Friday, June 30, 2017

Tunisians urge boycott of 'Zionist' Boujenah

Tunisians are calling to boycott the celebrated comic Michel Boujenah, who is due to appear on 19 July at the Carthage Festival.

Michel Boujenah: born in Tunis

In an open letter addressed to the minister of culture and festival director, the boycotters, from the Tunisian branch of the BDS movement,  claim that Boujenah, who was born in Tunisia but lives in France, is not only a proud Zionist but also considers himself part of the 'Israeli people'.

The signatories call on the Tunisian government to assume its responsibilities vis-a-vis 'normalisation' and reaffirm the country's historical, unconditional support for the Palestinian people.

Tunisian social media surfers are evenly divided on the issue. Hundreds think that his apearance on the stage at Carthage should be cancelled. Others are surprised at the fierce reaction against Michel Boujenah. Yamina Thabet of the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities (ATSM) denounced the campaign against the comic as 'bullying behaviour' and 'antisemitic'.

Boujenah is scheduled to perform in Israel on 25 July.

Enrico Macias, the pro-Israel Algerian born singer, cancelled several planned visits to his country of birth after fierce popular protests.  

Read article in full (French)

Using language to advance politics (updated)

The anti-Zionist academic Ella Shohat, who is no expert in this field, is politicising the study of linguistics by denying the existence of separate 'Judeo-Arabic' languages. To her they are all Arabic, with minor variations. Lyn Julius blogs in The Times of Israel following Shohat's lecture at SOAS in London:
Ella Shohat: advancing an agenda

'A language is a dialect with an army and navy’.

How best do you delegitimise a nation whose existence you despise?
The answer, according to Ella Shohat, an academic from New York University, is to downgrade a language to a dialect.

Ella Shohat is the high priestess of ‘Mizrahi anti-Zionism’. In London recently to give a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies, she has made her name by applying the theories propagated by the Palestinian author of ‘Orientalism,‘ Edward Said, to Jews from Arab lands. She is best known for inventing the expression ‘Arab Jew’ to denote a creature torn from its natural habitat by Zionism – itself deemed an extension of western colonialism. Thus Jewish nationalism stands accused of destroying what she terms ‘Arab-Jewish culture’.

To follow Ella’s logic, an ‘Arab Jew’ does not speak a separate Jewish language called Judeo-Arabic: he or she speaks Arabic, albeit with minor variations. In order to reinforce her argument she downplays these differences. The only real distinction, according to her, is that Judeo-Arabic is written in the characters of ‘liturgical’ Hebrew.

It is possible to argue that a speaker of Judeo-Arabic uses enough Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, Persian and English terms, as well as idiosyncratic syntax and proverbs, to make himself unintelligible to a regular Arabic speaker. And then there is the Jewish accent, which would not only make a Jew a figure of fun to the Muslim listener, but instantly give his ethnicity away.

In her eagerness to assimilate the Jewish dialects to ‘regular Arabic’, Ella is forced to minimise the differences in the ‘regular’ Arabic spoken across the Arab world.  From a linguistic standpoint, it is often said that the various spoken varieties of Arabic differ from each other about as much as French differs from other Romance languages. Moroccan Arabic is as incomprehensible to Arabs from the Middle East as French is incomprehensible to Spanish or Italian speakers ( but relatively easily learned by them). It is even suggested that the spoken varieties of Arabic may linguistically be considered separate languages.

In Israel,  the last generation of Jews who were born in Arab lands are dying off and their children and grandchildren have all shifted to speaking Hebrew. You would have thought that Ella, who deplores the ‘suppression’ of Arabic in Israel’s early years because it was the ‘language of the enemy’ –  would welcome the revival of interest in, not just Ladino or Yiddish, but Judeo-Arabic ( eg Iraqi-Jewish or Moroccan-Jewish). A Facebook page called ‘preserving the Iraqi-Jewish language’ has over 30, 000 followers.

But no. To Ella,  there is no need to consider Iraqi-Jewish endangered or to preserve what is still living and spoken by the non-Jewish neighbours. Emphasising the ‘Jewish’ character of these dialects becomes a distasteful political act.  Not only – as the controversial academic Shlomo Sand claims –  has a separate Jewish people been invented, Israel has invented ‘Jewish languages’.

But it is Ella who is manipulating language to advance an agenda. As the saying goes,’ dialect is just politics.’ And this is the abysmal level to which the teaching of Middle Eastern studies in our universities has sunk today.

Read article in full 

Postscript: during her lecture Ella Shohat quoted from Naim Kattan's book Farewell Babylon to illustrate an episode when Jews and Muslims began speaking the same Jewish dialect together, indicating that there was no difference between them. In actual fact, Shohat was misquoting the passage (p27 in Adieu Babylone) : the Jews did the speaking and the Muslims listened with respect.
'At the end of the evening, we'd won. We were wearing our own clothing...we were not assimilated by force to a collectivity with vague contours. We were not poured  into a mould.. the masks had fallen. We were there in our luminous and fragile difference. And it was neither a sign of humiliation nor a symbol of ridicule...Our traits were emerging from the shadows and their outlines discernible. They were unique. Our faces were uncovered for all to see and recognise.'

Not only did Ms Shohat misquote Naim Kattan, but he wrote the complete opposite to what she claimed.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Interfaither: Why do Moroccans treat Jews so well?

There is something disturbing about Yael Eckstein's grovelling paen of praise for Morocco in The Times of Israel. Here is a country whose Jewish population is one percent of what it was in 1948. Yet for interfaither Eckstein, it is a shining example of Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisting in mutual respect! Why do you treat Jews so well? she keeps asking,  ignoring the fact that Jews have been threatened by pogromsmob violence and forced conversions and have abandoned their homes and businesses at times of tension.  Eckstein answers her own question: it is because of the king. The Jews - abetted by starry-eyed interfaithers -  have been instrumentalised as part of Moroccan foreign policy.   The restoration of synagogues and cemeteries is a small price to pay for US support of Morocco. But if the king goes, so do the Jews. What value is coexistence if it is only skin deep ? (With thanks: Boruch, Daniel, Lily, Imre). 

It just didn’t make sense. It seemed too good to be true. But as I quickly learned, it was just another day in mystical Morocco, a country that defies norms, defines tolerance and is home to a dwindling population of 2,500 Jews. Though Morocco is a Muslim country, the bellboy at my hotel told me with a loving smile, Jews were actually in Morocco 600 years before Muslims—when they were sent out of Jerusalem following the destruction of the First Temple. “This is your home,” the bellboy said, while pointing to a picture on the wall of the Atlas Mountains. “Your people were here before mine.”

 This respectful attitude was the prevailing sentiment in my communications with every Muslim I met throughout my stay during the end of Ramadan. Moroccans are genuine in their respect for the Jewish people, love for Moroccan Jews, and awe for the holy rabbis who walked their streets and are buried in the Jewish cemetery. I nearly cried when I saw how well the locals preserve the Jewish cemetery. “Why do you treat the Jews so well?” I asked a Muslim teenager who works for an organization called Mimouna, whose members are Muslim youths passionate about spreading Jewish history. Mimouna made history by starting a Jewish studies program at a Moroccan Arab university, along with the Arab world’s only Holocaust education program.

“Why wouldn’t we treat them well?” he responded. Indeed, it is illogical for local Muslims to suddenly turn on native Jews who have lived in their country for thousands of years. But we live in an illogical world. Morocco is one of the few places where Christians, Muslims and Jews coexist in peace and mutual respect. Why? One night I attended a Ramadan fast-breaking event—organized by the inspiring local Chabad rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue. Dozens of Jews and Muslims gathered to celebrate. King Mohammed VI’s representative for the entire Marrakesh region also attended. He sent blessings from the king to the Jewish community and closed his eyes with intent—and answered “amen”—when the Chabad rabbi said the traditional Jewish prayer for kings. Why are Jews in Morocco treated so well?
Yael Eckstein

Simply put, it’s because of the king. During World War II, when the Nazis asked the king of Morocco to put together a list of Jews in his country, he boldly answered, “We don’t have Jews, we have Moroccans,” and refused to comply (this is debatable - ed). Today’s king, Mohammed VI, is the grandson of King Mohammed V, who protected his country’s 265,000 Jews. Like his grandfather, Mohammed VI believes Jews are just as Moroccan—and just as important—as Muslims, Christians and everyone else. If anyone in Morocco messes with Jews, they are messing with the king.

 Many project that in a decade, there won’t be any Jews left in Morocco. Most of the Moroccan grandmothers who read Psalms all day have moved to Israel. Moroccan Jewish youths have largely moved abroad. The remaining Jews are the gems of ancient times.

What legacy do Jews want to leave in Morocco? What pillars do Jews want to set up in Morocco that will carry on long after there are no Jews left? After my four-day journey representing Christian and Jewish supporters of The Fellowship, I deeply understand why it’s so important that our organization partnered with Chabad and Mimouna to distribute thousands of food parcels from the country’s ancient synagogues to local Muslims for Ramadan.

 It is clear to me why we must set up a Jewish information center in central Marrakesh and make sure the Jewish cemetery will keep being preserved by local Muslims. I realize how critical it is that we also continue to distribute food parcels to poor Jews on a monthly basis, so they aren’t neglected or looked at as beggars, but rather serve as a shining example of the fact that all Jews, Christians and Muslims are responsible to look out for one another.

In a country that lives on ancient spiritual stories of holy men and women who once walked its streets, this is our final opportunity to leave an eternal legacy on behalf of the millions of Moroccan Jews who came before us. What legacy should we leave? That the Jewish people came in peace, left in peace and were only known for peace. This is what it means to live in the vision of God.

Read article in full

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Tunisian wartime story with a happy ending

Abridged from an article in two parts on Harissa  (French)

 Sheikh Roubine was a leader of the Judenrat (Jewish leadership council) during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia between 1942-3. He would sign attestations on behalf of Jews who were forced to work in the Nazi labour camps (presumably so that they were later eligible for reparations). When he was accused of treason by his predecessor, however, the case was adjudicated by the Tunisian courts who cleared Roubine of any wrongdoing. A relative, Abraham Bar-Shay (Benattia), tells this curious story.

"We called him Baba Roubine. The friends of the family called him Sheikh Roubine. His whole demeanour invited respect. He held a beautiful baquita (cane) which he did not need for walking. The end of the cane only touched the ground after he had taken four steps. After the first two steps, he pointed the end of the cane at a 45-degree angle in front of him. It was only after two other steps that he pointed it towards the ground. When I was a teenager, I tried to imitate his gait.

He was not rich but comfortable. When my nuclear family lived in a single room, with several other families, around a large yard, he had a 'large' house with three bedrooms and a courtyard. He lived in a house twice the size of that of the great Rabbi Haim Houry. I had not forgotten these little details, even after we had moved to the capital in late 1947.

Baba Roubine ran a transport company between Gabes and Tunis ( a distance of 450 km) and often travelled with the goods he shipped between the two cities. When he was in Tunis, he came to see us and taste the food my mother was preparing for him. He often  teased her, that she cooked almost as well as Aunt Bhila, his wife.

Knowing our economic situation, he took advantage of each visit to bring with him all the provisions that we lacked - enough to last several days. He returned towards noon with his bottle of red wine for a family meal.

For us it was a festive and memorable day - until the next visit. These meals strengthened the ties we had with Baba Roubine more than with the other members of the family.

The Sheikh Roubine family made its Aliya in 1964, seven years after ours. We were already well established in Israel. We settled in southern Israel, in Kiryat Gat, a new immigrant city and administrative center for the Moshavim of the region.

The immigration authorities knew nothing of the services he had rendered to the community in the old country. This octogenarian was no more than the shadow of his former self in my memory, but he still kept his dignity as a sheikh and his "chechia" (Tunisian red hat) always had the long plume of black threads that fell on his shoulder.

In Israel he continued until the end of his life what he had done in Tunisia : to sign attestations for all Jews who had been sent to work in the Nazi camps of Gabes. 

It was only since my arrival in Israel, that I learned from my cousin Nissim (six years my senior)  that Sheikh Roubine (his uncle) was accused of having betrayed his community during the Nazi occupation of Gabes. The case was brought before the courts in Tunis, who acquitted the sheikh of all the accusations. He could not show me any document on this chapter in the history of our family.

Nearly a year ago, I received a mail from a Tunisian scholar, Professor Mohsen Hamli, who asked me for details about Sheikh Roubine Ben-Attia. He was researching the Jewish Sheikhs in Tunisia during the Nazi occupation and I owe him thanks for his service to my 'tribe' and the history of our community.

After a few months I received the documents (one is presented here). There was  urgent need to make these documents public, here, and then pass them on to the archives of Yad Vashem.

The Sheikh's role was, among other things, to represent the Jewish community before the local authorities and to deal with the rights and duties of individuals and the community as a whole.

In the 1930s, Houati Haddad  served as a sheikh of the Jews of Gabes. His service was not good enough for the notables of the city (judgment was passed by the Governor) who dismissed him and appointed Baba Roubine in his place. It was just before the invasion of Tunisia by Rommel's Afrikakorps and their retreat from Libya. Gabes was a city located not far from the Libyan border and a strategic point. There was a French military base with an airport in operation.

Sheikh Roubine and Chief Rabbi Haim Houry, who were in fact neighbors, were charged with fulfilling the most abject tasks the Nazis had inflicted on the Jews of Gabes, from the seizure of personal wealth (jewellery and bank accounts) to the forced recruitment of Jewish workers in the Nazi camps.

I understood that the Nazis had forced Baba Roubine to fulfill the role of the Judenrat of the community of Gabes. A complaint of treason had been filed against him, by the person who had fulfilled his role before the Nazi invasion. The Tunis court ruled that the complaint was a blow against Roubine and acquitted him of any suspicion.

With these documents I was able to trace the history of the time, personalities and the happy ending for Baba Roubine.

After the victory of the Allies and the departure of the Nazis from Tunisia, a group was organized, probably under the instigation of Mr. Houati Haddad, and filed a complaint of five accusations against Sheikh Roubine. These indictments "were" supposedly "based on investigations and testimonies of the notables of the community."

Baba Roubine in local costume 

The governor, who subsequently investigated the case, discovered that the facts cited were null and void, congratulated Roubine on his moral fibre and granted Houati Haddad the compliment of being "a man of questionable morality and lack of scruple."

Our story had a happy ending, which even Shakespeare would have judged incredible for "Romeo and Juliet". Verona is not Gabes and Kippur returns every autumn to erase the grudges of yesterday's generations. Despite the controversies and tense relations between the sheikhs Roubine and Houati, the grand-daughter of the first married the youngest son of the second. They lived 50 years together, until the husband's death a few months ago.


 Below: letter by French Captain Le Bourhis vouching for Baba Roubine's good character.
Cross-posted at Clash of Cultures, Jerusalem Post

Saved by a liqor glass, betrayed by friends

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How I, a Libyan antisemite, became a Jew

 Ed Elhaderi went from pinning up posters of Yasser Arafat in his native Libya in  the 1970s, to marrying a Jew and converting to Judaism. Jewish Journal charts his remarkable spiritual journey (With thanks: JIMENA) :

Ed and Barbara Elhaderi (far right) at their son's Barmitzvah

That hot afternoon seems like yesterday, but it was 50 years ago this month. I was 15 and living in Sabha, a small city in the Sahara Desert of southern Libya. An older cousin told me about the reports on Cairo Radio about the dire situation facing the Egyptian army.
“We’ve got to do something,” he said.
I didn’t fully understand the politics of what would come to be known as the Six-Day War, but I knew that what was happening was bad for us as Arabs and Muslims. All around me were other teenagers absorbing the tense mood and looking to vent their rage at the Jews. I followed the crowd to the only Western-style establishment nearby, a bar. It was early afternoon and the place hadn’t opened yet. A few older boys broke down the door, and a crowd stormed in, breaking bottles and dumping alcohol onto the street outside.
Standing in a crowd, I joined the chants: “Death to the Jews!” “Drive the Jews into the sea!”
The truth is that I had never actually met a Jew. I grew up in a small nomadic village of 20 families, a collection of mud huts with palm-frond roofs that wouldn’t have looked much different 2,000 years earlier. Health care was so primitive that by the time I was a young boy, my parents had lost three children to illness.
Sunni Islam was the only way of life I knew. My preschool was in a mosque, where an imam taught us to read and write by drilling us with verses from the Quran. After that, our education was more secular — I went to mosque, going through the motions, but I was hardly devout. I never was exposed to any alternatives or avenues to question the life we had.
Our textbooks didn’t mention Israel, and people used the word Yahudi, Jew, only as an insult. The Jews had rejected the Prophet Muhammad, so they were considered to be condemned. The only Jews I saw were in Egyptian movies, in which they were portrayed as menacing, monstrous characters — hunched over and speaking with high-pitched nasal accents.
I did know Palestinian Arabs. My elementary school had once hired a young Palestinian as a teacher. Because he was Palestinian, the community welcomed him warmly and supported him generously.

Read article in full

Monday, June 26, 2017

Forgotten revolt against Rome by Alexandria's Jews

Contrary to popular belief,  the Jews of Hellenised Alexandria were loyal to their people and in their 2nd century rebellion against Rome, suffered thousands killed and the destruction of the Great Synagogue in Alexandria. Eli Kavon explains in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Imre):

 Ancient Alexandria (Jewish
The caricature of the civil war that was a major component of the events that we celebrate on Hanukka is one of loyal, Jewish, Torah-true guerrillas fighting against Hellenized Jews who were all turncoats who rejected Judaism. It is time to discard this portrait of Hellenized Jews as all wrestlers in the Greek gymnasium who underwent surgery to reverse their circumcision.

In fact, one of the reasons Judah Maccabee succeeded in liberating Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple was the support he received from moderate Hellenized Jews who were acculturated and influenced by Greek philosophy and culture but nevertheless were loyal Jews who rejected the extreme edicts and worldview of Seleucid King Antiochus IV.

The reality of the ancient world is that of millions of Jews living in the Hellenistic Mediterranean and Middle East who made significant contributions to Jewish life and thought, despite knowing no Hebrew and having to read the Hebrew Bible in the Greek Septuagint. These Hellenized Jews, like many Jews throughout our history, were highly acculturated but did not assimilate and forfeit their Jewish identity and faith.

The greatest Jewish community in the ancient Hellenistic Diaspora was in Alexandria. In the Egyptian port city founded by Alexander the Great during his conquests of the known world in the fourth century BCE, 250,000 Jews were a significant part of the population by the Roman period in the 1st century CE. First under the rule of the Greek Ptolemies, then under Roman domination, Jews occupied professions from bankers to artisans. The Jewish intellectual elite adopted the genres of Greek literature – the epic poem, drama, the writing of history, the penning of the novella and philosophy – always writing in Greek but focusing on biblical and Jewish themes. In this highly acculturated environment, Jews did not assimilate but rather asserted their identity, especially when faced by the hatred of the Greeks when Rome ruled Alexandria. This animus would later lead to rebellion.

The greatest figure to emerge from the elite of the Jews of Alexandria was philosopher and political activist Philo (c. 25-c. 50 CE). The scion of a wealthy banking family with ties to the monarchy in Judea, Philo read the Torah as both law and philosophy. While he did read the Torah from a literal standpoint and was a pious Jew, Philo added a layer of philosophical allegory on to the text that understood anew the meaning of the text. He reconciled the Torah with the philosophy of Plato. Philo was first great Jewish philosopher and, although he is a harbinger of Saadia Gaon and Maimonides, his writings – in Greek – were embraced by a Church that skewed Philo by focusing solely on his use of allegory. Philo never meant for Jews to abandon the Torah and ritual; he merely took the ideas of the day and recalibrated them for Judaism.

Another great Hellenized Jew writing in Greek was Josephus (37- c. 100 CE). He composed his important works in Rome but had strong connections to the Jewish community in Alexandria. His origins were in Judea and his surrender to Rome while leading the Great Revolt in the Galilee was not simply the act of a turncoat.

In his The Jewish War, Josephus described the 66-70 revolt against Rome using the tools of Greek historiography, taking that insurrection seriously though he often is an apologist for the Roman overlords. In his later work, Jewish Antiquities, Josephus makes Judaism and Jews the heirs of a great civilization and attempts to explain the Jews to pagans by painting a portrait of Judaism as a philosophy. Finally, he penned polemics against enemies of the Jews. Apion, a scholar of Homer, was a Greek in Alexandria who accused the Jews of ritual sacrifice and argued that the ancient Israelites were ejected from Egypt because they were lepers. These libels that were believed by pagans were challenged by Josephus who, although he abandoned the fight against Rome and had as patrons the Flavian emperors, still was proud of his Jewish identity and Jewish heritage. Not exactly a Hellenized traitor.

Yet, the greatest proof that the Hellenized Jews of the Mediterranean and the Middle East were loyal Jews was the rebellion against Rome staged by the Jews against the Emperor Trajan in 115-117 CE, the Kitos War. Little is known of this revolt. There was no Josephus to record the conflict. And there were no letters like those discovered by Israeli military hero, statesman and archeologist Yigael Yadin that shed light on the Bar-Kochba Rebellion 60 years after the first failed revolt. There is a paucity of sources on the Jewish revolt against Trajan and this fight against Rome is overshadowed by the earlier and later revolts in the Land of Israel. While this conflict began in Babylonia with Jews participating in rebellion against Rome’s ambitions in the east, revolt spread to Jews living in the Greek-speaking world, including in Alexandria.

Tensions between Greek and Jew in the Egyptian port city exploded into war and the Roman overlords punished the Jews. The Great Synagogue of Alexandria was destroyed by the Romans and thousands of Jews were killed in the conflict. Jewish memory recounts the devastation of the destruction of the Jews of Alexandria by describing a Mediterranean that turned red with the blood of the Jewish victims. It was a bitter battle that ended the glory and vitality of Jewish life in Alexandria.

Read article in full

Sunday, June 25, 2017

'Minority status' has not benefited Indian Jews

A year after India passed a law giving minorities enhanced status, nothing much has changed for the 5,000 Jews of India. The Hindustan Times reports: 
Young Jews visiting Israel from India do a Bollywood flashdance in Jerusalem

Exactly a year ago on June 24 , the Jews of Maharashtra embraced the minority status hoping to find wider recognition in the society with better opportunities. While the provision has successfully made its way to the official records, not much has changed in the lives of the people from the quaint community.
As per the census of 2011, there are 4,650 Indian Jews in India with Maharashtra still holding 53% of it with 2,466 Jews. In Pune, which houses two prominent synagogues (building where Jews meet for religious worship), the Ohel David Synagogue and the Succath Shelomo Synagogue, their numbers dwindle to less than 200.

Dr Irene Judah, who has recently released her book - 'Evolution of the Bene Israels and their Synagogues in the Konkan' - expressed, “A minority status like this affects every section of the community from the most basic level, recognition of our religious holidays being one of them. The fact that we don’t even get optional leaves on the days of our religious festivals is not very pleasing. We have to attend them by using casual leaves, which we could have preserved and used in case of an urgency. This, especially, when other religions in the country are not devoid of that privilege is disheartening.” 

She further adds how the thought of this provision in India, is not a new concept, and existed some decades ago, rather successfully. “It’s surprising now because in the olden days till the 60s almost, optional holidays on Jewish festivals were given. I don’t know why it all stopped,” Irene said.

While it has been a year since Maharashtra bestowed this status to the Jew community, West Bengal with only a Jewish population of 43, had presented the minority status to them almost a decade ago.

Read article in full

Friday, June 23, 2017

Why Judaism is reverting to the Middle East

When the 12th century rabbi Benjamin of Tudela wrote The Book of Travels, over 80 percent of Jews lived in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  Judaism's sojourn in Europe will prove to be only a twinkling of an eye in the grand sweep of history, argues Ben Judah in the Jewish Chronicle.

Ben Judah: in Judaism what was will be
Reading The Book of Travels one is left with one conclusion. Sephardic and Mizrahi Judaism, rather than a curio, is in the greatest sweep of Jewish history the mainstream. Ashkenazi Judaism was the flickering. Next to non-existent in the early middle ages, ballooning suddenly, only to almost vanish from Europe in less than five centuries.

None were more aware of this than the Rabbis, when the 15th century Rabbi Mosses Isserles ruled his commentary on the Shulhan Arukh he was enshrining in Krakow specific distinct customs and traditions, what he saw as a branch, not the trunk of Judaism. These rulings – as if for an offshoot – came to define the Ashkenazi rite.

Piecing through texts and cemeteries, historians have estimated the historical Jewish population. As Benjamin travelled in the 12th century over 80 percent of Jews lived in Mediterranean and the Middle East – scholars estimate less than 12 percent were living in Europe. Until the 16th century, after the expulsion from Spain, the majority of Jews lived in Islamic lands – they were Mizrahi or Sephardi.

The history we know only too well meant the centuries of a Judaism centered in Europe are historically brief. In 1880 nearly 90 per cent of Jews were Europeans. In 1939 about 57 per cent were. Come 1960, still, some 27 per cent of Jews lived in Europe. Today barely 10 per cent of Jews are European. Jews in Europe have fallen from 2m in 1991 to less than 1.4m today.

We remember why European Judaism collapsed. But why did it boom? Demographic historians explain that Europe entered “a demographic transition” centuries before the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The very basics of sanitation came to the shtetl centuries earlier: clumsy plumbing, rudimentary medicine and basic sanitation – allowed the Ashkenazi mortality rate to fall whilst the fertility rate stayed high.

Historically this lucky plumbing was only to be a flash in the pan. Judaism is now slowly returning to what it always was: a primarily Middle Eastern phenomenon that Benjamin would have recognized better than the shtetl. Today roughly 45 per cent of the world’s Jews in Israel (which has overtaken the United States, where some 40 per cent live). With the Israeli Jewish population booming, with an average of three children per family, and the US Jewish population ageing and declining the majority of the world’s Jews will again be Middle Eastern by 2050.

In Judaism, what was will be, and Europe was but a twinkling of an eye.

Read article in full

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

'Mizrahi' is an artificial construct of the 1970s (updated)

In response to Norman Berdichevsky's attempt to clarify the confusion about the difference between Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, Point of No Return commenter Sylvia puts forward her explanation:
I'll try to address that question while at the same time explain how we call ourselves as well as show that there is much in common between Asians and Sephardim.
Family of Iraqi Jews. Edot Ha'Mizrah?

ASHKENAZIM Jews from Germany (Ashkenaz) or whose religious centers were in Germany. Also known as Jews of the North in the Middle ages.

EDOT HAMIZRAH (The communities of the East) Jews of the Middle East and the areas formerly dependent of the Babylonian Geonate as religious center before that center moved to North Africa (Kairouan). This includes communities of the Middle East and Asia as far East as the Indus as far North as Samarkand including Egypt, Lebanon Iraq, Iran, etc. It is in the plural because they lived among different peoples with different languages, laws and customs. Not all knew Judeo-Arabic which has become by the 8th century the language of communication of the Gaon and many go by different names.

HA'EADAH HA MA'ARAVIT (The Maghreban community or Western Community) of North Africa including Morocco Algeria Tunisia and Western Libya.
It is in the singular because they lived among one single people (the Berbers) who dwelt from Morocco to Egypt and ruled in parts of Spain for a while. Yet the religious rulings came from Babylonia just like for all the other communities of the East, people some of the youth went to study in those academies (for example Dunash Ibn Labrat, born in Fez) until the center of learning passed to Kairouan(today Tunisia) and from there to Fez with the Rif (Rabbi isaac El Fassi) then to Spain where the Rif founded the Academy of Lucena (where Maimonides fathers has studied)

SEPHARAD From Hesperia (the West), as the Romans used to call Spain. That is where the two currents of Sephardi religious philosophy-the mystic and the rational met and developed. They studied the Babylonian Talmud and worshipped in Babylonian synagogues (The synagogue institution was founded by the leadership in Babylon).

MIZRAHIM (ORIENTALS). This is an artificial construct that was imposed by a Knesset education committee in the mid 1970s, without our consent and without us being consulted, without even our knowledge. It was done mostly for campaign purposes, but there were many other reasons. Contrary to what the author of the article believes, we North African Jews have never accepted the name Mizrahi, which is nothing more than an unrelated geographic designation and without a history or heritage.

The term "Mizrahi heritage", purposedly in the singular yet meant to include the heritage of the various Jewish communities of the East, North Africa and the dispersed Sephardim, was an artificial construct imposed on March 21, 1976 by the Culture and Education Committee of the 8th Knesset.

What was billed as a Seminar or Study day on Jews from Muslim countries following calls for cultural pluralism turned out to be an ambush.

Despite fierce opposition to the absurd wording on the part of academics, the committee stood its ground and the formula passed as worded and academic Israel obeyed. The subtitle of the journal Peamim of the Ben Zvi Institute, for example was "Studies in the Cultural Heritage of Oriental Jewry".

Yet historians were in a bind:how does one teach and write about the heritage without mentioning the heirs?
There was much criticism from abroad as well and there were those who compared the new orders to the institution of Black Studies in the United States. All this turmoil was confined to the academic community and took place over the head of the general population.

Historian Shaul Shaked thus expressed the complexity of the dilemma:
"Even if we ignore the public dimension of the issue as well as the external pressure on the universities and research institutes to give voice to the human cultural and Jewish equality of the "Oriental" half of the Israeli people, introspective debate is still necessary."

The late Historian Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson was less forgiving:
"The topic presented to us today, as it is worded, is based on the assumption that the Jews of the East had a common background. This is not true. This was not true in the past, this is not true in the present.[...]
Anyone speaking of "Oriental Jewish Heritage" in the singular as of one concrete bloc is committing an injustice toward the many heritages and their living differences, and by setting them in the splint of something artificial, prevents them from contributing all they can contribute to their sons and to the global national culture.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Jews who are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi

 There is still much confusion about the difference between Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. Norman Berdichevsky provides some useful definitions in Heritage Florida Jewish News. (With thanks: Michelle)

Any serious student of Jewish history and tradition knows that the only authentic Sephardim are the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal. They went on to settle in Western Europe including England, Holland, Denmark, North Western Germany, colonial America, the Caribbean and Brazil as well as in lands dominated by Islam, throughout North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans and across the Levant. There are thus many Sephardi Jews who have always lived in Europe and many Jewish communities around the world composed of both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, who lived together and intermarried, notably in Italy, Egypt, Syria and Bulgaria, where later Ashkenazi immigrants arrived and were welcome by Sephardi residents. This has also been true in the Caribbean, South America and modern Israel.

 Kurdish Jews being airlifted to Israel

Just as America's Afro-American population has gone through several self-designations indicating a search for their authentic identity ranging from Black to Colored to Negro and then Afro-American and for some, back to Black (originally a term of disparagement used by whites), Israel's Jews of Afro-Asian origin have shifted from Sephardi to Mizrachi (Oriental). For religious purposes, "Sephardi" describes the nusach ("litugical tradition") used by most non-Ashkenazi Jews in the Siddur (prayer book).

In reality, there are also many Jews who are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. These include the Jews of Ethiopia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, the Caucasus region (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia), all of whom are recognized as being of Afro-Asian origin yet have nothing to do with the original Sephardim. They are the descendants of the Jews who fled into exile following the Assyrian, Babylonian and Roman conquests of ancient Israel. No doubt, they were later joined by numerous converts who were attracted to the high moral and ethical principles that distinguished Judaism in ancient times from pagan and polytheistic religions.

There is indeed a serious social and geo-cultural cleavage in Israel's diverse Jewish population groups, precisely because all the four divisions overlap to a considerable degree. Most of the Jews from Africa and Asia arrived in Israel after 1948 and being relative newcomers had to adjust to difficult conditions. Most of them arrived destitute and unlike many of the Ashkenazim never received any reparations for their confiscated property.

They still tend to have larger families and as a rule are much more religiously observant than the Ashkenazim who established the secular norms and institutions of the Zionist movement and later of the State of Israel. It is only human nature that the new arrivals from Asia and Africa resented the more established veteran European settlers and those new immigrants from Europe who immediately found more personal connections and sympathy with the veteran Ashkenazi settlers through a common knowledge of Yiddish and shared political and social backgrounds.

A list of new army recruits will probably reveal names like de Leon, Toledano, Castro, Franco, Mizrahi, Dayan, Gabbai, Abulafia, Kimhi, Shar'abi, Sassoon, Azulay, Kadouri, Marziano, Ohana, Aflalo and Hasson, as often or more than Schwartz, Goldberg, Wolf, Guttmann, Rabinowitz, Berdichevsky, Kaplan or Finkelstein. So how then can they then be one people? They are, because history, traditions and their faith (whether they are orthodox observant or secular) have instilled in them the idea of sharing a common peoplehood.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

1967: how Spain helped free Jews in Egypt

On 21 June 1967, with the Arab world still smarting from their stunning defeat in the Six Day War, the Spanish government undertook a secret operation to free hundreds of Jews from Egyptian prisons.  The Forward tells this hitherto untold story:

At the outbreak of the Six Day War, Egypt arrested hundreds of Jews – “at least one from each family, in order to frighten the whole minority population,” Angel Sagaz, the Spanish Ambassador to Egypt, would later write. Within a week, as many as 800 Egyptian Jews (the figure usually quoted is 400 - ed) — a full 20% of Egypt’s Jewish population — had been rounded up. Many were transferred to the Abu-Zaabal prison, a notoriously brutal military facility outside of Cairo. The prisoners were attacked by an angry Egyptian mob, then beaten by military guards.

 Egyptian Jews when times were good
With Israel still reeling from the war and U.S.-Egypt relations at a nadir, Franco’s Spain stepped in. The Iberian country was uniquely positioned to negotiate with President Gamal Abdel Nasser; Spain had not recognized the State of Israel, and it had good relations with many Arab countries.
Sagaz (who would go on to become the Spanish Ambassador to the United States) led the charge, petitioning the police and even President Nasser himself to release the Jewish prisoners. In meetings with the Egyptian Interior Ministry, he emphasized that Spain had an obligation to protect the descendants of the Sephardic Jews that had been expelled. Sagaz’s argument relied upon a 1924 decree by deposed dictator Primo de Rivera that granted Spanish citizenship to all Sephardic Jews (a similar argument was used during the Holocaust by Angel Sanz-Briz, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing them Spanish passports). If the Egyptian police had no objection to their departure, Sagaz said, Spain would be willing to offer documents and plane tickets to the country’s Jewish population.
Between 1967 and 1970, 615 families – more than 1,500 Jews – fled Egypt with the help of Sagaz and the Spanish government.

The story has gone largely untold for years, partly because Egypt made the prisoners’ silence a condition of their release. 

On June 21, 1967, with the Arab world still smarting from their stunning defeat in the Six Day War, the Spanish government undertook a secret operation to free hundreds of Jews from Egyptian prisons.
At the outbreak of the Six Day War, Egypt arrested hundreds of Jews – “at least one from each family, in order to frighten the whole minority population,” Angel Sagaz, the Spanish Ambassador to Egypt, would later write. Within a week, as many as 800 Egyptian Jews — a full 20% of Egypt’s Jewish population — had been rounded up. Many were transferred to the Abu-Zaabal prison, a notoriously brutal military facility outside of Cairo. The prisoners were attacked by an angry Egyptian mob, then beaten by military guards.
With Israel still reeling from the war and U.S.-Egypt relations at a nadir, Franco’s Spain stepped in. The Iberian country was uniquely positioned to negotiate with President Gamal Abdel Nasser; Spain had not recognized the State of Israel, and it had good relations with many Arab countries.
Sagaz (who would go on to become the Spanish Ambassador to the United States) led the charge, petitioning the police and even President Nasser himself to release the Jewish prisoners. In meetings with the Egyptian Interior Ministry, he emphasized that Spain had an obligation to protect the descendants of the Sephardic Jews that had been expelled. Sagaz’s argument relied upon a 1924 decree by deposed dictator Primo de Rivera that granted Spanish citizenship to all Sephardic Jews (a similar argument was used during the Holocaust by Angel Sanz-Briz, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing them Spanish passports). If the Egyptian police had no objection to their departure, Sagaz said, Spain would be willing to offer documents and plane tickets to the country’s Jewish population.
Between 1967 and 1970, 615 families – more than 1,500 Jews – fled Egypt with the help of Sagaz and the Spanish government.
The story has gone largely untold for years, partly because Egypt made the prisoners’ silence a condition of their release.
Read more:

Monday, June 19, 2017

BBC piece : 'Zionists stole foods from Palestinians'

Travellers to Israel will find it hard to find 'Jewish food', alleges journalist Sarah Treleaven for BBC Travel (article not visible if you are in the UK). That's because the Zionists appropriated 'Palestinian' dishes in order to construct an 'authentic' national narrative! Mizrahim and Sephardim who have been eating these foods for millennia are, not for the first time, invisible in the BBC's world view.

“One of the biggest shocks for many foreign visitors to Israel is the lack of familiar Jewish cuisine. Where are the smoked salmon, bagels and cream cheese at breakfast? What about the delis that define Jewish cuisine from Montreal to Los Angeles? Or the kugel (a casserole made from egg noodles or potato), gefilte fish (an appetizer made from poached fish) and matzoh ball soup served at Jewish tables around the world?

“The early Zionists eagerly adopted Palestinian dishes, such as falafel, hummus, and shawarma, while in recent years Israelis have developed a more diversified palate. Still, ‘Jewish food’ remains scarce. But very few visitors know the reasons behind the dearth of it in Israel: despite the fact that the early settlers were mostly Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, they forsook traditional Jewish food both because of scarcity but also in deliberate service to the formation of a new national narrative.”

“Early adherents to the Zionist project, committed to creating a Jewish state in the territory now known as Israel, sought to abandon vestiges of their past. Just as the European settlers favoured Hebrew over Yiddish and khakis over frock coats and homburgs, they also purposefully chose to eat indigenous foods over Ashkenazi ones.

“The adoption of indigenous food lent the early European implants an air of authenticity. The production of local ingredients – the things that grew well in the desert and along the Mediterranean coastline, and the many dishes adapted from Arab kitchens – became part of the Zionist narrative.”

Edward Solomon has given Point of No Return permission to quote his rebuttal: 

"This article is replete with out-and-out lies and falsehoods. Based on Sarah Treleaven's limited and blinkered view of Jewish history and cuisine, Israeli food should consist of lokshen, bagels, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, kugel, chopped liver and cholent.

The rich and varied panoply of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish foods, such as sabikh, tagine, tbit, kubbah, loubiah, kahi, and countless other dishes of Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Indian, and Iraqi origins documented by writers such as Linda Dangoor and Claudia Roden, cooked and eaten in Israel, are completely glossed over in the interest of presenting a one-sided, politicised narrative that paints the Zionist Jews as Ashkenazic interlopers who stole Palestinian dishes to claim for their own.

This narrative falls down because (a) the majority of Jews in Israel are Sephardi and Mizrahi, not Ashkenazi, and (b) they did not misappropriate Palestinian foods, but brought with them the many and varied cuisines of their homelands, which are enjoyed today throughout the land of Israel.

This article is misleading and shortsighted in its attempt to distort Jewish history and cuisine to suit a distinctly Leftist, anti-Zionist narrative."

BBC Watch

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Houthis demanding return of Torah hold Jew

 A Yemeni Jew has been in jail and 'tortured' for over a year, accused of helping a Jewish family escape the country. He will not be released, say the authorities, until the old Torah scroll the family took with them is returned to Yemen.

The scroll is said to be 700 years old.

The Houthis in Yemen have refused to release the Jew, Levi, until the family, which is now in Israel, agrees to send the Torah scroll back to Yemen.

Manny Dahari's family was on the last Jewish Agency airlift from Yemen to Israel in March 2016. He says that the Torah scroll has been in his family's possession for generations.  

 "Unfortunately, my family will not release it to them or anyone else. It will remain with my family in Israel," he writes in a Facebook post.

On the family's arrival in Israel, young members were photographed reading from the scroll, watched by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Houthis claim that the Torah scroll belongs to the Republic of Yemen.

The fifty Jews still in Yemen have proclaimed their desire to stay there, in spite of the war raging in the country. They live in a government compound in the capital Sana'a. Manny Dahari claims that the Houthis, who are in control of the capital, broke into the compound and seized the remaining Torah scrolls, thus 'preventing the Jews from practising their religion freely.'

"This is just a continuation of the oppression against Jews in the Middle East," he writes. "Close to one million Jews have been forced out of their homes throughout the Middle East. Yet, the international community continues to ignore these atrocities. They have turned a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of Middle Eastern Jews.

"Why are we different than any other refugees? Why is there a double standard when it comes to Jews? 

"I know there is not much we can do from here, and this is definitely not going to free Levi, but at least this will bring some awareness to the way minorities are treated in Arab countries. It's about time they hold them accountable for their crimes against humanity."

Yemen escape plan failed three times

Friday, June 16, 2017

Photos of the Mufti in Nazi Germany put up for sale

Previously unseen photographs of the Mufti of Jerusalem visiting a camp in Nazi Germany are expected to fetch $30,000 at auction. Haaretz reports (With thanks: Sylvia, Lily):

 One of the six photos shows the Mufti with Nazi officials in 1943: it is suggested that Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani, the Iraqi pro-Nazi Prime minister and Fritz Grobba, the German ambassador to Iraq, are also in the photo.

A new catalog published by the Kedem Auction House contains a valuable historical item: six previously unknown photographs from a visit by the mufti of Jerusalem to Nazi Germany (The Mufti lived in Berlin from 1941 - 45 - ed).

Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini’s connection to Nazi Germany has made headlines several times in recent years thanks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who used him as an example of Palestinian attitudes toward Israel to bolster his claim that Israel has no Palestinian partner.

Granted, Netanyahu exaggerated when he claimed in 2015 that Husseini had persuaded Hitler to launch the Final Solution, but the storm that erupted over that statement did raise awareness of Husseini’s Nazi ties.

Two months ago, the National Library of Israel made its own contribution to raising awareness of this story when it published a telegram to Husseini from Heinrich Himmler in which the SS chief wished him success in his battle against “the Jewish invaders.”

The six photos that Kedem is now offering for sale show Husseini “during a tour apparently held at a camp” in Nazi Germany circa 1943, the auction house’s website says. The photos, three of which are on the site, show Husseini with several senior Nazi officials in uniform as well as government staffers in civilian dress.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Unauthorised 1950s tests performed on Yemenite children

The newspaper Israel Hayom reveals previously unseen testimony and photos showing that in early years of the state, not only were Yemenite refugee children who died autopsied without consent, doctors also performed unauthorized tests on live children. The findings need to be seen in the context of an obsession with medical research in the 1950s, lax regulations, and that many children had arrived from Yemen in a poor state of health. (With thanks: Sylvia)

The Knesset Special Committee on the Disappearance of Children from Yemen, the East and the Balkans met Wednesday morning, after Israel Hayom published an exclusive report exposing doctors' testimonies that unauthorized medical tests were performed on children who went missing in the early years of the state and whose fates were unknown to their families. The documents also revealed that children who died were autopsied without the consent of their parents.

 Previously unseen photos revealed by Israel Hayom

Committee members were presented with the protocols of previous government committees of inquiry into the missing children, as well as proof that some of the children died after being subjected to experimental medical treatments. 

Committee Chairwoman MK Nurit Koren (Likud) said at Wednesday's meeting: "In the very place they should have been protected, the children disappeared. Some of the children disappeared and their parents never received a death certificate; they were informed only that their children had died. Although they asked to see the bodies, they got nothing and could not hold funerals. It is increasingly apparent that the bodies of the children were used for research." 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Iraqi Jews in Israel record their stories

 The oral history project Sephardi Voices is about to launch its Iraqi Voices project, funded by the Iraqi-Jewish businessmen Dennis and Robert Shasha. Article by Eeta Prince Gibson in Haaretz (with thanks to all those who told me about this):

Sitting in her airy, light-filled home outside of Jerusalem, surrounded by a garden and wide views of the Judean Hills, Linda Menuhin says thoughtfully, “I left Iraq more than 40 years ago. But Iraq never left me.”

Menuhin, 67, (above) was recently interviewed for Sephardi Voices, an ongoing project designed to create an audiovisual documentary archive of life stories, photographs and artifacts of Sephardi and Iranian Jews.

Menuhin reveals that throughout her career she had been a radio and television reporter, an intelligence analyst with the Israeli police and a consultant to various ministries. “Since I was born and raised in Iraq, my Arabic was fluent and much of my career was based on that," she says. "But because of my experiences there, I was so hurt I had shut down and couldn’t really think about life there. I had to heal. It took me years to open up.”

It's that opening up that Henry Green, professor of religious studies and executive director of the Sephardi Voices project, seeks to capture. “Jews lived in North Africa, the Middle East and Iran for millennia," says Green, who was recently in Israel to interview and film for the project.

"Most referred to themselves as Arab Jews ( a contentious assertion - ed) and most were well integrated into their societies. But beginning in the 1940s, Jews began to experience discrimination and violence, much of it stirred up by the Zionist enterprise (The Farhud predated the 'Zionist enterprise' - ed). In the years following the establishment of the State of Israel, more than 95 percent of Sephardi Jews were victimized, traumatized and scattered throughout the world. And no one was telling their story.”

Founded in 2009, Sephardi Voices is modeled after Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California, which has recorded the oral histories of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors. “My research shows that it takes three generations for a traumatized community to find its voice, gain perspective and really begin to tell their story," Green says. "The Sephardi model has been even more delayed, especially in Israel, because they are a minority within a minority.”

The project builds on "Iraq’s Last Jews,” a collection of stories of “daily life, upheaval and escape from modern Babylon” co-edited by journalist Tamar Morad and Robert and Dennis Shasha, Iraqi Jewish businessmen in the United States. Published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008, the book was recently released in Iraq in Arabic.

In Israel with Green, the project's media director David Langer told Haaretz that he has designed a particular look for the project, which included filming and photographing the subjects in black and white. “The project enables individuals to tell their stories and their parents’ and grandparents’ stories,"  Green says. "On a macro level, the goal of the project is, in a way, to retell the story of Jewish civilization so that it will include the richness of Sephardi Jews, too.”

The project is currently focusing on Iraqi Jews. “After a long and illustrious history in Iraq, including the formulation of the Talmud, most of the Iraqi Jewish community left Iraq in the early 1950s, with a few staying until the 1980s and beyond," Dennis Shasha said in an email. "The good and the bad stories of that last generation need to be told. That’s what we’re doing." Shasha, with his brother Robert Shasha, is funding the project.

The 1941 "Farhud" marked the beginning of the end of the millennia-old Jewish community in Iraq. This massive two-day pogrom in Baghdad, which started during the holiday of Shavuot, killed over 180 Jews and injured 1,000. Nine hundred Jewish homes were destroyed.

After the start of Israel’s War of Independence in 1947, the Iraqi government dismissed Jews from the civil service, imposed Jewish quotas at universities and other institutions and arrested increasing numbers of Jews. Bombings targeted synagogues, but Jews were allowed to emigrate only if they first relinquished all of their assets. In 1948, a respected Jewish businessman was publicly hanged on charges of selling weapons to Israel – even though he was an outspoken anti-Zionist. By 1951, a majority of Iraqi Jews – some 105,000 – had been airlifted out of Iraq and brought to Israel.

Some, like Menuhin’s family, stayed put. She was born in 1950 into the atmosphere of increasing tension and terror. She tells her story vivaciously, with ready laughter and self-mockery, but hers is a story of loss.

“After the Six-Day War, I really began to feel afraid,” she recalls. “The authorities called in the father of a friend of mine ‘for questioning’ – and brought his body back in a sack. We were living in terror. In 1969, nine innocent Jews, accused of spying for Israel, were publicly hanged in Baghdad. I remember seeing their bodies."

“I loved Baghdad, my community, the cosmopolitan atmosphere, the foods, the sounds, the sights. But I knew I couldn’t stay anymore,” she says.

By then, Jews could not legally leave Iraq. Against her parents’ wishes, Menuhin secretly escaped with her brother, guided by smugglers who first took them to Iran and eventually to Israel. Her mother left soon afterward and joined them there. But her father, a well-known Baghdad attorney, did not want a clandestine departure.

“As an attorney, my father believed in the law and would not leave illegally,” she says. On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1972, on his way to the synagogue, Menuhin’s father was taken into custody by the Iraqi authorities. He was never seen again.

Menuhin made her own documentary film, “Shadow in Baghdad,” about her search for her father. “We know nothing of what happened to him. We have never even said Kaddish,” she says, referring to the mourner's prayer.

In contrast to Menuhin, identical twins Herzl and Balfour Hakak were only 2 years old when they were brought to Israel with their families, and their stories focus on the difficulties of immigration.

They are interviewed for Sephardi Voices in Herzl's small Jerusalem apartment filled with heavy furniture and damask curtains, and located in an increasingly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Despite the heat, the brothers are dressed in an old-world style, in open-collar suits.

“When we came, we were told to shed our Iraqiness. The schoolbooks that we learned from mainly described the towns in Europe, the halutzim," Herzl says, referring to the pioneers. "There was no description of the Jews from the East. But we couldn’t shed our identity, even though we were so young when we arrived. Identity isn’t something you can just cut and paste.”

Both brothers grew up to be civil servants and both are published poets, writing mostly about life in Iraq and the challenges faced by their parents and grandparents, the first generation of immigrants. “Our grandfather’s and father’s generation couldn’t express themselves,” Herzl says. “But the generation of the grandchildren and children – that is, us – can, and we can write their pain.”

He chooses to read a poem he wrote about integration into Israeli society. He clearly knows the poem by heart, yet holds the volume in front of him, as if reading to the camera.

Green had hoped to interview Salim Fattal, known among members of the community as “the custodian of the memory of the Farhud.”

“Even though he was the director of Israel’s Arabic broadcasting service and created popular Israeli TV programs, the Farhud was the defining event of his life," says Morad, the journalist, who is coordinating the project in Israel as a volunteer.

But Fattal, 87, died in late May.

“The elderly Iraqi Jews are dying out, and their memories are fading. This is why this is project is so urgent," Green concludes.

Iraqi Jewish Voices, a part of the Sephardi Voices project, will officially launch in New York City in September.

Read article in full

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How 1967 caused a mass Jewish exodus

The 50th anniversary of the Six Day War is also a time to remember that other war - the war that Arab regimes waged against their Jewish citizens. This Tablet piece by Lucette Lagnado gives an overview, but may be criticised for downplaying the antisemitism that bedevilled these countries before 1967. (With thanks: Eliyahu)

The choir at Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, Alexandria
What wasn’t—what isn’t—forgivable, even looking back 50 years later, was how residents of those countries chose to vent their rage: By turning it against the Jews in their midst, most of who were studiously apolitical and had nothing to do with the war, its outbreak or its outcome.

Even in those countries that were, as some of us like to say, “nice to the Jews”—such as Tunisia, where fairly sizable Jewish communities were left in 1967—there were terrifying demonstrations and expressions of hatred and venom. Jews from Morocco left in exodus. In countries like Libya, murderous assaults took place that prompted an emergency evacuation of hundreds of Jews.
Egypt, where I was born and spent my early childhood, engaged in especially tawdry behavior. My family had left in 1963, following tens of thousands of other Jews out of the country. We did so reluctantly: My father didn’t want to go and it took pressure from my siblings to convince him. He simply couldn’t bear the thought of life outside of Egypt.

That was the case with a lot of Egyptian Jews. While they loved Israel too, they saw themselves as Egyptian. I can still hear Dad’s cries on the boat out of Alexandria harbor: “Ragaouna Masr”—Take Us Back to Cairo.

But our little boat kept chugging along.It wouldn’t turn back. It has taken me years to realize—sort of, as I still love Egypt passionately: Lucky us.
In 1967, there were an estimated 2,500-3,000 Jews still left between Cairo and Alexandria, down from a high of 80,000 in 1948.

On that week in ’67, the Egyptian government began rounding up Jewish men, to send to jails and prison camps. By accounts of the time, as many as 400 or 500 Jews were imprisoned.

While they gallantly left girls and women alone, authorities picked up Jewish men young and old. Even the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria was arrested. Enraged about their failure to defeat the Jewish state, the Egyptians turned their wrath on Jews whose crime, as far as I can tell, was that they were living in Egypt.
Nor did the aftermath of the war lead to the prisoners’ swift release. It is true some were in jail a mere couple of weeks until some foreign embassies helped get them out. But others lingered for months, even years, as Egypt released Jewish prisoners in painful dribs and drabs.

Albert Gabbai, rabbi of the venerable Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, was 18 and still in school in Cairo that June. He and his three older brothers and two sisters lived with their widowed mother. Their father, once a shirt-maker to King Farouk, had died years earlier and the brothers managed his clothing business along with their mom. Four other brothers had made it to America and the plan, he recalled, was to join them.

Rabbi Gabbai still remembers how the authorities first dragged his two older brothers to prison that week in June. Then some weeks later they came for him and another brother. They carried machine guns, yet were exquisitely polite, he recalls, inviting him to come with them as if they were going out for coffee. The four Gabbai brothers remained prisoners for three years, till June 1970.
There were other Jewish victims across the Middle East. While in Tunis researching a book on Jews of the Arab lands, I met with elderly Jews who vividly remembered that week in ’67, when a country that had treated them exceedingly well became simply unrecognizable.

They recalled how mobs took to the streets, targeting Jewish shops for destruction. They attacked the magnificent Grande Synagogue, whose enormous towering Jewish star was a testament to how tolerant Tunisian culture once had been.

The marauders turned their wrath on, of all places, the Kosher butcher shops on the Avenue de Paris, attacking them with odd ferocity and dragging carcasses of meat from the stores to the sidewalks. It was, I was told, a particularly gruesome sight.

Many Tunisian Jews left then and there, abandoning all they owned—homes, furniture, clothing. The expression I heard was “la clef dans la verouille“—they had left their key in the lock.

And Libya—yes, even Libya once had an important Jewish presence—was especially brutal to its Jews that week, who tried to barricade themselves in their homes to avoid the angry mobs.  “Jewish stores, homes, synagogues were burned and destroyed.  People were violated and killed,” and two families were murdered (except for one survivor who wasn’t there), said Vivienne Roumani, a Libyan Jew who made the 2007 film, The Last Jews of Libya. Later that month many of the Libyan Jews were evacuated to Italy.  It was no longer possible for them to remain safe in Libya.

And that is how a Jewish presence that dated back 2,500 years, effectively ended, says Roumani, a native of Benghazi who left Libya in 1962.

Perhaps that is why, whenever a supporter of the BDS movement targeting Israel insists they are “only” anti-Israel not anti-Jewish, I cast a cold eye, recalling how bogus that distinction turned out to be for Jews of Arab countries. It is as false now as it was 50 years back.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

How a Jew from Egypt made his own luck

Sixty years ago this year, following the November 1956 Suez crisis, the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser unleashed a campaign of persecution against his country's Jewish citizens. Within a year, 25,000 Jews - almost half the remaining community - had left Egypt. Jacques Sardas was among them. Book review by Lyn Julius of Without Return in the Clash of Cultures Jerusalem Post blog.

Jacques Sardas' birthplace Alexandria as it looks today

Now in his eighties and living in the American south after a successful career at Goodyear, the tyre maker, he was persuaded by his grandchildren to set down his compelling stories in book form.

Many Jews from Egypt - the best known include Andre Aciman and Lucette Lagnado - have published their memoirs in recent years, but 'Without Return' is an autobiography with a difference. The Egyptian Jewish community is renowned for its bourgeois affluence and sophistication.  But Jacques Sardas's family of Greek-speaking Jews stands out for being poor. As a child, he remembers the rudimentary conditions in which his family lived in Alexandria: the four children sharing a room, the washing facilities a drain in the corner of the kitchen. His father, an itinerant fabric salesman,  has no regular  income. Often the children do not have enough to eat.  His long-suffering mother sews long into the night to repair her family 's clothing. The children attend schools founded by the rich for the benefit of the Jewish poor.

Jacques' mercurial father is less well-educated than his wife but in cosmopolitan Egypt still manages to speak 10 languages. He is prone to Levantine fits of temper, cursing his wife's family for their financial woes. He is also comically superstitious, planting cloves of garlic under the children's mattresses and spitting on priests' cassocks in the street because their contact with the dying is thought to bring bad luck. Nevertheless, the pre-WW2 atmosphere is carefree and the neighbourhood's children have fun together.

When Jacques is barely 10, tragedy strikes - his mother dies suddenly. His father re-marries and the family move to Cairo.

In Egypt's ethnic salad of Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Maltese, Italians, Syrians and Arabs, the antisemitism comes mainly from Christians - at one stage, the family are harassed by malevolent Syrian orthodox neighbours - but the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood impacts on them too.  Jews are beaten up in the streets by Muslim Brotherhood gangs as Zionists. They must use their streetwise guile to survive, and Jacques has it in spades.

Jacques 's spirit and energy come over in the book but he modesty attributes his ability to survive tricky situations to a 'lucky' birthmark which he rubs like Aladdin's lamp. A keen sportsman, he leads a pupils' strike at his Cairo school until the staff agree to setting up a schools basketball team. He punches his way out of a Muslim Brotherhood ambush. (So impressive is he that he earns the respect of the gang leader.) He dreams of becoming a doctor: "I wanted to break the mould and be the first in the family to get to a higher caste. ' But money worries force him to go out to work as a clerk in Jewish-owned retail businesses and, haunted by memories of deprivation, he almost breaks up with his girlfriend Etty.

When Jews withdraw large sums of money in readiness for their post-Suez exodus, gangs lie in wait to rob them. But Jacques manages to outfox them. He and Etty, bound for a new life in  Brazil, must bid goodbye to Egypt. Even though he has a Greek passport, his exit visa bears the words 'No return' - testimony to the Nasser regime's flagrant antisemitism. It rankles with Jacques that he will never be allowed back to the country of his birth.

Compellingly and charmingly written, Without Return is a testament to Jacques' resourcefulness and determination to survive against all odds. And not just survive, but make the best of life.

'Without Return: Memoirs of an Egyptian Jew 1930 - 1957' by Jacques Sardas (Thebes Press 2017, paperback $17.95)

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