Friday, September 30, 2016

Moroccan newspaper mentions mass conversion of Fez Jews

Zamane, a Moroccan newspaper, has made a rare reference to the mass conversion of the Jews of Fez in the 15th century. It is a little known episode in the history of Morocco. (With thanks: Michelle)

 Jewish homes with their distinctive balconies in the Mellah of Fez

An official of the French protectorate who was involved in collecting testimony on behalf of  Mohamed V in 1953, tells how the Jews of Fez, the "Muhajirin", had to convert to Islam, giving rise to great Fassi families that are thought to have always been Muslim. 

One Marcel Vallat stumbled on  an old  manuscript recounting this episode. The unknown author describes an event itself little known in the history of Morocco. The text tells how, in fact, in the thirteenth century (sic : actually 15th c - ed), many Fez Jews  converted to Islam. They abandoned their faith after a great massacre that decimated part of their community in Fez and opened the way to a mass conversion to Islam.

The document was part of  a collection, or Mejmoue, belonging to an old Alawite from Rabat, Moulay Abderrahmane, better known under the name "Moulay El Kebir".  

Vallat translated the title as "History of Muhajirs", using the modern word for 'citizens'. The manuscript was due to be offered to Mohammed Ben Abderrahman, Sultan Mohammed IV (1859-1873) who was the father of Moulay Hassan, the future Hassan I (1873- 1894). The document dates from the second half of the nineteenth century. After the death of  Hassan I it fell into the hands of the famous "Moulay El Kebir" who had agreed to lend it to the young Vallat.  

The Arabic text is archived in the Royal Library. It was studied first by the Fqih El Manouni and medievalist historian by Mohamed Fatha (this scholarly analysis was published by Bouregreg  in 2004).  

As for Marcel Vallat, he went  back to France after Morocco became independent in 1956 and withdrew completely from public life, cutting all ties with Morocco, where he had made virtually  his entire administrative career.

Read article in full (French)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Seder for Rosh Hashana

The Jewish New Year begins on Sunday evening with blessings for a sweet New Year. Jews of Sephardi and Mizrahi origin will do more than eat apple and honey: they will have a whole range of different foods. 

WISHING all Blog Readers SHANA TOVA 5777!

The following is based on an article by Chabad:
On both nights of Rosh Hashanah, a number of foods are eaten and a blessing recited over them to symbolize our prayers and hopes for a sweet new year. Many of these foods were specifically chosen because their Hebrew names are related to other Hebrew words that convey our wishes for the coming year. You will need:
  • Dates
  • French beans
  • Leeks
  • Beets
  • Gourd or Marrow
  • Pomegranate
  • Apple (cooked in sugar) and honey, sometimes spiced
  • Head of a ram (or a fish)
After chanting kiddush, washing, and breaking bread, the following foods are eaten:
Dates. Related to the word תם—to end.
Take a date and recite:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָעֵץ Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.
After eating the date, take another one and say:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹהינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁיִּתַּמּוּ אוֹיְבֵינוּ וְשׂוֹנְאֵינוּ וְכָל מְבַקְשֵׁי רָעָתֵנוּ
May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that there come an end to our enemies, haters and those who wish evil upon us.
Small beans. Related to the words, רב—many, and לב—heart.
(The following blessing over vegetables is only recited if one has not recited the blessing over bread:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה
Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the earth.)
Take some white beans and say:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹהינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁיִּרְבּוּ זָכִיּוֹתֵינוּ וּתְלַבְּבֵנוּ
May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that our merits shall increase and that You hearten us.
Leek. Related to the word כרת—to cut.
Take a leek and say:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹהינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁיִּכָּרְתוּ אוֹיְבֵינוּ וְשׂוֹנְאֵינוּ וְכָל מְבַקְשֵׁי רָעָתֵנוּ
May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that our enemies, haters, and those who wish evil upon us shall be cut down.
Beets. Related to the word סלק—to depart. (Spinach (Selk in Arabic) is also used - ed)
Take a beet and say:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹהינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁיִּסְתַּלְּקוּ אוֹיְבֵינוּ וְשׂוֹנְאֵינוּ וְכָל מְבַקְשֵׁי רָעָתֵנוּ
May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that our enemies, haters and those who wish evil upon us shall depart.
Gourd. Related to the word קרע—to rip apart, and also קרא—to announce.
Take a gourd and say:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹהינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁתִּקְרַע רוֹעַ גְּזַר דִּינֵנוּ, וְיִקָּרְאוּ לְפָנֶיךָ זָכִיּוֹתֵינוּ
May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that the evil of our verdicts be ripped, and that our merits be announced before you.
Take the pomegranate and say:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹהינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁנִּהְיֶה מְלֵאִים מִצְוֹת כָּרִמּוֹן
May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that we be filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate [is filled with seeds].
תפוח בדבש
Apple and Honey.
Dip an apple in honey – some have the custom of using an apple cooked with sugar – and say:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹהינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁתְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה כַּדְּבָשׁ
May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that You renew for us a year good and sweet like honey.
ראש כבש
Ram's Head (or the head of another kosher animal or fish).
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלֹהינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב
May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that we be a head and not a tail.
(The following is added only over the head of a ram:
וְתִזְכֹּר לָנוּ עֲקֵדָתוֹ וְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל יִצְחָק אָבִינוּ בֶּן אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עַלֵיהֶם הַשָּׁלוֹם
…And You shall remember for us the binding and the ram of our forefather Isaac, the son of our forefather Abraham, peace be onto them.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Kurds hold 'funeral' for Shimon Peres z""l

One of the more surprising tributes to the Israel statesman Shimon Peres has come from Kurdistan, according to Kurdistan 24 News:
Shimon Peres, who died on 28 September 2016
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan24) – Kurds held a funeral on Wednesday for Shimon Peres, former President and Prime Minister of Israel, in a show of respect for his support for Kurds.

The founding father of Israel, who is also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, died on Wednesday morning, after weeks of suffering from a major stroke.

Kurds in the Province of Duhok held a funeral for Peres, sending condolences to his family.

Kurds’ respect for Peres came after his meeting with the US President Barack Obama in 2014.

Peres advised the United States to support the Kurds and the creation of a Kurdish state, praising the democracy practiced in the Kurdistan Region.

“The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic. One of the signs of a democracy is the granting of equality to women,” Peres told Obama in 2014.

Jews lend legitimacy to Moroccan claim

An online video showing  Jews in Morocco dancing around a giant photograph of King Mohamed VI has been attracting over 450, 000 views in a single day. The Jews are singing a song about the 1975 Green March into Western Sahara and serve to lend legitimacy to the Moroccan claim to the disputed territory. Morocco World News reports:

The video also shows the presence of Muslims in the crowd and government officials, clapping while the Moroccan Jews gather in the center around the photo of the king dancing and hopping.

The song they danced to, ‘Sawt Al Hassan’ (which means “The Call of Hassan” in English), is a particularly important song for Moroccans. It records the memorable historical moment of the ‘Green March’ when King Hassan II inspired Moroccans march to the Moroccan Sahara to free it from the Spanish colonize (sic) continued dancing.

The Moroccan Jews have been an important component of the Moroccan population. Moroccan Jews have lived in Morocco for over 2,000 years. Between 1961 and 1964, however, around 97,000 Moroccan Jews immigrated to Israel through Operation Yakhin conducted by the Israeli Mossad.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Turkish minorities are scapegoats for failed coup

Christians and Jews in Turkey are growing more fearful of a resurgence of xenophobia. They are being targeted for blame for the failed July coup against the Erdogan government, Voice of America reports.

Abandoned Jewish cemetery at Edirne, Turkey (VOA)

Christian and Jews represent about two-tenths of one percent of Turkey’s mostly Muslim population of 79 million.

But pro-government media outlets as well as some government officials have accused them of playing a role in the July coup attempt and have stepped up the rhetoric against Christians and Jews.

At a “Democracy and Martyrs” rally in August, a pro-government, million-strong anti-coup demonstration in Istanbul, three of the speakers linked religious minorities to coup plotters, calling them “seeds of Byzantium, “crusaders,” and a “flock of infidels.”

Christian and Jewish leaders, some of whom denounced the coup attempt, were in attendance at the rally in attempt to show solidarity with the government. Turkey has been in a state of emergency since the coup attempt and tens of thousands of Turks have been jailed for investigations.

Turkish human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz told VOA pro-government media have “embraced an alarming narrative of scapegoating Turkey’s religious minorities and connecting the coup plot to them.”

“Particularly pro-government media outlets have taken an anti-U.S. and anti-EU attitude, which I can call a xenophobic attitude, in which they attempt to demonize the West and accuse it of the coup attempt,” he said. “And this narrative targets and harms non-Muslims in Turkey.”

Scholar Rifat Bali, who has written several books on Turkish Jews, says that even though the report of minority ties to the coup have no foundation, Christians and Jews are being targeted.

Read article in full

Monday, September 26, 2016

Aleppo-born Israelis 'pained' at city's destruction

Two Israelis from war-torn Aleppo share their memories with Ynet News. They find reports of the loss of life and destruction of places they knew as children painful. But they must also feel relief to have left. 

Yossi Antebi, an 80-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, grew up in Aleppo, and is finding it hard to see his childhood home torn apart. "When I hear the reports, it pains me greatly. I see the places explode and know all the names," shared Antebi.

"We lived in the center of the city; we had it good in Aleppo. But I was a Zionist; I wanted to immigrate to Israel. At the age of 18, I tried to run away, and I was caught in Lebanon, and in the end we immigrated to Israel nearly naked," recounted the Tel Aviv resident.

Aleppo (Photo: AFP) (Photo: AFP)
Aleppo (Photo: AFP)

"Sometimes, I'm sad that I left Aleppo, because there I knew which house belonged to whom. There was a yard that where everybody gathered every Shabbat. Here, I barely know the neighbors. I had Arab friends, customers who cried when we left. Because of this, it's very painful for me when I think of those people and how that dog, Assad, carries on."

David Gindi, who also left the beleaguered city 58 years ago. "I'm sad when I see what's happening," he said. "I don't remember Aleppo well. As children, we had a lot of problems with the population; they would ambush us on the way to school, particularly after the establishment of the State (of Israel). When we immigrated to Israel, we just left everything."

Read article in full

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Tunis-born Chief Rabbi Sitruk of France dies

The death has been announced at 71 of Joseph Haim Sitruk, former Chief Rabbi of France, after a long illness. He will be buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

One of the great figures of French Judaism, he was born in Tunis in 1944. He re-energised the French-Jewish community in the 1980s. He served for several stints as Chief Rabbi, retiring in 2008. He was known for speaking truth to power. Most recently he found himself embroiled in controversy after he spoke out publically against homosexuality.

 Rabbi Sitruk said of Tunisia: " Of all the Arab countries, Tunisia is the most modern, open and tolerant. It must remain so and not give way in the slightest to extremists."

Schools to be offered module on Mizrahi women

 As recommended by the Biton Committee, the Israel education ministry has put together an optional curriculum module on the contributions of Sephardi and Mizrahi women, NRG online reports. While a focus on prominent women is to be applauded, these heroines of culture and history have little in common except their gender. (It is as if Albert Einstein and Woody Allen were lumped together because they are both Ashkenazi males). In my view it would have been better for education and social integration had these women been included in the core curriculum, instead of being locked up in an eastern ghetto.

The Israel Ministry of Education has published a part of the curriculum recommended by the Biton Commission  -  this time on Mizrahi women. The program, to be called 'Light from the East', was developed by the Gender Equality Unit at the Ministry of Education, and it focuses on the contributions of 28 Sephardi and Mizrahi women.

Among other things, the new curriculum will include the actress Ronit Elkabetz, the late director and actress Hana Azoulay Spree, Israel Prize laureate Geula Cohen, Israel Prize laureate rabbinic Adina Bar-Shalom who founded the "Haredi College of Jerusalem, (the great Sephardi leader and philanthropist) Dona Gracia, (the poet) Adi Kaissar and more.
צילום: AFP
The late actress and director Ronit Alkabetz (photo: AFP)

Read article in full (Hebrew)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Israel to offer degrees in 'Jewish Arab' literature

Almog Behar
Two new bachelor’s degree programs in the culture of Jews in the Arab world will get underway at the start of the 2017-2018 academic year at Ben-Gurion University and Tel Aviv University, reports Haaretz. All well and good. However, the decision to call the programs 'Jewish Arab' rather than 'Mizrahi' smacks of a political agenda, in spite of assertions to
Shimon Adaf
the contrary. The danger is that far-leftist academics will hijack the government's campaign to raise awareness of Jews from Arab countries for their own ends (with thanks: Lily):

Among the subjects to be taught in the programs, the first of their kind, are Jewish literature written in Arab countries, literary Arabic and Judeo-Arabic (an Islamic-world counterpart to Yiddish in Europe). There will also be comparative literature studies looking at Jewish literature in Arab countries and Jewish literature in Europe.

“The idea for the program came up in a conversation in the car about three years ago,” recalled Hadas Shabat Nadir, a literature researcher at Ben-Gurion. “Dr. Hana Soker Schwager [of Ben-Gurion], [poet] Shimon Adaf and Dr. Haviva Yishay [of Ben-Gurion] were there, and over time the poet Almog Behar and Prof. Galili Shahar [of Tel Aviv] also joined. It started with our wondering why there were programs for the study of Yiddish and other similar programs, but no one was teaching Jewish Arab culture.”

The program became a reality after a request for funding to the Yad Hanadiv foundation, which represents the Rothschild family philanthropic trusts, got a positive response and after the committee responsible for the funding insisted that a full bachelor’s degree program be created.

Why 'Jewish Arab,' not 'Mizrahi'?

Although Jews from Arab countries are commonly referred to as “Mizrahim” in Hebrew, Shabat-Nadir explained the decision to call the subject of the program Jewish Arab culture and not Mizrahi studies:

“We wanted to present the entire story. We all were uncomfortable with the definition ‘Mizrahim,’ because when people use it, they forget an entire history, important people, accomplishments and writing over the generations. We wanted to link the Mizrahi concept to its history, to where it comes from. The concept of Mizrahim developed in Europe and ultimately those who sought Westernization called the Jews from Islamic countries Mizrahim. The field and the dialogue that we are talking about is Jewish Arab.”

Behar said, “In the coming year, we will build the syllabus and plan the three years of the degree studies and actually the first five years [of the program]. From our standpoint, as doctoral students in literature at the time, we very much felt the absence, including in the academic treatment, of Israeli Mizrahi literature and within Arabic literature. Jewish Arab literature didn’t have a presence and in particular, there was no link among all of the fields and aspects.”

At this point, there is five years of funding for the program. Although it will only start in a year, it is already clear that the departments at the two universities will collaborate and hold joint conferences and courses. At Tel Aviv University, the program is under the administration of the literature department and at Ben-Gurion University, it is part of the department of multidisciplinary studies.

Behar added, “There is attention in academe to the Golden Age [of Spanish Jewish history]. There is a certain presence in Jewish studies, but there was no link. In our view, it’s a field of one historical continuity and we want to give students the ability to see and understand this continuity – both secular and religious literature, historical and contemporary. Up to now the field was splintered and from now on we are going to teach [it] as a discipline, as one field, one [field of] linguistic continuity and knowledge.

Read article in full (subscription required)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Alexandria head greets Israel envoy

In what might be a first sign of normalisation,  the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, David Guvrin, made a rare visit this week to Alexandria, in the north of the country along with embassy staff, and met with the head of the Jewish 'community' Yosef Ben Gaon at the Nebi Daniel synagogue, according to this report in Ynet News. The Nebi Daniel synagogue is in desperate need of government funds for its renovation. A few months ago, the ceiling in the ladies' gallery partially collapsed.

Update: Israel National News reports the Israel ambassor as saying: " The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue needs to be restored. The Antiquities Authority are the ones  responsible, and in recent years, they have sent delegations to see what needs to be done. It was actually decided to restore the synagogue, but coming up with the necessary sum of money - two and a half million dollars - is a problem. The Jewish community in Alexandria is working to find the money necessary for the project."

Ynet News reports:  

Guvrin was sworn in less than a month ago and submitted his credentials to Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The focus of the visit lasted two days and there was a tour of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in the city  and the offices of the Jewish community. The synagogue in question is a magnificent 19th century building. The  Jewish community of Alexandria consisted  up to the 1930s of the 20th century of more than 20, 000 Jews.
The ambassador met with the head of the Jewish 'community', Yosef Ben Gaon, who told him that today are only 17 Jews in Alexandria (others say there are only five - ed) and the community tries its best to maintain the magnificent synagogue and assist community members in need. (...)"We are pleased that you are here," said Ben Gaon.
השגריר גוברין בבית הכנסת על שם אליהו הנביא באלכסנדריה ()

בית הכנסת העתיק ()
The ancient synagogue
A video released by the Israeli Embassy in Egypt showed the two conversing in Arabic. Gaon expressed the hope that the Egyptian government will help renovate the place.  

"We as the state of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, are very interested in this issue and are willing to participate and cooperate with the relevant bodies in this field," said Guvrin. Ben Gaon replied: "We are all brothers. We are all one. There is no one better than another. We do the same thing. God willing, all things work out."

Unpublicised film of Eli Cohen's hanging resurfaces

 Previously unpublicised footage of the hanging of Eli Cohen, Israel's famous spy has resurfaced on a Syrian rebel Facebook age. The spy's body, already stiffened by rigor mortis, is seen lowered into a coffin. Abraham Cohen, 71, Eli's brother, says that these images are not new and were filmed by a US press agency. Eli Cohen's widow Nadia has campaigned all her life to have her husband's body returned to Eli's family in Israel. (With thanks: Lily)

According to Israel Hayom, fifty-one years after Israeli Mossad agent Eli Cohen was captured, tortured and executed in Syria, a Facebook page affiliated with the Syrian opposition uploaded a video showing him on the gallows. The page, "Syrian art treasures" has published video footage that appears to have been taken on May 18, 1965, the day of the execution.

 The video shows Cohen's lifeless body hanging from the gallows, as the masses gather in a public square to bear witness to the execution. His body is shown wrapped in a cloth displaying Cohen's crimes in Arabic and brought down from the gallows to be laid in a coffin. The video shows Cohen's coffin then being lifted onto a military vehicle that later drives off to an unknown location.

 Claims were made that Cohen's body was buried under the central square in Damascus, now an urban area featuring buildings and roads. Cohen's exact place of burial remains unknown to this day.

More about Eli Cohen

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Iraqi 'Jew''s tale of woe does not ring true

 An article which first appeared in Ami magazine and was republished by Aish is circulating online. It tells  a story of horror,  torture and persecution of an Iraqi Jew by Saddam Hussein. However, there are reasons to doubt it is true.  See my comment below. Here is a sample (with thanks to all those who sent me this): 

Kurdish Jews in 1905
"Elisha told me that there were more Iraqi Jews left in the country than official statistics showed, in some cases because they had thought they were going to be able to leave and weren’t able to. Many were able to get papers as Christians, rather than Jews, though they kept in contact with the Jewish community. Official numbers showed only several hundred Jews in Iraq during the late twentieth century, but Elisha stated that he believed there were as many as 20,000 living under assumed identities as Christians and other ethnicities.

And while for most Iraqi Jews the end of their time in the country had come, for a small minority, like Elisha Cohen’s family, Iraq would remain their home.


Elisha’s family was, as were many Iraqis, both rooted in the country and cosmopolitan at the same time. Though both of his paternal grandparents were born in Iraq, they met in Germany in the 1920s, where many Iraqi Jews traveled to for business. His maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who had entered Iraq after the war, where he married Elisha’s maternal grandmother in Baghdad.

Elisha’s mother also traveled for a time to Europe, where she studied in France to be an ophthalmologist. “My experiences have left me with some difficulty in remembering our childhood,” Elisha writes. “I have vivid recollections of the last time I saw my brothers and sisters, however my memories of how we grew up together have since been disturbed.”

Elisha and his seven siblings grew up in a large house in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. He had three older brothers, a twin brother, then two younger sisters with a younger brother in between them. Only the two oldest brothers attended school; the rest of the children were taught at home, as Jews were not anymore allowed to attend Iraqi schools."

My  Comment:  The article gives a roughly true potted history of the Iraqi-Jewish community. However,  to claim that some 20, 000 hidden Jews lived in the Mosul area posing as Christians stretches credulity: 20, 000 would be a greater number than the entire 18, 000-strong Jewish community who lived in northern Iraq. Almost all were airlifted to Israel in 1950. If at all, one might have expected a handful of Elishas, but not 20, 000.

Secondly, for a harassed Jewish family to pose as Assyrian Christians, another persecuted Iraqi minority, would be like leaping from the frying pan into the fire. Why not just pose as Muslims?

The story of how Elisha's parents met in Germany does not ring true. Elisha inserts a Holocaust survivor into his family for sympathy, it seems. Why does he have trouble remembering his childhood?

Even if Elisha and his family had been subject to unimaginable torture under the Ba'ath regime, no Jew would have wanted to return to Iraq once he had left. As a Jew his destination of choice would have been Israel, not Australia, a favoured destination for Assyrian Christians. And having reached freedom, why does Elisha use the name Marvin, instead of 'coming out' as the Jew Elisha?

The story seems to be a fantasy fabricated by an Assyrian Christian who would have liked to be a Jew. It must have acquired legs when he realised there was an audience of gullible Jews willing to believe it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Israel Library buys Afghan geniza

A unique collection of Jewish and Muslim manuscripts dating from the 11th to 13th centuries C.E. from the region of modern-day Afghanistan was acquired by the National Library of Israel recently, Israel Hayom reports (with thanks: Lily)

Researchers believe it could prove unprecedented in what it can teach them about the lives of the communities along the Silk Road. 

The collection, known as the "Afghan Geniza," consists of some 250 documents from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, before the Mongol invasion began. Four years ago, the library purchased a smaller number of documents from the same collection, which was previously unknown to historical researchers. 

Scholars believe the treasures that lie in the pages of the latest acquisition will revolutionize knowledge of Jewish communities in that region in that era, as well as provide a rare glimpse into the Muslim cultures of Persia and pre-Mongol Afghanistan. According to the library, most of the documents were written by Jewish and Muslim merchants who lived prior to the destruction caused by the invading Mongol army under Genghis Khan between 1258 and 1260. 

The documents provide information about the day-to-day lives of the communities, social ties, and the Jewish economy of the region in that period. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Doyen of Sephardi culture Moise Rahmani dies

The death has been announced of Moise Rahmani, founder of the Institut Sepharade Europeen ( and publisher of the quarterly review Los Muestros.

Moise Rahmani suffered from failing health in his later years, and despite efforts to pass on the editorship of Los Muestros to his daughters, announced in December 2015 that he was ceasing publication owing to lack of resources.

Moise Rahmani's family background straddled several countries. He was an influential figure of tireless energy in the Sephardi and Jewish world and his prodigious output of books of Sephardi interest included L'exode oublie, an overview of the exodus of Jews from Arab countries. He published Los Muestros in Ladino, English and French for 20 years.

Rahmani was born in Cairo in 1944.   His paternal grandmother was from Rhodes. In 1956, at the age of 12, he and his family left Egypt for the Belgian Congo (now Zaire),  emigrating to Belgium after the Congo Crisis of 1960–1966.

His website remains as a lasting monument to his efforts to preserve Sephardi history, language and culture.

An Egyptian childhood cut short

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mind the gap!

Point of No Return will be taking a short break. See you early next week!

'Ethnic cleansing' is nothing new in West Bank

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drawn fire for asserting that the Palestinian leadership envisages a West Bank 'ethnically cleansed' of Jews.
 Time to re-visit the history of the area with this extract from the Harif blog, Clash of Cultures: the West thinks it has always been Arab land, but  Jews once owned thousands of dunams  in Judea and Samaria. 'Ethnic cleansing' is nothing new.

Nothing is ever that simple in the Middle East. Land ownership is a tangled web, although that's a point not often made by the Israeli government.
The Golan Heights are almost universally considered 'Syrian' territory and yet the Jewish National Fund lays claim to 73,974 dunams in southern Syria. The earliest purchase was made in the 1880s.
Similarly, land ownership in Jerusalem and the 'West Bank' is far more complex than the EU thinks. The 'Jewish settlements' north of Jerusalem, Atarot and Neve Yaakov, were evacuated in 1948. Mount Scopus - technically in 'Arab' East Jerusalem - remained a Jewish enclave in Jordanian-controlled territory.
It is also little known that hundreds of thousands of Arab squatters in 'Arab East Jerusalem' live on land still owned by the Jewish National Fund. The JNF purchased hundreds of individual parcels of land in and around Jerusalem during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In 1948, on one of these parcels the UN built the Kalandia refugee camp. The Deheishe  refugee camp south of Bethlehem was also built on JNF land.
In the 1920s and 30s Iraqi and Iranian Jews queued up to buy parcels of JNF land; after the 1948 war, they  were cut off from their purchases when these came under Jordanian rule, as Gil Zohar explained in his 2007 Jerusalem Post piece.  In total 145,976 dunams (I dunam = 1,000 sq. m) of Jewish land is said to have come under Jordanian control. (Jewish property claims against Arab countries by Michael Fischbach, p 85).
In Abu Dis, the site of the putative Palestinian parliament, some 598 dunams of land are actually Jewish-owned as even Palestinian organisations acknowledge
During the 1920s and 30s the ‘Agudat HaDayarim’ Jewish Cooperative Society was established in Jerusalem in order to create Jewish neighbourhoods outside  the Old City. The Society had over 210 members, from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds - including Persian, Iraqi and Yemenite Jews.  In 1928 the Aguda purchased 598 dunams of land on the city outskirts in Abu Dis  in order to build a ‘Garden Community’ (homes with agricultural plots). Although it acquired a legal title to the area, the Arab revolts of 1929 and 1936-9 prevented the Aguda from establishing the new community.  The War of Independence resulted in the Jewish-owned lands in Abu Dis coming under the control of the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property.
Another 16,684.421 dunams of Jewish land in the rural West Bank - including the Gush Etzion settlements, land between Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm, and in Bethlehem and Hebron - were seized by the Jordanians after 1948. 
Even before 1948, riots and massacres caused Jews of the centuries-old Yishuv to evacuate their homes in Hebron and parts of Jerusalem.
Before it fell to the Arab Legion in 1948, Jerusalem had a Jewish majority. The first refugees from eastern Jerusalem were Jews from the Shimon Hatzaddik quarter - the site of the tomb of Simon the High Priest. The Old City of Jerusalem became 'judenrein' as thousands of Jews were expelled, leaving their property behind. The Old City was ransacked and some 58 synagogues were destroyed during the 19-year Jordanian occupation. Jews were banned from their holiest places.
There is a respectable body of  opinion which argues that most Israeli settlements are legal. Even if Israel were to agree that the Jewish settlements stigmatized by the EU are illegal under international law, the proportion of land 'built on Arab land' in the West Bank represents a tiny fraction of the Jewish-owned land abandoned or seized as a matter of deliberate policy in Arab countries.
 The issue of Jewish settlements has to be seen in the context of the mass exchange of land and population between Jews and Arabs  across the entire region.
The status quo represents an exchange far more favourable to Arabs than to Jews. According to economist Sidney Zabludoff, the Jewish refugees – 75 percent of whom resettled in Israel - lost assets worth twice as much as those abandoned by Palestinian refugees.
On the macro-level, the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries estimates that Jews living in Arab countries owned some 100,000 sq km of deeded property, equivalent to four or five times the size of Israel  itself. 
Many cities in the 'Arab' Middle East and North Africa had large Jewish populations. Baghdad was a quarter Jewish. Within a generation, the Jewish population of the Arab world will have been ‘cleansed’ out of existence.
Evidently, private ownership of property does not equate to sovereignty. But many people – the EU included - assume that areas inhabited in Jerusalem and the ‘West Bank’ by a majority of Arabs - regardless of whether they established that majority at the expense of Jews - should naturally come under Arab sovereignty. Organisations like J-Street and Yachad are willing to fight for Arab squatters’ rights; you would be hard-pressed to find any human rights group or NGO prepared to campaign for Jewish property rights.
The suggestion is never considered that the attacking parties in the 1967 war - Syria and Jordan - should be made to forfeit territory as the price for their aggression. No Arab state has been held to account for ‘ethnically cleansing’ their innocent Jewish citizens whom they branded, from1948 onwards, as ‘members of the minority of Palestine’. Instead, the Arab states have pocketed the spoils. It goes without saying that no Arab government has paid out any compensation for lost Jewish property. Israel is expected to make all the concessions.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

US student from Yemen : Only 50 Jews left

It is ten years since Manny Dahari moved to the United States as a student. He was separated from his family who remained in Yemen and worked for their rescue. He was not reunited with them for 10 years. On the anniversary of his departure, he posted this message on his Facebook page:

"Due to rise of antisemitism and the fact that Jews were not allowed to attend public schools, my parents sent me to study in the U.S.

Over the last ten years, the Jewish community of Yemen suffered greatly. They were living in constant fear; afraid to leave their homes or reveal their identity because they would get attacked or be killed. As a result, I couldn't go back home and didn't see my family for almost ten years.

In 2007 an entire Jewish community was expelled from their town, Sa'adah. The Jews were given 24 hours, to either, convert to Islam, leave their homes or be killed.

In 2008, a rabbi in our community was shot to death in front of his house, simply because he was Jewish.

In 2009 many Jewish homes, including my cousin's, were attacked with grenades.

In 2011, my sister's father in-law was stabbed to death in the supermarket for being a Jew.

Over the last ten years, three Jewish girls, including my cousin, were kidnapped and forced to marry Muslim men.

With no protection from the government or the local authority, Jews, including my family, had no choice but to leave everything behind and flee for their lives. Many of them settled in Israel and some were taken as refugees by the U.S. and the U.K.

Today, less than 50 Jews are still living in Yemen."

Monday, September 12, 2016

Why the Afghan community is now defunct

Sara Beth Koplik has  published  a book on the history of Jews in Afghanistan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (especially from 1839 to 1952). This  once flourishing community  is now defunct. It struggled to recover from successive calamities (Mongol invasion, forced conversion of Jews to Islam in Mashad). interview by Nathan Weinstock in Information Juive: 

Sara Beth Koplik

Afghan Jews frequently had to face difficult times and  as a religious minority, they became the target of persecution.
This minority was distinguished by unusual family structure patterns, resulting from trade requirements with very remote areas: while men undertook long journeys, women remained at home (particularly in Herat and Kabul).

An accumulation of events in early 1930 led  to the gradual disappearance of the Jewish community. The influx of large numbers of refugees, including from Bukhara - a consequence of the quasi-Stalinist policy of genocide - prompted the Afghan government to impose on the local Jewish population discriminatory laws forbidding them to engage in commerce or travel outside major urban centers. Hence their  brutal impoverishment, aggravated by an economic policy focused on development projects based on a monopoly system favouring the majority Pashtun.

Zevulum Simantov, the last Jew of Afghanistan, saying his prayers (Photo: Reuters)

  Furthermore, the agreements concluded by Kabul with the Third Reich, under the leadership of 'Abd al-Majid Khan Zabuli, would allow Nazi Germany to exert some influence on certain aspects of Afghan policy, especially in the economic field.
After the Second World War, the Afghan economy collapsed and the region fell prey to starvation. The establishment of the State of Israel  was lived by the Jewish community as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and most of its members left when they were finally allowed to emigrate.


The numerical strength of the community  increased due to the flight of Jews of Mashhad after their  (1839) forced mass conversion. In 1856, the whole Jewish community of Herat was forced to join the Persian army in its march to Mashhad, where its members  remained imprisoned for several years. Many of them died as a result of prison conditions.

At the end of the nineteenth century, they were exposed to a series of pogroms, including the massacre of eleven rabbis in Maimana. The early years of the twentieth century ushered in a best time for the community, but it was hit by new problems  from the early 1930s, forcing all Jews residing in the north to live either in Kabul either in Herat.

Bukharan refugees were locked in an old caravanserai and forbidden to engage in any work. The community was overwhelmed by the many restrictions of all kinds imposed upon it, which eventually triggered a refugee crisis: the Jews fled from Afghanistan to India, including Peshawar and Mumbai.

Read article in full (French) 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The truth about Morocco: fear made Jews leave

Penina Elbaz is now a successful psychologist in Montreal. As a child in Safi, a southern town in Morocco, she was exposed to bullying and persecution. But some Moroccan Jews choose to live in denial: the rich think they bought their security. Read her passionate plea about Jews displaced from Arab lands:
Penina Elbaz: many examples of Moroccan antisemitism

"It is about time we showed the world the kind of persecution which Jews in Morocco suffered. Because  some rich people wanted to play at being ambassadors for Morocco and talk about their good life, they failed to report, or denied,  the persecutions endured by the majority, especially those who had to live in Muslim areas. Our lives were put at risk every day.

 I have so many examples: My elderly aunt was pushed against the wall by Muslims and they broke her shoulder. My 14-year- old cousin was pushed against the wall with a knife to her throat. When the Zionist operatives came  to the homes of very poor people, I would follow them to see them off when they left for Israel. They lived in dignity, poverty and fear. They were humble but  noble. The only possessions they had and took with them were fragments of  Torah scrolls in rusty old tins. It was extremely moving; those Zionists were delegated by the Messiah. They saved thousands of lives.

In Morocco anti-Jewish sentiment and their local nationalism were rampant. They wanted the public jobs held by Jewish people, Jewish houses and businesses. They succeeded by inflicting fear and persecution. Jewish people, rich or poor,  loved Morocco. They cherished the land, the culture, and their ancestors from this land and their Saints buried in Morocco. They would never want to talk about the persecutions out of pride, for fear that  people would judge them.  The will to continue to live with no fear made them leave; however, they did take with them the culture and  values. They still have feasts celebrating the Saints,  the henna parties; the kaftans are still cherished.

When I told some Jewish Moroccans my story of being held hostage in a Moroccan jail, I was told that it would not have happened to them because they had private means of transport and protection. This ignorance and denial are outrageous. It does not allow people to tell their life experiences of trauma in Morocco. Among the people held hostages with me were people of all types,  from very poor to very rich. When Muslim fanatics decide to cause harm, they do not need to check to which social class we belong.

Thank God for Israel.  Jews from Arab countries found a country where they could  live with full citizenship rights. It is not because of the creation of the State of Israel that we were persecuted in Arab countries, we were persecuted because of  increasing Muslim nationalism. It was just a pretext to kick us out of our homeland, Morocco. "

Friday, September 09, 2016

Prosecutor: No future for French Jews

Lawyer Charles Baccouche is a North African Jew in the forefront of the fight against French antisemitism. He does not hold out much hope for the future of the community and plans eventually to move to Israel. Interview in The Times of Israel (With thanks: Lily) 

Founded by retired Paris-area police commissioner Sammy Ghozlan, the BNVCA has worked for more than 15 years to combat French anti-Semitism and boycotts against Israel. These include the physical acts of aggression against rabbis, children, synagogues and Jewish schools which began escalating in 2000.

In 2014, for instance, the Jewish community reported 851 anti-Semitic incidents, of which 241 were violent attacks, up from 423 and 105, respectively. Although Ghozlan has retired to Netanya, he frequently returns and is in constant touch with his team, including his right hand man, Baccouche.

It is Baccouche who represents the BNVCA on behalf of French Jewry in legal proceedings. His adversaries are not only the terrorists set on taking Jewish lives but also France’s most notorious and most vocal anti-Semites. These include Dieudonne, Alain Soral, Jean Marie Le Pen and Zeon aka Fernandez, whom he pursues in court four or five times a year.

“Court is very slow and they delay it repeatedly,” he says. “The most important thing is to submit complaints to the French government.”

Over the past three years, in fact, he has submitted an estimated 400 complaints about anti-Semitic acts, a process he has continued since 2009 — “each time there is an anti-Semitic act,” says Baccouche, who resides near the Eiffel Tower.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Israel schools to mark Jewish Refugee Day on 30 November

Israel's schools will hold a memorial day this year to commemorate the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran, the Education Ministry has announced. (This is one of the recommendations of the Biton Report.) The Jerusalem Post reports (with thanks: Lily):

(Left: Erez Biton. Right: minister Naphtali Bennett)

On November 30 schools and kindergartens throughout the country will mark the day with memorial ceremonies, reading books, singing songs and holding discussions on the immigrant absorption experience.

The ministry thus aims to implement one of the July recommendations of the Biton Committee, which was tasked with empowering Eastern Jewish cultural studies within the general education curriculum.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett launched the committee some five months ago, and appointed as its head Erez Biton, the first poet of Mizrahi descent to win the Israel Prize in Literature (2015).

Biton was tasked with strengthening the identity of the Mizrahi Jewish community – including immigrants from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia and Libya – within the education system.

“From today the children of Israel will learn the story of the Egoz ship [which sank in 1961 during its 13th voyage bringing Jews from Morocco to make aliya, with the loss of 46 lives, including 44 immigrants] and the story of the incredible Zionist journey of Mizrahi Jews,” Bennett said.

“The day of departure and expulsion is a milestone in completing the whole story of the glorious heritage of Jews from Arab countries,” he said.

As part of the commemoration, students will meet with “perpetuators of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish heritage,” past immigrants from countries such as Morocco, Iraq, Iran and Algeria, who will recount their personal stories of expulsion from their homes. The students will also learn of their Mizrahi culture and heritage, as well as their immigration and absorption experiences.

Read article in full

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Egypt registers Jewish artefacts 'to preserve them'

Egypt has begun registering Jewish antiquities 'in an attempt to protect them from theft and neglect' — an important step forward in preserving history, says Al-Monitor. Cynics would say that Egypt is merely making an inventory of movable artefacts which the tiny Jewish community has unilaterally handed over to the Egyptian state. As for immovable property, the article registers the criticism levelled at the government for not making good on promises to renovate the country’s synagogues, which it sees as part of Egypt's heritage in general.
The library at Adly St synagogue, Cairo: handed over to the Egyptian state

Jewish antiquities have always been part of Egypt’s cultural heritage, and government officials have said they are also part of the world’s heritage and the property of all mankind, not only Egypt. And so, Saeed Helmy, the head of the Islamic and Coptic Monuments Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, is calling on countries around the world to financially support Egypt in restoring and preserving the antiquities.

Helmy, who is in charge of the Jewish monuments in Egypt, told Al-Monitor in mid-August that the country has been unable to finance such projects because of its financial state. Egypt’s economy has suffered since the January 25 Revolution in 2011, and tourism has been decimated.

“I know very well that the Egyptian monuments — including the Jewish antiquities — capture the attention of people all around the world. Therefore, I’d like to make it clear that Egypt pays considerable attention to its monuments whether they are Islamic, Coptic or Christian, and that is what I asserted during my meeting with the [US] cultural attache at the US Embassy [in Egypt] on Aug. 2. However, we need the support of the countries that are interested in cultural heritage in order to protect these great antiquities.”

The Jews built 11 synagogues in Egypt — 10 in Cairo and one in Alexandria — which contain thousands of manuscripts that document their community in the country, along with birth and marriage records of Egyptian Jews.

Many synagogues in the heart of Cairo were frequently visited tourist attractions, especially Ben Ezra, Ashkenazi and Sha'ar Hashamayim. Ben Ezra in Old Cairo is one of the oldest synagogues in Egypt and houses thousands of ancient Jewish books. Old Cairo is also where the first mosque in Egypt, Amr ibn al-As Mosque, was built in 642, and is home to a number of Coptic churches, most notably the so-called Hanging Church.

The Ashkenazi Synagogue in Ataba, built in 1887, is in need of complete maintenance in addition to renovation work of its floors and walls.

Despite their small number, members of the Jewish community in Egypt  (actually, the  Cairo community - ed)— which is down to six individuals — have always cared for and attended to the Jewish antiquities in Egypt.

On March 26, Magda Haroun, the president of Egypt's Jewish community, said in an interview with the privately owned Al-Youm Al-Sabeh newspaper that she had received several promises from Egyptian officials who are responsible for documenting and repairing buildings of Jewish origin, but none of these promises were actually fulfilled.

Therefore, Haroun said, she called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to help preserve this cultural heritage, especially after water leaked through the walls of some synagogues.

“I don’t want to place on him [Sisi] a burden greater than what he can bear. He is a true human being who bears a great responsibility. Yet I had to look for a higher authority to preserve this great heritage,” Haroun said.

Sisi indeed may have responded to Haroun’s message, as the Ministry of Antiquities announced June 11 that it was forming a special committee to take stock of Jewish antiquities in synagogues and register them in the ministry’s records. This was the first time that the Ministry of Antiquities has offered to register the artifacts, after many years of neglect.

Ahmad Abd al-Majid Hammad, a member of the committee assigned to register the artifacts, said 60 pieces have been registered to date at the Moussa al-Dar'I synagogue, which was built in 1925. The antiquities included 32 boxes containing Torah scrolls, in addition to a few curtains that display drawings, decorations and the Star of David. Moreover, the antiquities included a metal frame and wooden artifacts.

Helmy, who heads the registration committee, told Al-Monitor that the ministry looks equally at Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities. Helmy said he does not allow any discrimination against any of these monuments, and that he often reminds antiquities students of this.

“The best proof that the Ministry of Antiquities cares about the Jewish heritage is that we have finished [in 2010] repairing the Maimonides synagogue in Jamaliyyah Street in midtown Cairo at a total cost of 8.5 million Egyptian pounds [roughly $950,000]. We have restored the synagogue’s entrances, floors and all the antiquities inside it. For the first time, the synagogue has been placed on the list of tourist attractions in Egypt,” he said.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Tunisia passes stealth expropriation law

A new Tunisian law permitting the state to expropriate property 'for the public good' is expected to impact on absent Jewish owners and their heirs.

Pierre-Olivier Aribaud
A French property lawyer based in Sousse contends that the law was 'sneaked' through parliament at the height of summer in order to attract minimum attention. It is usual for a French version of the text to appear alongside  the Arabic, but on this occasion, Pierre-Olivier Aribaud writes in his Times of Israel blog, the law, passed on 11 July 2016, was published only in Arabic.

Aribaud argues that  such a law would be justified where a crumbling property presented a physical risk. If the expropriated property were to be re-sold to a developer - that would be a different matter.

Sousse seafront
The law stipulates that the owner be notified at the address of the property concerned. In 80 percent of cases, the owner has not lived at the address for years, and is likely to have been born between 1910 and 1930. He is either dead or very old. The chances of his heirs receiving notice of the expropriation are minimal. If they now live in France, they cannot rely on the French authorities for support. Aribaud urges Jews to exert pressure for change on the French government and parliament.

Unlike Iraq, Egypt and Libya, Tunisia did not nationalise Jewish property. But abandoned homes have often been taken over by squatters or fallen into the hands of greedy developers abetted by crooked lawyers who falsify deeds. There is often no way to recover property and assets except by going to law - a tortuous and seemingly interminable process.

Aribaud has represented hundreds of clients: some  are Italians and Maltese who left their property when they departed Tunisia. But his regular blogs in the Times of Israel suggest that Tunisian Jews form an important slice of his clientele.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Israel to grant research prize on Jews from Arab lands

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel announced on Sunday the launching of an annual NIS 150,000 prize for research into the history of Jews in Arab lands and Iran. The Jerusalem Post reports (with thanks: Lily): 

Gila Gamliel: half Yemenite, half-Libyan

Gamliel, whose father is from Yemen and whose mother was born in Libya, said the prize will contribute to promoting the history of the Jews in Arab lands that has for too long been pushed to the side of the Zionist conversation.

“The story of the Jewish people is massive and has many layers, and the entire Israeli public should be exposed to it,” she said. “Preserving our heritage is our national expertise and the secret of our survival as a people.”

Gamliel thanked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being responsive and understanding that “it is our responsibility to foster an understanding of our complete national heritage – the story of the East [Sephardi Jewry], and the story of the West [Ashkenazi Jewry].”

Netanyahu said providing support for researching the history of the Jews of the Arab countries and Iran is an important step, and one needed to “fill in the gaps.” He said the decision has “important implications” both for Israeli society and academia.

The prize will be bestowed annually on November 30, the day which – under a 2014 law – will be marked each year as the national day of commemoration for the 850,000 Jewish refugees displaced from Iran and Arab countries in the 20th century.

This day was selected because it immediately follows November 29, when the UN adopted the partition plan in 1947 and many Jews in Arab countries felt the need to flee their home countries.

In addition, Gamliel’s ministry will allocate an additional NIS 100,000 for 150 medals to be bestowed on people and organizations who have contributed to furthering an understanding of the heritage of Jews from the Arab countries and Iran, and who have worked to ensure that their rights to compensation as refugees will be recognized.

Read article in full