Monday, June 30, 2014

Remembering the Oujda massacre

Jewish cemetery at Oujda, Morocco

Jewish cemetery at Oujda, Morocco. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Before this month of June is out, it is as well to recall 
the outbreak of anti-Jewish rioting on June 7 - 8, 1948
  in the northeastern Moroccan towns of Oujda
 and Jerada, in which 44 people were killed 
and some 60 wounded. The massacres, 
whose circumstances have never been definitively
 determined, came weeks after Israel’s declaration
 of statehood, and contributed to a dramatic upsurge
 in the departure of Jews from Morocco, 
most of them to Israel. David B Green
 writes in Haaretz:

Oujda, where the violence first broke out on June 7, 1948, is a large city (today its population is about 450,000) very close to Morocco’s border with Algeria, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) inland from the Mediterranean. In the year beginning from May 1947, some 2,000 Moroccan Jews fled the country for Palestine, many of them passing through Oujda before crossing into Algeria.

Within days of Israeli statehood – which was declared on May 14, 1948 – the Moroccan sultan, Mohammed V, delivered a speech in which he warned his country’s Jews not to demonstrate “solidarity with the Zionist aggression,” but also reminding Morocco’s Muslim majority that Jews had always been a protected people there. Because the address contained both a statement of support for the Jews and an implied threat against them, the effect of it on anti-Jewish sentiment is difficult to gauge.

What is clear is that on the morning of June 7, rioters descended on Oujda’s Jewish quarter and killed four of its Jewish residents, as well as a Frenchman, and wounded another 30. Late that night, and continuing into the next morning, rioting also began in Jerada, a much smaller mining town some 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the southwest of Oujda. There, 37 Jews were killed – including the town’s rabbi, Moshe Cohen, and four family members – out of a total Jewish population of approximately 120.

Damage to property was also extensive in both towns. As police arrived only several hours after the violence began, they could only assess the losses. And when the pasha of Oujda, Mohammed Hajoui, condemned the violence and even visited the homes of all its victims, he was attacked on June 11 in a mosque in the city.

At the time, Morocco was still a French colony – independence was granted only in March 1956 – and the French commissioner for Oujda, René Brunel, pinned responsibility for the outbreak of violence on the Jews – for their passage through Oujda on their way to Israel, and their supposed sympathies with the Zionist movement. According to a report by the French Foreign Ministry, it was “characteristic that those in this region near to the Algerian border consider all Jews who depart as combatants for Israel.”

For its part, the French League for Human Rights and Citizenship blamed the French authorities for their lax control in the area.

A number of officials from the local mining federation were put on trial on charges of instigating the massacres, with several of those convicted the following February being sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor, and others to limited sentences.

If before Oujda and Jereda there had been a stream of Jews departing Morocco, afterward it became a flood. During the next year, 18,000 of Morocco’s 250, 000 or so Jews left for Israel. Between 1948 and 1956, when emigration was prohibited*, the number reached about 110, 000.

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* In fact the ban was lifted in 1949 but re-imposed in 1956 - ed 

Sixty-three years since the Oujda and Djerada pogroms

For peace, don't listen only to the Other

 Professor Mohammed Dajani resigned from Al-Quds university after taking his students to visit Auschwitz death camp

It’s one thing to listen to the Other; another thing to listen only to the Other. The former can lead to reconciliation, but the latter is intended to create subjugation. Well put, Adi Schwartz, writing in i24 News. I would only add that for true reconciliation to happen, the Other ought to recognise that European Holocaust is also an Arab story with a direct link to the postwar mass expulsion of Jews from Arab countries.

After a long delay and a huge controversy, a UNESCO exhibition about the Jewish people's connection to the Land of Israel opened June 11th in Paris. In order for the exhibition to go ahead, UNESCO not only demanded that the words "Land of Israel" be replaced by "Holy Land," but also the removal of one of the panels, which was dedicated to Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

The panel depicted the absorption in Israel of hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled persecution and violence in the Middle East and North Africa. The exhibition’s author, Hebrew University Professor Robert Wistrich, told Israeli media that the panel was removed because it showed that Jews in Arab lands had suffered a great deal, a topic that angered Arab states.

Some 3,000 kilometers from Paris, and only a few days earlier, a Palestinian professor had to resign from al-Quds University in Jerusalem because he taught his students about the Holocaust. The courageous Mohammed Dajani received death threats after leading the first organized group of Palestinian university students to Auschwitz, and had to stand down because of campus riots and heavy pressure.

Both, then – the uprooting of Jews from Arab countries and the European Holocaust – are still a taboo among Palestinians and Arabs. Even the slightest expression of acknowledgment or understanding is overwhelmingly rejected.
Foreign observers tend to claim, in the name of even-handedness, that each side to the Arab-Israeli conflict need to make an effort to recognize the narrative of the other. This will make peace more achievable, they say. But the truth is that there is no equivalence between the two sides: while the uprooting of Jews from Arab countries is completely denied, and the Holocaust hardly recognized, the term "Nakba" is very well known in Israel.

In the past two decades, no literate Israeli could escape discussions of the "Nakba" (catastrophe in Arabic), a term used to commemorate the displacement of Palestinians during their war with Israel in 1948. As early as the 1980s, the term appeared in Israeli newspapers, in academic researches and even in official history books taught in public schools.

Just recently, a film festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque was dedicated to the Nakba, and the Eretz Israel Museum held a conference on the issue. While certainly a controversial, provocative and unpopular issue among Israelis, neither the festival nor the exhibition were canceled or censored. On the contrary: they were given center stage in publicly funded institutions.

These historical events are very different, but for the sake of this discussion let's relate to their role in the respective narratives. Palestinians consider the recognition of the Nakba essential; Jews feel gravely offended when the historical events of the Holocaust, or of the uprooting of Jews from Arab countries, are denied. So why the double-standard?

It’s one thing to listen to the other; another thing to listen only to the other. The former can lead to reconciliation, but the latter is intended to create subjugation. For the activists who promote rapprochement between the two peoples, this could be a good place to start: once every literate Palestinian knows about the Holocaust and the uprooting of Jews from Arab countries, the chances of peace will be much greater.

Read article in full

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tunisian Jewish numbers keep on declining

Buffeted by political and economic shocks in the last 11 years, including a deadly suicide attack outside the synagogue by Islamist militants in 2002 and violence after Tunisia’s popular uprising in 2011, the Jewish community continues to decline. Insightful article by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times:

Three or four families left after the revolution that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. “They had large families and not enough work,” said Youssef Gamoun, who, like many of the Jews here, has a jewelry shop in Houmt Souk. “After the revolution, there was less work and a problem of crime. The tourists stopped coming, and there were burglaries. Things were really tough.”

Flowers auctioned to raise funds for the Ghriba synagogue, whose foundations were first laid in 586 B.C. ( Samuel Aranda NYT)

The 2002 suicide attack signaled that the synagogue had become a target along with other Jewish sites in North Africa. The people of Djerba are reticent about what happened, but 21 people were killed, including 14 German tourists, when the bomber exploded a tanker filled with propane gas at the entrance to the synagogue.

The attack was hushed up by Mr. Ben Ali’s government — the charred walls were whitewashed within hours of the explosion — and Tunisia’s connections to Al Qaeda were never fully explained. That lack of openness has kept German tourists away to this day, said Rene Trabelsi, a Jewish tour operator and hotelier whose father is keeper of the Ghriba synagogue.

Tunisia has been a center of Jewish life since at least Roman times, but only about 2,000 Jews remain in the country.  (Aranda  NYT)

The Tunisian government has nevertheless provided a permanent police guard to protect the synagogue since the attack. Dozens of police and plainclothes intelligence agents locked down the entire area during the pilgrimage last month, and military helicopters patrolled overhead. “What happened in 2002 cannot happen again,” said Haim Bittan, Tunisia’s chief rabbi.

Many Tunisians like to emphasize their cosmopolitan history, yet the country is predominantly Muslim and Arab and has been affected by the shocks emanating from the Middle East. Rioters burned shops and synagogues in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli war, causing an exodus of Jewish families. The massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982 prompted more to leave, Mr. Trabelsi said. Tunisia hosted the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for 12 years, and Israel bombed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s headquarters near Tunis in 1985.

Tunisian boys studied in Djerba’s remaining Talmudic school.  (Aranda NYT)

So when the newly appointed minister of tourism, Amel Karboul, decided to promote the Ghriba pilgrimage this year as a way to bolster tourism and champion the Jewish minority as an example of Tunisian tolerance and plurality, members of the National Constituent Assembly gave her a sharp rebuke.
Legislators threatened to censure Ms. Karboul and a senior Interior Ministry adviser over the issuing of travel documents to Israeli tourists. (Israeli visitors are not issued visas but a laissez-passer, which avoids recognition of their Israeli passports.)

“We wanted to make the point not to allow people with Israeli passports and not to establish diplomatic relations with Israel,” said Issam Chebbi, one of the assembly members who supported the motion of no confidence in the minister.
The political furor scared off some Jewish visitors, yet some welcomed democratic discussion of the issue. For the first time, a Jew, Mr. Trabelsi, was proposed for the post of minister of tourism in the new government in December. He did not get the job — “Maybe it is not the moment,” he said, shrugging — but added that for the first time, many Tunisians saw a Jew speaking fluent Arabic just like them on national television and reacted positively.
“Perhaps Jews before were hidden, and now today people find the Jewish question is important,” he said. “Tunisians want to show they are tolerant.”

Read article in full 

Tunisia needs you Jews!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Jewish Refugee Day is historic breakthrough

It’s been a historic week for activists campaigning for the rights of Jews from Arab lands. The Israeli Knesset has passed a law which will for the first time designate  30th November as a national day of commemoration for the million or so Jewish refugees forced to flee Arab lands and Iran. Lyn Julius blogs in the Jerusalem Post:

“Today, we have finally corrected an historic injustice and placed the issue of Jews who were expelled or pushed out of the Arab world in the last century on the national and international agenda,” said MK Shimon Ohayon (pictured) , who proposed the law. “In Israel, the history of the Jews who originally came from the Middle East or North Africa, who make up around half of the population, was ignored for too long.”
“From this year, every child in Israel will learn about the history of the Jews of the region, who arrived long before the Islamic conquest and Arab occupation of the region. This is a vital part of our fight against those internally and externally who delegitimize our presence here in the region and claim we are somehow foreign to the region.”
Scandalous but true - Israeli children may  learn very little about the ancient Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, and even less about how these were driven to extinction in a single generation by a combination of physical threats, state-sanctioned legislation and pogroms. In short, ethnic cleansing.
The date of 30 November was chosen for what might come to be known as Jewish Refugee Day  to mark the onset of a series of anti-Jewish riots.  Jews were murdered and Jewish property ransacked in Syria, Bahrain and Aden as demonstrations to protest the UN Partition Plan  on 29 November 1947 turned violent.
But November 1947 was not the start of Jewish troubles, nor should it be seen as the beginning of an ‘understandable backlash’ to Zionism.  Jews  in Iraq had already been traumatised by the 1941 Farhud, which claimed the lives of 179 Jews. Three years before Israel was born, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Hundreds were murdered, many were dispossessed or made homeless.
Before the UN  Partition Plan  resolution was passed, and before a single Arab refugee had fled Palestine, the Arab League was colluding in a series of measures which would victimise their Jewish citizens as the ‘Jewish minority of Palestine’. Zionism would become a criminal offence, Jewish bank accounts frozen and Jews arrested and interned on the slightest pretext.
Just as the state of Israel was established on 15 May, 1948, five member states of the Arab League sent their armies in to crush the newborn state and exterminate its people. Azzam Pasha,  secretary of the Arab League, proclaimed: "[T]his will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the crusades."
Everybody knows that the Arabs failed to win the war against the Jewish state. However, they decisively won the war against their defenceless Jewish citizens - setting off a mass exodus, mostly to Israel. The number of Jewish refugees was greater than the number of Palestinian refugees.
Naturally, not all the history of more than 2,000 years of Jewish life in the Arab world is about suffering and pogroms. The average schoolchild will also learn about the extensive Jewish contribution to the fabric of Middle Eastern and North African society,  trade, culture, literature and music.
But the main purpose of the Day is to explain why 50 percent of Israel's Jews hail from Arab and Muslim lands.
Without an understanding of Jewish refugees and how most ended up as citizens of Israel, there can be no understanding of what drives the Arab quarrel with Jews and Zionism, nor how best to resolve it.

Read blog in full 

We have finally corrected a historic injustice 

World Jewish Congress welcomes naming of Day

Like Jews, Iraqi Christians face extinction

Nearly two-thirds of Iraq's 1. 5 million Christians have fled the country since 2003. Now a new assault by the jihadists of ISIS is emptying cities like Mosul of its Christians. Another indigenous community is following the Jews into extinction, says JNS News.

Like the Jewish people, the Christians of Iraq have a long and storied history that can be traced back to the very foundations of human civilization.

"For hundreds of years Christians have been marginalized in the Islam-dominated part of the world. After the fall of Saddam the situation has been devastating for Christian Assyrians and other minorities such as Mandeans and Yezidies," Nuri Kino-a Swedish-Assyrian Christian who is an independent investigative reporter, filmmaker, author, and Middle East and human rights analyst-told

"More than 60 churches have been attacked and bombed. Rapes, kidnappings, robberies and executions [are all prevalent]," Kino added.

Kino, who has been in constant communication with friends on the ground in Iraq, said that these attacks are all a part of daily life for Assyrians "who don't have their own militia or any neighboring country to back them up."

According to Taimoorazy, who has also been in regular contact with a number of people in Iraq, the situation has deteriorated rapidly since the jihadist invasion.

Taimoorazy said that "water and electricity have been cut, there is a shortage of cooking gas, clean water is running out and there is a fear of an outbreak of illness where the refugees have fled."

"This is a complete disaster for the wellbeing of our nation," she added.

Before 2003, it was estimated that around 130,000 Christians lived in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, but only about 10,000 remained before the recent ISIS invasion a week ago. Now, residents say around 2,000 Christians remain in the city. Many have gone to the surrounding countryside or to Kurdistan. Additionally, many are seeking to flee the country altogether.

"Mosul is also very important for Christians, the prophet Jonah is buried there and also Abraham is supposed to be born in that part of Iraq," Kino said,

The abandoned Saint Elijah's Monastery—the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq—located in the Nineveh Province, just south of the city of Mosul. (Doug via Wikimedia Commons)
"I have spoken to more than 20 Assyrian refugees [in recent days]. They are all saying pretty much the same thing: ISIS is a radical Sunni Islamic group who preaches and demands Sharia laws. That means that Christians have to pay a certain tax for protection, convert, or die," she said.

The latest attacks are nothing new for Assyrian Christians and other minorities. They have faced nearly a century of continuous assault on their way of life.

"We lost 75 percent of our nation during the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek genocide from 1914 through 1918," Taimoorazy said.

This has accelerated over the last decade, where nearly two-thirds of Iraq's 1.5 million Christians have fled the country since 2003.

As the jihadist invasion continues, Iraq's Christian leaders fear that this may very well be the end of Christianity in Iraq.

"After more than 2,000 years, during which we have withstood obstacles and persecutions, Iraq is today almost emptied of its Christian presence," Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Saad Syroub of Baghdad said in an interview with the international Catholic charity group Aid to the Church in Need.

"We fear a civil war. If the various different opposing internal parties do not succeed in finding an agreement, then we must expect the worst. Another war would mean the end, especially for us Christians," added Syroub.

The modern persecution and expulsion of Iraq's Christian and other minorities draws many parallels to the waves of attacks on and eventual expulsion of Iraq's Jewish community during the mid-20th century, when nearly 135,000 Jews were forced to leave from 1948 onwards. Overall, nearly 900,000 Jews were expelled from their homes across the Middle East, many settling in Israel, Europe, and North America.

Similar to Iraq's Jews, who were targeted for their success and accused of supporting Israel, Christians in Iraq are also being targeted for their relative success and supposed ties to the West, especially the United States.

"The history of Jews and Christians in the Muslim dominated part of the world goes hand in hand. Massacres and atrocities to the members of the two religions have been going on for centuries," Kino told "It is very sad that the colorful and very cultivated Jewish community of Iraq vanished."

For Iraqi Christians-as well as those in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East-their ancient communities may soon also vanish, as many flee for safety in Europe and North America.

"At the current rate, with the mass exodus which is being witnessed by the world, the number of Christians left in the Middle East will be slim to none," Taimoorazy said.

Read article in full 

ISIS pledges to destroy 'polytheistic' shrines 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Defeat by dhimmis is intolerable

 In this seminal Tablet article Richard Landes (pictured) nails the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict:  the centrality of the Arab shame-honour culture. Most shaming of all is to be defeated, not just by one's own subjects - but the most abject and cowardly of them all - the Jews.  

In order to understand the role of hard zero-sum, honor-shame concerns in the attitude of Arabs toward Israel, one must first understand the role of the Jew in the Muslim Arab honor-group. For the 13 centuries before Zionism, Jews had been subject to a political status in Muslim lands specifically designed around issues of honor (to Muslims) and shame (to Jews). Jews were dhimmi, “protected” from Muslim violence by their acceptance of daily public degradation and legal inferiority. Noted Chateaubriand in the 19th century:

“Special target of all [Muslim and Christian] contempt, the Jews lower their heads without complaint; they suffer all insults without demanding justice; they let themselves be crushed by blows. … Penetrate the dwellings of these people, you will find them in frightful poverty.”

For more than a millennium, Arab and Muslim honor resided, among other places, in their domination and humiliation of their dhimmi—and when the occasional reformer equalized their legal status, he struck a heavy blow to Muslim honor. Noted a British envoy on the impact of Muhammad Ali’s reforms: “The Mussulmans … deeply deplore the loss of that sort of superiority which they all & individually exercised over & against the other sects. … A Mussulman … believes and maintains that a Christian—& still more a Jew—is an inferior being to himself.”

To say that to the honor-driven Arab and Muslim political player, in the 20th century as in the 10th century, the very prospect of an autonomous Jewish political entity is a blasphemy against Islam, and an insult to Arab virility, is not to say that every period of Muslim rule involved deliberate humiliation of dhimmi. Nor is it to say that all Arabs think like this. On the contrary, this kind of testosterone-fueled, authoritarian discourse imposes its interpretation of “honor” on the entire community, often violently. Thus, while some Arabs in 1948 Palestine may have viewed the prospect of Jewish sovereignty as a valuable opportunity, the Arab leadership and “street” agreed that for the sake of Arab honor Israel must be destroyed and that those who disagreed were traitors to the Arab cause.

Worse: The threat to Arab honor did not come from a worthy foe, like the Western Christians, but by from Jews, traditionally the most passive, abject, cowardly of the populations over which Muslims ruled. As the Athenians explained to the Melians in the 5th century B.C.E.:
One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power which rules over others, as Sparta does, as of what would happen if a ruling power is attacked and defeated by its own subjects.
So, the prospect of an independent state of should-be dhimmis struck Arab leaders as more than humiliating. It endangered all Islam. Thus Rahman Azzam Pasha, the head of the newly formed Arab League, spoke for his “honor group” when he threatened that “if the Zionists dare establish a state, the massacres we would unleash would dwarf anything which Genghis Khan and Hitler perpetrated.” As the Armenians had discovered a generation earlier, the mere suspicion of rebellion could engender massacres.

The loss in 1948, therefore, constituted the most catastrophic possible outcome for this honor-group: Seven Arab armies, representing the honor of hundreds of thousands of Arabs (and Muslims), were defeated by less than a million Jews, the surviving remnant of the most devastating and efficient genocide in history. To fall to people so low on the scale that it is dishonorable even to fight them—nothing could be more devastating. And this humiliating event occurred on center stage of the new postwar global community, before whom the Arab league representatives had openly bragged about their upcoming slaughters. In the history of a global public, never has any single and so huge a group suffered so much dishonor and shame in the eyes of so great an audience.

So, alongside the nakba (catastrophe) that struck hundreds of thousands of the Arab inhabitants of the former British Mandate Palestine, we find yet another, much greater psychological catastrophe that struck the entire Arab world and especially its leaders: a humiliation so immense that Arab political culture and discourse could not absorb it. Initially, the refugees used the term nakba to reproach the Arab leaders who started and lost the war that so hurt them. In a culture less obsessed by honor and more open to self-criticism, this might have led to the replacement of political elites with leaders more inclined to move ahead with positive-sum games of the global politics of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan. But when appearances matter above all, any public criticism shames the nation, the people, and the leaders.

Instead, in a state of intense humiliation and impotence on the world stage, the Arab leadership chose denial—the Jews did not, could not, have not won. The war was not—could never—be over until victory. If the refugees from this Zionist aggression disappeared, absorbed by their brethren in the lands to which they fled, this would acknowledge the intolerable: that Israel had won. And so, driven by rage and denial, the Arab honor group redoubled the catastrophe of its own refugees: They made them suffer in camps, frozen in time at the moment of the humiliation, waiting and fighting to reverse that Zionist victory that could be acknowledged. The continued suffering of these sacrificial victims on the altar of Arab pride called out to the Arab world for vengeance against the Jews. In the meantime, wherever Muslims held power, they drove their Jews out as a preliminary act of revenge. (My emphasis)

Read article in full

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jews are not foreign but too familiar

 Inhabitants of Mosul fleeing the ISIS jihadist advance, among them many Christians.

In what has become a fascinating exchange of ideas in the Tablet, Matti Friedman elaborates on the idea that Israel is part of the Middle Eastern story. As a Middle Eastern minority, Israel has inverted the natural order of things by becoming sovereign in its own land. But what makes Israel even more of an affront, in my view, is that Jews were viewed as a 'despised' minority of feminised cowards. That is what makes Israel's military victories so hard to swallow. (With thanks David; Michelle)

 Over the past few weeks, in a part of Iraq that is closer to my home in Jerusalem than Detroit is to New York, a fanatical strain of Islam has executed an astonishing advance, butchering other Muslims and forcing the further exodus of native minorities like the Christians of Mosul. Some Christians from Mosul have taken refuge in the hills with the Chaldeans, members of a tiny Christian group with their own language and culture, whose future amid the extreme sectarian violence in Iraq is likely to be brief. Other native Iraqi sects, like the Yazidis, have seen entire villages destroyed. Syrian cities like Aleppo and Homs, home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, have been devastated and those communities displaced.

One of the biggest stories in the region in the past century—the disappearance of the old cosmopolitan mosaic that always found a way to exist under Islam but no longer can—has now picked up speed to an extent that would have been hard to imagine even two or three years ago. Soon these communities will all be gone, and one of the great cultural losses of our times will be complete.

As it happens, about an hour before sitting down to write these lines I was speaking with a grandson of the Levi and Barazani families of Mosul. That city houses what is traditionally held to be the tomb of the prophet Jonah and is associated with the biblical Nineveh; its ancient Jewish community left en masse for Israel in the 1950s. He called to speak about another matter, but we spent a few minutes being thankful that the Jews were removed in time to spare them the fate they would have met this month.

In my Mosaic essay, I wanted to bring the Jews of the Middle East into the heart of Israel’s story. But I was also trying to make the point that Israel itself is part of the Middle Eastern story—and not just because it has fought wars with Arab states. When one looks at the recently exiled Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Christians, and others, the Jews displaced by Muslims from their ancestral homes beginning in the mid-20th century begin to look more and more like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews have often played in different parts of the world.

Are you an ethnic or religious minority that wishes to survive in the Middle East? You had better have a piece of land in which you are the majority, and the power to defend it. This is the lesson of the Kurds, as has been vividly brought home this past month, and it is the lesson of Israel.

The Jewish state is as imperfect as any state, and is not an Eden of religious tolerance and harmony. But with its growing populations of Middle Eastern and European Jews, Sunni Muslims, Arab Christians, and Druze, with its synagogues, Baha’i shrines, and Eastern, Catholic, and Protestant churches, it serves as one of the last minority bulwarks in a region that seems intent on expelling its minorities or consuming them alive. Israel is an intolerable affront to so many of its neighbors, and has been long before 1967 or (for that matter) 1948, not because Jews are foreign here but in large part because they are not foreign—they are a familiar local minority that has inverted the order of things by winning wars and becoming sovereign.

None of this will be easily apparent to anyone still trying to understand Israel through the old Hebrew folksongs, through the saga of the Zionist pioneers, or through the lens of colonialism. Israel is different from what its European Jewish founders imagined, and I think it is fine, in 2014, to say this and to say it without regret. Israel is in the Middle East, its population is largely Middle Eastern, and its culture and society increasingly reflect those facts. It is a Jewish state—and Jews are native to the Middle East. I hope that my essay made a modest contribution to advancing this proposition, which I believe should shape our understanding of Israel in the 21st century.

Read article in full 

Israel is a Mizrahi nation by Matti Friedman

Andre Aciman's response 

Arye Tepper's response

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

ISIS pledges to destroy shrines

 Assyrian church on fire in Mosul

 With thanks: Maurice

Jewish and other non-Muslim shrines are at risk of obliteration at the hands of ISIS, the jihadist Sunni terrorist army sweeping across Iraq.

No sooner had it seized Mosul and surrounding villages, than ISIS began outlining how it would govern "its state".

It released a "Wathiqat al-Madina" (A "charter of the city"). In rough translation, the charter says : "Our position towards the polytheistic scenes and shrines in Iraq is that we would not leave any grave without flattening it, and no statue without obliterating it".

Following the announcement, it was reported that ISIS had set fire to the historic Assyrian church in Mosul.

 The tomb of the prophet Jonah near Mosul in the governorate of Nineveh has fallen to ISIS control. The tomb is venerated by both Jews and Muslims.

However, the tomb of the prophet Nahum in the village of Elkosh, in the governorate of Nineveh, is now under Kurdish control. Once ISIS had entered Mosul, the peshmerga Kurdish fighters stepped in to establish control of the area, which has a mixed population of Christians, Kurds, Yezidis and Arabs.

It is not known who controls the tomb of the prophet Daniel in Kirkuk.

So far,  the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel in the al-Hilla district in the mid-southwest of the governorate of Babylon has not been affected by the fighting, although battles have been raging in the north of the province. The Prophet is also revered by Muslims as Thu al-Kifil.

ISIS has not yet reached Baghdad, where the tombs of Joshua the High Priest and Shaykh Ishaq Gaon are located. The tomb of Ezra the Scribe in al-Uzayr, midway between Baghdad and Basrah, is presently beyond the reach of ISIS.

Battlefield casualties are mounting and tens of thousands of soldiers have deserted from the Iraqi army.  Many residents of Baghdad are fleeing the city for the Kurdish north, as sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi'a escalate. Half a million Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes in the last weeks, creating a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Some are saying that Iraq is on the brink of disintegration.     

'We have finally corrected an historic injustice'

 Dr Shimon Ohayon: too few people know about Jewish refugees

The Israeli Knesset has passed a law designating 30 November as a national day to mark the exodus and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran. Here is the text of a press release issued by Shimon Ohayon, the MK who proposed the bill:  

Today (Monday, June 23, 2014), a law written by MK Dr. Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beytenu) was passed which will for the first time designate the 30th November as a national day of commemoration for the Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

“Today, we have finally corrected an historic injustice and placed the issue of Jews who were expelled or pushed out of the Arab world in the last century on the national and international agenda,” MK Ohayon said. “In Israel, the history of the Jews who originally came from the Middle East or North Africa, who make up around half of the population, was ignored for too long.”

“From this year, every child in Israel will learn about the history of the Jews of the region, who arrived long before the Islamic conquest and Arab occupation of the region. This is a vital part of our fight against those internally and externally who delegitimize our presence here in the region and claim we are somehow foreign to the region.”

The law states that the Ministry of Pensioners Affairs will be in charge of organizing the official commemorations, the Ministry of Education will be responsible for including the issue in the educational curriculum and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be responsible for ensuring that the issue is raised in all appropriate diplomatic channels.

“Finally, our stories and our history will be heard. Too few people know about this issue in Israel which is a national disgrace, and even fewer people around the world are even aware that Jews were ethnically cleansed from what is now known as the Arab world, who were there before the Arabs even arrived,” MK Ohayon said. “I hope that the return of this issue to the national agenda will ensure that eventually there is redress for the hundreds of thousands of Jews and their descendants who were expelled from their homes and communities.

“I know Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has for a long time brought this issue onto the international agenda and the Foreign Ministry organizes an annual event at the United Nations devoted to this issue. We will continue to work with many organizations and communities around the world who have expressed interest in ensuring that this day is recognized and commemorated globally.”

Jewish Press 

Jerusalem Post 

Why Jewish Refugee Day matters

Monday, June 23, 2014

It's official: Jewish Refugee Day becomes law

 Shimon Oyahon MK, proponent of the Law

 A bill marking a national day to recall Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran today became law in the Israeli Knesset. Maariv reports:

The State of Israel will on 30 November every year mark a national day to recall the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran, according to a bill proposed by MK Shimon Ohayon (Likud Beiteinu) and approved this evening at its second and third readings in the Knesset plenum.

Ohayon, chairman of the Lobby for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, said: "For many years, Israel ignored the history of Jews in Arab countries and Iran, and has neglected the story. Today a historical injustice is being corrected. Starting this year, each child will learn and recognize that in Israel a tragic episode happened in Jewish history. "

He said, "Too few people are aware of the issue in Israel and in the world even less. Many are not aware that Jews suffered ethnically cleansing, persecution and pogroms in the Arab world. Some 850 thousand Jews left behind assets and considerable property - double the number of Palestinians who left their homes in Israel by 1948. These Jews were not involved in the conflict or war, and suffered only because they were Jews. When talking about a peace agreement - an important first step in the Arab world is that it should be taking responsibility for what was done to these ancient Jewish communities. "

Read article in full (Hebrew) 

The UK will mark Jewish Refugee Day too, by Michelle Huberman (Jewish News)

Morocco's forgotten labour camps

From 1940 to November 1942, thousands of people were interned in North Africa, in civilian or military camps located mainly in Morocco, in the eastern region between the Rif and the Algerian border. Jean-Paul Fhima in Tribune Juive has undertaken some valuable research into this dark aspect of Morocco's wartime history: (with thanks: Michelle)

Today, in these remote villages crushed by the sun, nobody remembers.

During the summer of 1942, an  International Red Cross mission (IRC), led by Dr. Wyss-Denant, visited the Boudnib, Bou Arfa and Berguent camps.
Reports accurately describe the conditions of life and work, hygiene, food, treatment of "residents'' (Jamaa Baida, University of Rabat)

All in all, in the French protectorate of Morocco, there were 14 camps of various kinds involving 4,000 men. A third were Jews of various nationalities.The inmates were all men except in Sidi Al Ayachi, where there were women and even children.
Some camps were guarded detention centres, ie real prisons for political opponents of the Vichy regime. Others were so-called'' transit'' camps for refugees. Still others were exclusively reserved for foreign workers. Or Jews. The Bou Arfa camp (above) was under the authority of the railway company, Mediterranean-Niger iron, commonly called Sea-Niger (or Merniger).Long suspended, the old colonial project was revived in 1941 for the supply of goods to the metropolis. Under Vichy, the Trans-Saharan railway became a major symbol of collaboration with the Third Reich. Therefore there was a need for labor.

Thousands of Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco's repression were employed in groups of foreign workers (GTE) responsible for the construction and maintenance of railways.The pace of work was brutal and inhumane because they had to work at speed.The Spanish workers (694 of 818, CRI Report, July 1942) were turned into real convicts. Jews deported from Central Europe and French Communists were transferred there. Daily life there was terrible. Many died of abuse, torture, disease, hunger or thirst, scorpion stings or snake bites. 

Photos taken by Sinforiano Rodriguez, Spanish worker  and camp survivor of Bou Arfa. 

Berguent (Ain Beni Mathar) camp was run by the Department of Industrial Production.
It was reserved exclusively for Jews (155 in July 1942, and then 400 early 1943, according to the CRI report). "But this spiritual comfort did not reduce in any way the fact that Berguent camp was among the worst," said Jamaa Baida. The Red Cross demand to have it closed was ignored.The Jews who were in Berguent, especially from Central Europe, had previously fled to France. Volunteers for the Foreign Legion, they were demobilized after the defeat of 1940 and then interned "for administrative reasons." This was the case with Saul Albert, a Turkish citizen who arrived with his family in France in 1922 . He was a  prisoner at Berguent until his release in March 1943. In his diary, he says:

 "February 10 (1941) : Broke stones all day. March 2 ...: Transferred to the fifth group with German Jews. I do not like this at all. The work is not the same; We had to make ballast ... April 6: I can not stand this life any longer, we are working too hard and getting yelled at. I have a fever, toothache ... September 22: Rosh Hashanah: no one wanted to work ... October 1: Have not eaten ...

In a petition written by the prisoners themselves, we learn that the sick were isolated without being treated, the punishments were severe and unjustified. The supervisors, many of whom were German, behaved tyrannically, with hostility and malice. "They should have joined the notorious Nazi SS." Some prisoners managed to escape, reaching Casablanca and joining Allied forces. 

At Boudnib, a small town of 10, 000 inhabitants, the current military barracks are the last witnesses of the former French army camp. Older residents retain fragments of memory: "There are two things I can tell you with certainty. The first is that Boudnib consisted mainly of Jews. The second is that most of the city camp prisoners were of Italian origin because they came regularly to teach us music lessons at primary school "(magazine Tel Quel No 274, from 19/25 May 2007 - original link not working ).

Maurice Rué, a communist journalist, was interned there. He tells us that "of some 40 prisoners, three-quarters were Communists, Socialists and Gaullists .. before the arrival of 40 Jews for a few months."

After the American landing on November 8, 1942, Morocco sided with the Allies. In January 1943, the Allies met at a conference in Casablanca. A strategic and military agreement was signed. Shortly afterwards, the invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky, July 1943) signalled the beginning of the end of German-occupied Europe.

The railway construction in Bou Arfa was not interrupted and the workers' conditions did not change much for the better. They were better paid, as Italian and German prisoners replaced the Communists and Jews. But building the Trans-Saharan  remained an everyday hell. The project, which some called without purpose, was not abandoned by France until 1949. 

Otherwise, the camps were hastily dismantled between late 1942 and early 1943. 
The documentary by Bill Cran and Karin Davison broadcast on Arte, entitled "The Maghreb under the swastika" (June 2010), gives a voice to  historian Robert Satloff. While recounting the fate of the Jews, the American specialist seeks to understand the role played at the time by the authorities and the local population. He questions in particular the attitude of the Sultan (Mohammed V) whose "unjustly ignored heroism is worthy of (recognition as) Righteous among the nations."  

Really? If, indeed none of the 250,000 Jews of Morocco has been locked up in the eastern camps, did  Sultan Mohammed have any real part to play?  I'm not so sure. 

The Berber Jewish communities had long been integrated into the Moroccan population. They were living in the villages of the High Atlas and the south (Draa valley) well before the Islamization of the country. At the time of the French protectorate (1912) they still had their own dialect, folklore, oral tradition and religious culture. Dhimmi status guaranteed them protection by the sultan and local potentates (sheikhs, pashas or Caids). Living in the commercial districts since the Middle Ages, Moroccan Jews were well integrated into the urban elite. Attached to their neighborhood (the mellahs), they were merchants and notables, doctors and teachers. They contributed to the dynamics of society.

One can understand the reluctance of (the future) Mohammed V (to agree) when the Resident-General of the Vichy government, Charles Nogues, wanted impose the first statut des juifs in October 1940 and the second, even stricter law in June 1941,  because  restrictions and bans could seriously destabilize the economy. But he signed those dahirs (decrees of the Sultan), with all the discriminatory effects they implied. Jewish doctors were excluded, as were lawyers from the Bar Association, and students from the school system.

However, Moroccan Jews were never threatened with deportation to camps reserved for French and foreign Jews. 

During the war, the lives of Moroccan Jews would not have been very different from that of Muslims. The yellow star was not worn, living conditions and privations were the same (Mohamed Hatimi, Tel Quel, No. 274). An inventory was drawn up of Jewish property but Jewish assets were not seized, rather they were temporarily 'transferred'.

Jews were more worried by anti-Semitic acts carried out by French settlers than by the natives. The German presence was very discreet or non-existent, apparently confined to the one city of Casablanca. 

Scholars like Mostafa Bouaziz or Robert Assaraf ("Mohammed V and the Jews", 1997) say that the Sultan obtained substantial improvements (for the Jews) and bought time by postponing as far as possible the implementation of anti-Jewish measures.

 Robert Satloff is convinced that an Arab Oskar Schindler existed ("Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands," 2006). But his approach is primarily political and is concerned with generating a present-day dialogue between Jews and Arabs. 

Other historians are skeptical. Jacques Dahan ("A Moroccan Jew looks at the contemporary history of his country", 1995) regrets the lack of written documents about the supposed benevolent behavior of Mohammed V, while recognizing the positive influence the sovereign had. For Michel Abitbol ("the Jews of North Africa under Vichy," 1955), one should not exaggerate such an idyllic vision. 

The French historian
of Moroccan origin Georges Bensoussan, a specialist in the Holocaust, explodes this myth of the Sultan as savior of Jews in his book published in 2012 ("Jews in Arab countries: the great uprooting :1850-1975")

 The Sultan had intervened only on certain issues and in private only to serve the interests of his country. "On most counts, he did not protect the Jews," he writes. Let alone those in the camps. 

He would not have intervened to prevent the internment of foreign Jews or to improve their living conditions even if he could not ignore their existence. "These camps were outside his area of ​​influence. They were the exclusive remit of the  French army, "says Mostafa Bouaziz.

What, then? Serge Berdugo, former Minister of Moroccan tourism and Secretary General of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco recalls: "My father knew there were Jews interned in the East. He went there several times to bring them some food. "

In any event, one should consider the fate of the Jews in Morocco compared to the Algerian and Tunisian Jews whose fate was less enviable. In Algeria, their French citizenship was revoked. More than 12,000 conscripts, excluded from French combat units, were sent to the Bedeau camp from January 1943. In Tunisia, occupied for some time by Nazi Germany, the situation was even worse, despite the feeble resistance of the Grand Bey of Tunis. Subject to the yellow star and forced labor, young people were rounded up as they left synagogues and found themselves in the labor camps of the occupying forces. These camps were often shelled by Allied aircraft. There were many casualties. Some were deported and exterminated in Europe. Their names are engraved on a war memorial in Tunis.

 "The camps in the Sahara were the worst of World War II," wrote Martin Gilbert, a British specialist of the Holocaust. Is this a reasonable assessment? Were Bou Arfa or Berguent worse than Auschwitz? "It is clear that no historian dare make a comparison with the Nazi extermination camps in Europe, both ethically and professionally" (Jamaa Baida, University Rabat). 
On the other hand, how are we to understand the efforts of some scholars and politicians (Moroccan) to canonize Mohammed V? Is there a politically correct version of the Holocaust in which the Arabs are the forgotten righteous of Yad Vashem? Should we twist history in order to give a special resonance to current bones of contention? 

Berguent has an idea of how to respond. For the last two years, a three-day summer festival has been reviving the cultural and historical heritage of the locality (newspaper Le Soir Echos, 7 September 2012). Various popular and scientific meetings and events,
where Jews have their place, vaunt the values of tolerance. Learning to live together again is the true symbol of living memory. 

The past is a great fragile body to be handled with care. 

Read original article  (French)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What we can learn from UNESCO silence

 Yemenite Jews in a ma'abara (transit camp) in the 1950s

 UNESCO has come under fire for insisting on the withdrawal from its Paris exhibition on the Jewish people's age-old relationship with the Land of Israel a panel telling the story of Jews driven from Arab countries. In this piece for the Jerusalem Post, David Matas articulates brilliantly the reasons why this story does more to combat anti-Zionism than any other. If we can learn that lesson from the UNESCO cover-up, it will have done us a favour.

The exhibit had one gaping hole: the story of the movement of Jews from Arab countries to Israel. There is one sentence in the panel titled “Israel among the nations” which says, “By 1968, Middle Eastern Jews already represented 48% of the entire Jewish migration to Israel.” And that is more or less it.

Robert Wistrich had prepared a panel on Jews from Arab countries for the exhibit, but UNESCO vetoed it. It was made clear to Wistrich and the Simon Wiesenthal Center that, if they insisted on this particular panel, the exhibit would not take place.

The exhibit counters many different elements of anti-Zionist propaganda. Why was there silence on this issue pertaining to the history of the migration of Jews from Arab countries to Israel, the red line for anti-Zionists? The answer is that this story does more to counter anti-Zionist mythology than any other. (Emphasis added)

Anti-Zionist mythology says that Jews are outsiders who have come from Europe and North America to colonize Arab territory.

The fact that half of the Jews of Israel are descendants of those who have lived continuously in the region since time immemorial undermines this myth.

Anti-Zionist mythology portrays Palestinian refugees as victims of the creation of the State of Israel. The fact that there were two displaced populations and that the Jewish displaced population was more numerous than the Palestinian one shifts the blame for refugee victimization to the place where it belongs: anti-Zionists and their attacks on the existence of the State of Israel.

Anti-Zionists attempt to mobilize sympathy for the underdog by portraying the Palestinians as victims and Israelis as perpetrators.

The existence of an even larger population of displaced Jewish victims from Arab states guts this narrative of Palestinians as unique underdogs.

Jews expelled or driven out from Arab countries were resettled outside the region or locally integrated in Israel. Anti-Zionists have refused to contemplate for Palestinians either resettlement or local integration; anti-Zionists would rather keep that population in enforced misery as hostages to anti-Zionist rhetoric, as fodder for propaganda against the existence of Israel. The contrast between the hospitality Israel has offered to Jewish refugees and the hostility Arab states have manifested to Palestinian refugees is stark. Anti-Zionists want to ensure that this contrast remains hidden.

It was irrational for Arab states, at one and the same time to combat the existence of a Jewish state and to be instrumental in its creation through the expulsion of their Jewish populations, who inevitably, for the most part, ended up in Israel. The only consistent explanation for both Arab state behaviors is hatred for Jews in their midst. That is a story that, understandably, Arab states did not want told.

Palestinian peace negotiators have argued that whatever injustice was done to Jewish refugees from Arab countries was not inflicted by the Palestinians. This position ignores the fact that many of the Jewish refugees generated by the wars against the existence of Israel, about 40,000, came from the West Bank and Gaza.

Be that as it may, the refusal of Arab states to confront the reality of the injustice to Jews from Arab countries, which their opposition to the insertion of this issue in the UNESCO exhibit illustrates, means that if the issue is not dealt with in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, it is not likely to be dealt with at all.

We need to take a cue from the anti-Zionists’ own rankings. If what is central to the core of anti-Zionist propaganda is the covering up of the story of Jews from Arab countries, then that story must be central to combating anti-Zionism. If we can learn that lesson from the UNESCO cover up, it will have done us a favor.

Read article in full 

Robert Wistrich in the Jerusalem Post 

Wiesenthal will reinstate 'offending' board

UNESCO's missing 'hot potato'