Monday, February 29, 2016

Meira Ovadia's exodus from Egypt to Israel

Her cousin Dina has told her amazing story - now its the turn of Meira Ovadia (pictured) to tell how her family fled from their native Alexandria to Israel. Her years of brainwashing against Israel did not disappear overnight.  Meira had left Egypt, but it took some time for Egypt to leave Meira, as her colleagues at Palestinian Media Watch put it.

Ovadia, now 25, was born and raised in Al-Ma'moura, a high-scale neighborhood in Alexandria, Egypt, under the name Maysa Abdallah. She lived there until the age of 15. Her wealthy family had a successful fashion factory, and for many years she lived comfortably. She didn't even know she was Jewish until 2005.
"Our parents didn't allow us to pray in a mosque or a church or visit friends' houses, and we never understood why," Ovadia says, with traces of a foreign accent slipping into her speech, dimples visible on her smiling face, and her eyes alight. "There were strange things at home that I didn't understand, like a meal on the Sabbath that my grandparents and parents insisted we eat together.

"My grandmother, who was very religious, also lit candles every Sabbath, but we, the kids, didn't know why. Grandmother would also tell us stories from the Bible, but they didn't interest us. I remember that I really loved the taste of the apple in honey, but I had no idea that it was connected to Rosh Hashanah.

"Our parents preferred not to tell us that we were Jews so that we wouldn't talk about it outside our house, so that we wouldn't be hurt. There were kids who suspected us and laughed at us. I was told that I looked Jewish, and when I answered them that I wasn't, they asked why my mother didn't wear a veil. I didn't know how to answer, so I told them that we were secular."

Until 6th grade, she studied in a Muslim Brotherhood school and after that she transferred to a Coptic Christian school. "I didn't like the Muslim school. I suffered there. I didn't want to wear a veil, and they forced me to. Every day we had to memorize entire chapters of the Quran by heart. Whoever didn't study or didn't speak nicely got beaten - serious beatings, not friendly pats. One time, I dared to stick my tongue out at one of the other students during a lesson, and the teacher hit my hand with a rod until my hand broke. I was taught to hate Jews, that they were creatures with horns, a long nose and a tail, and to hate Israel, the cruelest country in the world."

After the second Intifada broke out in 2000, solidarity with the Palestinian people and hatred of Israel were on the rise at the Muslim school that Ovadia attended. "On the wall in the classroom, there were two pictures. One was Muhammad Al-Dura, the child that, they explained to us, the Israelis had murdered. There was one picture taken just before he had died, and a second picture taken when he was already dead, on a stretcher. That's what was in front of the children's eyes - a child's corpse. My parents realized that there was no point in keeping us in that school, so we transferred to the Coptic school. That was much easier to handle. They also beat you there, but only for really serious things."  

In 2005, the family was forced to leave Egypt after masked men broke into their home, proclaimed that Jews were unwelcome in Egypt and that it would be best that the children not go to school anymore. "Five bearded men, with weapons and clubs, broke into the house," Ovadia recalls. "At first, they broke the glass of the electronic gate at the entrance, and then they came inside yelling 'Ald Al-Yahud,' 'the Jewish family,' and just started to destroy the entire house. They demanded to know where the men were, but none of the men - my father, uncle, and grandfather - were home.
"The attackers pushed my mother and she fell. We screamed. My brother and cousin were on the roof. The attackers went up there, trampled them and shot next to their heads to scare them. We heard the shots downstairs. It was horrifying. They left the house eventually, the police came, and we took Mom to the hospital."

Three days after the incident, the grandfather gathered his seven grandchildren and told them that they were Jews and that soon they would go to Israel and live in Jerusalem. "I couldn't understand where this had come from. To Israel? Why would I want to go to a country with people who had big noses and a tail? It was a total shock. The children reacted badly and were angry, but we left in the end."

"At the beginning, I pretended it was a trip. Ulpan was pretty good for me, but afterwards my cousin Dina and I transferred to the Amaliya High School [in Jerusalem], and it wasn't easy. We fought with the other girls all the time. Mostly I did. They called me Pharaoh. We had heavy Arabic accents, so they made fun of us. I was very insulted and I would hit the other girls. It took the teachers a long time to teach me not to hit. I couldn't stand the way the other girls talked and mostly disrespected the teachers. Maybe everything they taught me from a young age about the Jews affected me. The girls seemed ugly and cruel to me."

[Interviewer:] "But you didn't see horns and tails."
"You'll laugh, but the first time I went to Mea Shearim, there was some Haredi guy [religious Jew] - you know, with the whole outfit - that pressed himself against a wall in order to not come near me. I turned around to check that he didn't have a tail. Today, when I see what Palestinian children are taught, when I see seven year olds saying on air that Jews are apes and pigs, and the hostess of the program applauds them, I understand them. Once, I also thought like they did."

Her connection with Palestinian Media Watch started in high school. "I took the Arabic matriculation, and one of the employees at the [PMW] institute taught a class there once and asked every student to read part of a text. When he heard me reading, he told the teacher that I sounded like an Arab, and asked about me. The teacher told him my story, and he suggested that Dina and I come to work at PMW during summer vacation. I was 17, and ecstatic that I had a job. It was a joy. After high school I started working here full time."

Her acclimatization at the [PMW] institute wasn't easy. "I would argue a lot with the other employees. Because I didn't have Israeli friends, and because I didn't watch Israeli television, I was convinced that Israel was hurting the Palestinians for no reason. I hid the fact that I would cry about Palestinian suffering from the director of the institute, Itamar Marcus, but I would say to the other employees: 'The Palestinians lived here, and you came with weapons, kicked them out with force and took their homes.' One of the employees would argue with me all the time, and I would answer him half-seriously, 'Well, be quiet, you occupier.' The employees would laugh and say that you can take Meira out of Egypt, you can't take Egypt out of Meira.

Read article in full

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The hidden history of Jews in Rawalpindi

 This astonishing building was once used as a synagogue

A modernist building is the only reminder that Jews, fleeing persecution in Iran,  once lived in Rawalpindi. But locals and the government are cagey about discussing them. The electoral roll has 809 Jewish names, but there are no known Jews in this Pakistani city today. Sahif Tahir writes in the Express Tribune (with thanks: Andrew, via Celia) :

Compared to other colonial and pre-partition buildings in the area, the exterior of this building indicates that it has been maintained. Along with the David stars that smile proudly at onlookers, the building is adorned with bat wings (symbolising good luck) along with the iconic Masonic compass symbols embellishing the doors. The building resembles a synagogue in India that was constructed by the Jews from Iraq and Iran in the late 1800s. The affluence and grandeur of a wealthy class is quite marked and parallel in the two infrastructures.

The history of Jews in Rawalpindi dates back to 1839 when many Jewish families from Mashhad fled to save themselves from the persecutions and settled in various parts of subcontinent including Peshawar and Rawalpindi. Since they were traders, Babu Mohallah (at that time a business centre) in a location close to the railway station, urged them to settle within this area. According to 1901 census and Rawalpindi Gazette, Mashhadi Jews were a thriving tribe of Rawalpindi. However, after partition, many families migrated to Bombay and the rest left gradually in the late 60s.

 At present, the word ‘Jews’ is only limited to an old British administrative gazette in TMA building opposite Gordon College which is not open to the general public and academics.

This stunning building, once used as a synagogue and assembly hall, is now in shambles. It is occupied by three families who refuse to talk to visitors and discourage them looking inside. The locals say this area used to comprise of other such buildings; they were either demolished or renovated to curb the identity and with the passage of time new plazas and multi-story residential buildings took their place. A similar building still exists in Ahata Mitho Khan which used to have the same carvings and David stars but was recently renovated and converted into a spare part market – Khan Market.

Despite some articles on the Jews that reside in Karachi and a slight mention of Mashhadi Jews, there’s apparently no information on Rawalpindi Jews, their life styles and worship. The area, being in close proximity to the GHQ and religious sites, is also quite socially sensitive. The locals are resilient in talking about the community – some because of hatred, and some because of fear. This act of defiance doesn’t just lie among the locals, but is also rooted within the government. While wandering among the streets, you will be stopped and questioned by officials. The locals also resist talking about the history and shed very limited information. However, an old resident who was born in the neighbourhood in the late 30s said something astonishing,

“There were Jews living in the city till late 90’s. Although the family moved to some other city, they still come and visit these streets.”
Most of us are practically unaware of the fact that Jews were once an active part of our community and even now continue to reside in this country. In 2013, the electoral list exhibited an astonishing number of 809 people who declared themselves as Jews. Pakistan, a non-Arab country that was never technically in war against the Jewish state, is one of its staunch opponents. There are a number of Jewish families living in Tel Aviv who distinguish themselves as Pakistani.

Despite undeclared defense ties and cooperation, our hostility towards the Jews is virulent; our dislike is evident in just our attitude towards their infrastructure (which is just as integral to our own history!).

These buildings are rich with history, lineage and culture. We have a duty to preserve it for generations to follow rather than treating them the way we treat our minorities, as a British journalist aptly put it,
“To be a Jew is to be a scapegoat – as unnerving an experience in Pakistan.”

Read article in full

Friday, February 26, 2016

'Shindler' in row with Yazidi 'profiteers'

Steve Maman, a Canadian Jewish businessman dubbed the 'Canadian Shindler', is leading efforts to help Yazidis who managed to escape ISIS persecution in Iraq, only to find themselves stranded in Greece,  according to The Algemeiner. But new allegations that Maman, a philanthropic business of Moroccan-Jewish origin,  had lied about his rescue operation are now undermining Maman's efforts on the ground. (with thanks: Michelle)

Steve Maman

Steve Maman founded the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI) a year ago to rescue Christian and Yazidi girls kidnapped by ISIS terrorists and sold as sex slaves in northern Iraq. The Canada-based charity says it works closely with a team of negotiators, based inside ISIS-occupied areas, to rescue the kidnapped girls and reunite them with their families.

In an interview with The Algemeiner on Friday, Maman said CYCI has expanded its efforts now to help Yazidis who have successfully escaped ISIS strongholds in Iraq and made it to Greece — but lack the necessary help to reach their final destination in Germany, which he said hosts the second largest Yazidi community in the world.

Read article in full

To add to his troubles, allegations by Yazidis themselves that Maman was a fraud have resurfaced. On his Facebook page, Maman has professed to be pained and angry at accusations that he had staged his rescue operations.

He accused one Khairi Bozani of being a Kurdish 'Hitler'. He and his 'accomplice' Noori Osman Abdulrahman allegedly resented Maman's organisation CYCI for donating money to the victims. Maman charges that the two were running a racket, charging the Kurdistan Regional Government ( KRG) head office $ 30, 000 per head for the rescue of captives.

"In other words, I have made them lose out on 140 x $30, 000 because I donated the funds to the families without making debt contracts like they do," Maman wrote." This has pushed many families to come ask CYCI for help instead of their offer which is a scheme."

Maman alleged that 20 Yazidi girls had been 'lost' to Islamic State after  Bozani had blocked his group at the border.

Supporters of Maman claim he has rescued 1, 376 Yazidis in total, including 140 sex slaves.

Jewish refugee raises money for Yazidis

Thursday, February 25, 2016

First Jews go, then other minorities in Pakistan

From left: Ranbir Singh of  Hindu Human Rights, Lord Alton, and Wilson Chowdhry of  the British Pakistani Christian Association at the report launch on 24 February

 Update: the BBC has made a film about the plight of Christian asylum seekers in Thailand

The eradication of the Jewish community of Pakistan sets a dangerous precedent for the future of other faith communities, a British report into religious freedom in Pakistan has concluded. However, it does not have enough information to say if what is left of the 'community' is still at 'real' risk.

The (Westminster) All Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion and Belief (APPG), chaired by Lord David Alton, heard evidence from 20 different organisations over three months - among them, Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, about the plight of the Jewish community. There are thought to be ten families of Jewish origin masquerading as Parsis or Muslims in Pakistan.

Here is an extract from the report's discussion of Harif's submission:

"Fishel Benkhald is Pakistan's only self - declared Jew. He wants to restore the cemetery and rebuild the synagogue in Karachi. He stated that: "My dream is to gain empathy. Later I will try and get help and start the process for a small synagogue " .

"In 2009, the constant anti - Semitic propaganda and conspiracy theories from the Pakistani government and media sickened him, he wrote that: "My political side outgrew my fear. I felt less hesitant to claim my religion more publi cally than I would have before”.

"In February 2014 Fishel, whose father is Muslim but whose mother is Jewish (and therefore considered Jewish under Jewish law) planned to change his official religious status from Islam to Judaism. He said "It is dangerous, but I will go at least once to record my request so their response can be documented."

 "The APPG heard that NADRA, the database in Pakistan which handles citizenship, denied his request to change his identity from 'Muslim' to 'Jew'.

 "This is a concerning outcome as it represents a flagrant violation of one ’ s freedom to pursue and manifest one's religious belief. It is also a worrying development for the trend of plurality and religious freedom in Pakistan.

"As Harif UK highlighted, “the ethnic cleansing of minorities sets a dangerous precedent for society at large.”

"We have heard testament of the destruction of the Jewish community in Pakistan, and with the continuing trends of high levels of persecution and discrimination against other religious minorities discussed in this report, it is perhaps a worrying sign that there may be a risk of the eradication of other minorities too.

"Conclusions: The APPG is concerned at the apparent virtual eradication of the Pakistani Jewish Community and fears other minority groups may suffer a similar fate if the trajectory of religious freedom in Pakistan does not proceed in a positive direction. Due to the very small size of the Jewish community in Pakistan, the APPG cannot conclude whether members of this community are currently at real risk of persecution, however we do recognise that this is a result of past persecutory action against the Jewish community.

"The APPG recommends that further evidence be gathered on any remaining Jews in Pakistan and that all Jewish asylum cases being claimed on the grounds of religious persecution be analysed on a case - by - case basis with the cumulative grounds for establishing persecution, as outlined above, being taken into account."

The report generally challenges the complacency of the UK government which did not always deem persecuted minorities to be at 'real' risk. A number of Pakistani Christians have been forced to seek asylum in Thailand where they have been interned under terrible conditions. It was his visit  to a detention camp in Bangkok that prompted Lord Alton to investigate why the British government was delaying granting asylum to refugees from Pakistan.

Read report in full

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Archive a reminder of vanished Jewish Baghdad

Visiting the Iraqi-Jewish archive exhibit in California brought tears to the eyes of Baghdad-born Joe Samuels. He describes the memories which came flooding back in his Times of Israel blog (with thanks: Michelle, Lisette):

The moment I stepped into the 2,000 square foot exhibit; the history of my childhood came alive. On display there was a high school certificate written in Arabic; it reminded me of my graduation in June of 1948. I was so excited to travel to America for higher studies. That dream evaporated when I was refused an exit visa.

A Haggadah (pictured), (Passover script) from 1902, reminded me of our Seder, when my parents, six brothers and my sister sat for the festive dinner after reading the Passover script. The aroma of the chicken rice with slivered almond and raisins and the taste of sweet and sour, lamb stew with apricot still linger in my mind.
The Torah scroll, unfortunately stripped from the silver or gold that had covered the wooden casing, reminded me of my Bar Mitzvah when I carried the Torah. It was so heavy.

Other Arabic documents included letters from the Chief Rabbi, Sasson Kheduri, to members of the community board, reminding me of how close I felt to others in this old, Jewish community, how rich it was in culture, how we had so much solidarity and helped each other.

It was a bittersweet encounter; seeing the exhibits brought tears to my eyes. At other moments the exhibit filled me with joy. I was grateful to the American government for making my Iraqi Jewish heritage come alive again. The numerous petitions from many Iraqi Jews, our children, and grandchildren, to US government officials, pleaded with them not to return the artifacts back to Iraq. 

The Congress, in Bill 113, voted to renegotiate with the Iraqi Government to allow the artifacts to stay in the US. The visit to the exhibit reminded me of my 19 years of life in Baghdad.

Iraqi-Jewish archives: the interpreter's story

 A giant ripping out the heart of a community: that is the arresting metaphor which Tewfik Boulenouar, a US army interpreter present at the discovery of the Jewish books, documents and Nazi-like records found floating in the Mukhabarat basement in 2003,  chose to describe what Saddam Hussein had done to the Jewish community of Baghdad. This secular Algerian-born US citizen found his life changed by the experience. Read his moving account as told to Miriam Kresh in the Jerusalem Post: (with thanks to all who emailed me about it) 

Together with three soldiers – Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” Gonzales, reservist and interpreter Tewfik Boulenouar, and Sergeant First Class Lou Diaz – and several journalists, they ventured into the flooded basement.

“We went down there, and from the stairs we saw the flooding,” says Boulenouar in a recent telephone interview.

Gonzales waded in and led the way.

“It was funny the way Gonzales did it,” recalls Boulenouar with a chuckle.

“He chose Diaz, who was a specialist in WMDs. And he said, ‘And you, Tewfik, because you’ve got a big mouth.’ I was always glued to his side, because of my fluent Arabic.”

Boulenouar was 48 when he was sent to Iraq as a translator. An American citizen since his twenties, he’d grown up in Morocco and Algeria.

“My parents were Algerian, political exiles in Casablanca. They were wanted by the French because they were activists for Algerian independence. After independence in 1963, we left Morocco and moved back,” he says.

“In Casablanca, I lived in a building with French, Moroccan, Italian and Jewish people,” he adds. “Everybody spoke French and Darija, the local Moroccan dialect. We were a close-knit community, so I experienced a mixture of people from an early age.”

Boulenouar has fond memories of a Jewish babysitter, a woman who lived across the hall.

“In her home, I was really exposed to Jewish culture. I saw their menorahs, sat with them at their festival meals. What I really remember, more than anything,” he admits, “was the food.”

He has lived in the US since 1974, serving in the army as a paratrooper.

After 9/11, he explains, “I felt I had to reenlist as a reservist. I was 48, divorced, with two daughters, the younger only five. I got called up and was deployed to Iraq as an Arabic interpreter. I had to do all kinds of things. Once, my team was stuck in a crazy traffic jam in Baghdad. I was the one with the Arabic, so I got out and started directing the traffic so we could get out of there and move on.”

It was a risky thing to do, as the man in the American army uniform was an easy target as he stood in the thick of a traffic snarl.

A few months later, Boulenouar found himself in the Mukhabarat basement.

“The water was up to our waists. It was filthy with sewage, and even dead animals floating in it,” he says.

“We examined each room,” he goes on, “and finally found the one where the Jewish artifacts were, at the end of the corridor. I was first inside. When I saw what was there, the books and objects, I was stunned. I just stood there in the water, looking at everything, shocked. There were books, manuscripts, menorahs, sacred objects. Things plundered from yeshivas and synagogues, and probably from people’s homes. I felt a tremendous sadness. How could they do that to a whole community? I suddenly had this vision of a giant hand buried inside the chest of a Jewish person, grabbing his heart, then tearing it out. I kept thinking, Why?” He took several objects, one an old manuscript, and brought them to Rhode.

“He was waiting for me at the top of the steps,” he says. “I handed them to him. He looked at the manuscript and said, ‘Oh my God, this is from the 1500s.’ There was also the Torah scroll from the 7th century. He was almost in tears. You could tell.”

Among the waterlogged books and ancient documents was something else, something sinister – metal cases full of records about the Jewish population of Iraq.

“That give me a chill in the back of my spine,” Boulenouar says somberly.

“It was documentation on the Jews living in Iraq, everything filed and organized like the Nazis did it. Every detail: where each Jew was born, where they lived, where they studied and worked. Personal photographs, hospital records. The Mukhabarat had the community under surveillance. They were making sure that none of them were spying for Israel.”

(Pentagon analyst Harold) Rhode and (Iraqi senior politican Ahmed) Chalabi arranged to have the water pumped out of the basement, and hired workers to take out what could be recovered.

“We took the books and documents out to the sun, set them out on the ground and guarded them. Harold [Rhode] commandeered an airplane and had them sent away for restoration. I had this sense of loss and sadness when the books left,” Boulenouar says.

“When I returned home, I read The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill, which opened my eyes further to the many great things Jews have given the world,” he says.

“Likewise, I felt that I’d been given a gift – a full sense of what it means when something is kadosh – sacred. Rescuing Jewish holy books was a spiritual experience, something that changed me. It made me view the world differently. I’ve become kinder; have a greater sense of what it is to be part of the human family. That was a gift I was given: the ability to empathize. I felt closer to my Jewish friends when I came back, although I couldn’t explain it at the time.”

Boulenouar says he’s still secular, and also a realist.

“I’ve seen what evil does. What was done in the basement was evil. But this experience awakened something buried in me for a long time: a sense of the sacred. It consumes me; there’s not a single week that goes by without my thinking of it. It was one of the seminal experiences of my deployment in Iraq,” he states.

“The evil people in the world have to be fought and won over at the same time. There’s too much hatred out there. I don’t see peace in the future,” he says. “But our duty in life is to constantly try to establish bridges.”

The Jewish community files were rescued with the rest of the artifacts, counting over 2,700 books and thousands of documents whose dates span the 16th century to the 1970s. The restored materials have been gathered together as a curated collection; some are now on exhibition, touring the US.

“I’d like to see the exhibit; I’d love to see the objects again,” Boulenouar concludes.

“The question is, where should they end up? There are less than 10 Jewish people left in Iraq, if that many. Why should the books go back to Iraq? The only place they’ll be safe is in Israel.”

Rhode’s and Chalabi’s rescue operation required massive physical efforts, string-pulling and utmost speed. The Iraqi government was doing nothing to retrieve the precious trove from destruction.

The Culture Ministry finally agreed to let the documents be taken abroad on condition that they be returned after their restoration.

The question now remains: to whom do these documents, letters, rare manuscripts and personal papers that illustrate hundreds of years of Iraqi Jewish life and were obtained by theft, really belong? Should they remain in the US, which invested $3 million in their restoration, or should they be moved to Israel, where most of their owners, or their descendants, now live? Or should they be placed back in the hands of the Iraqi government? In the meantime, the archive is remaining in the US.

The exhibit of the restored articles may be viewed online at

Read article in full

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Video shows Damascus synagogue still intact

With thanks: Nelly 

 The Franjieh synagogue, the last functioning synagogue in Damascus, appears in good condition, according to a recent video clip on Ynet News.

This short video shows a man (possibly Albert Cameo) opening it up.  There are just 16 elderly Jews remaining in the war-torn city. They are 'under the protection' of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

The Franjieh synagogue is the only known synagogue remaining in or near Damascus after the Jobar, or Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, was bombed in 2014.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Update on Ezekiel's tomb: good news and bad

Point of No Return exclusive

 Here is an update  to our post last week on the islamisation of Ezekiel's tomb at al-Kifl in Iraq. The makeover of the shrine by the Shi'a Endowment has been so extensive that a report in Al-Monitor did not even mention its 2,000 years of Jewish history and importance as a centre for Jewish pilgrimage, linking the site back to pre-Islamic times and the worship of the Babylonian sun god.

We have received recent photographs which attest to the current state of the shrine. Point of No Return is very grateful to the photographer, who took great risks. All the photographs are from 2015 and the latest of them date from last month.

There is good news and bad. The good news is that, contrary to fears that they had been erased, the Hebrew inscriptions on the interior appear intact.

 Update to the update: Another visitor has sent us the two photos immediately below. They show that a layer of whitewash has been stripped away to reveal the beautiful floral motifs on the walls. Below the Hebrew inscription is a 'cupboard'.  This would have housed Torah scrolls, long since gone.  

The floral decorations on the wall and ceiling are faded but have not been removed.

The wooden casing of the tomb bears a green cover inscribed with the name of Dhu al-Kifl, the name of the prophet mentioned in the Koran, whose shrine Muslims believe this to be.

 Of concern is the fate of the tombs of the Jewish sages or Geonim buried within the shrine's precincts. The renovation work is still not finished but the intention appears to be to conceal them with a marble floor slab.
Photo taken in 2004 shows a Jewish sage's tomb (photo: MS); the tombs seem to have been concealed beneath a new marble floor

The exterior courtyard has been totally renovated in traditional Shi'a style, with grand gateways, colonnaded walkways, geometric friezes and carvings and the addition of elaborately-decorated quba domes, some bearing Koranic inscriptions.

Al-Monitor vaunts the Jewishness of Ezra's tomb

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Al-Monitor vaunts Jewishness of Ezra's shrine

 Was it in response to PoNR's post on Ezekiel's shrine, fearing that its Jewish identity was being erased, that on the very same day, Adnan Abu Zeed, published a piece in Al-Monitor critical of the Shi'a Wakf, and emphasising the Jewish associations of another shrine, that of Ezra the Scribe's at Uzair near Basra?  (with thanks: Lily, Elsie).

 An aerial view of the shrine of Ezra the Scribe taken in 1924

Al-Monitor asked Mhamadawi (a Shi'a cleric) about stories in the media claiming that the Muslims overseeing the place had deliberately removed all Jewish symbols and replaced them with Islamic verses.

Mhamadawi did not answer the question. Instead, he pointed out Jewish symbols and Hebrew writing on the walls of the hall and on a hanging plate. He said, “If we wanted to erase them completely, nobody could have stopped us. But we respect other religions.”

He admitted that “some Jewish [symbols], including the Star of David, were removed in the 1980s unintentionally during maintenance operations that the Ministry of Awqaf [Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs] conducted during Saddam Hussein’s era.”

There was no trace of Ezra’s story in the shrine. Instead, Islamic books, written prayers and photos of Shiite figures filled the place. Ezra lived from about 480 to 440 B.C. (My emphasis)

Some Muslim Iraqis still have good memories about the Jews who lived in Iraq until the 1950s. The ancient conflict was replaced during that time with peace and cooperation. Ali al-Saadi, a teacher who was born in Uzair and is interested in its history, told Al-Monitor that the senior citizens of the city still remember the names of dozens of their Jewish neighbors. He confirmed that Jews and Muslims lived together in peace and that Jews freely practiced their religious rituals.

Jews lived in Iraq more than 2,500 years ago in Babil, Baghdad and Mosul, among other places. But in the 1940s and 1950s, they were the victims of theft and murder, and they left the country for two reasons. First, they thought that the 1941 Iraqi coup d’etat happened in collusion with the Nazis. Second, Iraqi Jews faced a wave of anger in the wake of the global Jewish emigration to Palestine to build a Jewish state. Most of them were displaced between 1949 and 1950 after Israel was established.

Saadi said, “Jews owned houses and green fields that surrounded the shrine. These are still officially registered in their names in the real estate departments, although Jews are no longer present in Uzair. These houses have a special architecture characterized by wooden ornamented columns and oriels [bay windows].”

The shrine of Ezra has withstood centuries in an area inhabited by a deeply religious Shiite majority, unlike a nearby school that was once a synagogue. "Its landmarks have been completely altered," Saadi said. "It included an underground vault that was demolished in the 1980s during maintenance operations conducted by the Ministry of Awqaf.”

At the shrine, there are some eroded Jewish inscriptions exposed to neglect and unfavorable weather conditions. These inscriptions are endangered unless they are given appropriate care. At the top of the main entrance is an ancient corroded silver plate inscribed with Hebrew words.

Islamic symbols completely dominate the place. Umm Hassan, who was visiting, did not know about its Jewish history. But she was certain that it is linked to numerous healing miracles, and many Muslims here share this faith.

Al-Monitor talked to author and researcher Ali Hasan al-Fawwaz about the shrine. He said, “People visit the place because of their attachment to religious sanctities. Even if Prophet Ezra was a Jew, he is part of the collective conscience of the followers of monotheistic religions such as Islam and Judaism, which honor the savior.”

The place today is a religious destination that may be restored as a tourist attraction, especially for Iraqi Jews who emigrated and are nostalgic about their history. Uzair city will surely benefit from this restoration to boost its religious tourism.

Wissam Jaliham, a member of the Maysan provincial council, told Al-Monitor, “The people of the city welcome Jewish visitors to this shrine, although it was transformed into an Islamic landmark.” He noted that a reconstruction plan carried out by the local government in Uzair in coordination with the Shiite endowment directorate is underway to salvage this shrine’s Jewish and Islamic features.

This video shows that a few Hebrew inscriptions do survive at the shrine of Ezra the Scribe, but that Ezra has become a Muslim prophet. To all intents and purposes his shrine has been converted into a mosque. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Jewish journo's Shabbat with the Jews of Tehran

"They are separate but equal, free yet contained and the regime lets them know this with their perennial outburst of Holocaust denial and unbridled anti-Zionism. Much like the country in which they reside, they are a community full of contradictions and with beauty and darkness in equal measure."These are the words of Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a Swedish journalist writing in Jewish News. Hers is an eloquent piece, but disappointingly superficial, perhaps because her government minder was with her at all times. (With thanks: Ralph, Michelle)

Annika Hernroth- Rothstein in the Abrishami Synagogue in northern Tehran

By the fourth stanza of Lecha Dodi, I can feel the tears streaming down my face, and I quietly surrender to the moment. The woman next to me puts a heavy hand of comfort on my shoulder and we exchange a smile that is equal parts exploration and familiarity.

Jewish artefacts inside the synagogue

The century-old Abrishami synagogue is located on the second floor of an unassuming grey building in Palestine Street in north Tehran.
The top floor houses a busy yeshiva and in the basement there is a ballroom-style kosher restaurant often used for the community’s many weddings and barmitzvahs. 

Every day, there are two minyanim here and, on Shabbat, the synagogue welcomes around 250 people, generations of Persian Jews bound together by tradition and necessity.

I walk in right after sunset and immediately all eyes turn to me, the 5ft 9ins blue-eyed oddity marking a stark contrast to the otherwise homogenous congregation. I’m ushered to the front by Dina, a short black-haired woman in her late 70s and, in a mix of Farsi and Hebrew, she introduces me to the other women sitting in the prestigious front row.

Farideh, Liora and Gilda immediately start asking me questions in a hushed tone: am I married? Am I looking? Would I consider staying put? And my answers are debated and the information swiftly passed along down the many pews.
An Iranian Jewish man prays at a Synagogue (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

In so many ways it is just like any shul – the chatter and bad ventilation, the obvious hierarchy and the children running rampant, ignoring the older mens’ condemning stares. In others, it is unlike any place I’ve ever known.

I came to Iran to see for myself what Jewish life is like behind a wall of dogma, having had it be a looming presence in my religious and political life for quite some time. When I applied for the journalist visa, I was blissfully unaware of what it would feel like to get on that plane, armed with nothing but a siddur and a newly purchased veil. Most of my friends and family urged me not to go, sending me articles chronicling the atrocities I would encounter, and when I was handed that ticket saying “Khomeini IKA,” I prayed they were mistaken. 

Thirty minutes before we landed in Tehran, I started tying my hijab, using the printed instructions I had found online, tucking every strand of hair into the multicolored cloth. Lastly, I took off my Magen David for the first time in years and I put it in my purse between two pieces of paper.

Jewish Iranians rely on their synagogue on Palestine Street to study and socialise
I’m not sure what I expected, but I do know it wasn’t what I found. In Tehran alone, there are 7,000 Jews residing and the vast majority of them are Orthodox and highly observant, and several smaller communities are still thriving in ancient cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz, putting the total Jewish population of Iran at approximately 15,000. 

At the time of the Shah, it was seven times as large, but the 1979 Islamic revolution caused more than 80,000 Jews to leave for Israel and the United States, never to return. During the reign of the Shah, Jews saw little of worry, but the Islamic revolution brought not only hatred toward Israel but also violent anti-Semitism, resulting in harassment, repossession of assets and the public execution of Jewish community leader Habib Elghanian, accused of espionage for the Zionist regime.

An older Iranian Jewish man
An older Iranian Jewish man
It doesn’t take long for me to be invited to several dinners, and after services we walk in a gentle pace to the house of the community leader who has proudly won the bid.

Next to me is my assigned government handler, staying close throughout the trip, and I can’t help but feel as if I have somehow invaded their space and broken an unspoken rule. 

Read article in full 

Israeli journalist accused of spying 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A historic change: cold peace with Egypt warming up

The peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979 will for the first time be taught in Egyptian schools, The Times of Israel has quoted Israel Army Radio. This is a historic change which could lessen anti-Jewish feeling in Egypt and pave the way to genuine normalisation with Israel. (with thanks: Levana)

Prime Minister Menachem Begin, left, with President Jimmy Carter, centre, and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt at Camp David in September 1978. (photo credit: CC BY-SA Jeff Kubina/Flickr)
The station said a reporter had read the new schoolbook on Egypt’s modern history, which includes a chapter dealing with the Camp David agreement.
The peace deal is described in a matter-of-fact way, without bias or any attempt to present Israel in a negative light, the report said.

The authors of the Egyptian schoolbook, intended for the ninth grade, detail eight clauses from the agreement, which are reproduced in the book verbatim. These include phrases on Israel and Egypt“ending the state of war” and on “each side respecting the sovereignty and independence of the other side.”
(...) According to Army Radio, the new inclusion of the peace treaty is part of an overarching change in the contents of schoolbooks for all grades announced by the Egyptian Education Ministry two years ago. Content in some 1,300 different books was changed and in some instances the changes were decisively political, said Army Radio.

Among the changes, Hosni Mubarak’s role in the Yom Kippur War, in which he served as commander of the Egyptian air force, was marginalized when compared to its portrayal during his tenure as the country’s president. Mubarak was removed from power in the Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011, following 30 years of rule.

Additionally, some content added to books during the short presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi (2012-2013) was removed. These additions preached a return to Islamic values in line with the Brotherhood’s Islamic ideology. Morsi was deposed in 2013 by then-army chief and current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and his movement was banned.

Read article in full 


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Where is the Mizrahi voice in this play?

Seeing a play in which the character playing a rabbi wails 'this is not my religion' when Israel 'mistreats' Palestinians, prompts Rachel Wahba to ask in this passionate Times of Israel blog : where is the  voice of the despised Mizrahi?(With thanks: Janet)

 Rachel Wahba: misguided survival guilt
I remember a leftist Jew once screamed at me, “If one Palestinian has to suffer for Israel to survive, then it should not exist.”

What I never imagined is that 30 years later, mainstream Jews would catch a form of this mental illness.

If Israel has to kill Palestinian children in a war of self-defense, if the IDF has to protect its citizens by shooting terrorists brainwashed since nursery school to kill Jews, maybe we should give up on the Jewish state. If the Palestinians are turning more and more to terrorism then it must be Israel’s fault for making them do it.

Jews must be evil to bring on such hatred. It was not so long ago that people wondered what Jews did to get themselves into Auschwitz. What would make the Germans go to such lengths to get rid of the Jews?

What would motivate this Ashkenazi playwright/actor to omit the voices of Jews who lived in North Africa and the Middle East, who know how hated we were under Islam?

Perhaps the Mizrahi voice, coming from ancient Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities would paint a different picture and ruin the narrative of Bad Israeli Jew/ Good Arab Palestinian.

To have a Mizrahi voice, a Jew from what became “Arab” lands, a Jew who knows her history and where she came from, speak up in this play? Well, it would be very problematic.

Hitler was very clear about the superiority of the Aryan “race”. No less clear is Islam. It is repulsive to have a sovereign Jewish nation in “their” midst. It doesn’t matter how nice or how small. It matters that we exist. Period.

How do you get privileged American Jews who only think of Jews as Ashkenazi in the first place, to wrap their minds around the fact that Jews, Arab Jews, were despised. 

They never saw a merchant in Basra wash his hands after doing business with a Jew, they can’t imagine any of it — not the Jim Crow-like Dhimmi laws, not the twisted mentality of a Jew rushing for cover in the rain before he would be killed for “contaminating” the earth with rain that touched his Jewish body first.

The pogroms did not only happen in Europe, grisly hangings of Jews were celebrated and chanting “Death to the Jews” remains popular in countries Jew free today. My mother never stopped hearing the screams as the mob rampaged through the Jewish Quarter in Baghdad.

They kicked us out in a rage when Israel became a reality. How dare we think we can be more than second-class citizens, sovereign in our Homeland?

The days of scaring us with a pogrom now and then, a hanging in the park picnicking around our dead bodies was over. Israel was now the target. They vowed with each major war to “throw (us) into the sea” once and for all.
They failed. The entire Arab world was not able to win a war against Israel.

I am afraid of where our empathy, our misguided survival guilt, our narcissistic wounding of belonging to a People still struggling to survive, will lead us.
Israel is insanely accused of “Apartheid.” Slogans like “Zionism is Racism” is gaining traction.

Read article in full

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Magda Haroun: vibrant past and macabre present

 Niveen Ghoneim's portrait of the leader of Egypt's tiny Jewish community Magda Haroun in Cairoscene is a sympathetic one, but it perpetuates two myths: that antisemitism is a European problem, and that Zionism is no solution to it. But Magda herself is in denial. To urge French Jews to move to Israel, as Netanyahu did in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre by Islamists, is, in her opinion, 'criminal'.  The article ends with Magda firing a potshot at the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, which campaigns for all moveable communal property to be shipped out of Egypt. (With thanks: Tom)

All Photos by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions. Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.

 Egyptian Jewry was the first of the many casualties of Egypt and Israel’s several wars. During the 1956 Tripartite Aggression (Suez Crisis), Egyptian Jews were branded ‘Zionist enemies of the state’ and many were expelled, arbitrarily arrested, their businesses seized and properties confiscated by the government. The second exodus, however, didn’t occur until 1967; according to historian Michael B. Oren, “800 [Egyptian Jews] were arrested, including the chief rabbis of both Cairo and Alexandria, their property sequestered by the [Egyptian] government” following an-Naksah (Six-Day War). Jewish males between the ages of 17 and 60 were either deported or thrown in internment camps where they were given the choice between leaving the country for good or remaining in confinement.

The greater majority opted to leave Egypt whom the lord of hosts has blessed for far less promising lands, “I grew up without a family, without 3ezwa; I had no cousins, everyone had left. My dad, sister, granddad and grandma, God rest their souls, and my mother were all I had. It’s very difficult to grow up without kinfolk, especially when my dad would get arrested – he was arrested several times because he was both a Jew and a Communist. In 1967 when he was detained, my mom, my sister and I were all alone with no one to turn to, mafeesh 3am te2ouleeloh 2el7a2ny,” she mused.

The remaining few have lived in anonymity ever since. All but one; Magda’s father, lawyer and leftist activist Shehata Haroun would not live in the shadows; he took the solitary path of most resistance. In the 40s, he joined the Communist movement and following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he obstinately refused to immigrate to Europe or Israel, a choice he paid for dearly. In 1954, his daughter Mona was diagnosed with leukaemia and advised to seek treatment abroad, but because of travel restrictions on Jews, he would have been barred from re-entering the country and stripped of his Egyptian citizenship if he had travelled. Given the choice between his own daughter and his country, he chose the latter and Mona died the same year.

He passed away in 2001, leaving behind his wife and two daughters, Nadia and Magda. His epitaph reads, “Every human being has multiple identities, I am a human being, I am Egyptian when Egyptians are oppressed, I am Black when Blacks are oppressed, I am Jewish when Jews are oppressed and I am Palestinian when Palestinians are oppressed.”

The custodian outlived her younger sister Nadia, but her family’s memory remains with her, like a comforting thought. “The first time, we ever went to watch a movie about World War II, Nadia [her sister] was little, after we got out of the theater, she told my dad, ‘I don’t love Germans, I hate Germans!’ so he told her ‘don’t say that, there are good and bad Germans’. That is how we were brought up,” she reminisced. True to his Socialist values, her father would tell her to “go help welad 3am 3abdo el bawab” with their homework once she was done with hers. “We were taught to not prejudge people and to hate injustice, to treat everyone the same, rich, poor, black, white,” she added with pride.

Haroun was born in 1952, the year the Free Officers staged the military coup that overthrew King Farouq and ended the monarchy. And like many Egyptians, she grew up idolizing Nasser, “to me, he was the Godfather." Until one day, she looked around and there was no one, “I had Armenian, Italian and Jewish friends - where have they gone?” she asked. “I believed it to be a revolution until my husband and I bought a land in Salhiyya and tried to cultivate it, but 10 years in, we couldn’t afford to anymore; what about elfallah [farmer] who is given five acres?” And that was when the disillusionment began. “In the Soviet Union, there were committees that distributed seeds and materials to farmers and bought the crops. Our fallaheen didn’t have that - I began to understand why they sold their lands,” she told me.

Three years in Queens, New York will leave you under the impression that Jews are all Yiddish-tongued Ashkenazim (Ashkenazi Jews are the Jews of Germany, France, and Eastern Europe and they comprise the majority of American Jews today). This is how the world recognises the socio-cultural group; it has come to be known as a predominantly White ethnic minority which leaves very little room for Eastern Jewish culture. The consecutive pogroms perpetuated against European Jews which culminated in the events of World War II have, inadvertently, overshadowed the suffering of their Sephardic and Mizrahi brethren (descended from local Jewish communities in the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and Portugal) – what calamity doesn’t pale in comparison to the Holocaust – and eventually shaped Jewish culture.

Most Ashkenazi Jews are self-proclaimed Zionists because they lived in societies that had sought to exterminate them for centuries – it is important to note that unlike right-wing Zionism, the liberal interpretation of the political ideology advocates Palestinian rights and rejects the ongoing Israeli occupation – which is not the case for many Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. A study by Berlin University Political Scientist Gordon Kraemer concluded that animosity toward Jews was not a common phenomenon among Egyptians even after the establishment of the state of Israel, an observation that has been supported by numerous first-hand accounts by contemporary sources.

Naturally, those who didn’t assimilate into this newfound Jewish nationalistic narrative were automatically labelled ‘self-hating Jews’, such is my interlocutor’s burden who was often criticised by some of her coreligionists for her views on Zionism. “I don’t believe in Jewish nationalism, there is no such thing. When Netanyahu stood before the kosher supermarket that was attacked last year [Charlie Hebdo attacks] and called on French Jews to move to Israel, I thought to myself, ‘what a criminal!’ A French Jew is French first then Jewish, an Egyptian Jew is Egyptian first then Jewish!” she said passionately. “We might as well establish a country for Muslims and another for Christians and so on,” she added with characteristic Jewish sarcasm. “Israel was established in the 20th century, it didn’t make sense for a country to be founded on racial/religious grounds then and it still doesn’t make sense now,” she objected.

She still however, maintains the hope and compassion that have sustained her through the years. “The Holocaust and the events of World War II were heinous, but they don’t justify the misappropriation of Palestinian lands,” she said. “Israel is a reality now, that is why Palestinians and Israelis have to reach an equitable two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders,” she added.

The Arab-Israeli conflict and the rise of Arab nationalism may have left large swaths of Jews conflicted between kin and country, their hearts and souls hanging in the middle. Not her. “I cannot begin to tell you how much pain and agony I feel over the state my country is in, because I’ve seen the changes happening,” she said almost choking, “but if your mother got really ill and through the course of her illness, her character and features started to change, would you hate her? Would you leave her? Home is home...” she added, throwing up her hands. There were times, however, when love weighed her down, “I would find myself wondering what if my relatives who moved to Israel are the ones who killed my friend’s brother who was in the Egyptian army?” she recounts.

In a dictatorship, Jews are often the first to go; 11 million perished in the Holocaust, 6 million out of whom were Jews, the rest were homosexuals, Blacks, gypsies and political dissidents. In our 63-year-old quest for an egalitarian utopia, we seem to have sacrificed so much for so little, but unlike Germans and others, we have yet to make amends, and we are certainly nowhere near making sense of the tragedy. “But how? And what good is it now? Embalming a painful memory?” I asked Haroun.

“It’s a reality we have to deal with, we made mistakes, we should learn from them, so it doesn’t happen to other people in the future,” she said. When a Brooklyn based Jewish group demanded that Egypt's Jewish community relinquish their seforim (historical Jewish artefacts and prayer books), the late Carmen Weinstein refused doggedly saying she would ignore the group’s “insensitive letters referring to our inevitable extinction.”

In 1997, she managed to have Jewish artefacts classified as Egyptian antiquities rendering the government liable for their safekeeping. “Taking the Jewish seforim, books and records out of Egypt is tantamount to saying that Egypt should demolish the pyramids and the Temple of Luxor because there are no pharaohs left,” Weinstein said.

Easier said than done? Maybe, but what choice do we have other than to cherish the legacy the last of the Mohicans will soon bequeath to us and carry it into the future as a memory of a people who were once part of our country's society?

Read article in full

Monday, February 15, 2016

The 16 Jews in Damascus are short of food and money

Israeli experts and an activist in contact with the remaining 16  Jews in Damascus painted a bleak picture to The Jerusalem Post. They wanted to end their lives in Damascus but instead found themselves stuck in a war. There are no Jews in Aleppo; the synagogue is empty but at risk of destruction:

 The desolate Jewish quarter of Damascus (photo: JPost)

“All of the Jews that wanted to leave Syria left some time ago,” Prof. Eyal Zisser, a leading expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told the Post. Most of them left in the 1990s as part of an agreement between the US and Syrian governments, he said. “Those that remained are elderly Jews due to the difficulty of changing places along with their environment. They requested to end their lives in Damascus and now they found themselves stuck in a war,” continued Zisser.

 Asked if their lives are at risk, Zisser responded that he did not think the Jews in Damascus are in immediate danger as “surely the regime has no interest in dealing with them.”

 “As long as the regime controls Damascus their lives are assured,” he said, noting that of course daily life is difficult because of the war. “But it was their choice to stay in Syria at the time.”

 Mendi Safadi, an Israeli Druse political activist in touch with the dwindling Jewish community of Damascus, shared pictures and messages from them with the Post.

“There remain around 16 elderly Jews over 70 in Damascus that are suffering from food shortages and economic difficulties because of the war,” he said.

“Their health and economic situation as well as the risk, make it very difficult for them to leave.”

 He said that his contact in the Jewish community told him the synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Damascus only opens for two hours on Shabbat. In addition, Safadi said his contact told him about internal strife with one member of the community allegedly trying to sell the community’s assets.

Read article in full

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Ezekiel's shrine is now a centre for Shi'a worship

 The blue Koranic inscriptions and minaret have been recently added to Ezekiel's shrine, so that its former Jewish character has been completely erased (photo:

All hopes that the dilapidated Jewish shrine of al-Kifl, where the Biblical prophet Ezekiel is reputedly buried, might be restored to its original state,  have been dashed. In spite of our petition, Point of No Return has seen photos which sadly show that the shrine looks to have been converted into a mosque and its Jewish character erased. We do not know the fate of its unique Hebrew inscriptions and floral decoration, but suspect the worst.

 It is feared that the stunning decoration and Hebrew inscriptions have been painted over. (photo MS)

 This report from 18 January 2016 by Adnan abu Zeed in Al-Monitor does not even mention that Ezekiel's tomb was an important Jewish pilgrimage site. Instead it harks back to when al-Kifl was, supposedly, a shrine to the Babylonian god Shamash, thus erasing 2,000 years of Jewish association with the shrine. To reinforce its legitimacy in Shi'a Islam, it is now claimed that 'the fourth caliph of Shi'a Islam prayed and stayed there in the 7th century'. (If ever Da'esh conquer the site, however, they would destroy it as surely as they have been doing to Christian and Shi'a sites in the north of Iraq.)

"It is traditional for visitors to frequent the historical shrine, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, and pray for God’s blessing. What is interesting about this particular place, however, is that it has not always been Islamic. The shrine once served as a temple of Shamash, the sun god, during the First Babylonian Dynasty. Based on the monotheistic principles of Islam, the shrine's prior history would ordinarily make it a symbol of idolatry and polytheism, which contradict the principle of oneness. The Arabic name “Mashhad al-Shams” means “emergence of the sun,” but otherwise, the monument lacks any traces of its Babylonian heritage. In fact, as far as many visitors know, the Hillah monument is purely Islamic.

“The monument is a rare, if not unique, case given the mixture it exemplifies between the pre- and post-Islamic eras,” Karim Saadi, a history teacher in Babil’s junior high school, told Al-Monitor. “This monument — which is about 3 kilometers [1.9 miles] away from the historic city of Babil — is not an Islamic shrine but an 'adad,' which is a Babylonian temple where spiritual rituals were conducted. While Babylonians worshiped the sun there, Muslims established a link between the temple and Islam after the fourth caliph of Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, prayed and stayed in it for a period of time during [mid-seventh-century] wars.” Ali, for whom Muslims also pray at the shrine, is considered by Shiites to be the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Unlike many Iraqi monuments that today suffer from neglect and a lack of visitors, Mashhad al-Shams sits in a garden of grass and palm trees and is packed with tourists and locals praying for God’s blessing. As Babil province is majority Shiite, there are green flags throughout the site, and the entrance is lined with photos of Shiite imams and signs indicating that Ali had prayed here. Many women spend an entire day in the shrine praying, while youths might perform their noon prayers there.

After Ali al-Husseini, a college student, finished his prayers at the shrine, he spoke to Al-Monitor about its importance to him. “I am well-aware that this site is an extension of the monuments of Babil,” he said. “However, the space's sacredness, derived from the link it has with an Islamic event — the Shiite Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib’s stay there — has superseded its importance as a historic Babylonian monument.”
This video by Tsur Shezaf is photographic evidence that the shrine of Ezekiel was once a Jewish shrine
More about Ezekiel's shrine

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Jewish pirate Pallache died 400 years ago

 The Jewish 'pirates' allied themselves with Muslim powers in order to avenge their expulsion from Spain. The charge of piracy seemed an easy one to pin on Samuel Pallache by his enemies. He  was probably considered more of a naval commander by his friends and allies.  Jewish Currents reports:  (With thanks: Michelle)

 Samuel Pallache

Samuel Pallache, known as the “Pirate Rabbi,” died on this date (6 Feb) in 1616 (some sources say February 4) in Amsterdam, the city where he had founded a community of Sephardic conversos in 1591.

Pallache, who grew up in the Jewish quarter of Fez in Morocco, had rabbinical training but opted to follow in the footsteps of Sinan, the 16th century “Famous Jewish Pirate” (aka “The Great Jew”) who had avenged himself against the Inquisition by raiding Spanish ships in the Mediterranean.

 Pallache’s own exploits as a privateer sailing under the Dutch flag and for the sultan of Barbary were also legendary. He was also responsible for one of the first official treaties between a European country and a non-Christian nation, signed between Morocco and the Netherlands in 1610. In 1614, Pallache commanded a small Moroccan fleet that seized some ships belonging to the king of Spain, with whom Morocco was at war.

The Spanish ambassador had him arrested and tried for piracy, a trial that ended in an acquittal. At Pallache’s funeral, Prince Maurice of Nassau and the city fathers of Amsterdam marched behind his bier, followed by every member of the Jewish community, including women and children.

Read article in full 

The 'pirate' Sinan 


Friday, February 12, 2016

Petition appeals to Egypt to preserve heritage

Eleven Jewish organisations have endorsed a petition addressed to President al-Sisi, urging the government to undertake the preservation of Jewish heritage. The petition also entreats the Egyptian authorities to make accessible communal records, a long-term sticking point. Descendants of Egyptian Jews are not even allowed photocopies of birth, marriage and death records - central to their religious and civil identity.

 At the centre of this montage of Torah scrolls and registers is the Nebi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria

The move to start a petition, spearheaded by the Nebi Daniel Association, based in London and Paris, comes after 14 years of fruitless engagement with the Egyptian authorities and in the face of indifference of international bodies such as UNESCO. Since the Arab Spring, the Egyptian government has refused to enter a dialogue with diaspora Egyptian-Jewish representatives.

The signatories feel that unless a plan is formulated soon, it will be too late. With just 14 Jews remaining of a community of 80, 000, there will be no more local community to manage Egypt's Jewish heritage.

The petition's main demands are:
1.     The scanning of all existing Jewish archives, particularly religious and civil identity records in the synagogues and making the scans freely available.
2.     The donation to various Jewish community synagogues across the world of some of the 150 Torah scrolls which fall outside the 100 years Egyptian Antiquities rule.
3.     The restoration of the existing synagogues and cemeteries, in particular, the Bassatine cemetery in Cairo, giving easy access both virtually and on the spot.
4.     The development of a comprehensive inventory of the remaining communal assets and a plan for their preservation.
5.     The creation within one of the existing synagogues of a museum of the Egyptian Jewish heritage that would encourage tourism.

The petitioners conclude: "It is our hope that your Excellency will allow us to implement these steps and, to this end, we request a meeting with the appropriate officials to develop such a plan."

To sign the petition, click here 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

UNESCO recognises Aleppo Codex

 The Aleppo Codex has been added to UNESCO's registry of 300 cultural treasures and documents, Haaretz reports:

Sixty years after it was secretly smuggled into Israel from Syria, the Aleppo Codex – purportedly the oldest and most authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible in existence – has been recognized as a unique treasure and will be included in the International Memory of the World Register, compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The codex, or Crown of Aleppo (called Keter Aram Tzova in Hebrew), is on permanent display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The provenance of this extremely important manuscript, which was written in Tiberias around 930 C.E., is shrouded in mystery, contradictory information and half-truths. The original copy included 500 pages but 200 have disappeared since it arrived in Israel.

On Monday UNESCO officially recognized the codex – also called “the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible” and "the perfect edition of God’s words” – as a unique item with universal characteristics. As such, it is worthy of inclusion in the organization's registry of 300 items and collections, located around the world, which it started compiling in 1995. These include cultural treasures that have contributed to human development, and the documents it includes are well-preserved and accessible.

Read article in full (subscription only)

 Aleppo Great synagogue damaged:

This photo showing damage to the Great synagogue is from 10 February 2016 (Photo: The Amaliah Foundation)

 The Times of Israel reports: The Central Synagogue of Aleppo sustained minor damage in fighting, according to photos provided by locals to an Israeli-American activist for peace in the war-torn country.

The damage affected a corner of the building and was probably caused by shelling, according to Moti Kahana, the founder of the Amaliah not-for-profit group, which aims to relieve the suffering of refugees from Syria and empower women there. The corner area was covered by debris, making it difficult to ascertain the extent of the damage caused to the building, which is believed to have been built in the ninth century AD.

Ruthie Blum in The Algemeiner

PoNR adds: the synagogue was already damaged by fire after the 1947 riots and has not been in use since.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Jews feel unsafe in 'safe spaces'

'Safe Spaces' are all the rage, yet are being denied to Jewish students on campus, even 'Jews of colour' like Iranian Jew Arielle Mokhtarzadeh. According to The Tower, US students are raising the banner against every form of racism except anti-Jewish racism. (Even the Holocaust is now being referred to as 'white on white' crime). What's more, universities are petri dishes for antisemitic slanders. 

Undergraduates at Berkeley, California

Mokhtarzadeh applied to the Students of Color Conference with the hope “of learning more about the experiences of communities of color at the UC… [and] sharing with those communities the experience of my own,” she told me. As an Iranian Jew, she believed her identity as both a religious and ethnic minority granted her a place to belong and thrive at the SOCC. Rosenberg (who requested a pseudonym so that he could speak freely about campus issues without fear of potential retaliation) said that growing up in the Bay Area had taught him to be an active member of social justice movements and progressive communities. “I was always encouraged to take initiative on issues and movements that didn’t directly affect me,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about the struggles that my fellow students were going through.”

But their experiences as Jewish students at the SOCC would soon inspire a rude awakening: the campus progressives who were fighting for justice on college campuses for students of color weren’t only ignoring anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish identity—they were sometimes the ones perpetuating it.

This was quickly made clear on the first day at a session called “Existence is Resistance,” hosted by leaders of UC San Diego’s SJP chapter. Students discussed the boycott of Israel as an issue of urgency for students of color.

Rosenberg and Mokhtarzadeh told me that they originally had no intention to engage in dialogue about Israel at the conference, but they were horrified at how attacks on Israel soon devolved into attacks on the Jews. “The session went way beyond the boundaries of what was appropriate or truthful at the SOCC,” Rosenberg recalled.
For example, they said that Israel was poisoning the water that they sell into the West Bank, and raising the price by ten times. Any sane person knows that this is not true. They also said that when Jewish-American students go on Birthright trips, the Israeli government offers you money to live on a settlement. A number of things like that.
Rosenberg also stated that “There was also no mention of the Holocaust when talking about the history of Israel. They said that in the late 19th century, Jews decided to move into this land and take over it. They completely white-washed our history as a people.”
Mokhtarzadeh was also horrified by the rhetoric used during the session.
Over the course of what was probably no longer than an hour, my history was denied, the murder of my people was justified, and a movement whose sole purpose is the destruction of the Jewish homeland was glorified. Statements were made justifying the ruthless murder of innocent Israeli civilians, blatantly denying Jewish indigeneity in the land, and denying the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered. Why anyone in their right mind would accept these slanders as truths baffles me. But they did. These statements, and others, were met with endless snaps and cheers. I was taken aback.
At a conference facilitated by peers who they believed were fighting the righteous battle against racist speech and hate crimes, Mokhtarzadeh and Rosenberg heard anti-Semitic statements that were met with applause and approval—statements like “the state of Israel pays Jews to move to Israel to join the army and kill Palestinians” and even “you shouldn’t buy Ben and Jerry’s because they’re Jewish and have a shop in Israel.” But perhaps the most painful, and upsetting portion of SJP’s presentation was the section called “Intifada: Peaceful Uprising.”

Mokhtarzadeh, a proud Zionist, raised her hand to protest, but it was too late. The whole room—representing a diverse cross-section of progressive activists and students of color—was holding hands, embraced in each other’s support and calling out “Free, free Palestine!”

They walked out, Mokhtarzadeh on the verge of tears. Rosenberg tried to reflect on what he had heard and experienced. “It wasn’t even just about that session,” he confessed.
It was a prevailing sentiment that I felt at the conference and in the progressive community, that because I am Jewish, I cannot be an activist who supports Black Lives Matter or the LGBTQ community. When I heard that among my peers that “the Jews are oppressors and murderers—How can you care about students of color on campus when they’re murdering our people abroad?”—it quickly dawned on me that it wasn’t that they don’t like us because we’re pro-Israel—they don’t like us because we’re Jews. We were targeted. It’s such a shame that the SOCC solidified and supported this belief of mine.
It was, ironically, in a safe space intended to protect students from discrimination and bigotry in which their Jewish identity was marginalized, ostracized, and politicized. And it was the progressive students and students of color—often themselves targets of hate, bigotry, and discrimination—who were the propagators of ancient hatreds against the Jewish people.

Mokhtarzadeh still painfully remembers that weekend. “I was made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted in a space that was meant to be inclusive and safe,” she said. “It was in that moment, during that conference, that I realized that every identity and every intersection of identity was to be welcomed and championed in progressive spaces—except mine.”

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An intersectional failure (Tablet)