Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Saudi official: 'Holocaust denial distorts history'

In a historic move, the leader of the Muslim World League, a group based in Saudi Arabia, has condemned Holocaust denial as a “crime [that] distort[s] history and an insult to the dignity of those innocent souls who have perished.” But Dr Muhammad bin abdel-Kareem Al-Issa did not mention that Jews were the primary victims. United for Israel reports:

In a letter sent to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum last week, Dr. Muhammad bin abdel-Kareem Al-Issa, the secretary general of the Muslim World League, wrote that “history is indeed impartial no matter how hard forgers tried to tamper with or manipulate it.”

Al-Issa wrote the message, sent to museum director Sara Bloomfield, five days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day was marked on January 27.
Al-Issa also referred Holocaust denial as “an affront to us all since we share the same human soul and spiritual bonds.”

The cleric did not specify Jews as the principal victims of the Holocaust in his letter, but instead spoke of “this human tragedy perpetrated by evil Nazism” and “our great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Read article in full

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Alexander Aciman: 'Am I French? Sort of'

 Alexander Aciman provides an  antidote to the fashionable identity label 'Arab Jew' with this tribute to the powerful influence of French culture on Jews who went to the schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Arab countries. But France can no longer protect Jews, he argues.  Read his column in the New York Times.

I have spent my entire life trying to explain to people why I speak French, why I grew up speaking French with my father and grandparents, why at least half of my phone calls involve some shouting in French. “Are you French?” they’ll ask. “Sort of” is usually the best I can do.

My confusing family history and the reason I speak French begins in the 1860s, when Adolphe Crémieux, a Frenchman who would go on to become minister of justice, founded a Jewish organization called the Alliance Israélite Universelle and started what it called a “civilizing mission” aimed at teaching Middle Eastern Jews how to speak French and inducting them into French culture. The Alliance opened schools in Turkey and across the Maghreb, and by 1900 had almost 30,000 Jews in its tutelage.

The mission’s aftershock was that foreign Jews felt French even though some might never even step foot in Europe. For French-speaking Jews around the world, the Alliance promised something as powerful and as compelling as the American dream. But it wasn’t just language that the Alliance gave to Jews. They read all of French literature and studied the history of France as one studies their own national culture and history. As a child in Alexandria my father read from a book called “Ma première histoire de France,” “My First History of France,” a book that he would eventually pass on me.

I inherited this French dream. Though my siblings and I were born and raised in the United States, my father made sure we spoke the family language. I feel most at home when I am in France, where I get to speak the language that I dream in. Like a sap, I get choked up when they sing “La Marseillaise” in “Casablanca.”

But things are not so dreamy for Jews today in France. The country is struggling to maintain and protect its large Jewish population, the third largest in the world, which has been dwindling precipitously thanks to the wave of anti-Semitism that has gripped the country over the past decade. In 2015 — the year of the Charlie Hebdo attack — 8,000 Jews left France and headed for Israel.

Read article in full

Monday, January 29, 2018

What? There were Jews in Somalia?

It was in 2007 that Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin came across an article  in the Jerusalem Post revealing the existence of Avraham the Blogger, the last Jew of Somalia. (Our PoNR post carrying an extract attracted 38 comments, mostly from Somalis - some sympathetic, some antisemitic.) Her curiosity piqued that a Jew could survive in a country hostile to Jews,  Dr Kobrin exchanged emails with Avraham (Rami) over three years: they would serve as the basis for a book she has just published. Then, in 2010,  the trail went cold.  

Dr Kobrin writes in the Jerusalem Post:

I asked to be put in touch with Av, who also called himself Rami.

We corresponded from 2007 to 2010 – over 300 emails. I came to know this wonderful young Jewish man and his inspiring mother, Ashira Haybi. They were alone without family, with roots extending back well over one hundred years. Rami’s dad, killed during the civil war, traced his roots to Aden, Yemen, while his mom traced hers to Ta’iz, also in Yemen. Ashira was an accomplished businesswoman trading in textiles. She kept a kosher home, was Shabbat observant and raised Rami to continue the tradition. They fought vigorously to preserve their Judaism under extreme duress.

 Jews sailed across the Gulf of Arabia from Yemen to found a community in Somalia. It is thought that the Ybir tribe converted from Judaism in the 13th century.

Rami spoke candidly about the fierce antisemitism and hatred of the yahud, the Jew. Oddly, it was a Somali Muslim physicist living in London in the Anglo-Somali diaspora who pondered the Jewish diaspora experience and wondered why his people were struggling to adapt. How had the Jews done it? In many ways, Rami and Ashira’s plight calls to mind how the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries were hunted down and exterminated as signs of the Holocaust became manifest. Ordinary people had to ask themselves: when does one leave the land in which you were born and raised and where your grandparents and great-grandparents have lived for generations? And if you must leave, how can you make the arrangements, find the courage and plunge into the unknown? The emails are a gateway into the terrifying world in which Rami and his mother lived and persevered against seemingly impossible odds.

It is often difficult for the lay public to understand the toll that chronic stress and trauma take upon an individual’s psyche. To live in such a toxic environment, under the constant threat of death just because you are a Jew, may seem irrelevant to non-Jews and especially those who profess Islamic antisemitism.

It has been said by some Somalis that they do not know Jews. Perhaps one of the biggest opportunities to counter antisemitism among the Muslim communities is the potential for Somali Muslim diaspora communities to begin to know Jews.

This could dissolve their irrational learned hatred of the Jew.

The emails broke off suddenly in 2008 and then again suddenly I received one email several days after Passover in 2010. Rami promised that he would write more and said it was a sign from “Hashem” that he had remembered his complicated question and password. Tragically I never heard from him again.

Over the years I have continued my search for Rami and his mother. Seven years have passed. My thoughts often turn to all the millions of families who were caught up in the Holocaust, the dead, the survivors, their relatives and friends who even now continue to search for each other.

A year and a half ago it dawned on me that there was virtually nothing written about Somali Jewry. I realized that Rami’s emails were essentially the only extant documents of the last remnant of contemporary Jews in Somalia. As I began to draft the book, my colleague Dr. Norman Simms read the correspondence and referred to Rami and his mother as “crypto-Jews.” Simms is an expert on Sephardi culture.

What struck me was that it was so obvious and yet I had never thought of that phrase. Was it because I was so terrified to think of the consequences of living a Jewish life in Somalia? I contacted Mohammed Diriye Abdullahi, author of Culture and Customs of Somalia. He verified that he had heard about a crypto- Jewish community in Mogadishu.

Rami’s emails bear witness to Jewish survival in a hostile Somali environment under constant threat of attack by Al Shabaab and the clan warlords. Acknowledgment of the existence of the Jews should be part of the effort to enhance Somalia’s pluralism. A future healthy and less violent Somalia may very well depend upon the country’s ability to recuperate and embrace its diversity, especially that of its persecuted minorities.

Read article in full

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Israel's fears for 'trapped' Moroccan Jews in 1955

This paper in Middle Eastern Studies by Avi Picard shows that, in Israel's early years, prime minister Ben Gurion was consistent in preferring a selective aliya policy prioritising young and healthy immigrants to build the country, rather than rescue endangered Diaspora Jews. (He did not discriminate on ethnic lines. When Jews from Poland  came flooding in during the mid-1950s, including some very sick immigrants, he said, 'I would rather a healthy Jew from Persia than a sick one from Poland.') However, Avi Picard shows that he was prepared to revise his preferences when he perceived communities were genuinely at risk.

Three events in October and November 1955 sharpened the conflict between rescue and building. In early October, it was news of the arms deal between Egypt and Czechoslovakia,which altered the balance of armaments in the region and inspired great fear in Israel. On 3 November, a new Government was installed in Israel, with Ben-Gurion returning to the prime minister’s office. On 16 November, the exiled Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Yusef (later King Mohammed V) returned to Morocco and the country’s march to independence gained momentum.

The country’s faster-than-expected progress towards independence added a new concern: no longer just the safety of Morocco’s Jews during a revolt against the colonial authorities, but now their very ability to leave an independent Morocco. If the fear for their safety was abstract, the fear that they might be trapped in the country was all too concrete.

Jewish Agency report pleading for greater aliya from Morocco, written about a month after the return  from exile of the sultan, Mohammed V, to Morocco in 1955, and four months before Morocco received independence from France. It describes the insecurity and economic boycotts to which the Jews in Morocco were exposed. (Zionist archives,  s6/ 7260)

The newspapers of the nationalist parties often asserted that the Jewish Agency’s activity in Morocco revealed the Jews’ lack of allegiance to the country and demanded that the Agency’s offices be closed and Jewish emigration
halted. In addition to their call on the Jews to show loyalty to the country, the
nationalists’ hostility to aliya was fed by the Arab countries’ unwavering opposition to it,because of aliya’s demographic contribution to Israel and because young olim were available for service in the armed conflict with the Arab states.

In the wake of the political developments, Moroccan Jews grew apprehensive and thousands applied to make aliya. But the aliya pipeline was too narrow to meet the demand. While Israel permitted the immigration of 3,000 Jews a month – 36,000 a year –there were more than 100,000 Jews left in Morocco who wanted to get out, and the clock was running down for their freedom to do so. In late 1955, Berl Locker, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, estimated that within nine months, the Moroccan government would ban Jewish emigration. In fact, the gates slammed shut within six months.

Given this situation, the Government and the Jewish Agency Executive held a joint meeting in December 1955. The discussion focused on ways to deal with the increased demand for aliya from Morocco, given the risk of war with Egypt and need to allot budgets for security and weapons purchases. Golda Myerson (later Meir), then the minister of labour, believed that Morocco’s Jews were in grave peril:

Perhaps this is a bit strange.… [Look at yourselves] the day after Morocco declares that no Jew can leave there… No one knows when… We have already experienced such disasters.… I don’t know how deeply France will be willing to get entangled with Morocco about Jewish emigration.… The aliya of Moroccan Jews does not allow me to rest.… What will I do, myself,after aliya from Morocco and Tunisia is barred and I have the feeling that I could have done
something but did not.… I know that from the cold intellectual perspective it is quite absurd to speak about a large aliya.… However, we cannot tell these Jews ‘we won’t take you’.… I saw a cable from a responsible person that said: ‘even to transit camps’. I view the danger soberly and do not delude myself. I know that if we place them in transit camps there will be scandals and sit-down strikes.… I know that it will be catastrophic if we don’t take them to frontier districts and development areas but house them near Tel Aviv, but all the same I cannot
give up and leave the Jews there.

Read paper in full (subscription required)

Friday, January 26, 2018

Remembering the Baghdad hangings, 49 years ago

With thanks: Rick
 Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. Although the event is not remotely comparable to the mass extermination of six million Jews,   it is also 49 years since the Ba'ath party regime hanged nine innocent Jews in Baghdad's Liberation Square. Half a million Iraqis came to sing and dance under the corpses. Of the nine victims, four had their ages falsified because they were under the legal age for hanging of 18.

A few days ago, Richard Atrakchi appeared on the Israeli Arabic Channel to recall his memories of that fateful time. You can see his interview (Arabic) from 16:47 minutes into the video below. The clip has some rare footage of the scenes in Liberation Square on 27 January 1969.

More about the Baghdad hangings
The tenth man and his sister

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Tunisian court seeks arrest of Djerba petrol bombers

 It looks like the authorities are determined to take seriously anti-Jewish incidents on the island of Djerba, in which petrol bombs were thrown at a synagogue and school during three nights of rioting.

 Damage at the Rabbi Betsalel synagogue on Djerba, which is used by students of the Talmud.

An investigating judge at the Medenine Court of First Instance in Tunisia has issued an arrest warrant for five suspects involved in the burning of a place of worship in Djerba, a legal source told Tunisie Numerique last week.
A Jewish place of worship, located in the district of Houmet Souk in Djerba, was burned by five people during night protests that erupted in several parts of the country.

The investigations were able to apprehend the suspects, whose act is motivated neither by religious considerations nor terrorists, according to security officials.

There are about 1,000 Jews still living on the island of Djerba.

Read article in full (French)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

BBC hypes up discrimination against Indian Jews

Timed to coincide with Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to India,  an article written by the BBC Hindi journalist Zubair Ahmed was published on the BBC News website’s ‘India’ and ‘Middle East’ pages under the title “Israel’s Indian Jews and their lives in the ‘promised land’“. See this report by BBC Watch, and my comment below.

The article relates to one of the communities of Jews who immigrated to Israel from India – Bene Israel – and readers are told that: [emphasis added]
“…the biggest crisis faced by the community was in 1962 when the chief rabbinate prohibited Bene Israelis from marrying Jews from other communities.
Dr Weil said the community was up in arms. “They used to conduct sit-in strikes outside the chief rabbinate’s office saying they were Jews for more than 2,000 years and had the right to marry who they wanted.”
It took two years, but they finally succeeded in seeing their demands fulfilled.”
But is that account accurate? Did Israel’s Chief Rabbinate really ban members of the Bene Israel group from marrying other Israeli Jews in 1962 ?
Here is an article published in the ‘Herut’ newspaper on October 20th 1961 under the headline “The Chief Rabbinate rules: ‘Bene Israel’ from India are Jews and marriage with them is permitted”.

Read article in full

 Here's another extract from the BBC story:
"But for many families, the migration did not go as smoothly as hoped.
Mr Gudekar says that like many others of his community, his family were discriminated against because of their darker skin colour and because they could not speak fluent Hebrew.
They were allotted an inferior home, built of asbestos, and tin. Mr Gudekar says his father often regretted leaving their life in India.
But, he says, going back was not an option as they had burned all their bridges with Mumbai. "

My comment: No BBC report on Israel is complete without a dig alleging 'discrimination'. If the Indian Jews felt they were discriminated against for their skin colour, the Ethiopian immigrants arriving in the 1990s would be a notch darker.
Since when was fluent  Hebrew a requirement for newcomers to Israel? The BBC reporter is  most likely unaware that almost all immigrants to Israel in the 1950s or 60s had to live in tent camps or tin or asbestos huts.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Al Jazeera: Jewish archive triggered trauma - among Iraqis!

By now, most readers of this blog will have heard of the Iraqi-Jewish archive, found in the waterlogged basement of the Iraqi secret police headquarters and shipped to the US for restoration. (The US is slated to return it to Iraq next September.) It is only when you get to the very last sentence of this Al-Jazeera piece that the trauma experienced by Jews from Iraq, resulting in their 'ethnic cleansing,' is hinted at. The only Israelis interviewed here by Dalia Hakuta are post-Zionist academics or radical leftists. The overwhelming impression that the archive is the property of Iraq, and that it is the Americans who have stolen it from their rightful  owners. Nowhere in this mendacious piece is it explained that the archive is comprised of  books and documents seized and stolen from Jewish homes, synagogues and communal offices by the Iraqi regime in the 1960s and 70s. My comments in italics are interspersed in the text. (With thanks: Dan)

Baltimore, United States - A group of men and women celebrate a young man's bar mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage when boys turn 13, as a rabbi wraps "tefillin" - black leather straps used during prayer - around the boy's arm.
The crowd of revellers is both Jewish and Iraqi and the celebration was not uncommon: this was Baghdad in 1963.
The black-and-white photograph is part of a treasure trove of ancient pieces of Judaica retrieved from the headquarters of Saddam Hussein's General Intelligence Service during the United States' 2003 invasion of Iraq
The heirlooms include documents dating from the mid-16th century to the 1970s and more than 2,700 books in Hebrew, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic, a version of Arabic written in Hebrew letters and spoken by Iraqi Jews.

They cast invaluable insight on Iraq's ancient Jewish community, which dwindled from an estimated 130,000 people to fewer than five today.

But the rich collection is not without its share of controversy as Iraqis have criticised the delay in repatriating the archives to Baghdad and accused the US of benefitting from the spoils of the occupation of their country.

"The general sentiment is that the Americans took documents that belong to the Iraqis," said Orit Bashkin, a University of Chicago historian and author of Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel.

"And that's also connected in the Iraqi memory of the destruction of libraries and ancient collections that occurred during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq."

So the painful memories triggered by the archive are not Jewish memories of persecution by Saddam's regime resulting in their exile, but the trauma that ordinary Iraqis endured when (Iraqi) looters stole artefacts from museums and libraries during the occupation of Iraq by the US!

The collection - crate loads of rabbis' sermons, school textbooks, and university applications that were waterlogged, muddied or stained - was discovered in a basement that had flooded when the Americans bombed a building in Baghdad 15 years ago.
However, some items were spared because the missile failed to explode.

Following an agreement with the provisional Iraqi government, the US' post-war viceroy, the rare collection was sent to the National Archives and Records Administration in the state of Maryland to be restored.

For a decade, the artefacts underwent an arduous $3m restoration process. Preserved, catalogued and digitised, some pieces were put on display in a touring exhibit that has gone across the US.

At the exhibit's last stop at the Jewish Museum of Maryland this month, visitors could see "tiks" (cases for Torah scrolls) shaped like minaret towers, a testament to Iraq's architecture ('Oriental' architecture might be a more appropriate term - as the tiks predate Iraq, a modern invention); a Hebrew Bible from 1568; and a Haggadah (Passover guide), hand-written and decorated by an Iraqi youth.
Washington had assured the Iraqis the archive would be repatriated after the restoration process was done. But after pushing back the return date several times, the relics are still here.

US officials now say they are slated to be sent back in September 2018.

The question of whether and how Iraq will care for and preserve the archive, were it to return, is not even asked.

The personal pictures and letters found in the archive paint a vivid picture of a well-integrated community whose members held prominent positions in government and commerce and excelled in the world of arts.

By the 1960s, no Jews held  such positions.

Hit songs such as Foug el-Nakhal by Iraqi-Jewish composers Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti remain popular across the Arab world. Sassoon Eskell, a legislator, minister and financier, is still remembered fondly as one of the architects of modern-day Iraq.

In 1910, records show Jews living in Baghdad made up one-quarter of the city's overall population.

By 1949, Iraq's Jewish population totalled about 130,000 people, mostly living in Baghdad, but also in Basra and Mosul. (and Diwaniyya, Hillah, Sandur, Shamiyya, etc)

Many documents capture snippets of their communal life: a letter details the allocation of sheep during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, while another asks the community's patriarch to persuade a man to grant his wife a "Get" (religious divorce).

"The archive talks about public life ... and most of the period it covers is the interwar period [between the two world wars] and the 1950s and 60s of Iraqi Jews who didn't migrate to Israel and lived in Iraq," said Bashkin.
"And you see the degree of Arabisation of the Iraqi Jewish community," she told Al Jazeera.

"It shows you that you could be an Iraqi and a Jew and that there's not an inherent contradiction there, and it shows you can be an Arab Jew."

And what happened to these Jews? Bashkin does not say - No matter how Arabised, they were executed, imprisoned or driven to escape.

But in the US, legislators and Jewish and Zionist groups say the archive should be conserved in a more stable environment where the descendants of Iraqi Jews can access them. Some groups have been lobbying to keep the collection from being repatriated to Baghdad.

In 2014, the Senate passed a unanimous resolution urging the Obama administration to come to a different agreement with Iraqi officials.
Charles Schumer, the Senate minority leader, asked the Department of State in October 2017 not to send the archive back and instead find a location that's more accessible to Iraqi Jews and their descendants.

Groups such as the Zionist Organization of America have made similar arguments, as have members of the Israeli parliament who have been pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pressure the US to back out of its commitment to Iraqi authorities.

"It's pretty clear that a lot of artefacts didn't reach the West in a very ethical way," said Assaf Shalev, an Israeli-American journalist whose paternal family hails from Baghdad.

Huh? the Iraqi-Jewish archive was shipped out after an official, transparent agreement was signed. The manner in which they reached the Baghdad secret police HQ was, on the other hand, highly unethical.

"It's very clear that the US holding on to it would activate [the] sensitiveness around Third World countries getting their cultural heritage stolen," he said, adding he saw the other side of the repatriation debate as well.

 Shalev thinks the archive belongs to Iraq as its national heritage. Or does he?

"If this collection goes to Iraq, Iraqi Jews won't have access to it for the most part. I'm not sure where I fall exactly. I see merits in both arguments," Shalev said.

Shalev is a tad confused. 

When Israel was established in 1948, it began to push for Iraqi Jews to immigrate to the newly established state.

In 1950 and 1951, about 90 percent of the Jewish population left Iraq with most families moving to Israel, US-based historian Michael Fischbach estimates.
Many in the community faced discrimination once they arrived in Israel, however, and they were not given proper work or education opportunities, said Yael Ben Yefet, director of HaKeshet HaDemocratit HaMizrahit (the Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow), a social justice coalition of Middle Eastern Jews in Israel.

Naturally the persecution and discrimination Jews suffered in Iraq pales into insignificance, compared to what they endured in Israel...not

Ben Yefet said most of the Iraqis in Israel today would be unable to see the archive if it remains in the US because of "the educational and social-economic status of Iraqi Jews", which has declined from one generation to the next.

What  utter nonsense. Iraqi Jews are one of the most successfully integrated of ethnic groups in Israel. 

"On a personal level, and if I want my mother to be able to see [the archive], I'd like it to come to Israel or to a place where Iraqi Jews can have access to it," she said.
At last. Someone has said something sensible!

A recent idea has been to permanently house the archive in Iraq, but allow it to tour museums that are accessible to Jewish communities worldwide.
That's a proposal that Ben Yefet said she supports.

In the meantime, Bashkin said the collection remains close to the hearts of many Iraqi Jewish families, for whom it also raises painful memories.

Those include the Farhud - a 1941 pogrom that claimed the lives of 180 members of the community and ended in mass looting of their property - and the killing of 40 Iraqi Jews in 1968 when the Baath party came to power.

At last, Bashkin has admitted that Jews also have unpleasant memories of Iraq. 

"These traumatic memories are often projected onto the archive," Bashkin said.
"They know they can't go back to Iraq and they do want access to it. And this genuine sentiment is being politicised and tied to the question of who represents world Jewry."

Bashkin reduces the issue to a political tug-of-war between Israel and the Jewish diaspora, when it is the Iraqis who are claiming what was never theirs to start with who are politicising the issue.

Read article in full

HonestReporting post

Monday, January 22, 2018

Yad Vashem slams 'incorrect' Haaretz piece

Yad Vashem's expert  on North African Jewry during WW2, Irit Abramski, responds  to a Haaretz article alleging that North African Jewry has been excluded from Holocaust memory. (With thanks: Imre)

Eness Elias’ recent article about Holocaust commemoration in Israel (“Why North African Jews Are Missing From the Holocaust Narrative”) unfortunately contained some inaccuracies and claims that have no basis in reality.
In her piece, Elias mentions the terrible tragedy that occurred in the Giado (or Jadu) camp in Libya. In 1942, the Italian fascists imprisoned more than 2,600 Jews from Cyrenaica, and a few months later, more than 500 other Jews were sent here. The scenes at Giado were reminiscent of those in the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos: piles of dead bodies, with no one to bury them. However, contrary to what the article claimed, it is not the case that “there were many camps like Giado across North Africa.”
What happened in the Giado camp did not happen anywhere else in North Africa – not even in Tunisia, where there were 30 forced labor camps, most of them under the command of the SS.
Elias is angry at the prejudices against North African Jews and the silence concerning the fate of North African Jews in the Holocaust – particularly, seemingly, by Yad Vashem, whose mission “was to commemorate all the Jewish communities and the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But until 2005, when a small memorial corner was created, the disaster of the North African communities was completely unrepresented.”
This is incorrect. Twenty-five years ago, Yad Vashem added the communities of Libya and Tunisia to the Valley of the Communities, which commemorates 5,000 Jewish communities that were damaged or destroyed in the Holocaust. Among the torch-lighters in the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony 36 years ago (1982), 34 years ago (1984), 19 years ago (1999) and just two years ago (2016) were survivors from Libya and Tripoli. Also, in the field of education, 18 years ago a chapter on North African Jewry was included in the high school textbook “Holocaust and Memory,” edited by Prof. Yisrael Gutman, while more than a decade ago Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies produced a special unit on the subject.

 A display of Shoah victim photos at Yad Vashem Museum
Moreover, it is not accurate to say that research on North African Jewry and the Holocaust is not done at Yad Vashem but rather at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. The first Israeli scholarly study on the subject was edited by Prof. Michel Abitbol at the Hebrew University and published in 1986 (and in English three years later). Entitled “The Jews of North Africa During the Second World War,” it was published jointly by the Hebrew University and the Ben-Zvi Institute, together with Yad Vashem. Also, a comprehensive study of these communities was also published by Yad Vashem 20 years ago as part of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities project.
I edited the Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Libya and Tunisia, and collecting the material for it took seven years. It included research in archives in Israel and abroad, recording the testimony of more than 100 survivors, historical maps that were constructed specifically for the study, photographs from private collections and archives, and a wealth of information about the history and culture of the communities in the big cities and small towns before, during and right after the Holocaust. The interviewees – men and women alike – were very pleased with the final product and proudly gave the 533-page book as a precious gift to their families.
The meetings to collect the survivors’ testimonies were an emotional experience for both interviewer and subject, and certainly did not “lead to frustration and anger among the survivors” and did not entail “prejudices, racism and stereotyping.”
The use of phrases such as “exclusion from the collective memory” and the accusation of deliberate racism on the part of the Ashkenazi establishment all points to a lack of knowledge or a disregard by the writer for all of the things described above and for other efforts, such as the annual memorials held by Yad Vashem for the communities of Libya and Tunisia, just as it does for other communities.
It is important to understand that this “competition” over the degree of suffering in the Holocaust – the idea at the heart of the article, which cites a new book by historian Yvonne Kozlovsky Golan, “Forgotten from the Frame: The Absence of the Holocaust Experience of Mizrahim from the Visual Arts and Media in Israel” – leads to a distortion of reality and a loss of proportion.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Iran's Jews have tradition of activism

Fascinating Tablet piece about the history of Jews in Iran by Miriam Levy-Haim. The  community had suffered from Shi'a persecution  and forced conversions, but the 20th century heralded a better era under the modernising Shah Reza I. However, Jews tended to be drawn to Zionism. Some were active in reformist leftwing parties such as the Tudeh.

In December 1925, a high-ranking military officer, Col. Reza Khan, who held a new cabinet position of army commander since 1921, crowned himself Shah-in-Shah of Iran. He was supported by two political parties, the Revival Party and the Reformers’ Party. Belying its name, the Reformers’ Party had a conservative and religious base, comprised of prominent clerics, wealthy merchants, and landed aristocrats. Because of the paternalism of traditional Iranian society, the party was strengthened by universal male suffrage, which extended the vote to the rural masses—the traditional elites were able to draw on the votes of their peasants and tribesmen. In contrast, the Revival party’s base of support was young, Western-educated reformers with a nationalistic agenda, which called for policies such as the separation of religion from politics and the replacement of minority languages throughout Iran by Persian. They idealized pre-Islamic Iran and denounced Arab Muslim imperialism, which they saw as the cause of Iran’s backwardness.

The Revivalists believed that fascism was the most effective way to achieve national cohesion. The opening editorial of Farangistan, an influential journal and organ of the reformers’ movement, read in part:
In a country where 99 percent of the population is under the electoral sway of the reactionary mullahs, our only hope is a Mussolini who can break the influence of the traditional authorities, and thus create a modern outlook, a modern people, and a modern nation.
While Reza Shah’s coronation as king and the development of the nationalist movement occurred before the advent of Nazism in Germany, the ideological affiliation of the right-wing nationalists with fascism in the 1920s and their support for Reza Shah foretold Reza Shah’s close relationship with Hitler, which worried the Iranian Jewish community.

During Reza Shah’s reign, the Jewish community did make political progress but was still the target of anti-Jewish sentiment. Ayub Loqman Nehuray, the Jewish representative in the Majles (1909–1925, 1927–1943), advocated for and achieved some basic legal rights for Jews during his tenure: He secured leave for Jewish military officers during the holidays; he changed inheritance laws that had made a jadid al-Islam (new convert to Islam) the sole heir of his or her non-Muslim family; and he collaborated with Zoroastrian and Armenian representatives to eliminate the law that required registration of marriage and divorce with a government office, which allowed religious minorities to follow their own communal practices.

There was a heated campaign in the Jewish community for the representative of Jews to the fifth Majles between Dr. Loqman and Shemuel Hayim, a Jewish activist and journalist. In 1922, Hayim began publishing an eponymous Judeo-Persian newspaper called He-hayim (The Life), in which he advocated for political equality for Jews. He wrote to the League of Nations in Geneva regarding violations of Jewish rights and was active in several Jewish community organizations, such as the Zionist organization Ha-histadrut ha-tzionit and served as president of Tehran’s Jewish organization, Ben Israel Organization (Anjoman-e markazi-ye bani esra’il-e tehran). He was elected to the Majles in 1925. In 1926, in middle of his term in the Majles, Hayim was inexplicably arrested on charges of conspiring against the Shah. He was imprisoned for six years while maintaining his innocence before he was executed in 1931.

Reza Shah Pahlavi’s forced abdication by the Allies in 1941 spurred greater Jewish political involvement, for the most part, gravitating toward leftist movements. If Jewish Iranian intellectuals were repulsed by the ultra-nationalist parties because of the obvious Nazi and fascist ideological influences, they were drawn to the leftist camp primarily for class reasons. The Tudeh party was a class movement, forming immediately after Reza Shah’s abdication, rooted in the intelligentsia and the industrial working class, which included Jewish and other ethnic workers. Young Jewish men and women were active in the Tudeh party and participated in underground meetings and demonstrations. Some of them were arrested and imprisoned for their activities and tortured by the authorities. Jewish-Iranian intellectuals engaged in both nationalist and Zionist activities, supporting Prime Minister Mosaddeq and the effort to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. and organizing specifically Jewish and Zionist meetings and resisting anti-Semitism.

Yet while Jews did join the Tudeh party, the movement failed to gain mainstream Jewish support, in part because many Jews were drawn to Zionism. A third of the Iranian Jewish community moved to Israel between 1948 and 1953 for Zionist as well as economic reasons. Most of these emigrants came from the provinces and working class, precisely the natural base for Tudeh members and activists. This massive wave of emigration also helps explain why the Jewish community was so prosperous under the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah—the poorer strata of the community had left to Israel.

Read article in full

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Truth about vanished kids must be revealed, says Rivlin

 President Rivlin of Israel met representatives of an NGO lobbying for full disclosure of what happened to Yemenite children who disappeared without explanation in the transit camps of the 1950s. The Jerusalem Post has the story: (With thanks: Stan )

 Yemenite Jews newly settled at a moshav in Israel

Decades after the disappearance of scores of Yemenite children in the earliest years of the state, the truth of how and why they disappeared has not been fully clarified.

On Monday President Reuven Rivlin met with Yael Nagar, Yael Tzaddok and Rachamim Eden, representatives of Achim Vekayamim (Brothers and Living), an NGO dedicated to full disclosure of what happened to the children – whose parents continued to grieve for them for years and never believed stories told to them in hospitals healthy children had suddenly died.

“The truth must be revealed,” declared Rivlin. “We are sufficiently strong today to cope with the truth. This is an episode that leaves a wound in the heart of the nation and we must not ignore it.”

He was confident that in the near future, a way would be found at the state level to intensify the investigation and to learn what still needs to be known.

A special Knesset committee set up to investigate available evidence reached the conclusion that in a number of cases, children were abducted and given to Jewish families in the United States for adoption. The committee even knows the identity of the chief liaison in this affair.

That fact, however, has not given closure to Israel’s Yemenite community.

Read article in full

Friday, January 19, 2018

Leaders appeal for Yemeni Jews to come to UK

Politicians and Jewish community leaders this week called on the government for “urgent” help to get one of the last Jewish families left in war-torn Yemen to London to reunite with Stamford Hill relatives, according to a Jewish News scoop. It is not clear if the Jews in question are living in the Sana'a compound, where the 50 or so Jews have been receiving food parcels. In 2011 MPs Diane Abbott and Mike Freer failed  to get Yemeni Jews from Raida in the north admitted to the UK as refugees. 

Jews in Yemen

Supporters of the family say they are “subject to persecution” as efforts build to help facilitate the arrival of the six family members, including the mother, father, three girls and the father’s mother, who has just turned 70. 

Their plea for help came as the United Nations said last weekend that the Yemen conflict “has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, a crisis which has engulfed the entire country”.

Supporters say the family are “living in appalling conditions and their lives are in danger” and that the Home Office has advised that the family needs to apply to come to the UK, but the visa application centre in Yemen is closed.

Jewish News has seen the names and dates of birth of the six family members, two of whom are under the age of 18, who are seeking refuge in the UK, as well as copies of legal opinions discussing how best to help.

A spokesman for the family said: “We understand that no special procedure will apply to them and that they need to make a valid application to come to the UK. However, we hope that, given their particular plight, this will be considered favourably.”

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Abbas lies about Mizrahi history and aliya

In response to President Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, Palestinan Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas made a bombshell speech  on 11 January to the PLO Central Council. Many commentators (here,   here and here ) have  condemned his outrageous comments - among other things, asserting that Israel is a colonialist project that has nothing to do with Judaism and that the Jews of Europe preferred to stay and face slaughter in the Nazi Holocaust rather than emigrate to Palestine.

Mahmoud Abbas: outrageous

This blog will focus on Abbas's astonishing claims concerning Mizrahi Jews: 

"When they occupied 78% of Palestine, they were only 650,000 Jews. What were they to do? They said: We need Jews. But the Jews refused to come. Ben-Gurion did not want to bring the Jews of the East."

This is a re-statement of the propaganda canard that Israel needed the Mizrahi Jews to populate the land and as a source of cheap labour.


"He (Ben-Gurion)  would say: 'I hate them. They look like Arabs. They look like Arabs, and I don't want them. It will take three or four generations for anything to come of them. I don't want them.'

This fabricated quote by Ben-Gurion contradicts genuine statements he made, such as : "there is no reason to think  that Jews from North Africa, Turkey, Egypt, Iran or Aden are fundamentally different from those of Lithuania, Galicia and America. They have deep inside that pioneering spirit..."

Abbas paints a false picture of reluctant 'Arab Jews' forced to emigrate to Israel. 
"But when he (Ben-Gurion) saw how vast the [newly occupied] land was, he was forced to bring in Jews. The Arab Jews did not want to come either – not from Iraq and not from Yemen. From Yemen, in 1949, TWA airplanes... TWA was owned by... By Somalia? By whom? TWA took 50,000 Jews from Yemen to Israel."

Why the airline TWA, of all carriers, should suddenly pop up in Abbas's speech is quite bizarre (Alaska Airlines was responsible for airlifting the Jews of Yemen to Israel). Presumably, the reference to Somalian ownership is sarcastic. Everyone knows TWA was US-owned.

"It was called Operation Magic Carpet. That was its code name. But these 50,000 were not enough, and they turned to Iraq. In Iraq, there was a huge reservoir of Jews, a wealth of Jews. So they reached an agreement with Nuri Al-Said, Allah's mercy upon him, and with Tawfiq Al-Suwaidi, Allah's mercy upon him too..."

 Here Abbas's mendacious version of history promotes a conspiracy between Zionists and Arab regimes (reminiscent of Ken Livingston's allegation that Zionists made a pact with Nazis). It  denies both countries' records of anti-Jewish persecution, which included forced conversion to Islam in Yemen and pogroms such as the 1941 Farhud in Iraq.

 "They reached an agreement that they would strip the Jews of their nationality, and force them to leave. Thus, 150,000 Iraqi Jews were driven out and sent to Israel. They did not make do with this. They gathered the Jews from all the Arab countries – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon – and did not leave anyone behind. They transferred them all to Israel."

It is galling that not only did Abbas get away with such brazen lies, but that the western media covered for him, choosing to omit or whitewash his distortions.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Baroness alludes to Jews of Iraq in minorities debate

It is not often that the UK House of Lords is made aware of the tragic plight of the Jews of Iraq, but in a debate on religious minorities in Iraq on 11 January, Baroness Ruth Deech managed to devote a few minutes to their history while appealing for the British government to take a proactive approach to the protection of minorities.

 Baroness Deech in the UK House of Lords

"Sometimes it is difficult for us here in this tolerant country to understand the role played by religion elsewhere. In the area under debate today, it is not just a question of choice of belief; religion equates with identity. Indeed, one reason why so many countries in the Middle East are in turmoil is that the nation states there, sometimes created by western colonialists 100 years ago, do not coincide with religious boundaries.

Those new states have bundled together people who identify with their communities across boundaries rather than in their own neighbourhoods. To be a religious minority is seen by the ruling class as if one was a foreigner at best and a traitor to the community at worst. It has become especially dangerous to be a minority since the rise of Daesh. Nor is this attitude confined to Muslims; we have seen the atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma by the majority. But in determining cash and protection allocation, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees does not include religious persecution as one of the vulnerability categories. It is time for religious persecution to be up front in UN relief work. Will the Government urge the UN bodies to confront this?

Religious tolerance has been on the decline in Iraq since the 1920s, in tandem with the rise of Arab nationalism and the growing Islamisation of Iraq’s society and state. A good example is the expulsion of the Jews in the 1950s. Today, it is the Yazidis, Palestinians and Christians under threat.

The Jews of Iraq had a history going back 2,000 years; now they are non-existent. A century ago, one-third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. We have heard much about the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in recent months. One aim of that important document was that,

“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the … rights … or the … political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

What followed was the persecution, killing and expulsion of Jews across the Middle East. Jews allegedly came to Iraq after the exile from Jerusalem in 586 BC. Babylon was a focus of Judaism for more than 1,000 years. A millennium later, Islam arrived there and persecution started. In the 1930s, Iraq followed the German lead in barring Jews from education and the professions. In imitation of the Nazis, there came a pogrom, or “Farhud”, in June 1941, during which an Iraqi mob burned Jewish property, looted houses and hundreds of Jews lost their lives. After the creation of Israel, things got even worse for the Iraqi Jews, regardless of their political affiliation.

Jews were dismissed from virtually all jobs, and to be suspected of being a Zionist was punishable by execution. At first, they were forbidden to emigrate; it later became government policy to get rid of them all. Nearly all the Jewish families left in the 1950s, and their property was forfeit. Saddam Hussein hanged nine Jews as supposed traitors in front of a crowd. The United States has guarded the significant archive of Jewish artefacts in Iraq, all that remains of the community, but is likely to return it to Iraq. Will the Government urge the US to continue to protect that archive?

This year, a new law by the Iraqi Government will target Palestinians living there. It will effectively abolish rights given to Palestinian refugees, causing them to be treated as foreigners rather than nationals, even if born in Iraq. The new law deprives Palestinians living in Iraq of their right to free education, healthcare and travel documents, and denies them work in state institutions. Most of that community has gone to other countries, such as Canada, Chile, Brazil and elsewhere in Europe, where they are better treated than they have been in their homelands. Will our Government press the Iraqi Government to reverse this law, number 76 of 2017, and condemn the treatment of Palestinians in Iraq?

One remedy for this grave situation lies with the British embassy. In Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, a human rights focus should be incorporated into embassy work and our diplomats should monitor freedom of religion. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has issued guidance on how to handle discrimination and suggests that countries that deny freedom should be asked to accept a visit from the UN rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. It is noted that the UK can support, from the aptly named Magna Carta fund, individuals and organisations working to achieve freedom of religion. Our diplomats can visit victims, attend trials and lobby ministries.

I fear that these excellent intentions may not achieve much, because at the apex of all international effort lies the UN Human Rights Council, a body now so perverted that it no longer makes sense to support it.

Read speech in full

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An Algerian Jewish fighter's story during WW2

Little over seventy-five years ago on 8 November 1942, the Allied forces launched Operation Torch in North Africa. The plan was to land in Morocco and Algeria and defeat the Vichy regimes in  both countries. The US asked for the help of local resistance fighters in Algiers. Little did they imagine that a small band of Jewish fighters under the leadership of Jose Albouker would take control of strategic points in the city in the space of 15 minutes. Maurice Ananou, son of Joseph Ananou, a 20-year-old resistance fighter, gave this witness statement (translated by PoNR) to MORIAL, the Association of Jews from Algeria, about his father's exploits. (With thanks to Jocelyne S)

A view of Algiers: resistance fighters took control of strategic points

My father Joseph Gilbert Ananou, born 19 December 1922 at Aumale (an Algerian departement) was one of the Jewish partisan irregulars who assisted the Anglo-US landing at Algiers on 8 November 1942.

He was part of Captain Pilafort's group. The captain fell at his side during the capture of the Main Post Office and Central Police HQ on Boulevard Baudin.

That night, they had met up at the home of the Aboulkers (Jose Aboulker led the resistance operation - ed) on rue Michelet.

He was almost shot by the mobile guards at the entrance to the Post office when an officer said, 'Frenchmen ought not to fire on other Frenchmen.' I don't know how many times my father repeated the long-awaited coded message 'Robert arrive.'

He said very little about his subsequent imprisonment in the south of Algeria. I know that he was asked during his internment to give away to some poor blighter in trouble the 'Croix de guerre' or medal he was due to receive. He agreed to do so: he had done what he had to do.

In a speech on the North African military operations General Murphy  had declared that the resistance fighters of Operation Torch had enabled the Allied landings on the beaches of Sidi Ferruch and thus had changed the course of world history!!!

Among the names mentioned by M. Gozlan (another witness) was my uncle, Joseph Bouchara and his brother Fernand. They were friends before they became in-laws with Sam Bendavid: his children were in my class with me in Algiers and left for Israel in 1962. So did Albert Azoulay who lived in my block and took me to the school on the rue Lazerges every morning together with his daughters. Raoul Cohen Addad later became financial comptroller and gave my father, among others,  a hard time after the war....

(An aside to Isidore Senego: If my father did not receive a citation it's  perhaps because he did not want the honour and another would have benefitted from it.)

Let's not forget that he was only 20. When asked, what did you do in your twenties, he would have said, the same as they did.

The 300 - 350 resistance fighters would have made up most of that age group. They all knew each other and had all been mates, they were part of the Algerian-Jewish community at the time.

I was a child, my father was a good story-teller, I liked history and he was part of history. He was my hero.

Nonetheless all of them were traumatised when their French nationality was not immediately restored to them. Long after the landings, they had ID cards which said 'Indigenous Jew.'

Then they joined the French army. My father was in a transport unit. For a time he was a driver for Marechal de Lattre de Tassigny. But he was let go because my father bit his nails and the marshal could not face being driven  by someone who was driving with one hand, putting his august personage's life at risk.

In 1943, he entered Tunis and always had fond memories of the Jews who invited him into their homes for Passover.

Then came the landing in Naples and my uncle fought at Monte Cassino where the battles were as awful as in the Belfort Gap, where he served as stretcher-bearer.

After Italy came the landings in Provence. My father was the driver to General de Monsabert. They ascended the valley of the Rhone to Dijon. He became aide-de camp to  General de Larminat. When the villages were liberated the (soldiers) were welcomed magnificently. It was then that he discovered France.

There were tough battles at Belfort and in the Alsace plain: many regiments perished.

He told the story of having his photo taken by the town photographer at Vesoul, who placed it in his window. His little brother happened to pass by, recognised him and thus they were reunited after two years of graft without news of one another.

They marched into Germany - Stuttgart. At Lake Constance he saw the greatest fireworks display on 8 May 1945. From Berchestgaden to Berlin, they went for a drive in Hitler's Mercedes, which consumed 50 litres of petrol every 100 kilometers. The high point of the trip was when the French army gathered all the Jews and provided them with a Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur meal in September 1945 at the Aubette de Strasbourg.

He ended the war having received an honorary officer rank in the French army.

For me, the 8 November was the road I followed every day to school.

Sidi Ferruch was an immense beach: you could take your car on it and park it by the sea and from time to time you had to dig it out of the sand. There was a shack made of planks with the most basic of toilets. There was also a promontory with a huge cuboid monument to the landings of the French troops in 1830 and beyond, a fish tank where you could eat fresh mussels.

Later, when our parents' situation improved, it became a small hotel-restaurant where we used to start the swimming season at Whitsun.

There is a good description of Operation Torch on Wikipedia and I have some good cassette tapes on the first historic Allied victory. Lately there was programme  on Operation Torch attributing to the Gaullists the reasons why the victory did not earn its rightful place in the history of the resistance. I visited the Shoah Memorial in Paris. The massacres of the Jews are well documented, as well as their acts of resistance.

I remember seeing a room recording the different phases of WW2 and if I remember rightly all the military operations, beginning with the victory in the East at El-Alamein which was meant to end the Afrikakorps' grip on north Africa. and in the West, the Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algeria.

The final battle was in Tunisia but I never saw  it commemorated  as the first Allied victory owing to the fact that the resistance fighters were not directly affiliated with Gaullism. I had hoped to find a trace of such an event - perhaps it was because few people died.

There were few Germans in Algeria and Morocco but there were Italians. In Tunisia, on the other hand, the Germans made their presence felt. They deported  Jews to concentration camps in Poland and Germany, in fact  their first victims were Jews from eastern Europe who had managed to escape their persecutions. I can understand why the Shoah Memorial Museum left out North Africa, in relation to the immeasurable disaster on continental Europe, but you can't not mention it.

One can draw parallels with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising a few months later, from January to Easter 1943. What do these acts of resistance have in common?  Both involved a majority of Jews fighting against Nazism. In one case, many perished. In the other, almost all survived. In the first case, it was a last stand of despair, in the second, it was a fight for hope, and what better symbol of hope than the United States of America.

"We are not fighting to save our lives. No one will come out alive from here. We want to save human dignity."                            Arie Wilner, Warsaw ghetto fighter

Monday, January 15, 2018

How Jewish fighters changed the course of WW2

This article in Haaretz by Beit Hatefutsot and Ushi Derman describing the little-known exploits of a small band of Jewish resistance fighters, who paved the way for the Allied landing in Algiers in 1942 (Operation Torch), is a welcome effort to restore a much-neglected episode to the historical record. These fighters have been compared to the resisters of the Warsaw Ghetto. Unlike them, however, the Algerian resistance had a strategic impact on the course of the war. (With thanks: Lily)
 Top: An Algerian Jewish couple, 19th century. Middle: Jose Aboulker, resistance leader. Bottom: US troops landing in Algiers harbour.

In 1940, following the German occupation during World War II, Algeria became a protectorate of the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis. The Vichy regime abolished the Crémieux Decree, depriving Algeria’s Jews of citizenship and launching a harsh anti-Jewish campaign. Soon all Jewish students were expelled from the universities and public schools.

In 1941, the Jews were about 2 percent of the population but over 37 percent of medical students, 24 percent of law students, 16 percent of science students and 10 percent of arts students. At that time masses of Jews were dismissed from their positions as doctors, jurists, teachers and officials. They were left to the rage of those Algerians and French settlers who sought revenge after decades of envy and hostility.

Young Jews led by José Aboulker decided to react. Aboulker was from a wealthy educated family; his father, Dr. Henri Aboulker, was a successful physician and surgeon and taught at the University of Algiers. His mother, Berthe Bénichou-Aboulker, was a celebrated poet and playwright, one of the first women in Algeria to publish her own literary work.

The young Aboulker would not accept Vichy France’s racism and discrimination against the Jews; he gathered relatives, students and friends and established a Jewish resistance group disguised as a sports club named Géo Gras. That was simply the name of a non-Jewish coach who knew nothing about the club’s real purposes.

At first the group focused on local tasks such as defending Jews from violence, buying weapons and distributing anti-government leaflets, all the while preparing for bigger operations. The group had to wait until November 8, 1942, to launch its bold operation.

The summer of 1942 was one of the lowest points in the Allies’ struggle against the Nazis. In early July, Gen. Erwin Rommel’s forces arrived at El Alamein on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, threatening to take Egypt including the Suez Canal. Later that month, the Battle of Stalingrad began, so Stalin demanded that the Allies open a new front in the west. The strategists’ eyes were on the southwest: Africa.

Operation Torch was the code name for the Allies’ landing on the shores of Morocco and Algeria, within the overall battle for North Africa. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the U.S. commander of the operation, knew there were officers in the Vichy army whose dislike for the Germans outdid their loyalty to the regime. The Americans needed help from within and found Aboulker and his men; the resistance fighters were to take key facilities in Algiers.

They set off in the night of November 8, 1942. José Aboulker and his friends only needed 15 minutes to take Algiers’ police headquarters and main radio station. They wore uniforms of the fascist movement and possessed fake warrants. For 18 hours they spread misinformation and fake orders over the radio, misleading the Vichy regime and letting the Allies land – Operation Torch was on. During the next 24 hours, an American force of some 2,000 soldiers took Algiers with little resistance.

The Americans, who feared that the Géo Gras underground would be the weakest link of the operation, were glad to be proved wrong. The successful operation had long-term implications; there were now two fronts against Rommel, paving the Allies’ entry into Italy.

Compared to other cases of Jewish heroism during World War II and the Holocaust, the story of Géo Gras is rarely mentioned in Israeli history lessons, memorial ceremonies or studies. The Warsaw Ghetto fighters, for example, were tremendously brave, but their efforts had no significant effect on the outcome of World War II. Yet the Algerian resistance heroes have been forgotten.

Read article in full

Sunday, January 14, 2018

How Linda Menuhin lost her father in Saddam's Baghdad

In this interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad (Holland's equivalent to the Guardian) the Israeli journalist Linda Menuhin tells Floris van Straaten how she tried to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of her father in 1970s Iraq. A personal tragedy was made into a film, Shadow in Baghdad. With thanks for his translation  to Nathan Weinstock.

Poster from the film 'Shadow in Baghdad', which tells Linda's story 
 It’s only at the very last moment that Linda Menuhin-Abdul-Aziz, who was 20 years old at that time, dared tell her father that she wanted to flee to Israel illegally with her younger brother. On the said day in 1970 the taxi was ready and parked in front of their house in Baghdad, in a street where an increasing number of Jews were leaving due to intensifying oppression. Menuhin remembers that he said: “I think it’s wrong to do so”. “That was the last time I saw him”. 
Although she has often told the tale since then, her voice still trembles again for a brief moment 47 years later and a brief silence sets on in the library of the Israeli embassy in The Hague where our conversation is taking place. 

That’s a moment that will always stick with Menuhin. Not only because these are her very last recollections concerning Baghdad where she was born but also because a few years later her father, a Jewish solicitor, did not make an appearance in the synagogue on the day of Yom Kippur in order to sing the psalms there as he was accustomed to do. Since then he disappeared without leaving any trace, having most probably been arrested and murdered by the police of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s strongman.
Sometime later, Linda – who had settled meanwhile in Israel in the company of her brother and later also of her mother and sister who were also fled Iraq – there was an article in The Jerusalem Post. It mentioned a certain number of Iraqi Jews who had been killed, among them her father, Jacob Abdul Aziz. Apparently her lawyer father was being legally consistent and just couldn’t bear the idea of violating the laws of his country by fleeing his homeland illegally. It  proved to be fatal as far as he was concerned. 
Although the news hit Linda and the rest of the family like a sledgehammer, somehow it sounded unreal. They just didn’t know how to deal with this information. “It was there and yet it wasn’t”, explains Menuhin: “According to the Jewish tradition you must have a grave in order to commemorate the deceased  and we didn’t have that. And therefore we didn’t pray for him”. 
No news was forthcoming from the Iraqi authorities. They did obtain a letter  by way of answer to a letter which they had sent to Jacob with a detour via an aunt in the USA. It bore the mention stamped on it: “Has left the country”. So had he left the country after all? Menuhin: "There wasn’t the slightest indication that he had done so but of course the authorities could claim whatever they wanted to. They were not required to give any explanation concerning my father’s disappearance”.  
For better or for worse Linda and her family resumed their life. Some of them succeeded better than others. Linda’s brother, who had proved full of talent at school, suffered from psychiatric problems and ended up having to undergo long-term treatment. Linda herself became a journalist at the Israeli State broadcasting company, specializing in the Middle East. 
In that way she still remained in touch with Iraq. But it was only in 1991 when Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel during the Kuwait crisis that her own memories about Iraq bubbled up in her mind. "Every day I had nightmares about Saddam Hussein. It triggered  a personal crisis. I hated the Arab language, which was the language of my daily work. I gave up my job.” 
 In 2003 too, when the Americans and the British invaded Iraq and chased Saddam out, she was continuously absorbed by the subject, although by that time she had no job. "Iraq was once more in my house all day long”, she says laughing. 
 Perhaps that thanks to Saddam’s downfall she might be able to find out more about her father’s fate. "Iraqis work in an orderly fashion and record everything, like the Nazis”, says Menuhin. "Perhaps I would be able to trace documents relating how he had been arrested and questioned. I just couldn’t accept the idea that he was only murdered because he was a Jew.”
A pogrom in 1941
About that time an Iraqi-Jewish acquaintance told me: “I’m going back to Iraq, why don’t you go with me?” Menuhin didn’t dare. Instead the idea occurred to her to produce a film about her father and the demise of the Jewish community in Baghdad. She started to collect testimonies - from a distance – from Iraqis who had fled, to London among other places. Also from Muslims. 
Almost nothing subsisted then from the once so flourishing Jewish community in Baghdad. "Even when I still was a child, it had already shrunk dramatically, compared to the past”, explains Menuhin. Under the British mandate, times were good for the Jews, but after the beginning of World War II antisemitism rapidly increased against the some 135.000 Jews. The dramatic watershed was the pogrom which occurred in 1941. In just two days, 180 Jews were killed. 
"Terrible things happened. Robberies and murders. Body parts of children were cut off in order to steal precious bracelets and other jewels.” This pogrom left a deep scar and radically modified the relationship between Jews and Non-Jews. "The Jews felt that their life was at stake. So the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948 also sparked off an exodus of Jewish refugees.”      

For those who stayed behind - among them Jacob Abdul Aziz’s family – the situation became much more difficult. According to a new law, anyone planning to leave for Israel had to leave all his assets in Iraq. "I was born in my grandfather’s house. He had also registered to leave. That house was also confiscated by the authorities. But we were allowed to keep on living there in exchange for paying a modest rent.” 

 If life still remained bearable for Jews to a certain extent up to 1967, after Israel’s victory over the Arabs during the Six-Day War their situation swiftly worsened. "The Arabs said that the Jews in the Arab states would have to pay a very heavy price for that. They were viewed as being a fifth column.” 
 "If we wanted to travel further than 80 kilometers from home we needed a special permit. We were only allowed to deduct small amounts from our bank accounts. Jews were not allowed to work for the public sector any more. Our Jewish sports club was closed. Jews were no longer allowed to be members of clubs. Universities were closed to Jews. After school hours, I sat at home and would busy myself knitting and sewing”, said Menuhin laughing. I took French lessons. We all tried to improve our linguistic skills”. 
Hung in Tahrir square  

At the beginning of 1969 matters hit rock bottom. A certain number of Jews were arrested - as far as is known without the slightest proof - for spying for Israel. On January 27th, they were hanged in Tahrir square, the great central square in Baghdad. “Some 25,000 Iraqis came to watch the scene and to celebrate. I knew one boy who was hanged, he was 17 years old. I cannot describe the anguish we all felt.”
A little later a family member of Menuhin was also arrested: an accountant. “They seized  him at home and returned him in a jute bag dead. Nor was he the only one. Some fifty Jews at least lost their lives in this manner or disappeared never to be seen again.”
More and more Jews secretly tried to flee to Israel. Being a lawyer, Jacob Abdul Aziz felt no inclination to do so, although his practice as a solicitor had dwindled when his Jewish clients left. Towards his wife and children, he acted as if everything could not fail to improve soon.   
"Many Arabs were convinced that Jews were sucking Iraq’s blood. At the university which now accepted Jews again, a booth was placed at the entrance in order to raise funds for Palestine. ‘Give a dinar, kill a Jew' was the slogan there. On such days being a Jew, you had better stay at home.”     

At this time, a friend offered her the chance to flee the following day. Her brother would be able to join her. “I was afraid to discuss the plan with my father beforehand”, she says. “I bought an abaya and my brother managed obtain an old jacket at the flea market”. In the small bus that brought us to the Kurdish areas we sat as unostentatiously as possible among Kurds. And that’s how we got to the town of Suleimaniya. In the evening we stepped into a jeep which rushed without lights through the cold, dark mountains - it was the end of December 1970. 

“The police is pursuing us”, their escorts told them. Menuhin said: “At a given moment we had to get off the vehicle ; it was pitch black. There stood a smuggler with his donkeys, waiting for us. We arrived at a stream after following a slippery track. “Iran is on the other side”, the smuggler told us."And indeed Menuhin and her brother managed to reach Israel via Teheran – at that time, Israel wasn’t yet considered the arch-enemy.
Shortly afterwards, Jacob Abdul Aziz was arrested and questioned: where were his children? But after some time he was released thanks to the help of some Muslim friends. He was re-arrested  some months later, this time for several months. In August 1971 his wife and younger daughter also fled, again without his consent. “My mother was afraid that otherwise she would never again see my brother or myself and therefore had no faith whatsoever that they might be permitted to leave the country, as my father hoped”. After that, the only contact that remained with him was through the post, via an American aunt. 
Shadow in Baghdad

She just “couldn’t manage” to produce a film about her father. Then she got in touch with the movie director Duki Dror, whose father had been arrested in Iraq during the fifties.   He saw something in the project, but somehow it didn’t work. Three years later an interview with the American-Iraqi TV network Alhurra speeded things up. She explained that she was still hoping to clarify the issue of her father’s death.
An Iraqi journalist came forward online. He was a Shi'ite who only knew about Jews in Baghdad from what he had heard from his grandma. He offered to try and trace Linda's father. The contacts with the journalist play an important role in the film. Menuhin only met the journalist once, not in Iraq but in the Jordanian city Amman. Due to security reasons he did not want to reveal his identity. 
But the journalist’s search did not yield any results:  her father was probably buried in a notorious complex where many prisoners ended up losing their lives.
 Shadow in Baghdad, the film about her search, hit the screen in 2013 and had a therapeutic effect on Menuhin. The production of the film and the contacts she established with many people willing to help her operated as a healing balm on her soul. After the film came out, that feeling intensified as a result of her discussions in the diaspora with other Iraqis who had fled their country. It was for a film screening that she was in Holland at the end of 2017. 
"Finally I became conscious that so many other people had been persecuted by the regime and had suffered under it, not only Jews, but also Muslims and Christians. For many years I had walled myself off from this reality. Many Iraqis who have seen the film understand that it also tells their story. We are like one big family whose members have all suffered under that wretched regime.” 
Does Linda Menuhin still want to return to Baghdad?  She laughs: “My mantra is that I only want to return to Baghdad as Israeli ambassador.”