Sunday, May 31, 2015

Palmyra, seized by IS, 'so far' intact

Although Islamic State 's record of destroying non-Muslim shrines and relics does not bode well, a video thought to have been taken by IS (ISIS) and published on 26 May shows the historic  site of Palmyra to be intact 'so far', a Syrian official has stated.  The ancient Graeco-Roman city contains houses bearing Hebrew inscriptions. Ilan Ben Zion reports for Times of Israel:

Among the archaeological gems from Palmyra, the pearl of Syria’s desert, at risk after the Islamic State’s takeover last week are vestiges of its Jewish past, including the longest Biblical Hebrew inscription from antiquity: the opening verses of the Shema carved into a stone doorway.

Western archaeologists who visited the site in the 19th and 20th century discovered Hebrew verses etched into the doorframe of a house in the ancient city. But whether that inscription is still at the site is unclear.

The last time a European scholar documented it in situ was 1933, when Israeli archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik of Hebrew University photographed it.

“What may have happened to it since is anyone’s guess,” Professor David Noy, co-author of Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis (Jewish Inscriptions of the Near East), wrote in an email on Friday.
Three views of the Shema inscription found in a doorway in Palmyra, taken in 1884 and printed in Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. (S. Landauer)
Three views of the Shema inscription found in a doorway in Palmyra, taken in 1884 and printed in Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. (S. Landauer)

Palmyra was one of the Roman Empire’s major cities, rising to prominence in the first centuries of the common era as a vassal state and entrepôt connecting West and East. Situated at an oasis in the desert frontier separating the empires of Rome and Parthia, Palmyra grew to an estimated population of 150,000-200,000 at its height in the third century CE. Textiles, perfumes, spices and gems came from India and the Far East, and metals, glass, wine and cash from Rome passed overland, bypassing the longer Red Sea trade route.

Because of its unique location, Palmyrene culture and art exhibited a fusion of Roman and Persian traditions. Traditional Mesopotamian mud bricks comprised the majority of the city’s architecture, Jørgen Christian Meyer, an archaeologist from the University of Bergen explained, but temples to Semitic gods such as Bel, Baalshamin and Al-lat were constructed in Classical style with stout columns hewn of stone.
When the city was abandoned following its destruction in 273 CE and left to the elements, the mud brick disintegrated, leaving behind a petrified forest of stone columns.
During its centuries of prosperity and decline it was home to a thriving Jewish community.
“What we see in Palmyra is a multicultural, and possibly also a multi-identity city,” Meyer, who headed a Norwegian-Syrian archaeological excavation at the site in 2011, just as the civil war started heating up. “Here we’ve got this mixture of Greek, Aramaic, Middle Eastern, Roman culture. This is fantastic.”

“That’s why it’s a unique place from a historical point of view, a cultural point of view,” he said.

That fusion included Jews. Two locally produced terra cotta lamps found next to one of the great pagan temples bear menorahs on either side of a conch, suggesting close integration of Jews and gentiles.
Solomon and the plan for the First Temple. (Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Co.)

Solomon and the plan for the First Temple. (Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Co.

Known in Hebrew and Aramaic as Tadmor, Jewish legend attributed the city’s construction to King Solomon. Josephus Flavius, writing in the first century CE, ascribed its construction to King Solomon, saying that the city of Tamar referred to in Kings I was the “very great city” Josephus’s contemporaries knew in the Syrian Desert.

“Now the reason why this city lay so remote from the parts of Syria that are inhabited is this, that below there is no water to be had, and that it is in that place only that there are springs and pits of water,” the Jewish Roman historian said. “When he had therefore built this city, and encompassed it with very strong walls, he gave it the name of Tadmor, and that is the name it is still called by at this day among the Syrians, but the Greeks name it Palmyra.”

Modern scholars, however, dispute the veracity of Josephus’s claim that it was built by Solomon. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Classical city of Palmyra didn’t predate the first century BCE, and the biblical city of Tamar was likely in today’s Negev Desert.

Read article in full

ISIS destroys Jonah's tomb in Mosul

Saturday, May 30, 2015

When the beautiful game turned ugly

 With thanks: Dan

 The UST, which started out as a merged Arab-Jewish club, became an all-Jewish team in the 1930s. Photo from 1932

Sport and politics don't mix, as the saying goes. But when they do, they can have deadly consequences.

A football match in 1917 between Tunisian Muslims and Jews almost caused civil war.

Just after the 1917 armistice was signed and in honour of Tunisian soldiers returning from the front,  the Stade Tunisois all-Jewish team were due to play the Franco-Arab Stade Africain in the Franco-Arab Cup.

Tunisia was then a French protectorate: Tunisian Muslims were recruited into the French colonial army, but Jews were given dispensation from military service, thus causing great resentment among the Arabs. Matters were not helped by the recent announcement of the Balfour Declaration in favour of a Jewish home in Palestine.

The atmosphere during the match was electric. The Jewish team won 2 -1. Resentment boiled over: scuffles broke out between supporters of the opposing teams. Some were professional boxers: Hassen Karroche, Tunisian heavyweight champion, together  with Abderrahmane Gamane, exchanged blows with Judas  Cohen, a  Stade Tunisois player and career boxer.

In spite of police attempts to quell the trouble,violence spread beyond the stadium into the streets of the Tunis Medina. Shops in the Jewish quarter were  broken into. News than Belgacem, the linesman, had been beaten up by Judas Cohen and taken to hospital, sent the mob into a rage.

Things began to calm down when Judas Cohen was singled out as the main trouble-maker. He was arrested and imprisoned. Ismail, Bey of Tunis, released him at the request of his Jewish mistress, the dancer Julie Chaouia.

The Jews gave Judas Cohen a hero's welcome, shouting slogans at the Stade Africain team. Hostilities flared up again, plunging Tunis into chaos once more.

The situation deteriorated so badly that the defence minister General Lignolet suspended all sporting activities for a whole year.

Play waas resumed when Sadok Ben Mustapha of the Stade Africain and Haddad of the Stade Tunisois hit upon the idea of merging their teams into a model of coexistence and tolerance - the Union Sportive Tunisienne or UST.

However, sectarianism soon infected football once again - the Arabs ended up with their own team, the Italians theirs, the Maltese theirs and the French theirs. In time the UST became an exclusively Jewish club. Its glorydays were in the 1930s when the club won many cups. By 1950, however, the team was losing its best players, most of whom emigrated to France.

Read post in full (French)


Friday, May 29, 2015

Silwan synagogue re-dedicated after 77 years

Seventy seven years after the British made the Yemenite Jews of Kfar Shiloah (Silwan) in east Jerusalem leave for their own safety, a historic synagogue once again echoed to the sound of Jewish prayers, music and singing. Arutz Sheva reports: For the first time in 77 years, festive Jewish prayers were held on Monday in one of modern Jerusalem's oldest synagogues: The long-hidden and inaccessible Hechal Shlomo of the Yemenite village.

Dozens of people took part in the joyous festivities, which marked the full circle of Jewish settlement in eastern Jerusalem. Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) – amidst traditional Yemenite Jewish prayers, music and foods, and some Ashkenazim and Sepharadim as well – took part in the re-dedication of the synagogue. Affixing the mezuzah to the doorpost, he recited the traditional blessings, including "Blessed is He Who restores the borders of the widow."

It was back in 1885 that Yisrael Dov Frumkin founded the village, built the synagogue, and paved the way for some 65 Yemenite Jewish families to live on the slopes of the Mt. of Olives. Most of the land land had been contributed by a Zionist philanthropist known as Boaz HaBavli.

The settlement thrived, but in the 1930's, the Arab riots that engulfed the Land of Israel did not pass over the Yemenite Village. The British rulers told the Jews that they could not protect them and that they must leave, but promised to look after their property and that they could later return.

Daniel Luria of the Ateret Cohanim Association, which oversaw the modern return to the synagogue, explained what happened next: "A year later, Shlomo Ze'evi – father of the famous Rehavam (Gandi) Ze'evi – stood in this very synagogue, and was shocked and angered at the destruction that the Arabs had wrought here." There was also great bitterness at the British and their promises; the Jews were not allowed to return to their homes.

Now, years later, Ateret Cohanim and many happy Jews were able to return and celebrate another milestone in the national return of the Jewish People to their sacred homeland. This followed great efforts in re-purchasing the Jewish owned properties, resettling Jewish families in various buildings around the neighborhood, and carefully identifying each structure.

Read article in full
Yemenite Jews were first in Silwan

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Turkish Jews feel pull back to Spain

 Antisemitism is a principal reason why Turkey's Jews are flocking to apply for Spanish passports. (The bill has still to be approved by the Spanish Senate). In spite of the symbolic restoration of synagogues where there are hardly any Jews left, Jews have condemned Turkish government-sponsored incitement as 'collective punishment'. Article  in the New York Times (with thanks: Nitza):

The synagogue at Edirne, restored for $ 2.5 million - but where are the Jews?

ISTANBUL — For Rafi, a local newspaper’s anti-Semitic crossword puzzle was the final affront. He knew he had to leave Turkey.

“There are many reasons to leave: a lack of work opportunities, growing polarization within society and oppressive leadership. But the hatred toward our community has been the tipping point for me,” said Rafi, 25, a graphic designer based in Istanbul, who provided only his first name out of fear of harassment by Turkish nationalists. “There is no future here.”

Rafi is one of thousands of Sephardic Jews in Turkey who trace their ancestry to Spain and are now applying for Spanish citizenship in anticipation of a parliamentary bill expected to pass this month in Madrid that would grant nationality to the Jews who were expelled in 1492, during the Inquisition.

Most are seeking visa-free travel within Europe and an opportunity to escape what they see as rising anti-Semitism in Turkey. But many are taken with the idea of reversing the trek their ancestors took centuries ago as they escaped persecution in Spain and settled in the more tolerant environs of the Ottoman Empire.

Anti-Jewish sentiment is not uncommon in the Turkish news media, but the implications of the crossword puzzle sent shock waves across Turkey. It featured an image of Adolf Hitler with the slogan, “We are longing for you.”
“Jews are attacked all over the world, but last year the level of hate speech in Turkey reached an unnerving level,” Rafi said.

During the 15th century, about half a million Sephardic Jews sought the safety of the Ottoman Empire, and they prospered there under the rule of Sultan Bayezid II.

“The Jews were not just permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even compelled,” the British-American historian Bernard Lewis wrote in his book “The Jews of Islam.”

But since the beginning of the 20th century and the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Turkey’s Jewish population has been in sharp decline. A discriminatory wealth tax in the 1940s introduced by a secularist government, along with the establishment of the state of Israel, reduced the number of Jewish residents by tens of thousands.

Those who stayed faced pressure to assimilate, and Turkish quickly replaced Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language of Sephardic Jews. Today, only a small portion of older Sephardic Jews speak the language of their forebears.
“My grandmother would sing me Ladino lullabies, but I can only remember a few words,” Rafi said. “Our generation is focusing on learning modern Spanish for Spanish citizenship.”

Over the past decade, under the government of the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, and pressured by a string of deadly terrorist attacks on synagogues and a surge in anti-Semitism, the Jewish population — the vast majority of whom are Sephardic — has shrunk to 17,000 from 19,500 in 2005, according to figures obtained from the chief rabbinate in Istanbul.

Although Jews have felt increasingly uneasy over the past two years, Selin Nasi, a columnist for Salom, a Jewish weekly, acknowledged that Turkey had taken some positive symbolic steps to improve relations with Jews.
The Turkish government spent $2.5 million on a project to restore the Great Synagogue of Edirne and participated in the United Nations’ Holocaust Day for the first time this year.

“These steps are good, but we never see a continuation,” Ms. Nasi said. “It’s always one step forward, one step back, confusing rhetoric and inconsistent implementation that causes the community to be apprehensive.”

At a rally last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted that he was the first Muslim leader to denounce anti-Semitism. He has, however, engaged in heated exchanges with the Israeli leadership, primarily over Gaza. Some analysts say that those disputes, combined with his dissemination of conspiracy theories that often implicate Jews, have encouraged anti-Semitism.

Apprehension among Jews in Istanbul rose in 2013, after Mr. Erdogan accused an “interest rate lobby” of backing widespread antigovernment protests that were supposedly meant to bring down the economy and topple his government.
“In Turkey, you could say anti-Semitism is marginalized, until you turn on the TV and see the president and other politicians cursing Jews in public,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who specializes in Turkish-Israeli affairs. “When you have public displays of hate speech from politicians, it changes the landscape considerably.”

According to a poll conducted in July 2013 for the Anti-Defamation League, 69 percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. During the war last summer between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, pro-government news outlets in Turkey began a series of anti-Semitic social media campaigns that stoked anti-Jewish sentiment.

After a Turkish singer posted “May God bless Hitler” on Twitter, Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Turkey’s capital, Ankara, who has over 2.5 million followers, responded, “I applaud you,” and he encouraged others to chime in.
Many Turks put the blame for the rise in anti-Jewish feelings on the actions of the Israeli government, particularly the killing of civilians during the Gaza war. “If the Turkish Jewish community does not put an end to Israel’s actions, very bad things happen,” Bulent Yildirim, president of the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, wrote on Twitter.

But in the eyes of most of the Jews who were interviewed, that amounts to collective punishment. “When lashing out at Israel, the government condemns Jews without making a differentiation, which incites hatred toward the community,” said Mert Levi, 26, a Sephardic Jew who left Turkey for a few months last summer because of the tensions he felt in Istanbul.

“It was so thick, you could have cut it with a knife,” he said. “It got so bad that in some circles, we had to think twice before giving our names.”

In Bursa, the northwestern province where the first Sephardic Jews arrived by sea in the 16th century, only 65 Jews remain, most of them advanced in age. Over the decades, thousands of families have moved to Istanbul and Izmir, a southern city, to seek better work and education prospects.

Read article in full 

Spain's offer may come with costly strings and red tape (Independent)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The surreal story behind Operation Magic Carpet

If it were not for a few determined individuals, the Alaska Airlines airlift of Yemen's Jews in 1949 might never have happened. Getting the refugees on the planes was the least of the problems: the aircraft were at risk of running out of fuel, and if they landed in enemy territory,  the crew and passengers could be shot. Joe Spier tell the amazing story of Operation Magic Carpet in the San Diego Jewish World (with thanks: Geoffrey):

Joe Spier

CALGARY, Alberta, Canada — The story of the modern exodus of “Beta Israel” the Jews of Ethiopia during Operations Moses and Solomon, which together airlifted some 22,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, is well known. Less well known is the dramatic exodus of over 48,000 Jews from Yemen. Almost unknown is the role played by Alaska Airlines.

No one knows for certain when the first Jews came to Yemen. Local 
legend has them being sent as traders by King Solomon. In any event,
 Jews have lived in Yemen for many centuries. In that backward and
 poverty-stricken country, the Jews were the poorest and lowest of
 citizens living in contempt and on sufferance as dhimmis. However, in
 their synagogues and schools, they taught their male children to learn 
and write Hebrew. They never forgot their faith, protected the traditions,
 observed the Sabbath and passed the Torah and Talmud to each 
succeeding generation. Following World War I, when Yemen became
 independent, life in that Muslim country for the Jews became intolerable. 

Anti-Semitic laws were revived; Jews were not permitted to walk on pavements; in court a Jew’s evidence was not accepted against a Muslim’s; Jewish orphans had to be converted to Islam. Some Jews were able to escape to Palestine but most were trapped.
In 1947, following the United Nations vote to partition Palestine, the situation of the Jews in Yemen turned from despair to physical danger. Arab rioters in the adjacent port of Aden, then a British Crown colony and now part of Yemen, killed 82 Jews and torched the Jewish quarter. The establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 and Israel’s War of Independence increasingly endangered the Yemeni Jews as it did in all Arab countries. It was not, however, until May 1949, when the Imam of Yemen unexpectedly agreed to permit all Jews to leave his country that they were able to flee. They longed to return to Zion if only they had the means. At that time, slightly over 49,000 Jews lived in Yemen.
As the War of Independence ended in early 1949, Israel was devastated and virtually bankrupt. Notwithstanding, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, defying logic and the advise of his economic advisors, ordered the immediate and rapid “Ingathering of the Exiles”. Where would Israel get the money? “Go to the Jews in the Diaspora and ask them for the money”, Ben-Gurion answered the skeptics.
For the Jews of Yemen, Egypt had closed the Suez Canal to them and therefore they would have to be transported by air to Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the international Jewish humanitarian aid organization, agreed to fund the Yemenite exodus and organize the airlift, but they needed aircraft.
Alaska Airlines was founded in 1932, when Mac McGee purchased a used three passenger Stinson and started an air charter business in Alaska. With the arrival of James Wooten as president in 1947, the airline began to purchase surplus planes from the U.S. Government and within a year became the
world’s largest charter airline.
The JDC approached Wooten and asked if Alaska Airlines would agree to accept the Yemen airlift. Wooten wanted Alaska Air to take on the mission of mercy but Ray Marshall, Chairman of the Board, was cool. Marshall felt the deal was a waste of the Airline’s time and money. It would take at least $50,000 to set up the charter, cash that the Airline did not have. Marshall insisted that Wooten front the funds himself. Wooten raised the $50,000 by borrowing it from a travel agency associated with the JDC. The contract was signed and Operation On Wings of Eagles, more popularly known by its nickname, Operation Magic Carpet commenced.
As Yemen would not permit the Jewish refugees to be flown out of their country, Britain had agreed to the establishment of a transit camp in the adjoining Crown Colony of Aden from which the airlift could commence. Alaska Airlines set up its base in Asmara, Eritrea with their ground crew, pilots and aircraft, – DC-4s and C-46s. The arrangement was to fly from their base in Asmara to Aden each morning, pick up their passengers in Aden and refuel. Thence fly up the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba to the airport in Tel Aviv, unload the refugees, fly to the safety of Cyprus for the night and return to their base in Asmara at dawn, before starting all over again. The round trip would take about 20 hours.
The aircraft as configured could not carry enough passengers or sufficient fuel. So, the planes were modified by replacing the regular airline seats with rows of benches and fitting extra fuel tanks down the length of the fuselages between the benches. Aircraft intended to carry 50 passengers could now carry 120 and fuel would last a skinny extra one hour.
Meanwhile the transit camp in Aden, called “Camp Geula” (Redemption) was organized by the JDC and staffed by Israeli doctors and social workers under the directorship of Max Lapides, an American Jew. Also headquartered at the camp were emissaries responsible for paying various Yemeni tribal chiefs a “head tax” which would permit the Jewish refugees to pass through their territory.
As news of the evacuation reached the Jews of Yemen, they left their few possessions behind (except their prayer books and Torahs) and like the biblical exodus began to walk out of slavery into freedom. They traveled in family groups, some hundreds of miles, through wind and sandstorm, vulnerable to robbers and a hostile local population, until half-starved and destitute they reached the border with Aden where Israeli aid workers met them and transported them to the transit camp. There they
encountered electricity, medicines, running water, toilets and personal hygiene for the first time. During the entire operation, the Jews of Yemen arrived at Camp Geula in a steady stream, newer ones arriving as an earlier group was airlifted out.
Getting the Yemenite Jews to Aden was one problem, getting them on the aircraft was another. Nomads who had never seen an airplane before and never lived anywhere but in a tent, many of the immigrants were frightened and refused to board. Once reminded that their deliverance to Israel by air was prophesized in the Book of Isaiah, “They shall mount up with wings like eagles”, reinforced by the painting of an eagle with outstretched wings over the door of each aircraft, induced them to board the planes. Once inside many preferred sitting on the floor to unaccustomed soft seats. Keeping them from lighting fires to cook their food was a task. During the flight, about half would get sick vomiting over the extra inside fuel tanks. Notwithstanding, the Yemenites upon landing in Israel chanted blessings and burst into song.
To start up Operation Magic Carpet, Alaska Airlines sent Portland native Bob Maguire, a pilot with management experience, to the Middle East. Maguire flew between 270 and 300 hours a month. Had he been in the U.S., the limit under its aviation rules was 90 hours. Ben-Gurion called Maguire the “Irish Moses”. The work cost Maguire his career. He contracted a parasite that affected his heart and as a result lost his commercial pilot’s license in the early 1950’s. Another pilot was Warren Metzger, born in Lethbridge who found time between flights to marry his flight attendant. At least one pilot, Stanley Epstein, was Jewish.
The airlift that began in June 1948 was hard on the pilots who were flying 16-hour days and hard on the planes that flew well beyond their scheduled service intervals. Fuel was difficult to come by, the desert sand wreaked havoc on the engines and flying was seat-of-the-pants with navigation by dead reckoning and eyesight.
The work was dangerous. Many airplanes were shot at. One pilot, getting a little close to Arab territory while approaching Israel, watched tracer bullets arching up towards his airplane. Another plane had a tire blown out during a bombing raid in Tel Aviv. On one occasion, Maguire was forced to land his aircraft in Egypt when it ran out of gas. The Israelis had warned all pilots that if they had to land in Arab territory, the Jewish refugees and perhaps even the crew would likely be shot. The quick-witted Maguire told airport officials he needed ambulances to take his passengers to hospital. When they asked why, he replied that his passengers had smallpox. The frightened Egyptians wanted him out of there right away. Maguire received his fuel and flew on to Tel Aviv.
Part way through the operation, the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board forced Alaska Airlines to shut down its international charter business and a company called Near East Air Transport, whose president was James Wooten and whose pilots, and aircraft were all Alaska Air’s, completed the Operation Magic Carpet airlift. Near East Air Transport was just Alaska Airlines operating under another name.
By the time Operation Magic Carpet ended in September 1950, 28 Alaska Airlines pilots had made some 380 flights and airlifted 48,818 refugees, almost Yemen’s entire Jewish population, to Israel. Miraculously not one death or injury occurred.
Operation Magic Carpet was kept secret for reasons of security and to prevent sabotage. It would be many months later before the public or the press would become aware of the remarkable operation.
Later, Israel would once again call upon Alaska Airlines to aid in the rescue of Jews, this time from Iraq. El Al and Alaska Air, in a secret partnership, formed a new airline, again using the name Near East Air Transport for that purpose. Israeli ownership was hidden so that the airline appeared to be strictly an Alaska Airlines venture.

Read article in full

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wistrich z''l and the missing panel

By way of tribute to the late Robert Wistrich, one of the top academic specialists in antisemitism, who died on 19 May, I am reproducing this post from 2014. Point of No Return met Professor Wistrich (whose wife is apparently Syrian-born) at the inauguration of “People, Book, Land – The  3, 500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land”,  a bold project on Israel authored by Wistrich and initiated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and UNESCO. Wistrich was justifiably proud of the exhibit. Wiesenthal had fought tooth and nail against Arab opposition to show it. 

But the exhibit would not have taken place if one panel Wistrich wrote had been included - about the 870, 000 Jews from Arab countries.  Wistrich explained that the missing panel was replaced with a single sentence, backed, at UNESCO's insistence, with a reference to its source. The sentence reads: “By 1968, Middle Eastern Jews already represented 48% of the entire Jewish migration to Israel." 

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Wistrich said that he was very disappointed that the section needed to be removed, but explained that there was no other way to get UNESCO to go ahead with the exhibition.

“Obviously I tried to do what I could. I went through the trouble of carefully preparing what I thought was a very balanced and thorough section. To me it was important — it was part of my original design and concept,” he said, referring to the panel on Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
However, he added, from the perspective of UNESCO, the topic was explosive, because he showed “that the Jews in Arab land had suffered a great deal. The panel described their dhimmi conditions as subordinates and all the humiliations and discriminations that involved. It also went into detail on a series of pogroms, which occurred in different areas in the Arab world.”
The controversial panel meant to show that Jews living in Arab countries had ample reason to be drawn to Israel, and it was not merely “Zionist propaganda,” Wistrich said. In fact, in an early version of the panel, Wistrich had described the fate of Jews in Arab countries after 1945 as a “form of ethnic cleansing,” expecting that this characterization would be contested.
“I went some way to change the language but it wasn’t enough,” he recalled. “In the end, [UNESCO] said if you want the exhibition as a whole to succeed, you cannot give any pretext to member states to protest,” since they had the power to prevent the exhibition altogether."

Robert Wistrich (photo credit: courtesy)
Robert Wistrich (photo credit: courtesy)
“Their argument all the way through, whenever there was a controversial issue, was that in order for this to go through we have to establish a maximum level of consensus with member states and this will act as a red rag to the Arab states,” Wistrich said. “Obviously they don’t want to see themselves being portrayed as they really were and are.”
Knowing the entire exhibition could be jeopardized if he insisted on the panel, he decided to compromise. “It’s a little bit like in chess game, if you look at it strategically. You have to give up a pawn or a rook and you do that in order to attain your ultimate objective,” he said. “In this case it seemed to me straightforward politics, and there was no way around it.”
However, Wistrich added, he managed to “slip in a few sentences” about the subject in another panel, which remained in the exhibition and can currently be viewed at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This panel explains that 20 years after Israel’s creation, half its Jewish population hailed from Middle Eastern countries, where they had been subjected to dispossession, harassment and persecution. “They let that go through,” Wistrich said.

Read post in full

What we can learn about UNESCO's silence

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mizrahim absent from Obama's view of Israel

David Bernstein in the Washington Post observes that President Obama (in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg) has a curiously out-of-date image of Israel - rooted in the 1950s and 1960s when the country was dominated by Ashkenazi Labour. As Matti Friedman has written, this image is at variance with the Israel of today - a Mizrahi nation.

President Obama gave an interview to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg

The Israel of kibbutzim (kudos to Obama for using the proper Hebrew plural), Dayan, and Meir, was perhaps a more idealistic, and certainly more socialistic Israel. But it was also an Israel dominated by a secularized, Ashkenazic elite.
Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries), though more than half the population, were marginalized at every level of society. Discrimination was to a large extent institutionalized; the governing Labor Party was run by socialistic Ashkenazim, and given that state capitalism dominated the Israeli economy one’s political and social connections (protectsia in Hebrew) went a long way toward determining one’s economic prospects.

The kibbutzim in particular were a font of anti-Mizrahi chauvinism; as late as 1985, when I stayed for three weeks on a far-left Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, the teenage kibbutzniks casually and derogatorily referred to the Moroccan city kids staying on the kibbutz for the summer as “shechorim” (blacks) (for what it’s worth, the Moroccan kids were much nicer than the kibbutzniks).

The cozy Labor/Ashkenazi dominance of Israel was upset by Menachem Begin’s stunning victory in 1977. Begin put together a coalition of anti-Socialist Ashkenazim, religious nationalists, and especially Mizrahim. Since then, Begin’s Likud has dominated Israeli politics, and the Israel of Kibbutzim, Dayan, and Meier, has been replaced by the Israel of Begin, Ofra Haza, and high-tech. Mizrahim, while still lagging somewhat economically, are much better integrated into Israeli society, have a very high rate of intermarriage with Ashkenazim, and have come to dominate the Israeli music and food scenes.

Israel, in short, has gotten more Middle Eastern, and its populist politics reflects that. But that’s natural given that most Israelis’ families have lived in the Middle East for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, national religious types are increasingly prominent throughout elite Israeli society, over a million Russian immigrants have been successfully integrated, and Israel has welcomed, but struggled to integrate, one hundred thousand or so Ethiopian Jews.

Read article in full

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Israeli judo team detained in Casablanca

 Update to the update: a disaster from beginning to end. Spectators called to kill the Jews while waving Palestinian flags. Read the Times of Israel's report.

Update: it is not clear why the Israeli team was detained: Ynet News said that it was because the team, which had applied for visas well in advance, had an armed security guard with them.  The Israeli authorities had warned the team that they would be putting themselves at risk if they went to Morocco. After their release, the team said they were putting their trust in Moroccan security.

When it happens to Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints, it makes world news headlines. (When it happens to Israelis, you will only read about it on this website!) Moroccan authorities detained members of the Israeli national judo team for more than eight hours on Wednesday, confiscating their passports, Israel’s NRG news reported (via  Algemeiner). According to a Moroccan French news site, the Israeli flag and the sportsmen's names were erased from the official competition website.

The team was finally released after the World Judo Association, which covered travel costs and has been handling security for the trip, pressured Morocco to release the Israeli teammates.

The Israeli team was visiting Morocco to participate in a Masters competition but were detained at the country’s airport upon landing.

Speaking to NRG in the midst of the ordeal, Israeli Judo Association Chairman, Moshe Ponti, said, “we have our passports and visas and awaited for permission to enter [the country].”

Ponti said he did “not know why” the team was held, “probably because we are Israelis.”

Read article in full

Saturday, May 23, 2015

First International Farhud Day is declared

 June 1 has been declared International Farhud Day. To commemorate "The Farhud and the Creation of 850,000 Post-War Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands", Edwin Black, author of The Farhud--Roots of The Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust , will give the keynote address at an event moderated by Rabbi Elie Abadie (from 1:15 to 2:20 pm, at an official side event at the UN Headquarters in NYC in Hall 7. Those who cannot attend can follow the proceedings here). 
The Jewish Journal interviews three surviving eye witnesses of the pogrom that marked the beginning of the end for Iraq's Jews:

The Dabby family, circa 1940

Over the first two days of June 1941, countless numbers of Jewish women in Baghdad were raped, more than 2,000 Jews were injured — many of them mutilated — and 900 homes, as well as 586 Jewish-owned businesses, were looted. All told, according to Iraqi-born historian Elie Kedourie, 600 Jews, including children and infants, were slaughtered. This Nazi-inspired pogrom is known as the Farhud, which in Kurdish means violent dispossession, and it marked the beginning of the destruction of the Iraq’s 2,600-year-old Jewish community, which beforehand had numbered more than 75,000 in Baghdad and 120,000 throughout Iraq.

The Nazis’ influence in Iraq can be traced back to 1933, when Hitler first came to power, which was just a year after Iraq gained its independence from Britain. Excerpts from “Mein Kampf” began appearing serially in Iraqi’s newspaper Al-Alem Al Arabi (The Arabic World), which had been purchased by Germany’s ambassador to Iraq, Dr. Fritz Grobba. A youth organization, Al Fatwaa, similar to the Hitler Youth, was formed, and Radio Berlin began to broadcast anti-Semitic propaganda in Arabic.

Pro-Nazis had taken power of the Iraqi government just two months before in a coup staged by Gen. Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and four generals, called the Golden Square, with support from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a Nazi collaborator in exile in Baghdad. They overthrew the former, pro-British government and exiled the young King Faisal II and his regent, Prince Abdul Ilah.

Al-Gaylani, intent on controlling Iraq’s oil fields for Germany, staged the takeover, in league with the Nazis and the Grand Mufti. But Britain, dependent on Iraq’s oil, returned fire by sending in additional troops, and, after a month of fighting, emerged victorious. The British army then stationed itself outside Baghdad, and on May 30, al-Gaylani, his generals and the Grand Mufti fled the country.

The regent was to return the next day. And as a delegation of Iraqi Jews was driving across the Al Khurr Bridge to Baghdad’s airport to welcome him, they were attacked by a mob of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. The violence spread from there, while the British remained outside the city, as ordered by British Ambassador Kinahan Cornwallis, who didn’t want to be seen as interfering in Iraqi politics. Finally, on the afternoon of June 2, British forces restored order, but for the Jews, life in Iraq had changed irrevocably.

Some Jews fled Iraq immediately after the Farhud. The majority of the Jewish community was non-Zionist, and they stayed. Then, as the persecution of Jews continued, including after Israel became a state in May 1948, they reconsidered, and thousands were smuggled out by the Zionist underground. In March 1950, Iraq passed a law allowing Jews to depart within the year if they relinquished their citizenship. Shortly afterward, in Operations Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israeli government airlifted out more than 100,000 Jews. In March 1951, the Iraqi government extended the law but forbade the Jews to remove any assets. By early 1952, more than 120,000 Jews had participated in the mass emigration, leaving behind approximately 6,000. In 2008 the Jewish Agency of Israel estimated that only seven Jews remained in Iraq.

The following memories of the Farhud come from three Iraqi Jews, all now living in Los Angeles, who as children witnessed  what professor Yitzchak Kerem of Hebrew University calls “the Kristallnacht of Iraqi Jewry.”

Charles Dabby

On June 1, 1941, a Sunday, Charles Dabby, then 6, looked out the small recessed window of a second-story bedroom in his family’s house in Baghdad. He could see men breaking into nearby homes on the narrow street below, then hoisting stolen items over their heads or hauling them away in donkey-driven carts. “People were taking sheets, pillows, everything and anything,” he recalled. He also heard the shouts and crying of both adults and children.

Charles’ parents pulled him and his two younger sisters, Bertha and Tikvah, away from the window, saying, “Don’t worry. We have a guard.”
The family felt reassured by the presence of Azawi ibn Tabra, the large, Muslim owner of the warehouse where Charles’ father, Heskel, a spice importer and distributor, stored his merchandize. The keffiyah-clad Azawi was standing guard outside the family’s front door, a sword in one hand and a gun on his left side, patrolling back and forth. A few men accompanied him. He had also stationed several men on the Dabbys’ roof in case attackers jumped over the short wall separating the flat, attached roofs of the adjoining houses. Another guard remained inside the house, making funny faces to entertain Charles.
Later, Heskel led the family downstairs to the basement, where they slept for several nights. It was too dangerous to sleep on the rooftop, as was the custom in warm weather.

After the Farhud, when Charles walked with his father along Main Street to school, they often saw men hanging from scaffolding. When Charles asked why they had been hanged, Heskel answered, “Because they’re thieves.” He never explained that they were Jews.

On May 14, 1948, Charles remembers listening to the United Nations vote on Israeli statehood on the family radio. “I could hear my heart. I was crying,” he said. He had secretly begun learning conversational Hebrew, leaving school for an hour at a time for classes taught by young Iraqi Jews. At home, he buried his Hebrew papers in a box in the backyard, hidden from his parents. “They would panic,” he said. Like most Iraqi Jews, Charles’ parents were not Zionists.
Then, one afternoon in 1949, as Charles rode his bicycle home from school, two boys attacked him — hitting him and trying to steal his bicycle. Charles removed his belt and began thrashing the boys and destroying their bicycles. He returned home with torn clothes, his own bicycle on his shoulder. That night, after learning that the boys’ parents had important government jobs, Heskel put Charles on a train to Basra, to stay with his uncle. In the summer, against his uncle’s and father’s wishes, Charles crossed into Iran with a smuggler and, after some time in Istanbul, he traveled to Israel. His two sisters followed a year later, when Iraq allowed Jews to emigrate, while forbidding them to keep their Iraqi citizenship.

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More about the Farhud

Friday, May 22, 2015

What happened to a 'Jew' in Cairo

A Jew in the streets of Cairo may be subject to threats and violence: you would not have guessed there was a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel judging by this clip. Antisemitism on the Egyptian street is alive and well. But then, similar experiments conducted in Malmo and Paris demonstrate that Cairo is no worse. The Jerusalem Post reports (with thanks: Lily): 

An Egyptian journalist conducted an experiment in which he dressed up as a Jew and asked passers-by on the streets of Cairo for directions to a nearby synagogue - with nearly serious consequences for his physical safety.

The Cairo-based Internet news site DOTMSR sent the journalist to the streets of Cairo dressed in overtly Hassidic garb - sidecurls, skullcap, beard, and a hat. The “Jewish” journalist was then subjected to threats of violence, epithets, slurs, and shoving from hostile locals.

 In one scene of the video, the journalist shows an Egyptian a note with Hebrew writing on it. When asked if he is an Israeli journalist, he responds in the affirmative, prompting the Egyptian to hurriedly walk away without responding to his request for directions. Another clip shows a group of young people surround the journalist and demand that he “get out of here.”

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Celebrate Shavuot with Muhallabi

The Feast of Shavuot begins tomorrow evening, 23 May. It is customary to eat dairy foods, and each community has its own favourites. This recipe is popular with Iraqi Jews all year round.

Muhallabi -  Aromatic almond milk pudding (From Flavours of Babylon by Linda Dangoor)
 Serves 4 - 6
I litre almond milk
7 tablespoons cornflour
5 tablespoons sugar
2 whole cardamon pods
2 teaspoons vanilla essence 
2 1/2 tablespoons rosewater
Garnish: 1tablespoon finely ground cardamon pods
1 tablespoon pistachios

Mix cornflour with a little almond milk into a smooth paste.
Set aside.
Place a saucepan over medium heat. Combine the rest of the almond milk with the sugar and cardamon pods and slowly bring to the boil,stirring frequently.
Remove from the heat and pick out the cardamon pods. Add the cornflour paste and blend in well. Return to a low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. (about 15 mins). Be careful not to let the mixture stick to the bottom of the pan.
Remove from the heat and add the rosewater. Give it a good stir. pour into individual dishes or a large bowl and garnish.

Kahi: it is customary for Iraqi Jews to eat this dish at Shavuot:

It is dough  rolled out as thinly as filo, brushed with butter, then  folded like a handkerchief and fried. Then, icing sugar sprinkled on them.

Here is some useful background on the festival (My Jewish Learning):

On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. According to Jewish tradition, the Torah has seventy “faces”, but is still one, unified Torah. Shavuot customs celebrate the gift of Torah, and show the same diverse presentation of a few unifying core ideas. Each Jewish culture is unique, and at the same time, integrated with the worldwide Jewish community.

There are many special foods for Shavuot, in different Jewish cultures. Dairy is popular because, when the Israelites in the desert received the Torah, including the kosher laws, there was no kosher meat yet available. Torah is compared to honey, so many traditional Shavuot foods are sweet, as well. Persian Jews make “Polao mastin” a dish made of rice and milk, and “koltcha shiri”, a dairy cake, while in Greece there is a special dairy porridge made with cinnamon called “sutlag”. In Poland, cheesecake is the traditional Shavuot dessert. Libyan Jews make necklaces strung with cookies or pretzels in symbolic shapes for their children. Iraqi Jews make “sambusak”, a savory pastry filled with cheese. The exact details of the menu are fluid—any interpretation of a dairy meal and dessert would be appropriate. This is an excellent opportunity to try out a new recipe, symbolic of our renewed relationship with Torah, or to take the time for an old family favorite, to celebrate your roots.

It is common for communities to prepare their synagogues for Shavuot with natural decorations. Greek Jews historically decorated their synagogues with green branches and a variety of flowers. Even today Bukharan Jews use red roses. In Poland, synagogues were decorated with flowers, branches, and paper cuttings called “reizelach”, or roses, in Yiddish. German Jews would place two flowering branches on either side of the Ark, as a symbol that Torah is our Tree of Life. Consider decorating your synagogue or home with local, in season, flowers and greenery.

Traditional communities hold a “Tikkun Leil Shavuot”, a night-time Torah study session which can last anywhere from a couple of hours to all night long. In some communities this is held in the synagogue, while in others, it is located private homes. People may recite specific passages from different traditional texts, while others prepare different topics, which change from year to year. Study is a potent way of renewing our understanding of Torah.

Shavuot is full of opportunities for communal gatherings and fun. Libyan and Moroccan Jews spray water onto passersby, because the Torah is compared to water, and our reconnection to Torah is a source of blessing.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Jewish pirates 'became Ottoman allies'

A pirate's grave in the Bay Jewish cemetery in Jamaica (photo: D.R.)

Believe it or not, Jewish pirates were powerful allies in the Ottoman wars against Spain, which had expelled and dispossessed them in 1492. They were also pioneers in discovering the New World, a new exhibition explains. Via Harissa website (with thanks: Michelle)

 Sinan Reis was a member of a Sephardi family who fled the peninsula after the  decree of expulsion and found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. He becomes  Barbarossa's right arm. Among his military exploits is the victory against the Spanish Armada in 1538 at the Battle of Preveza, considered by many historians as the greatest maritime Ottoman victory against Spain. The ships were marked by a Star of David.

Samuel Pallache (Fallache?)
was born in Morocco in 1550. A merchant, diplomat and pirate, he worked to unite Amsterdam and Morocco in the face a common enemy: Spain. He was the first to obtain an agreement between a Christian and a Muslim country. That contract negotiated the presence of a Jewish community in Amsterdam and construction of the first synagogue of the city, where one can see the skull and crossbones. He received a hero's welcome when he decided to end his life here, in 1615.

 "Christopher Columbus left for the Americas and discovered a new world. Jews who had been forcibly converted and who had not renounced their religion took the opportunity to flee Spain. (The exhibition curator)  Martine Yana adds: "the Inquisition spread terror. People were being accused of practising Judaism in secret (the offensive word"Marranos"). They monitored chimneys on Saturday to see if they smoked, if food was being cooked.  They entered the houses to smell what people were cooking. In fact lard was used for cooking, Jews used olive oil. "

" So the "Marranos" joined the explorers, sailed with the conquistadors and were among the first settlers of the colonies of the New World. "They realised that Spain and Portugal were at war with England and Holland. They found a way to get revenge, to recover part of their wealth. Each pirate allies himself with a country to which he undertakes to hand over 50% of his booty. "

"These men, says Yana," had little belief in faith and law but they kept some communal principles. Thus, they did not loot on Saturday. Furthermore, the galley slaves on Spanish vessels were often freed "Marranos". They created small Jewish towns along the coast. This was particularly the case in Jamaica, soon captured by the British who allowed Jews to practise their religion. They were heavily implicated in the resulting pirate code of conduct. They promoted the equal sharing of  spoils. They insisted that they did not swear on the Bible when becoming a pirate but sitting in a boat. "

They helped their community: "London was threatened by the Spaniards so the pirates reached an agreement with Cromwell to fight for him in exchange for the return of the Jewish community in London." 

The story of 20 Jewish pirates is told at the Centre Fleg, Marseille until 4 June.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Who will save the Christians of the Middle East?

 Wars of identity break out when order breaks down, writes Walter Russell Mead in this masterful essay in the Wall St Journal on the disappearing Christians of the Middle East. While Christians have never been the only victims, Muslims have more often been the perpetrators. (With thanks: Eliyahu)

A woman prays for Assyrian Christians at a church in Damascus (photo: Reuters)

During the many centuries of imperial rule, the peoples of the region became scattered and mixed. But the region was a salad bowl, not a melting pot; groups retained their distinctive customs and beliefs wherever they went, and different ones served different economic roles. Merchants and skilled workers might be German, Jewish, Armenian or any of a half-dozen other ethnic groups. Eastern Orthodox peasants might be ruled by Catholic or Muslim aristocrats. Rabbinical courts heard cases involving only Jews; the various groups of Christian clergy handled such matters among their flocks.

But the old arrangements could not withstand the rise of nationalism and calls for self-determination. When the Balkan peoples struggled to throw off Ottoman rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, they wanted ethnic nation states like the ones they saw in the West, such as Sweden, Denmark and France.

Wars of independence became wars of peoples and wars of religion. Turks massacred Christians, whom they suspected of sympathizing with the rebels, and Christians massacred and drove out Turkish civilians and Muslims on the side of the empire. And of course, from time to time, everyone took a turn persecuting the Jews. From the war for Greek independence that began in 1821 up through the chaotic collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1923, such wars swept through the region, and atrocities became almost routine. Peoples who had lived cheek by jowl from time immemorial participated in unspeakable brutalities against their neighbors.

Wars of identity break out when order breaks down—which is what happened across the region as the Ottoman and Russian empires collapsed. More recently, we have seen the return of such conflicts in Yugoslavia after Tito’s death and in the Caucasus and now Ukraine following the fall of the Soviet Union. In Syria and Iraq, a series of colonial masters and locally grown despots maintained a brutal order from the 1920s through the last decade. But neither the colonizers nor the despots could provide permanent security.

The role of Islamist fanaticism among Sunnis and Shiites in the latest round of violence should not be minimized, but Christians are not now and never have been the only victims of these wars. From vicious massacres in the Balkan wars of independence to the destruction of the Circassians (a predominantly Muslim people of the Caucasus), the mass deaths of Crimean Tatars and the more recent slaughters in Bosnia and Chechnya, Muslim communities have often fallen victim as well. In the spreading sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, the murdered innocents and penniless refugees fleeing for their lives are usually Muslim.

Still, in the wars of identity raging across the post-Ottoman Middle East, Muslims have more often been the perpetrators and Christians the victims. That is certainly true today in Iraq and Syria, where Christians are for the most part unarmed and much of the killing is being done in the name of radical Islam.
Over the centuries, Middle Eastern Christians have developed many survival strategies. One is to stay invisible. Christians have often survived best in remote areas, and those in more densely populated areas often do their best to avoid antagonizing their neighbors. Many Assyrian Christians fled into the mountainous regions of Syria and Iraq to escape Ottoman persecution during World War I, and the Armenians in the isolated, mountainous hinterlands fared better than their more visible compatriots in Istanbul.

Another survival strategy for Christians has been to find foreign protectors. In the 19th century, the Christian powers in Europe and the U.S. took an increasing interest in the situation of Christian and other minorities in the Ottoman lands. The Orthodox looked to Russia; Catholics in the region looked to France; Britain and the U.S. asserted a right to protect Ottoman Jews as early as the 1840s; and Armenians often looked to the U.S., among others, for help.

This strategy had its successes, but it proved costly. Turks justified the Armenian genocide as a necessary measure against a pro-Russian Armenian rebellion in World War I. Assyrian Christians provided troops for the British against Arab and Kurdish rebellions against British authority in the 1920s; they paid a heavy price when the British withdrew and the retaliations began.

As Christians in the Middle East have learned at great cost, the Western powers and so-called “international community” are weak reeds. They have been (and still are) slow to intervene, and their interventions have usually been halfhearted, short-term and subject to the vagaries of great-power rivalries.

Yet another Christian survival strategy was to support the development of a secular Arab identity in which Christians and Muslims could meet as equal citizens—just as Catholics and Protestants can be German or American citizens. Many of the most influential Arab nationalists (including many radical Palestinians) were of Christian origin.

People such as Michel Aflaq and Antun Sa’adeh of Syria and George Habash of Palestine made significant contributions to Arab nationalist thought, and the era of secular Arab nationalism allowed many Christians to play more prominent roles in the region. Anti-Zionism also became one of the ways that the Christians of the Middle East could demonstrate their Arab bona fides. To this day, intense support for the Palestinian cause is common in Arab Christian communities.
Unfortunately for Christian hopes, secular Arab nationalism lost its allure. The titans of the nationalist era too often became ineffective despots presiding over failed states. As the intellectual pendulum of the Arab world has swung back toward Islamist ideas about politics, Christians have found themselves ever more marginalized.

For Christians, a final survival strategy was to cling to strong rulers. In Syria, Iraq and Egypt, they attached themselves to rulers such as Hafez al-Assad, Saddam and Hosni Mubarak (and now Abdel Fattah Al Sisi). Such alliances had their uses for both parties. Christians achieved a measure of protection and stability; they were repressed no worse than anybody else, and a handful achieved wealth and political power.

For the despots, Christian allies served many of the purposes that Jews once did for kings in the Middle Ages. They were seen as loyal because they had no other place to turn—and as useful both for their services and because you could blame them when things went wrong (and, if necessary, throw them to the wolves).

They could also be counted on as intermediaries who could present the regime’s case to outside powers. It was not for nothing that Saddam Hussein named Tariq Aziz (a Chaldean Catholic baptized as Mikhail Yuhanna) as his foreign minister.
The deal between Middle Eastern despots and their Christian communities also served to conceal other divisions. In Iraq and Syria, the nominally secular Baathist regimes of Saddam and Assad were, in fact, governments that allowed a religious minority (Sunnis in Iraq, Alawites in Syria) to dominate the country’s majority. However much Christians may have disliked the cruelty of these rulers, they themselves were minorities, and they often preferred minority dictators over the risks of potentially hostile majority-run regimes.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Travels of a tray from Iraq to Israel via Canada

 The silver tray, once in the possession of Iraqi Jews, now takes pride of place on the top shelf of a display at the Or Yehuda Babylonian Heritage Museum in Israel.

This is the remarkable story of the travels of a silver tray, looted from its Jewish owners in the 1941 pogrom known as the Farhud. It is told by Hussein Al-Hilli, an Iraqi Muslim journalist writing in al-Wanaltaqy. Linda Menuhin tells the story in i24 News:

Hussein Alhili, a Muslim Iraqi photographer and producer, had to flee Iraq shortly after the Gulf War in 1991. Alhili, currently living in Montreal, maintains good relationships with the Iraqi Jews who live there.

In his homeland he worked for foreign media outlets, which made him a perennial suspect in the eyes of the regime. Alhili decided to flee the country with his family. Aided by a Jordanian official, he managed to get his wife and two sons an extended visa to stay in Jordan and they quickly left for Amman.
Upon arrival in Amman, Alhili’s wife asked him to buy an expensive gift for the Jordanian official who had helped them. Alhili visited a Baghdad antique shop where the owner showed him various beautiful items, but none to his liking. Finally the store owner locked the door, went down to the basement and returned holding an impressive silver tray, which had the name of an Iraqi Jew engraved on its handle: “Yehoshua Jangana 1920.”

“This is a rare and precious tray that used to belong to the Jews of Iraq,” the man said. Alhili didi not know much about the Jewish community of Iraq and its history, but he did remember his grandmother’s stories about her Jewish neighbors in the city of Hilla, who in early 1950 were forced to leave hurriedly, abandoning their possessions, in order to immigrate to Israel. After some bargaining, Alhili bought the tray for $200.

Soon, Alhili himself was also forced to flee after a friend told him he had seen a letter with his name, written by a minister. Alhili didn’t wait to find out what it was about. He collected some personal items, leaving behind most of his possessions - even a fridge full of food - but not forgetting to take the silver tray. Disguising his appearance, he left Baghdad to join his family in Jordan.

However, by the time he got there, the Jordanian benefactor had disappeared and the tray moved with the family to Canada, where they sought to build a new life.
Once in Montreal, Alhili was required to choose a family doctor. He asked an Iraqi acquaintance, a veteran resident of Montreal, to recommend a good doctor. “There’s a doctor named Ahsan Samara, to whom many Iraqis go, but I don’t know if you’ll want to go to him because he’s Jewish,” the man said. “On the contrary,” Alhili answered. “I’d be happy to meet Jews after hearing so much about them.”

Alhili and Samara took to each other immediately and the two became fast friends. During their longtime friendship Samara lent Alhili books written by Iraqi Jews who had immigrated to Israel. Alhili was shocked to read about the Farhud Massacre - the pogrom or "violent dispossession" carried out against the Jewish population of Baghdad on June 1–2, 1941. The riots, which occurred on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, broke out in a power vacuum following the collapse of the pro-Nazi government. Over 180 Jews were killed and 1,000 injured, and up to 300-400 rioters were killed in the attempt to quell the violence. Looting of property took place and 900 Jewish homes were destroyed.

The horrific event, Alhili said, weighed heavy on his heart, as did the silver tray. He felt the tray was robbed from its legal owners and must be returned to Jewish ownership. Alhili and his wife decided to give the tray to his Jewish doctor as a gift.

Moved by the gesture, Samara suggested Alhili give the tray, instead, to the
Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center"Tray with 1920 inscription of name of Iraqi Jew"in Israel. As fate would have it, Anwar Shahin, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Montreal, was going to Israel. Shahin, who like Alhili was also originally from the town of Hila, agreed to take the tray with him. Thus after decades, the journey that began in Baghdad, continued through Amman and Montreal, ended in Israel, where the tray finally found its resting placed at the museum.
The story of the wandering tray has since been published on the web site - Arabic for “we shall meet again”). In writing it, the Iraqi exile drew a parallel between the injustice done to the Jews, and the abuse of all the innocents in Iraq. And this is what he wrote:

“On a winter day I sit with my wife in our home in Montreal, both of us sipping hot tea, and I wonder out loud about my fate and that of Iraqi Jewry. I asked myself: What is really the difference between us? Our disposession is the same. The problem is not Saddam Hussein and his regime. The Jewish of Iraq were exposed to persecution for decades before Saddam’s regime.”

Alhili’s story generated a lot of reaction in Baghdad, Iraq’s bleeding capital, which can now openly talk about missing its Jews.

Read original article in full (Arabic)