Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Boris Johnson ignores Jewish rights in Balfour piece (Updated)

 Update: the Telegraph has published a rebuttal letter by Lyn Julius*.

When we stated that the Jewish refugee message was getting through in the UK, we spoke too soon. The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, sadly displayed complete ignorance of the abuse of Jewish rights in the Arab world and the Jewish refugee issue in a recent op-ed. He called only for a 'fair, agreed  and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee question'. Lyn Julius takes him to task in a Times of Israel blog:

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 demanded that a Jewish homeland in Palestine should not prejudice the rights and status of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. The British government, notably the foreign secretary Boris Johnson in a Sunday Telegraph op-ed this week, has latched on to this proviso, claiming that it refers to the unfulfilled political rights of the Palestinians, although only civil and religious rights are mentioned in the Declaration itself.

What Johnson and others have ignored, however, is the tail-end of Lord Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild: ‘… or of Jews in any other country’. As we all know, the Jewish communities of Europe were decimated by the Nazis, but the rights of Jews in Arab countries were also thoroughly trampled upon, resulting in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of 850,000 Jews and the destruction of their ancient, pre-Islamic communities.
UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson
Clearly nothing was demanded of Arab states that were created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire: they violated any constitutional obligation they may have had towards their own Jewish citizens. A year or two before the declaration of the state of Israel, and before a single Arab Palestinian refugee had fled Israel, the Arab League agreed a Nazi-style draft plan to deprive the Jews of citizenship, threaten them with imprisonment and expel them, having first dispossessed them.
From the outset, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, widely regarded as the leader of the Arab world, transformed each November anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a symbol of British betrayal, into a rallying cry against the Jews, whether they were in Palestine, where he incited the deadly riots of 1920 and 1929, or elsewhere in the Arab world.

Growing up in Iraq in the 1930s, my mother recalls that every November gangs of youths armed with clubs dipped in hot tar would ambush Jewish schoolchildren on their way home.

A kindly Jewish lady opened her door to my mother, offering her shelter until the mob had passed. Others were not so lucky.

Wherever the Mufti went in the Arab world, persecution and mayhem followed against the local Jews. In 1921, after a Palestinian Arab delegation had visited Yemen to demand that the Imam stop all immigration to Palestine, the Orphans’ Decree was reinstated. This law, forcing Jewish orphans to be converted to Islam –  argues scholar S.D. Goiten – was the single most important reason why Jews were desperate to flee Yemen. In the 1940s, visits of Palestinian Arabs to Aden (then a British crown colony) became more common, and so did the expression of anti-Jewish sentiments.

From December 1931, when he convened a World Islamic Congress in Jerusalem, the Mufti ceased to speak of Zionists but Jews. The congress was followed by anti-Jewish violence in Morocco – in Casablanca in 1932, Casablanca and Rabat in 1933, Rabat and Meknes in 1937 and Meknes in 1939. In Tunisia, an entente between Tunisian nationalists and the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee sparked violence in Sfax in 1932.  The Algerian ulema declared a boycott of Jews in 1936, obeying the Mufti’s instructions.

British reports noted the intense propaganda in Yemen. Jewish refugees tried to make for British-controlled Aden. In 1939, a crowd was incited against the British and the Jews when they were shown fabricated photographs of Arab children hanging from telegraph poles. Other newspapers mendaciously reported that thousands of Arabs had been killed and bombs thrown at the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.

But the worst incitement, with the deadliest consequences of all, took place in Iraq. Throughout the 1930s, Palestinian exiles together with the Mufti, along with Syrian and Lebanese emigrés, fanned the flames of Jew-hatred with false propaganda.
The Mufti himself, expelled to Iraq by the British in 1939, played a leading role in plotting a pro-Nazi military coup, led by Rashid Ali al- Gaylani, to overthrow the pro-British government. The pro-Nazi Gaylani government was the only Arab regime to sign a treaty with Nazi Germany and declare war against the British. Fearful that Iraq’s vast oil reserves would fall into Nazi hands, the British sent troops into Iraq. With the British army at the gates of Baghdad, the Mufti was forced again into exile – but not before he had primed the Arabs of the capital, together with defeated, returning troops, to unleash the Farhud (an Arabic word meaning ‘forced dispossession’) of 1941. Hundreds of Jews were murdered and their property looted and wrecked.

Other Farhuds followed – in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Aden and Morocco. Jewish citizens of Arab states became hostages to the conflict with Zionism, although they were loyal citizens, thousands of miles from the battlefield in Palestine.
Today barely 4,000 Jews remain in Arab countries of a 1948 population of almost a million – one of the worst cases of ethnic cleansing in the 20th century. But why do senior British politicians read into the Balfour Declaration what is not there, and disregard what is?

Lyn’s book UPROOTED will be published on 9 November. To pre-order click here.

Read post in full

*Full text of Lyn's letter published in the Telegraph: 

Legacy of Balfour

SIR – Boris Johnson (Comment, October 30) seems to read into the Balfour Declaration what is not there, while disregarding what is.
He imagines that it refers to the political rights of the Palestinians, although only civil and religious rights are mentioned. He then ignores the third component of the Declaration: that nothing should be done to prejudice the “rights of Jews in any other country”.
Almost one million Jews lived in Arab countries in 1948. Today there are barely 4,000. Arab states pursued a policy of stripping their Jews of their rights and property, against a backdrop of threats and violence, much of it instigated by the pro-Nazi Palestinian Mufti. Nowhere does Mr Johnson ask for justice or compensation for these Jews.
The least one could expect from our Foreign Secretary is a reading of history free from distortion.

Lyn Julius
Harif, UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa
London SW5

Monday, October 30, 2017

Refugee message is getting through in UK

After years of silence on the 850,000 Jewish refugees driven from Arab countries, Point of No Return is delighted to report that the message is finally getting through. In the corridors of power at Westminster, the MP Matthew Offord mentioned the refugees from Arab countries in a discussion to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in which Her Majesty's government 'viewed with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine'. You can hear the relevant passage in his speech about 15 minutes into the video.
The issue of Jews from Arab countries was also raised at the October plenum of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, also marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. The Israel Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev said (one hour and nine minutes in) that the third component, and last part of the Declaration, calling for the rights of Jews in any other country to be respected, had been disregarded - not just in Europe, but in Arab Countries. Baroness Ruth Deech (pictured) forcefully reiterated the point, one hour and 19 minutes into the video.
"Where are they now?"she asked, of the Jewish communities of Morocco, Iraq and Libya.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Nahum's tomb at risk from nearby fighting

Since the defeat of Islamic State, which came to a few miles of the shrine, the tomb of the Prophet Nahum that overlooks Nineveh plains in northern Iraq faces a new challenge: it  is now near the forefront of tensions between the Iraqi federal government and Kurdistan Regional Government. Seth Frantzman reports for the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Lily):

 The partially-collapsed tomb of the prophet Nahum is said to be 2, 700 years old.(Photo: S Frantzman)

Since last week Iraqi forces, including Iranian-backed Shia militias, have been fighting with Peshmerga in an attempt by Baghdad to push Kurdish forces out of disputed areas and take oil fields and strategic border areas from the Kurds.

Although a cease-fire took effect on Friday, tensions remain high. Shelling in a Christian town near the Jewish tomb is the latest in years of turmoil that have affected the site.

The tomb is in the ancient Christian town of Al-Qosh, inside a complex that also served as a synagogue and has partly collapsed over the years. The Jewish community of this area of northern Iraq and Kurdistan left in the 1940s and 1950s. The origin of the tomb is often said to date back 2,700 years.

National Geographic, however, noted in 2015 that the synagogue’s walls date from 1173. The article said that locals in the area had “wild conspiracy theories [that] warn of Zionist plots to seize control of war-torn Iraq and, with jihadists on the doorstep, the town’s people are nervous about feeding into these fears.”

Read article in full

More about the tomb of Nahum at al-Kosh

Friday, October 27, 2017

Tributes are paid to Shmuel Moreh z"l

Tribute events to the late Professor Moreh (pictured) have been held in the UK and will soon be held in Israel.

At a meeting on 19 October attended by both Jews and non-Jews, an evening commemorating the professor was held in London. He died aged 86 on the second day of Rosh Hashana.

Aged 19, when he came to Israel from Baghdad, he was the 'last Babylonian Jew'. Already a published poet, he pioneered the study of Arabic language and literature at the Hebrew University - in teaching and researching this subject, Israel was at least 10 years ahead of Arab universities.

Click here to hear Edwin Shuker's tribute.

Obituary in the Times of Israel

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Mizrahi Project tells refugee stories

With thanks: Ruth

As we approach 30 November, organisations around the world are busy arranging events to mark the exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran. One such organisation is the Mizrahi project, the brainchild of Pastor Dumisani Washington. Washington made the clip, Why are the Palestinians still refugees? The Mizrahi Project is holding several screenings of a new film comprising interviews with Mizrahi Jews telling their personal stories. Here is their calendar of events.

Gina Waldman escaped from Libya in 1967.  You can hear Gina's story here.
 Rachel Wahba's parents were from Iraq and Egypt. You can hear Rachel's story 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Ethnic cleansing of Greeks mirrors that of Jews

 The persecution of minorities in the Middle East has been a fact of life. Our regular commenter Eliyahu m'Tsiyon has produced evidence (in a critique of a book by Walt and Mearsheimer) that the Turks wanted to decimate the Greek minority in the same way as the Arab states wished to 'ethnically cleanse' their Jews and 'throw Israel into the sea'. As often happened in history, the western powers stood by and let the slaughter happen (with thanks: Eliyahu):

Izmir (Smyrna) as it is today: free of Greeks

There was a precedent for throwing a hated ethnic group into the sea: In 1922 Turkish nationalist forces led by Kemal Ataturk drove the Greek population of Smyrna into the sea. Smyrna had been a Greek-speaking city for more than 2,000 years. It remained predominantly Greek in population even after the Ottoman Empire conquered Smyrna from the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire hundreds of years before 1922. Smyrna also had a Turkish-Muslim minority, a Jewish quarter, an Armenian quarter, and many Europeans and Americans who had come for purposes of trade or were there for religious/missionary purposes.

There were also Levantines, people with mixed European and Greek or Armenian ancestry. These Levantines too were mainly involved in trade and services for the European and American communities. In 1922 the Turkish nationalist army of Ataturk drove the Greeks out of the city, while it massacred the surviving Armenians in the city and set fire to Greek and Armenian neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the fleets of the major Western powers sat at anchor in the harbor of Smyrna. They had orders not to interfere with the slaughter perpetrated by the Kemalist forces and were reluctant to help the refugees. Greece sent a motley assortment of boats to take out the refugees, including surviving Armenians. Since the expulsion of the Greeks and the massacre of the Armenians, the city has been officially called Izmir. This is a historical precedent for what those Arabs may have been thinking who called for driving the Jews into the sea, as Walt-Mearsheimer admit they said.

Ernest Hemingway, "On the Quay at Smyrna," in In Our Time [starting with the 1930 edition of the anthology In Our Time; New York, Scribner's]. This is a fictionalized account of the events at Smyrna that rings true. Hemingway was a reporter in Anatolia and the Balkans in that period. See his description of a Kemalist official in this post.
George Horton, The Blight of Asia -- Horton was the US consul in Smyrna in 1922, that is, he was an eyewitness.
Marjorie Housepian, The Smyrna Affair

Read post in full 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

First Arab to be named 'Righteous Gentile' (updated)

 It is perhaps a mark of the thawing of Egyptian-Israeli relations that the family of Dr Mohamed Helmy has agreed to accept a certificate from Yad Vashem honouring the Egyptian-born doctor for risking his life to rescue a Jew in wartime Berlin. The family had refused to do so in 2013.  i-24 News reports: (with thanks: Lily)

Dr. Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian-born medical doctor who lived in Berlin, will be officially recognized by the Israeli Holocaust museum and memorial for risking his life to shelter four Jews during World War II.

Helmy's family will accept the award on his behalf at a ceremony to take place at the German Foreign Ministry on Thursday.

Helmy will be the first Arab to be honored as Righteous Among the Nations—a title given to non-Jews by the Israeli Holocaust Museum who risked their own lives to save Jews from the Nazis.

To date, more than 26,000 individuals from 44 countries have received the honor.
Helmy, who died in 1982, was first nominated as Righteous Among the Nations in 2013 but his family at the time refused to accept the honor since it came from an Israeli institution.

Four years later, a relative of Helmy has agreed to accept the honor on his behalf.

Courtesy Yad Vashem  
Ana Boros Gutman during her visit with her daughter Carla, Dr. Helmy and his wife Emmy, 1969

Nasser Kutbi, an 81-year-old professor of medicine from Cairo whose father was Helmy’s nephew and who knew him personally, will travel to Berlin to accept the award, which will be presented to him by Israel's Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff.

Helmy was born in Khartoum in 1901 and settled in Berlin in 1922 where he studied medicine and eventually became the head of urology at the city's Robert Koch Institute.

Helmy was fired from his position in 1937 after the Nazis came to power, and as a "non-Aryan", was barred from working in the public health sector. Helmy was arrested by the Nazis in 1939 along with other Egyptians and was released a year later account of poor health.

When the Nazis began deporting Jews from the city, Helmy hid a Jewish family friend, Anna Boros, 21, as well as her mother Julie, stepfather Georg Wehr, and grandmother Cecilie Rudnik, in a cabin he owned in the city for the duration of the war.
Courtesy Yad Vashem  
Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations certificate of honor to be presented to Dr. Helmy.
Helmy provided for all of the family's needs and arranged alternative hideouts when he himself was under Nazi investigation. He arranged for Anna a certificate from the Central Islamic Institute in Berlin, headed by the Grnad Mufti of Jerusalem, attesting that she had converted to Islam, as well as a fake marriage certrificate saying that she had married an Egyptian man in a private ceremony at Helmy's home.

"A good friend of our family, Dr. Helmy ... hid me in his cabin in Berlin-Buch from 10 March until the end of the war," Boros, who latter married and took the last name Gutman, wrote in letter to the Berlin Senate after the war.

"He managed to evade all their interrogations. In such cases he would bring me to friends where I would stay for several days, introducing me as his cousin from Dresden. When the danger would pass, I would return to his cabin. ... Dr. Helmy did everything for me out of the generosity of his heart and I will be grateful to him for eternity," she wrote.

Read article in full

Why have more Arabs not been named as 'Righteous Gentiles', Haaretz asks. Ofer Aderet interviewed Robert Satloff, author of Among the Righteous:

Significant developments that occurred following World War II, the founding of the State of Israel in particular, overshadowed this legacy of rescue. “As an Arab, there wasn’t much to gain – but there was a lot to lose – by being identified as a protector of the Jews and their rights,” Satloff noted.

At the same time, Jews, including those who were saved by Arabs, weren’t eager to tell about their Arab rescuers. “To many of those remaining in North Africa, memories of their horrible wartime experience were swiftly overtaken by the less systematic but often more violent anti-Zionism that compelled hundreds of thousands to quit their homes for Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s,” Satloff writes.

For decades, the focus of study was the Holocaust of European Jewry, and historians, scholars and institutions paid much less attention to the legacy of the Holocaust among Mizrahi Jewry. The Jews themselves also did not discuss or study the subject very much.

So there are several reasons for the absence of Arabs being named Righteous Among the Nations: Arabs didn’t volunteer to tell people about how they had saved Jews; Jews didn’t provide information about their Arab saviors; and at the same time, the establishment did not go to great lengths to find those Arab rescuers. Add to all of this the strong trend of Holocaust denial in the Arab world and the result is not very surprising.

Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, the state archivist and former director of the Yad Vashem archives, once wrote in Haaretz, “that if there were an Arab Righteous Gentile, his descendants apparently don’t want to know about it, and this naturally makes it hard to find out about him, since the tales of Jews who were saved are usually discovered through personal testimonies, and not through archival records.”

Nonetheless, over the years there have been several cases in which researchers or others provided information that could have convinced Yad Vashem to confer the title of Righteous Among the Nations on Arabs. One of the most famous cases is that of Khaled Abdel-Wahab, a Muslim Arab from Tunisia, whom various testimonies credit with saving dozens of Jews. Yad Vashem twice declined to name Abdel-Wahab as Righteous Among the Nations on the grounds that he did not risk his life to save the Jews that he saved. Risking one’s life is a prerequisite for receiving the honor.

Another well-known case is that of Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the founder and rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, who, according to different testimonies, hid Jews inside the mosque, including a rising star at the time, singer Salim Halali. When previously questioned about this case, Yad Vashem replied, “Yad Vashem made a supreme effort to locate survivors whom Benghabrit saved during the Holocaust and also worked very hard to collect archival material related to the rescue activity in the Paris mosque, and also contacted the mosque archives for assistance – but all of these efforts came to naught. No testimonies of survivors or relevant documents were found.”

Read article in full

My comment: Historians have cast doubt on the role played by the rector of the Paris Mosque, Si Kaddour Benghabrit. Far from being a Righteous Gentile, he seems to have collaborated with the Vichy regime and when consulted in at least four cases denied the individuals were Muslim (G Bensoussan, Les juifs du monde arabe, p101).

Monday, October 23, 2017

Iraqi Jew pleads for archive not to go back

 'It's as if my lost history came back to life', Joseph Samuels felt when he visited an exhibition of the Iraqi-Jewish archives in California. If the archive returns to Iraq, he fears, these historical treasures could be lost forever. Article in the Miami Herald:
Joseph Samuels: archive represents lost history
Despite the U.S. government’s valiant effort to preserve and restore this treasure, the State Department is preparing to return the artifacts to Iraq in September 2018 in accordance with an agreement made with the Iraqi government under the Obama administration.

But these artifacts belong to the Iraqi-Jewish community and their descendants. Returning the trove to Iraq is tantamount to returning stolen treasure to a thief. President Donald Trump and the State Department should do all that they can to prevent such an injustice.

I was born in 1930 in Taht Al Takia, the Jewish quarter of the old city of Baghdad. Baghdad was my home, and Iraq was my country. But my sense of national identity was shattered when Muslim mobs looted and burned Jewish homes and businesses, murdering hundreds of Jewish men, women and children in the 1941 pogrom known as the Farhud.
I was 10 years old. There was nowhere to run, and no country to take us in.
After the failed Arab war against Israel in 1948, the Jews of Iraq and other Arab countries faced anti-Semitism and open hostility. We suffered arrest, torture, public execution and confiscation of property. The Iraqi-Jewish artifacts are a rare example of what was stolen from more than 850,000 Arab Jews and the historical Jewish presence that Arab regimes are attempting to erase. At present, there are only about 3,000 Jews living in Arab countries who are continuing our story.

Decades later, the Baath Party, led by Hussein, looted and confiscated public and personal items from synagogues, Jewish schools and community properties. On May 6, 2003, the U.S. Army uncovered these artifacts hidden in a flooded basement of the Mukhabarat (Iraqi secret service) headquarters.

With the approval of Iraq’s provisional government, the U.S. military rescued the damaged items and brought them to this country. The U.S. government has since spent more than $3 million to restore the archive, exhibiting it across the country. The artifacts brought tears to my eyes when I first visited the collection at the Nixon Library. It’s almost as if my lost history in Iraq came back to life.
The hearts of the Iraqi Jewish community are filled with gratitude toward the heroic teams who rescued and restored this collection. Thanks to the United States, we have preserved these pieces of history for present and future generations.

But Iraq has proven itself an unreliable custodian, and we fear these historical treasures could be lost forever. Trump has the chance to be remembered as the preserver of our history, just like Moses who brought the Hebrews from Egypt and kept their message alive for future generations. I implore the administration, on behalf of all Jews from Arab lands and our descendants, to keep our icons of history from being sent back to those who stole them from us.

Read article in full

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article180216911.html#storylink=cpy

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Prickly discussion on the 'Right of Return' for Palestinians

Haaretz has been carrying an interesting exchange on the Palestinian 'right of return' for refugees. The radical leftist Uri Avnery breezily ignores the rights of Jewish refugees in the discussion. While a rebuttal letter in response mentions Jewish refugees, the author makes the mistake of demanding an equal right of return for Jewish refugees to Arab lands.

Avnery writes:

I think there is a vast difference between principle and implementation. The principle cannot be denied. It belongs to the individual refugee. It is anchored in international law. It is sacred. Any future peace agreement will have to include a section affirming that Israel in principle accepts the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants. No Palestinian leader would be able to sign a deal that doesn't include this clause. I can picture the scene: After agreement is reached on this clause at the peace summit, the chairman will take a deep breath and say, "And now, my friend, let’s move on to the real problem. How are we going to resolve the refugee problem in practice?"

Read article in full

Uri Avnery meeting Yasser Arafat.

The following response to Uri Avnery from Joseph Grinblat appeared in Haaretz: 

I agree that it is not a problem for Israel to accept the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. But not for the reason Mr. Avnery gives.  The word “return” is very clear; it means going back to where one has been before. So it can apply only to the people who left Palestine, not to their descendants who were born in another country.

 There are less than 100,000 survivors from the 700,000 Arabs who left Palestine and became refugees, and they should be allowed to come back to Israel if they wish to, and if they are ready to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors, as is stated in the UN 1949 declaration about Palestine refugees, which mentions only the refugees but not their descendants: “Palestine refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

This applied to Jewish refugees as well as to Arab refugees from the war in Palestine.
 The six million descendants should have been integrated in the countries where they were born. They are not refugees from Palestine, because they have never been there. There is no other example in history where descendants of refugees are still considered to be refugees, three generations later.

 Joseph Grinblat, Retired Director, Migration Studies Section, 
United Nations Secretariat 
Forest Hills, NY

My comment: Uri Avnery is wrong to assume that a 'right of return' is a sacrosanct principle of international law. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has never applied to Palestinian refugees. A 'right of return' was added at the last minute and was intended to underscore the rights of hostage populations to leave their countries. Besides, the Palestinian refugees were never citizens of Israel.

The Arab states rejected UN res 194, which also called for compensation and resettlement, while Israel did take back around 50,000 refugees in the 50s and paid some compensation.
The Arab states have violated international law by refusing to resettle their own refugees, and refusing to compensate Jewish refugees.

Besides, Avnery is wrong to say that the Arab refugees were 'ethnically cleansed'. They fled a war zone. The Jews, on the other hand, were banished from areas which fell to the Jordanians and Egyptians. The question remains - whether anything should be owed to a  population who violated international principles by waging a war of aggression.

 Grinblat is right that the definition of refugee should only apply to the actual refugees and not their descendants, but is wrong to even to entertain the idea of return for 100,000. 

Israel has no obligation to allow Arab refugees to return 70 years after they left.
The existence of an equal number of Jewish refugees for whom return to Arab countries is dangerous should put paid to this notion, once and for all.

The point he should be making is that an irrevocable exchange of refugees took place. Neither set should be allowed to return.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Jewish refugee organisations gear up with concerts, films

 Virtuoso oudist, vocalist and percussionist Yinon Muallem is flying in to London from Turkey for a 2 December concert, Funky Dervish. (Photo: Ozgur Olcer)

Organisations representing Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, in conjunction with Israeli embassies around the world, are gearing up to mark the fourth annual Memorial Day for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran with an array of exciting events. 

The official date in the calendar, as approved by the Israeli Knesset  in June 2010, is 30 November, but memorial events are being held all week-long and even during an entire month.

In London, the centrepiece is a concert at JW3 on Saturday (Motsei Shabbat) 2 December at 8pm. Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, is teaming up with the Jewish Music Institute, the Israeli Embassy and the cultural centre JW3 to hold what promises to be an exhilarating musical experience with Yinon Muallem and his backing group. Born to Iraqi-Jewish parents in Israel, Muallem is an exciting Vocalist, oudist and percussionist musician and composer whose work fuses eastern styles and influences. He is flying in from Turkey especially for the occasion. Tickets here.

Harif is also arranging the London screening of the documentary Night of Fools, which tells the little-known story of how Algerian Jews played a key role in the US liberation of North Africa in 1942. The film will be screened for the first time on 28 November at JW3 and will be followed by a Q&A with the director, Rami Kimchi. Tickets here.

Harif is also partnering in the screening of Remember Baghdad on 3 December at 5pm at the Phoenix cinema in Muswell Hill.

In Geneva on 30 November, the Swiss friends of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries are putting on Operation Mural, the secret operation masterminded by David Littman to evacuate over 500 Moroccan children to Israel. The film will be followed by a Q&A with Littman's widow, the historian Bat Ye'or.

In California, JIMENA has arranged a series of screenings, concerts and talks.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Jerusalem art show focuses on Jewish uprooting

In a corner of the former Bezeq building in Jerusalem, converted into a pop-up art gallery, you will find a fascinating exhibition called 'Homelands'. The exhibition is one of the first to explore the destruction of the Jewish communities of the Islamic world through the eyes of Israeli artists.

Camille Fox's society wedding at the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt

Lenore Mizrachi Cohen's grandfather is garlanded by Arabic calligraphy

Homelands is one of the 26 exhibitions of the Jerusalem Biennale, a showcase of Israeli contemporary art whose theme this year is 'Watershed'. It brings together  14 Israeli artists who for the first time explore themes thrown up by their families' experience of uprooting from Arab and Muslim lands.

Like a  prism breaking beams of  light into a spectrum, 'Homelands presents reflections of the Jews of Islamic lands,' write the curator Meirav Balas and producer Lenore Mizrachi Cohen .' This exhibition examines the moment of individual departure....the uniform narrative splits into  the 'now' that is made of countless experiences, like the number of those uprooted.'

The themes range from nostalgia to violent rupture. For Neta Elkayam, who still sings at concerts in her native Morocco,   the move to Israel is barely an uprooting.  Her Moroccan city skyline  resembles that of Jerusalem, as if the transition from the land of her birth to her new country were a gentle continuum. For Tal Gartenberg, the past is represented by a collection of colourful Moroccan tiles. Florence Nasar's video is of lovingly stuffed vineleaves.

Babette Marciano contrasts the traditional dress of her grandfather's generation and  his French daughter or granddaughter  in her new country in 'Alps,' while Camille Fox's portrait of an Alexandrian society wedding exudes the confidence of a sophisticated and prosperous Jewish community perfectly in tune with modernity.

Two sheets of paper, 'Turning' and 'Irreversible' by Lenore Mizrachi Cohen, hang from the ceiling, the one showing  her grandfather in a traditional fez, garlanded by a frame of Arabic  calligraphy. On the other side is a modern-day grandfather. Another work shows a marrying couple, then and now. The impression is that the departure is irreversible, but that life's drama (with its celebrations) goes on regardless - the protagonists just look different.

Shay Abadi's banner showing Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president who expelled thousands of Jews from Egypt, together with his father and uncle, is perhaps the most poignant work in the exhibition. It seems to be saying that his family, too, belongs to the Egyptian national narrative which so brutally drove them out.

Lida Sharet Massad's work 'Gorasht', Farsi for 'Let it go', seems to tipify the reaction of so many Jews to their uprooting. 'Don't dwell on the past, with all the losses it represents. Look to the future.

The Jerusalem Biennale is on at several locations in the city until 16 November. Entrance 45 shekels. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Algiers, 1942: US wanted to avoid provoking Arabs

To Robert Satloff's essay in Mosaic comes a response from Michael Doran. Satloff had argued that the US has minimised the liberation of North Africa beginning with Operation Torch in 1942 out of misplaced fear of association with Jews. Such fear was to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy engagement. Doran argues that US diplomats had other reasons for being antisemitic. As descendants of Protestant missionaries, they viewed  Zionism as a threat. 

During Operation Torch, as Satloff so admirably demonstrates, Eisenhower and his associates feared that, if they drew too close to the North African Jews, the Arabs would revolt, tying down forces that were badly needed elsewhere. By the 1950s, this idea had grown into a more general principle. If the foreign-policy elite in the 1950s was certain of one thing about the Middle East, it was that a close association of the United States with Israel and the Jews would provoke the Arabs, driving them into the arms of the Soviet Union. A primary strategic goal of the Eisenhower presidency, therefore, was to prove to the Arabs that America was not in Israel’s pocket.

 But when and how did Eisenhower and the others acquire this oversized fear of association with Jews? Satloff suggests that it was “a gift” from the Vichy authorities in North Africa, who transferred their homegrown theory of Arab-Jewish relations to men like (the diplomatic troubleshooter) Robert Murphy. In my own view, it would be more plausible to conclude that the Americans were receptive to the Vichy perspective because they had already, independently, developed a fear of association with Jews. Old-fashioned anti-Semitism certainly played a role. While at the Casablanca Conference of the Allies in 1943, President Roosevelt demonstrated a breezy indifference to the persecution of North African Jews.
General Eisenhower

 In a conversation with General Charles Noguès, the French resident-general in Morocco, Roosevelt offered his advice about how best to respond to the post-Torch plea of Algerian Jews that their French voting rights be restored. “The answer to that,” said the president according to the contemporaneous notes of his aide, “is very simple: namely, that there just weren’t going to be any elections, so the Jews need not worry about the privilege of voting.” He further instructed Noguès to adjust the numbers of local Jews in professions like law and medicine so as to align their proportion with the percentage of Jews in the total population. This approach, he explained to Noguès, would prevent local Muslims from advancing “the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore toward the Jews in Germany,” where they had been disproportionately represented in the educated professions.

 Roosevelt’s views were colored by anti-Semitism, but his stated goal was to avoid provoking the Arabs—among whom, as he rightly or wrongly presumed (wrongly, insists Satloff), resentment toward Jews was deep and abiding. This view of the Arabs came to the Americans not primarily from the Vichy authorities but from elsewhere. It came from their own experts on the Middle East.

 Many of those experts were Protestant missionaries, or had been schooled by missionaries. Ever since the mid-19th century, these missionaries claimed, they and their predecessors had sacrificed in order to develop friendships with Arab Muslims, thereby burnishing the image of the United States in the Middle East. Now, however, official American support for Zionism was angering the Arabs, many of whom had consequently begun to view the missionaries as emissaries of a hostile power. To the missionaries, Zionism was thus responsible both for destroying the missionary project and for damaging the national interest—two indistinguishable values in their minds.

Read article in full

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Mind the gap...

Point of No Return will be taking a short break. Normal service will be resumed later in the week....

Saturday, October 14, 2017

New head of UNESCO is of Moroccan-Jewish descent

A day after the US and Israel announced their departure from UNESCO in protest at its anti-Israel bias, the body elected a Jewish woman of Moroccan descent to be its next head. Audrey Azoulay is the daughter of Andre Azoulay, the adviser to the king of Morocco. Both he and his wife Katia Brami are from Essouira (Mogador) but their three daughters were born in France. 

Audrey Azoulay: grew up in a very leftwing environment

The Times of Israel reports:

 France’s Audrey Azoulay, chosen Friday to lead UNESCO, said following her election she believed member states must “get involved” in the organization and “not leave it,” a day after the US and Israel announced their plans to withdraw. Stressing that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was going through difficult times, Azoulay said, “In a time of crisis, we need to be more involved than ever, seek to strengthen it, and not leave it.”

 Azoulay reiterated that the “first thing she would endeavor” if confirmed by the General Conference in November, would be to “restore the credibility” of the organization and the confidence of member states. Azoulay was named to head the UN’s embattled cultural agency on Friday, beating her Qatari rival after a politically charged contest clouded by Gulf tensions and accusations of anti-Israel bias. Azoulay, 49, came from behind after six rounds of voting to defeat Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari, also a former culture minister, after he failed to pick up support from other Gulf states which are part of a Saudi-led coalition blockading Qatar. The vote was 30 to 28.

 The campaign to succeed UNESCO’s outgoing chief Irina Bokova was overshadowed by Washington’s announcement Thursday that it planned to withdraw from the Paris-based body after years of tensions over decisions seen as critical of Israel.

Read article in full 

  Who is Audrey Azoulay?

 The youngest of three sisters, Azoulay rose from obscurity to become minister of culture in the Hollande socialist government in 2016. Azoulay has stated that she "grew up in a very left-wing environment" "politicised on the Israel-Palestine conflict". Her views on Israel are unknown, although she was said to have experienced for the first time classic French antisemitism at ENA, the elite school which produces France's political establishment. She spent eight years as director of the Centre International du Cinema.

At Sciences Po she met her husband François-Xavier Labarraque. They have two children.

 Both her parents are from Essaouira and retained Moroccan nationality. Azoulay has only French nationality but made visits to Morocco as a child. She does not speak Arabic. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Egypt's Jews support official UNESCO candidate

Voting for the new head of UNESCO takes place on Monday in Paris. The Egyptian candidate, Moushira Khattab, is a front-runner and has the support of the tiny Jewish community of Egypt, led by Magda Haroun. But Khattab's candidacy has been attacked by rights groups, who claim she has been sometimes 'complicit' in the government's human rights violations. Report in The Times of Israel (with thanks: Boruch):

The head of Egypt’s minuscule Jewish community has voiced support for the country’s UNESCO candidate, as the cultural body prepared to vote for a new leader Monday amid intense Israeli lobbying to thwart perceived anti-Israel bias. A statement from Egypt Jewish community head Magda Haroun said that Moushira Khattab has shown an impressive and “genuine commitment to our cause to protect Egypt’s Jewish heritage.”

Moushira Khattab 

A US-educated longtime diplomat, Khattab is believed to be among the front-runners for the UNESCO top post, to replace Irina Bukova. Voting is due to start on Monday in Paris.

Khattab has also served as chairwoman of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood and was one of the main architects of legislation prohibiting the marriage of underage girls and female genital circumcision.In expressing her support for Khattab, Haroun cited a 1990s campaign for women’s rights when Khattab served as a top aide to the country’s first lady at the time, Suzanne Mubarak.

 Khattab’s candidacy has been opposed by a number of Egyptian human rights groups, with a top Egyptian rights lawyer saying the country’s candidate for UNESCO’s top job is not qualified for the post because of her silence and “sometimes complicity” in the government’s repressive policies.

  Read article in full 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Jewish-Muslim links become a hot topic outside Morcco

Aomar Boum made his name by researching Muslim-Jewish relations in his native Morocco, where there remain fewer Jews than in his adopted home of Los Angeles. Now the topic is becoming hot, and he is working on books exploring the issue of displacement and the Holocaust in North Africa. Interview in the Daily Bruin (with thanks: Michelle):

"The formula is to at least allow a future generation to at least respect diversity and difference is training and education, from the bottom up," Boum said.

Aomar Boum, associate professor of anthropology

Boum added he thinks his partnerships with individuals in his home country and with researchers at UCLA are a model for teaching and fostering student initiative and involvement.
Boum said his research on the Moroccan Jewish community examines a history not widely discussed outside Morocco for centuries, and at the same time looks at how the group views itself in the present.

There are approximately 4,000 people who identify as Moroccan Jews living in Morocco today, compared with almost 10,000 Moroccan Jews in Los Angeles, Boum said.
He added he thinks the recent termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program highlighted the dual presence minorities feel between their current places of residence and their ancestral heritage.

"The hyphenated identity is a question always being debated, especially with all the debates about (immigration) now," he added.

Boum is collaborating with a young Moroccan artist to develop a comic book that tells a story of a young Jewish boy who fled Berlin during World War II and was taken in by a Muslim and Jewish family in Casablanca, Morocco, until the end of the war.

The book will address the situation of refugees around the world, including individuals displaced in Myanmar, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, Boum said.

Sarah Abrevaya Stein, a history professor, who is co-editing a book with Boum titled "The Holocaust and North Africa," said their work focuses on topics that are often not covered in a single department.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Kuwait donors fund aid for Yemen Jews

Food aid being delivered to Jews in Sana'a

Volunteers of the Yemen-based charity Mona Relief delivered food packages to poor Jewish families in Sanaa this week thanks to Kuwaiti donations, the Jerusalem Post reports. Since the outbreak of the civil war, the stipends the Jews received in their Sanaa compound dried up and the remaining Jews are struggling to make ends meet. The article puts the number of Jews in Yemen at 86, but there are probably half that number. Last year, the Jewish Agency airlifted the last group of Yemeni Jews who wished to move to Israel. (With thanks: Lily)

It is the fourth time the organization has provided aid to the tiny Jewish community that remains in Yemen, as part of the NGO’s wider humanitarian relief projects. The donations began in 2016 when a journalist alerted Mona Relief founder and CEO Fatik al-Rodaini about the poor conditions in which the Jewish community was living. Rodaini visited the families in December 2016, and met with their leader, Yehia Yousef. Several days later Rodaini reached out to the community with food packages, blankets and hygiene kits funded by the NGO’s online fund-raising campaign.

“That was the beginning of our initiative to the Jewish minority in Sanaa,” Rodaini told The Jerusalem Post. “I promised to help them monthly with food aid and medicine to Jewish members who are sick with chronic diseases. However, I couldn’t fulfill my commitments toward them due to the lack of resources. But I tried to help them annually.”

Rodaini has managed more than annual aid; the last two times, however, were made possible with the aid of anonymous Kuwaiti donors.

Asked about the unusual circumstances of Kuwaitis donating to Jews, Rodaini said that not only had the donors accepted to help the cause when he had asked, they subsequently offered unsolicited donations to the community.

“We are talking about humanity and not about their religion,” said Rodaini, adding that the NGO delivers supplies to 86 Jews in Yemen, making up some 20 families.

Read article in full

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Algiers, 1942: 'the Jews will have to wait'

Operation Torch marked the American invasion of North Africa in 1942, and the first stage in the defeat of the Vichy regime in Algeria. But this significant event merits little mention in the history books and the role of the Jewish resistance gets even less attention. The immediate failure to restore Jewish rights would put down a  marker for America's future Middle Eastern policy, claims Robert Satloff in Mosaic (with thanks: Imre)

Until Torch, the misfortune facing the Jews in lands under fascist domination was, for the Roosevelt administration, a faraway problem, distressful to contemplate but distant from the battle front. Torch changed that equation. For the first time during the war, Torch’s success put American troops in direct control of territory in which Jews faced government-ordained and -implemented persecution and possible death.
This reality made “the Jewish question” a pressing issue. Moreover, thanks to one remarkable but little-recognized fact, it became an immediate issue as well.
In the early morning hours of November 8, 1942, as U.S. and British forces waited anxiously on troop ships spread across the North African coast, 377 young men, led by a twenty-year-old medical student named José Aboulker, had fanned out across Algeria’s capital city of Algiers to execute a daring mission that would help determine the fate of Torch.Aboulker and other resistance leaders had established clandestine contact with the Americans, who promised to supply them with machine guns, grenades, and other weapons. Those promises had gone unfulfilled; but the conspirators were undeterred. Armed only with knives, pistols, and antiquated 19th-century rifles, they aimed at nothing less than to take over the city, arrest the local Vichy generals, admirals, and prefects in their beds, cut communications with the outside world, and immobilize thousands of French soldiers in their barracks.

Astonishingly, through gumption, guile, and guts, these ragtag volunteers succeeded. By 2:00 a.m. on the morning of the invasion, Algeria’s capital was theirs. No less astonishingly, they then proceeded to hold it for an additional five critical hours, making it far easier for Allied troops to enter Algiers than had proved the case in the landing zones of Casablanca and Oran.
If mainstream histories of Torch mention this episode at all, they describe it briefly as but one in a line of heroic tales of French partisans. The official U.S. army account of American military engagement in North Africa, for example, records that “Algiers came under control of the irregulars of the French resistance at the time the landings began.”
Read article in full

On 28 November Harif is putting on a London screening of Rami Kimchi's 'Night of Fools', a documentary about the Jewish role in facilitating the American wartime landing in Algiers. Details here.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Were Egypt’s Jews expelled? Bonan rebuts Bisawe

Israel Bonan 's plans to leave Egypt were disrupted when he became  one of 400 Jews jailed for up to three years after the 1967 war. Haaretz has published his long rebuttal to an earlier piece by Eyal Sagui Bisawe  which argued that Egyptian Jews were not singled out for expulsion: their exit was not as dramatic nor as  systematic as they claim, but a result of decolonisation targeting all minorities. (Bisawe’s claim that Jews from Arab countries exaggerated their persecution to gain legitimacy with Ashkenazi Jews is commonly heard on the left.) Bonan argues that Jews were targeted over and above other minorities and for their religion, not nationality (with thanks: Pablo, Eliyahu, Imre and Lily):

Israel Bonan and his family, Alexandria, 1950s

"We can imagine rows of hooded soldiers gathering Egyptian Jews in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and giving them two options: convert to Islam or be expelled. Or even not giving them the choice but expelling them all. But such an event simply never occurred." 

Putting aside the vulgar and unworthy lack of empathy, the ridicule and venom, what is the definition of the word expulsion? A common definition would be: “The process of forcing someone to leave a place, especially a country.”

A process usually entails more than one step to accomplish a purpose.

So, what was the process used to expel the Jews and other minorities from Egypt? These steps spanned many years, promoted by successive governments all marching to the same tune: "Egypt for the Egyptians". 

The process follows the same template of Nazi Germany, and of all forms of fascism. Loss of citizenship rights and protection, loss of jobs in the private and public sectors, no prospect for future employment, dispossession of assets, death, and expatriation/expulsion. 

In 1929 Egypt enacted a nationality law that stripped the great majority of Egyptian Jews, who’d lived in Egypt for centuries, of their nationality and their citizenship rights and protection. This law forced the Jews of Egypt to outright seek such protection from foreign governments by proving plausible lineage to those countries, or to remain stateless.

In case Mr. Bizawe misses the significance of that law, it implied that the majority of the Jews were not to be considered Egyptians, because of their religion.

In 1947 Egypt enacted the Company Law, which mandated Egyptian citizenship for 90% of employees and 70% of management in any private or public company. The Company Law, in one fell swoop, denied most Jews, as well as Armenians, Greeks, and other ethnic minorities, of their livelihood.

This one-two punch is a true example of economic ethnic cleansing; first you declare they are non-Egyptians, and then you restrict work in the public and private sectors to Egyptians only. After that, Jews quickly learned they would never find a job. 

Once again, in case Mr. Bizawe misses the significance of that law: Greeks and Armenians were targeted for their nationality, but Jews for their religion.

In 1954 Egypt enacted the Nationalization Law, stripping Jews and even well-to-do Egyptians of their businesses, and nationalizing their assets. 

With the rise of Arab nationalism and the onset of the UN partition debate over Palestine, the political environment in Egypt grew progressively more hostile toward the Jewish community. Mr. Bizawe ignores the significance of the final incarceration and expulsion of Jewish adult males in 1967.

Did the Mizrahi Jews "leave of their own volition"? My sister left Egypt first, to be betrothed; my brother followed a year later, after he finished his engineering studies; and I had one month left before I could earn my own engineering degree and, together with my elderly parents, join my siblings. 

What is "of our own volition?” History is about cause and effect: the laws and measures taken left us with no option but to leave. 

Read article in full

Sunday, October 08, 2017

New Sephardi Museum planned for Netanya

The Sefarad Museum: Sefardi and Oriental Jewry Heritage Center, in Netanya, Israel, is scheduled to break ground in 2018, to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary, according to Canadian Jewish News. Note that this project will be devoted to the Jews of Spain, and should not be confused with the Museum of Jews from Arab Countries, which is projected to be built in Jerusalem. (With thanks: Imre)

Artist's impression of the Netanya Museum

It promises to be the most significant museum of its kind, illuminating over 2,000 years of Sephardi and Oriental Jewry’s intellectual and cultural contributions to Judaism. The 5,000-square-meter facility, set on four floors, has been spearheaded by the Netanya Academic College and the municipality of Netanya, with support from Israel’s Ministry of Culture and Sport, as well as Jewish donors from around the world.

 Integrating traditional display techniques with interactive technologies, including virtual reality displays and interactive touch screens, the museum’s highlights will include a Ladino music centre, a state-of-the-art research library, a gallery on Christopher Columbus and Sephardi Jewish maritime achievements in the Middle Ages, exhibits on Maimonides and Judah Halevy, and a history of Spanish Jewry.

 It’s slated to open in about three years.

Read article in full

Friday, October 06, 2017

Egyptian diplomats make Yom Kippur visit in Paris

Two Egyptian embassy officials paid a courtesy call to a community of Egyptian Jews in Paris on Yom Kippur. The visit seems to herald a better era in relations.

“The Egypt which no longer wished to know us has not quite forgotten us,” declared Yves Fedida of the Nebi Daniel Aasociation. The visit recalled that of General Neguib to the Cairo community in 1952.

Deputy Chief of Mission Hesham el Mekwad and First Secretary Mohamed Kandil called on the Oratoire Nebi Daniel on the holiest day of the Jewish year. In his report of the event, Mr Fedida praised the Egyptian government for taking steps to preserve Egypt's Jewish heritage.

They have pledged to protect three cemeteries in Alexandria from intruders and vandals and are undertaking a survey of graves. The Egyptian government will finance the repairs to the Nebi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria to the tune of 5 million euros. In Cairo the Drop of Milk charitable association has been revived to catalogue registers and restore Cairo cemeteries. The Association also aims to establish an exhibition space and cultural centre.

Egyptian Jews are still waiting for the government to follow through on its promise to permit them to obtain copies of communal records.

The Nebi Daniel Association is keeping up the pressure by urging people to sign the petition here.

Tunisian police arrest Jew on Kippur eve

Hundreds of Jews demonstrated as Yom Kippur ended for the release of Tsion Haddad, in police custody. Story in Actualite juive ( with thanks: Michelle)

Hundreds of Jews demonstrate for the release of Tsion Haddad.

  Haddad, 70, was stopped by police for having illegally-acquired meat in his car on the eve of Yom Kippur.  The meat, they alleged, was unfit for human consumption. As soon as the festival was over, hundreds of Jews still wearing their skull caps demanded the intervention of the prime minister and the minister of the interior. A similar incident has not occurred for 20 years. To-date it is assumed that Haddad has still not been released.

 Some 1,000 Jews live on the island of Djerba, one of the most ancient of Jewish communities.

Read article in full (French)

Thursday, October 05, 2017

US senator urges government not to send back archive

Senator Charles Schumer has called upon US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to return the Iraqi-Jewish archive, as mandated by an agreement signed between the provisional government in Iraq in 2003 and the US National Archives and Records Administration which shipped the archive to the US for restoration. To return the collection to its Jewish owners would require a new agreement, according to the Times of Israel (with thanks: Lily):

Schumer is among a group of US lawmakers who have joined Jewish groups in lobbying to keep the archive in a location accessible to Iraqi Jews and their descendants, who today live outside Iraq after being driven out amid intense persecution. Iraq and proponents of returning the archive say it can serve as an educational tool for Iraqis about the history of Jews there and that it is part of the country’s patrimony. “It’s disheartening that parchments of a Torah scroll and prayer books were discovered in such poor condition inside a flooded Baghdad Intelligence Center. After the United States preserved this ancient collection, it makes no sense to return the items to the Iraqi government, where they will no longer be accessible to the Jewish community,” Schumer said Tuesday in a statement released along with the letter.

Children's Haggadah from 1902

 Earlier this month, Rodriguez (State Department spokesman Pablo) said the United States “will urge the Iraqi government to take the proper steps necessary to preserve the archive, and to make it available to members of the public to enjoy.” Major Jewish groups have remained largely silent on the issue following the announcement of the 2018 return date. The Zionist Organization of America released a statement last month urging the State Department not to send back the archive, and Israeli lawmaker Anat Berko told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pressure the US to not send back the artifacts. The archive is set to be exhibited at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from October 15 to January 15.

  Read article in full

Have you signed the petition yet?

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Only 24 Jews remain in Turkish capital

The ancient Turkish community dates back to biblical times but today its 24 members struggle to make a minyan on Yom Kippur. Article in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily)

“The Jews of Ankara are so far and few between that I can fit them all around my dining room table,” says Israel's ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na’eh, as he surveys the congregants for Yom Kippur services in the nearly empty synagogue.

Located in Ulus, the tumbling old quarter of Turkey’s capital, the synagogue dates back to the 19th century and was radically refurbished by an Italian architect in 1906. Na’eh is surrounded by a sea of little carpets that are laid out on the synagogue benches, which remain unoccupied throughout the holy day.

In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proclaimed Ankara the capital of the newly founded Turkish republic, but the history of the city — and that of its Jewish community — date back much further.

A minyan (prayer quorum) is a struggle at the Ankara Synagogue, Turkey. (Esti Judah/Davide Lerner)

The Jewish community of Ankara can be traced back to the biblical period. The Byzantine-era Jews, known as Romaniots, inhabited central Anatolia well before a wave of thousands of Sephardi Jews came to the region following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The community peaked at about 5,000 members in the 1930s, according to researcher Enver Arcak, who has produced a new documentary, “Hermana,” (“Sister” in Spanish) on the history of the local Jews.

Ankara’s Jewish community now numbers a mere 24 people, and that includes the Jewish members of the diplomatic corps and UN officials posted in the city. Just a few of the 24 turned up promptly for the start of Saturday morning’s Yom Kippur service, which was led by a rabbi sent from Istanbul. It took several hours and many desperate phone calls to gather a minyan, the minimum of 10 male Jews required to start the prayers.

“When I was a child the whole neighborhood of Samanpazari of Ulus was bustling with Jewish life,” bemoans Can Ozgun, president of the local Jewish community. “The synagogue was open every day,” adds Moshe, one of the community elders.

“Now I only open it once or twice a year,” Ozgun says, fidgeting with the keys to the synagogue. The rest of the year Ozgun is rarely available, declining requests to open the synagogue for curious passersby.

In his documentary, Arcak tries to identify the key turning points in the Jewish depopulation of Ankara and the region. “Thousands of Jews, as well as Greeks and Armenians, were forced to leave Turkey in 1942 after the issuing of the so-called levy on wealth and extraordinary profits,” he says. “The tax was deliberately tailored to transfer their riches to ethnic Turks by requesting sums from the minorities that they were unable to pay.”

Against the backdrop of an economic slump following World War II, another wave of Turkish Jews left for the newly founded State of Israel, Arcak explains. While Turkey’s neutrality during WWII helped save the Turkish community from the fate of European Jewry, Turkey did not prove immune to the postwar economic downturn that crippled much of Europe. Like many other Europeans, Ankara’s Jews packed their bags to search for better economic fortunes overseas, heading to North America and Israel; others settled closer to home, in Istanbul and Izmir.

Prayer led from the pulpit of Ankara Synagogue, Ankara, Turkey. Esther Judah

By the 1960s and '70s, the Jews of Ankara numbered 500 to 600 people. “We would sit in the right-hand corner [of the synagogue] squeezed together,” recalls Ozgun’s wife, Vicky. “That’s where the young people would sit, and our mothers would sit on the central balcony over there,” she continues, pointing to the empty, dusty women’s balcony above. Broken neon lights flicker above the terrace. On the ornate ceiling, with cracked, peeling paint, a chandelier dangles above us, half its bulbs burned out.

Moshe was born across the street from the synagogue in 1948 and is a proud speaker of Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish dialect. “We are the last generation to keep the language alive,” he says. Moshe and his wife grew up in the Jewish quarter of the old city, which lies below the Roman citadel. “We moved away from Ulus in 1956 toward Kizilay, the modern central quarter of the city, where there was running water and electricity; we then moved upward toward Ayranci, the city’s hilly residential area,” he recalls.

Moshe now lives in a modern high-rise apartment block a far cry from the abandoned houses in front of the synagogue, in the heart of what is now the slums of Ulus. “With the jobs [available] in Istanbul, people moved on,” he says, especially as they became less involved in civil service and government institutions in the capital. Most Jews are in trade and found better work opportunities on the Bosphorus, he adds.

With the exception of some 1,400 Jews who live in Izmir, Istanbul is home to almost all of Turkey’s 17,000 Jews. But there, too, the community has been shrinking. As many as 500 Jews have left for Israel since the July 2016 failed coup that ushered in another era of political and economic instability in Turkey. Of those who have remained, thousands have obtained Spanish and Portuguese citizenship, based on laws passed in both countries offering citizenship to descendants of Jews exiled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.

As Yom Kippur draws to a close, Viktoria, one of the elderly women of the community, slumps down in her chair next to me. “It breaks my heart that he married a Muslim,” she laments while flicking through her phone showing me pictures of her son’s wedding, where he is pictured standing next to a pretty Turkish woman in a décolleté dress.

The last wedding in Ankara’s synagogue was held in 2008; the one before that, 16 years earlier. With the closing prayers of Yom Kippur, Viktoria slips her phone back in her purse, and the muezzin's call from the local mosque echoes through the broken window. Before long, Viktoria grabs her phone again, this time to film the pinnacle of the Yom Kippur prayers, the ne’ila, and send the clip to her son.

When it comes to religious observance, the community is very relaxed, with members using their phones in the synagogue. Indeed, the Jews of Istanbul make fun of the president of the Ankara community, Ozgun, who is a wholesale supplier of non-kosher meat.

Before the closing prayers and the symbolic shutting of the front door, the women fuss over Can and Vicky’s daughter, a tall woman in her early 20s, with long brown hair. “You have to go to Israel to find yourself a husband darling,” one of the women tells her. “Hedi, hedi,” they add for good measure — the Turkish word for “c’mon.”

Intermarriage has played as important a role in the disappearance of the local community as migration has.

“We can’t remember the last person to have used the mikveh,” says Hannah, one of Ankara’s elderly Jews, referring to the ritual bath where a woman immerses herself before her wedding. “It must be somewhere around here,” she adds. “I assume it’s under some rubble around the synagogue. When I was married we used the hamam,” she chuckles, referring to the Turkish bath.

The last rabbi of Ankara’s community immigrated to Israel in the 1980s. In the wake of a coup in 1980, the community sent half of its Torah scrolls to Israel for safekeeping, but they have gone missing, say local Jews. In the run-up to the military takeover that year, which included violent clashes between left-wing and right-wing factions in universities and public places, many Jews and other Turks left for good.

At the end of the Yom Kippur service the Torah scrolls are taken to a back room, more of a former janitor’s cubby hole for safekeeping, “in case they are stolen or if there is a fire,” says Meir, a younger member of the community, who clings to the scrolls tightly.

Ozgun, holder of the key and president of the tiny community, ushers the few remaining Jews out the door and flicks the lights off. “Will see you next year, Inshallah,” Vicky waves as she watches her husband lock the gates of the centuries-old synagogue. Before she bids her final goodbye she turns and adds, “that is, if we are still here next year.”

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