great lengths to avoid seeing Jews before traveling to Mecca. Jews were asked to provide preventive charms for protection against evil eye and bad spirits, but it was also believed that when a Jew entered a Muslim’s house, the angels deserted it.

Read article in full 

Moroccans protest exhibition about Jews (Elder of Ziyon)

Friday, February 21, 2014

New Encyclopaedia is propaganda

The Encyclopaedia's editor Abdelwahab Meddeb was interviewed in Le Soir (Brussels).

"Si les hommes prenaient la peine de se pencher sur l'histoire, ils se haïraient moins."

"If men took the trouble to learn History they would hate each other less."

This is the premise on which Benjamin Stora, a professor of Maghrebian history, builds his French-language, full colour, lavishly-produced 1150-page work The Encyclopaedia of Jewish-Muslim relations from their origins to the present day, launched in November 2013. There is a more modest English version, published by Princeton.

However, critics such as the authority on Sephardi Jews, Professor Shmuel Trigano,  have charged that the encyclopaedia is nothing but a work of propaganda. It is all the more insiduous because so much money has been spent on its promotion. Unusually for a book, the Encyclopaedia has a website all to itself and was the subject of a TV series on the French channel Arte.

Among the sponsors are 'The Alliance of Civilisations', a front for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, whose task is to change the 'narrative' by promoting the Spain of the Three Religions, the Andalusian Golden Age, etc. The project received grants from the French regions - presumably because sectarian conflict between Jews and Muslims puts at risk the social fabric in France - and various liberal or leftist media, such as the Nouvel Observateur.

Professor Trigano wrote:

"An incredible  publicity and ideological campaign  is underway in France. Its target is world public opinion by way of the Jews, and more specifically Sephardi Jews - sorry, 'Arab Jews'." 

The joint editors are a Tunisian professor at the university of Nanterre (Paris), Abdelwahab Meddeb, and Benjamin Stora, a Jewish professor of North African history and author of a history of the Jews of Algeria. The two men have been touring France, North Africa, Israel and Belgium promoting the Encyclopaedia.

The Belgian book launch on 19 February was sponsored by Le Soir, an Israel-bashing daily. On the panel was the Palestinian representative to the EU and great-niece of the pro-Nazi Mufti,  Leila Shahid. The event was chaired by the left-leaning Baroness 'Saucepan' Simone Susskind, who once called on people to turn up to a demonstration banging pots and pans in order noisily to draw the EU's attention to Israel's 'human rights abuses'.

The question is: which version of history are Meddeb and Stora propagating?  Is it the sanitised version, replete with distortion, minimisation and omission?

The underlying premise is that Jews are not a people in their own right. They are Arabs of the Jewish faith. Antisemitism is unknown under Islam. Through the centuries Jews have been tolerated, until the harmonious relations between them and their Muslim brethren were torn asunder by the European colonial powers and 'European' Zionism. Pogroms at the time of Mohammed were inter-ethnic or inter-tribal conflicts; the 1929 massacre in Palestine incited by the Mufti of Jerusalem was nothing more than an anti-colonial rebellion. The Jews are 'imprisoned in a 'European Zionist identity' which is alien to them.

The Encyclopaedia cloaks superficial criticism of Islam in apologetics. Antisemitic outbreaks are always the fault of fanatics. Jews are to blame for their own suffering; modern antisemitism is a backlash to colonialism and the 'theft' by European Zionists of Arab Palestine. Many of the contributing experts are anti-Zionists.

The elephant in the room is the subjugated 'dhimmi' status of the Jews under Islam. Abdelwahab Meddeb has compared dhimmitude to the status of Jews in medieval Europe, but claims that Arab rulers often turned a blind eye to its strictures. At the same time he posits medieval Baghdad or Cordoba as a suitable cultural model for Europe today.

Jews and Muslims have been doubly betrayed - by colonialism and by the values of the European Enlightenment, so the argument goes. There is nothing in the book to suggest that western values allowed the oppressed and wretched Jews of Algeria, for instance, an escape route. The Encyclopaedia maintains that colonialism drove a wedge between Jews and Arabs, while the Shoah showed the values of civil equality to be a cruel delusion.  Modern antisemitism in the Arab world is an 'understandable' backlash to the 'unjust' creation of Israel.

Dr Rudi Roth, a mathematician and scientist, points out worrying inaccuracies and omissions which exaggerate Arab Muslim influence in culture and science while downplaying the Jewish contribution.

For instance, the academic Gad Freudenthal writes in the entry about Algebra: "Some fields of mathematics remained totally unknown to the Jews, such as Algebra."

Dr Roth has found at least four Jewish mathematicians missing from the encyclopaedia : Savasorda (Abrahim bar Hiija al Nasi ( 1070 - 1136)), author of the earliest Arabic Algebra written in Europe; Abraham Meir ibn Ezra (1092 - 1167)  Levi Ben Gherson (1288 - 1344) and Ibn Yahya al Maghrebi Al Samawal (1130 - 1150). Oddly enough, Freudenthal himself wrote a book about Gherson. 

Also missing from the encyclopaedia are events such as the 1033 pogrom of Fez, the earliest known pogrom of the second millennium.

As far as Arab collaboration with the Nazis is concerned, Dr Roth accuses Henry Laurens, the author of the two pages on the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, of minimising his role. There is no mention, says Roth, of the pro-Nazi Palestinian leader Fawzi al Qawuqj, or the Mufti's broadcast calls for genocide on Radio Berlin, nothing on the Mufti's creation of the SS Handschar division staffed by Bosnian Muslims, nothing about the part he personally played in condemning 20,000 European Jewish children to the death camps,  and nothing about the Mufti having contact with the Nazis as early as 1936. 

Cross-posted at Harry's Place

Historian challenged over 'Muslim saved Jew' film  

The three exiles of Algerian Jewry 

Harif marks Jewish Refugee Day in London

 Sari Alfi singing with Ehsan Ehman and his oriental musicians (photo:

Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, blazed the trail by marking the first ever Jewish Refugee Day with a spectacular 'Soiree Orientale' at a London hotel. The Jewish Chronicle's Sandy Rashty was there:
It was a room filled with palm trees, silk tents and people from the Middle East wearing Moroccan hats, kaftan robes and dresses covered in beads and sequins.
People chatted by the meat-laden buffet, watched a troupe of belly dancers and heard Israeli actress and singer Sari Alfi perform at the hotel in central London.
But some might be surprised to learn that the Soirée Orientale event on Monday night was dedicated to recognising the contributions made and challenges faced by Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

Around 300 people – most of whom had fled persecution from Iraq to Morocco, Syria, Libya and Iran – came together on February 17 to mark the bill for an annual Jewish Refugee Day currently passing through the Knesset.
Lyn Julius, co-founder of Harif, a UK group that represents Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, reminded guests that on the same day in 1948, the Arab League called on members to restrict the lives, property and legal status of their Jewish citizens.

She said: “In spite of all the pain, Jews from Arab countries have rebuilt their lives. Jews do not want to return to Arab countries, but they do want their rights to memory, truth and justice recognised.

“For so long [they] have been airbrushed out of the narrative.

A guest at the event wearing traditional Moroccan dress (Photo:

A guest at the event wearing traditional Moroccan dress (Photo:

“Whenever refugees are mentioned in a Middle East context, people think of Palestinian Arab refugees.  “This day will teach people that there were 870,000 Jewish refugees from 10 Arab countries.”

Deputy Israeli Ambassador Eitan Naeh assured guests that: "The Israeli government has taken responsibility to ensure that the people who left their homes are not forgotten.”

Amidst the festivities, Rabbi Abraham Levy, the Emeritus Spiritual Head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ congregation, told guests that despite political tensions, there are still “positive” points of synergy and respect.

Audience members gasped as he revealed that: “I have the zechut (privilege) at least twice a year, with the permission of the government of Iran, to send tefillin and mezuzot regularly for the 25,000 Jews who are still there. “That is a sign that we have to be optimists and not pessimists.”

But American Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, who is of Syrian descent, said there is still ignorance of Sephardi Jews. “People on the outside look at Jews from the Middle East and put us all in one category," he said. "What we know, is each one of our countries is another beautiful colour, another beautiful expression of the lands we came from. That added beautiful colour and expression to the nation of Israel. One thing we can all agree upon is that we have great food."

He added that Sephardis shared "‘joie de vivre’ (joy of life). It’s what we’ve always brought to Judaism and the people of Israel. We never looked at Torah as something that encumbered us. We looked at Torah as the source of our spirit. We always looked at mitzvot as reasons to celebrate.

"The Jewish world, perhaps, is starting to forget a bit the ‘joie de vivre’ that Sephardim brought to Israel. We need to remind them. Tonight, we don’t only commemorate the plight of our people, we celebrate the life of our people.”
Naim Dangoor, who will also sponsor a conference next month for religious leaders from Iran, Iraq and Israel, was the main backer of the non-fundraising soirée.

Read article in full 

Video clip 

Report in Elaph (Arabic)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Honig: who will pay Jewish refugees?

 Egyptian Jewish refugees arriving in Piraeus en route to Israel, 1950s (photo: JDC archives)

 Sarah Honig is my favourite Jerusalem Post columnist, but her piece on John Kerry's proposed compensation for Jewish Refugees from Arab lands is a little off-base. Yes, the proposal could be playing to the antisemitic stereotype of the Jew who would sell his soul for money - but there is no denying that compensation for Jewish refugees - by no means a new concept - is their due. I do not share Sarah's cynicism that no-one will pay. Uncle Sam will end up paying the lion's share - but the Arab world must dig into their pockets too.  Unless the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing show contrition, there can be no genuine reconciliation between Jews and Arabs. And an apology would cost them nothing.

The point of departure here is that Jews - be their background Mideastern or otherwise - are greedy. If only offered enough payback, Israel’s “hardliners” will let go of all their mistrust of the Arabs, among whom they or their ancestors lived and from whom they had to flee for fear of their lives.

Thus – to bait those covetous Jews – the notion of compensating Jewish refugees from Arab lands was inserted into Kerry’s so-called framework for a peace agreement.

At first glance it looks like an unassailable proposition. If anything, it should be cheered. Here, so it would seem, is the first tangible acknowledgement of our long-time contentions that there had been no Arab calamity in 1948 but in effect an exchange of populations.

Some 600,000 Arabs fled what was to become Israel – in many cases at the prompting of their leaders. This resulted directly from a war the Arabs had instigated to annihilate Israel. Their misfortune was that the genocide they planned had backfired and the Jews, slated for extermination, had the temerity to win and remain alive.

In fact, these uncooperative Jews remained alive enough to absorb into their midst over 800,000 Jews who fled Arab lands. Unlike the Palestinians, these Jewish refugees did not start a war, did not aim to massacre their neighbors or destroy the countries where they had constituted the oldest continuous communities, long predating both the Arab conquests and Islam.

These were genuine refugees rather than frustrated aggressors who had ascribed their own homicidal fervor to their intended victims.

The so-called Palestinian refugees, furthermore, weren’t on the whole local Arabs anyhow. Many were itinerant Arab laborers drawn to this country by the Zionist Jews who made the desert bloom and the land habitable. For the benefit of those who forget, this was the remote, malaria-ridden, depopulating hinterland of the decaying Ottoman Empire. The Jews, who longed for this forlorn place – their one and only historic home – literally watered the wasteland with their blood, sweat and tears.

Word then got round the entire Arab sphere that there’s opportunity to be had here – the term used was “prosperity.” Arabs started flocking in from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and all the way to Libya and the Maghreb.

The British mandatory government, which callously collaborated in the Nazi “final solution” by barring the entry to this country of desperate Jewish refugees from Hitler’s hell, flung the gates open for Arab economic migrants (see Joan Peters’ matchless From Time Immemorial). The UN later unabashedly defined as a Palestinian refugee any Arab, no matter from where, who sojourned temporarily here for two years before the 1948 Arab attack on day-old Israel.

No such benign attention was focused on Jews fleeing Arab countries. Indeed no attention whatsoever was paid them. They, like the displaced post-Holocaust European Jews, were looked upon as detestable bothers whose very plight upset the global applecart and destabilized the Mideast. Jewish tragedies evoked no compassion. It’s as if Jews were anyhow, from the dawn of history, portable and destined to rootlessness and wandering.

So obviously no heartstrings were tugged by the fact that refugee Jews from Arab jurisdictions had left far more land and way more property behind than did the diverse Arab transients who ran away from Israel, plainly expecting the Jews to mete out to them all that they had boastfully declared they would do to the Jews.

Arab hardship was lamented while Jewish suffering was, as per usual, overlooked (if not actually disdained). Making matters worse was that beleaguered newborn Israel, where there wasn’t enough of anything and where the most basic foodstuffs were severely rationed, welcomed the refugees as repatriated brethren.

The reverse occurred across the armistice lines. Arab refugees were segregated in camps, not allowed to assimilate or to economically rehabilitate. A special UN agency – UNWRA – was set up uniquely for them and for them alone. Their refugee status was perpetuated over the generations. The Jews, in contrast, were never regarded as refugees.

Israel is held accountable for the Arab displacement, despite the fact that it implored the Arabs to stay and not to attack. Consequently, in Kerry’s view, Israel must in the very least compensate dispossessed Arabs. To make this palatable, it appeared prudent to also throw in compensation for the Jews who streamed penniless into Israel from all corners of the Mideast.

But is it fairness Kerry is after? The truth is quickly exposed via a simple question – who will pay? Whereas Israel must make reparations to the Arabs (because they had failed to defeat it), who will pay the Jewish refugees?

Surely it won’t be the Palestinians – not that we know who among them would pay even if they were trustworthy peace partners, which they clearly are not. Will jihadist Gaza pay? Will terror-glorifying Ramallah? Seriously? Even if all the goodwill in the universe suddenly descended upon them, they will surely shirk responsibility for what Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, etc. had done.

And surely Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Tripoli, Sana’a, etc. (all in the dire throes of internecine turmoil) will assert that they aren’t sides to any deal between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Technically they would be darn tootin’ right. Washington cannot foist any sort of financial onus on them. Obama (considering the deficits with which he has lumbered his own country) would surely not endorse a payout to Jewish refugees from depleted American coffers. That’s not how far his “sharing the wealth” ethos extends.

The long and the short of it is that nobody will compensate the Arab realm’s Jewish refugees. Obama knows it. Kerry knows it. So why make promises that can’t possibly be kept? Well, of course Kerry’s entire misnamed peace framework is a promise that can’t be kept.

Read article in full

Jewish claims fake, says Egyptian envoy

 Mohamed Assem Ibrahim

A former Egyptian ambassador to Israel has charged that Jewish refugee claims are just a ploy to block the demands of Palestinian refugees (with thanks: Adam). Albawaba reports:

Israel is organising a propaganda campaign  to claim the property of Jews in Arab countries, with the aim of blocking the file for Palestinian Refugees in the negotiations conducted by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry between the two sides and the Palestinian Authority.

Said the diplomat Mohamed Assem Ibrahim, a former Egyptian ambassador to Israel, that the property of Jews in Arab countries is a lie and its claims are fake - pointing out that Israel does not own any property in the Arab countries and that this file is settled (news to us - ed), but it is promoted from time to time for specific targets and ongoing negotiations now.
Assem said that that Israel is not ready for the return of Palestinian refugees, so it had the idea of ​​putting the the property of Jews in Arab countries on the table to block the file of the Palestinian Refugees, and thus hinder any future settlement.

Read article in full (Arabic) 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fighting for Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war

With thanks Lisette and Charles

In traditional Muslim societies, Jews and Christians were prohibited from carrying arms - indeed, as dhimmis they were forced to surrender their right to self-defence to the Muslim majority, whose responsibility it was to protect them.

Dhimmi status was abolished in the latter half of the 19th century. For the first time, Jews were drafted into the Ottoman army after 1911, and served in World War l.

However,  Jewish citizens were again exempted from military service when Arab states went to war against Israel.

All male adults in Iraq were supposed to serve in the Iraqi army. They had to carry a certificate to show their army service status. Any male that did not have this certificate was arrested on the spot and taken to the army.  Iraq in the 1940s, 50s and 60s would not accept Jews in the military: all Jewish males were given a certificate. In very large letters the word Yahudi (Jewish) appeared; and in smaller letters "NOT eligible for service". But in 1980, when there was a desperate need for manpower and Jews were too few to be considered a fifth column, Jews were drafted.

The Iraq-Iran war lasted eight years - between 1980 and 88. The cost was catastrophic for both sides in lives lost and economic damage: half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, and as many civilians, are believed to have died, with many more injured.

By then, Iraq had only 150 Jews. The great majority - some 120, 000 had fled to Israel in the early 1950s, and some 3, 000 had escaped Saddam Hussein's wave of terror in the early 1970s.

R. was one of 13 Jews who served in the Iraqi army during the war with Iran. Three or four were posted to the front line. R. was assigned to an artillery unit which fought two bloody battles. Of 120 men in his unit, only 20 survived. Jews were also conscripted into the Iranian army. According to one source, 150 were killed. 

Eliyahu S. is a dentist who served with a field medical unit. He volunteered in the surgical unit of the Rashid military hospital.

At first his motives came under suspicion. He had to submit to a gruelling interrogation. But soon his superiors took a liking to him and trusted him. A general, head of the division where he was based, asked him:"Do you work on Saturdays?" " I have to", came the reply. The general ordered a larger unit  to be built for Eliyahu and he was given a free hand in his work.

After two years, however, it was decided that Jews should be exempt from the army. Eliyahu was relieved to be discharged : he had seen some terrible sights. Two Iranian prisoners-of-war had been left to die in a pit at the mercy of wild dogs: " I saw their fragmented bones scattered all over. Would my end be like theirs?" he reflected.

But the war was still on. Eliyahu wanted to gain more experience and applied to the surgical unit at Basra general hospital. The Muslim surgeons' antisemitic response was to undermine his supervisors' faith in him." He's a Jew. Send him back."

"I would kick him out but bring me a Muslim who would put up with the bombing," his supervisor replied.

Later, Eliyahu served in the 1990 - 91 First Gulf War when  Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Eliyahu was pronounced dead after the ambulance he was travelling in was bombed. As he was being lowered into his grave, soldiers looking on noticed his toes twitch. "This is a message from heaven," they told their commander, please lift him out." Read his story here.

A myth arose that during the Iraq-Iran war that a young Jewish engineer had devised a means of electrocuting Iranian soldiers crossing swamps at night to the Iraqi side. In the morning, so the story goes, the Iraqi soldiers would fish out the bodies of the dead and pile them up. For this practical proposal, that Jewish soldier was said to have received a medal from Saddam. Saddam allegedly handed him the medal personally and kissed him on both cheeks.

R. dismisses the story as apocryphal - 'black' propaganda. Even if the story had been true, no Jew had ever been kissed by Saddam. (Emerging as Iraq's strongman under the Baath regime, Saddam showed his 'affection' for Jews by ordering scores to be abducted or executed - including R. 's own father).

However, one Jew, S. , a chemical engineer, did gain official recognition for designing a device in 1977 to monitor the feed mixture for materials producing concrete - saving time and doubling output.

The letter inviting the Jewish engineer to attend a ceremony where he was awarded a prize for his invention.

 Ten years later, at a ceremony attended by the press, the engineer was presented by the Ministry of Industry with a certificate of thanks for his services and 5, 000 dinars, then enough to buy a Mercedes Benz. His was the only invention submitted. In his speech the minister said that S. was of the Jewish religion and there was no distinction between Iraqis of different faiths.

 In 1997, at a time when Iraq was prevented by sanctions from importing materials, the Jewish chemical engineer 'invented' a type of concrete able to withstand Baghdad's high humidity. He came to the UK in 2003, two months before the US invasion of Iraq.

Give equal treatment to Jewish refugees

 Jewish refugee girl in a ma'abara camp, 1950 (photo: Robert Capa)

The history of the Middle East is not a competition of tragedies, but is it right to treat one side's suffering seriously while ignoring the other's? argues Zvi Gabay in a hard-hitting op-ed in the Israeli mass circulation Ma'ariv. 

In the words of Ambassador Martin Indyk, special representative of the secretary of state John Kerry, the agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will include reference to compensation of Jews from Arab countries for their property. This has surprised many. The reason for the surprise is the long neglect of the issue and the focus on the Palestinian refugees and their ' right of return'.

The American reference to Jewish property from Arab countries is  a just and proper development, especially as the debate on the subject is required under the law that was passed in the Knesset in 2010. However, Israel has so far ignored the issue , while Arab refugees' rights are at the center of public discourse. It's time to remedy the situation.

Some may ask what interest to Palestinians is Jewish property in Arab countries? With the establishment of Israel occurred  two human tragedies: a brutal uprooting of Jewish communities who lived in Arab countries for thousands of years, and the Nakba of Israeli Arabs after the war in 1948. Two tragedies occurred with the support of their fellow Palestinians and Arab countries. No one can discuss one tragedy and not the other.

Although the rigours suffered by the Jews who left Arab countries endured for several years in the tent camps in Israel, while the Palestinian Arabs still live in difficult  and deplorable conditions,  is it justifiable for Jews to gain compensation for private property and community in Arab countries? Justice must be done and be seen to be done.  The Zionism which drove Jews to Israel  should not detract from their refugee status.

Zionism is not meant to harm their rights. Moreover, in 1957 the High Commissioner for Refugees at the United Nations declared Jews who were forced to leave Arab countries were refugees, in accordance with the UN Convention. Arab delegates to the UN, Heikal Pasha of Egypt, Fadil al Jamali of Iraq and Jamal Husseini, head of the delegation of Palestinian Arabs, declared that the division of Palestine will put at risk  Jewish communities in Arab countries. And so it came to pass.

The UN General Assembly ignored this and passed dozens of resolutions supporting Palestinian claims. It has also established a special relief agency (UNRWA) for them, but had not passed even one resolution concerning the Jews from Arab countries. One-sided reconciliation will only  further the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. Israel made no effort to shake off the charge of creating the Palestinian refugee problem, even though the UN resolution 194 of 1948 did not make Israel responsible for it.

The history of Middle East is not a competition of tragedies - whether the event was a Nakba or an exchange of populations. However, it is not justifiable to treat only one side's suffering. It is time for a comprehensive solution to the refugee problem: the Palestinians scattered in Arab countries and the granting of compensation to Jews in Arab countries for the property left by their countries, as an essential step towards finding a solution for the Israeli - Palestinian conflict.

Israel must show the overall picture of the refugees from the Middle East. In 2000 suggested that former President Bill Clinton, the establishment of an international fund that would compensate both the Palestinian refugees and the  Jews from Arab lands, in their current locations. Clinton's proposal was supported by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008. It is assumed that international bodies will support the establishment of the fund.

Countries who help preserve the Palestinian refugee problem must also support the fund, and help their community resettle in their current locations, just as  Jewish refugees from Arab countries who came to Israel in the 50s were resettled. The Middle East refugee problem must be solved overall. Recognizing the rights of Jews from Arab countries is essential to finding a just solution to the human tragedy that occurred in the Middle East.

Read article in full (Hebrew) 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Spanish citizenship creates huge interest

Hundreds of Israelis claiming Sephardic ancestry have contacted the Spanish Embassy and begun researching their family histories,  The Times of Israel reports. But it won't be that easy to prove a Spanish connection.

To some, the prospect of Spanish citizenship marks a significant dose of historic justice.

To others, it simply offers a European Union passport. That’s a big deal in a country that is still technically at war with many of its neighbors and where prosperity is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Israel’s per capita GDP of nearly $40,000 year is significantly higher than that of Spain — which has been wracked by economic crisis in recent years — and on a par with rich nations like France and Britain.

But the Sephardics in Israel, despite their large numbers, have yet to close the socio-economic gap with the European Jews who founded the country and control most levers of power. There has never been a Sephardic prime minister, and the Ashkenazi Jews still earn more on average and are overwhelmingly dominant in academia and other key areas.

“I want to live somewhere else, and if I can do it without too much of a fuss I will,” said Maoz Mizrachi, a 25-year-old salesman whose father’s family traces its roots to Spain. “It’s tough for young people to get ahead here and this gives me the opportunity to try somewhere else.”

The fact that Israel’s economy is actually in better shape than Spain’s didn’t seem to concern him: “If I get it (Spanish citizenship), I’ll be the happiest guy in the world,” he said.

Leon Amiras, who heads an association of immigrants to Israel from Latin countries, said his phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the news emerged. “People from every corner are interested, from professors to doctors, engineers to plumbers and bus drivers,” he said. “Everyone is talking about this.”

The reform will allow dual nationality, enabling the newly minted Spaniards to retain their previous citizenship. Such an arrangement would give Sephardic Jews the same dual nationality privilege Spain currently grants only to Latin Americans. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany offers citizenship to descendants of Jews forced to flee the Nazis. Israel itself, of course, offers automatic citizenship to Jews.

Previously, under a 1924 law, the government had discretionary powers to award Sephardic Jews nationality, but the new law is much more far-reaching: According to Ruiz-Gallardon, Spanish nationality to those who can prove ancestry will be a right the authorities must honor.
The nuts and bolts of the new law, the government says, will be relatively simple: Applicants need only have their ancestry certified by a rabbi in any country and the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities. Genetic testing has not been mentioned as an option.

The greater the documentary evidence an applicant presents, the quicker the procedure will run, Ruiz-Gallardon said.

Applicants will have to provide details of their birth and family name or prove knowledge of Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language considered to be the “Yiddish” of Sephardic Jews.

For centuries Sephardic Jews have maintained some of their gastronomic customs, an extensive oral tradition of popular Spanish novels, and in some cases spoken Ladino, which is close enough to Spanish that it enables communication with Spanish speakers anywhere. Further details on eligibility will be published after lawmakers approve the legislation.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, doubted that Spain will receive a flood of applications for citizenship. But he said key questions remain on how people will prove eligibility.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, poses before an interview in Madrid, Spain, February 14, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Photo Gabriel Pecot)

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations,(photo  AP/Photo Gabriel Pecot)

“I’m sure it could be a bureaucratic nightmare to determine who is eligible and who is not,” he said during a visit this week to Madrid in which he met with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and King Juan Carlos.

Sergio Della Pergola, a Jewish demographer at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said it was very hard to give an exact number of descendants due to intermarriage and conversion over the years. But it was definitely in the millions, he said, estimating that in Israel alone about 2.5 million people were descendants of exiled Sephardim.

Shmuel Refael of Bar Ilan University thought the number of those who would qualify if the language provision was enforced is much lower, with only about 250,000-300,000 people in Israel having some potential knowledge of Ladino.
“It’s very hard to reconstruct a list of exiled Jews of Sefarad (Spain), even though we know historically where the Sephardic Jews went, to the Balkans and north Africa,” he said. “It will be complex and complicated to say an exact number of exiled Sephardim in the world.”

Because Israel has association agreements with the EU, Israelis can generally travel there with great ease already. But an EU passport enables residence and work in the entire 28-nation bloc, giving access to high-quality, subsidized education.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

UK blazing trail with Jewish Refugee Day

 Israel's state comptroller Joseph Shapira: damning report

 On 17 February, Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, will be holding a special event to mark the first Jewish Refugee Day.  Writing in the Jewish Chronicle Lyn Julius explains why such a Day matters:

Did you know 2014 has been proclaimed the Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People? Eyes glaze at yet another demonstration of ingrained UN bias. The UN has passed more than 100 resolutions in support of Palestinian refugees. Not one resolution mentions a greater number of Jewish refugees who fled Arab countries at around the same time.

That’s one good reason why my organisation, Harif, will be marking Jewish Refugee Day, in solidarity with 870,000 refugees driven out of Arab countries.
A bill designating a special Day in the calendar has just passed its first reading in Israel’s Knesset. The Knesset is wavering over the date — will it be February 17, the date in 1948 when the Arab League drafted restrictions on the “Jewish minority of Palestine” — the lives, property and legal status of their Jewish citizens? Or will it be November 30, the date in 1947 when riots began to break out against Jews in Aden, Syria and Bahrain in protest at the UN Partition Plan?

Harif is plumping for February 17. Israel’s celebrity storyteller Yossi Alfi, the voice of a government campaign to document stories and claims from Mizrachi Jews, will be the star at our commemoration of Jewish Refugee Day.

Like Holocaust Memorial Day, Jewish Refugee Day will provide a focus, and a corrective. Jewish children learn about the Kishinev pogrom, but how many have heard of the Farhud in Iraq? Official ceremonies, school projects, TV programmes and events in Israel and worldwide would spread awareness not just of Oriental Jewry’s history and exodus but their rich, pre-Islamic culture and heritage.

Recently, senior US envoy Martin Indyk has told US Jewish leaders that Secretary of State John Kerry is considering including in his framework peace agreement, compensation for the thousands of Jews forced to abandon Arab lands.

After decades of neglect by successive Israeli governments, the Jewish refugee issue is emerging like a mole blinking into the sunlight.

Critics say that the US is trying to “buy off” the most recalcitrant sector of the Israeli electorate, the right-leaning Mizrachim, in return for far-reaching territorial concessions, but MK Shimon Ohayon, who proposed the Knesset bill, has welcomed the prospective compensation clause as “a step in the right direction”.

However, there is a large fly in the ointment — Israel’s own chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni. Despite a 2010 Knesset law requiring Jewish refugees to be on the peace agenda, Livni has opposed raising the very question, claiming there is “no connection” between Jewish and Palestinian refugees.

History has shown otherwise. The Palestinian leadership incited anti-Jewish hatred in the Arab world well before Israel’s creation, and dragged the Arab League into war against the newborn state.

Another blow came last week in a damning report by Israel’s state comptroller, Joseph Shapira. It blasts the Israeli government’s half-hearted and under-resourced approach to collecting claims from ageing Jewish refugees before they die, and its failure to computerise 14,000 old claims. Haaretz reported: “Even if peace were to break out tomorrow, Israel would be hard-pressed to present a solid claim…”

While the Israeli government bumbles, the diaspora is making the running on the Jewish refugee issue. Recognition is more important than compensation – and the UK is blazing the trail with Jewish Refugee Day.

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