Friday, August 30, 2019

JIMENA launches Sephardic Studies school curriculum

JIMENA, the California-based organisation representing Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, has launched Journey to the Mizrah, a curriculum and website designed to educate middle and high school students in Sephardic Studies. 

To date,  JIMENA says, the study of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish heritage, Jewish multiculturalism, and the ethnic diversity of the Jewish people has not been integrated as a regular component of Jewish education in the USA. Despite the fact that over 50% of Israeli Jews and an estimated 20% of American Jews identify as Mizrahi and Sephardic, most North American Jewish educators are unprepared to teach  these subjects, it claims.

Anecdotally, JIMENA believes that one in four students at the Jewish Community High School of the San Francisco Bay identifies as Sephardic through a parent or grandparent. Sephardic students are becoming an increasing majority at Jewish Day Schools in Los Angeles and New York.

The curriculum was created for formal and informal Jewish education institutions using 'traditional Sephardic pedagogy'. Designed and written for middle schools, but easily adapted for high schools, the Journey to the Mizrah curriculum includes twelve lesson plans that incorporate text study, discussion and immersive Sephardic and Mizrahi activities such as Mimouna, Piyutim, Henna, and storytelling.

Click here to access Journey to the Mizrah website

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Israeli cities to mark 60th anniversary of Moroccan aliya

 Celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the great aliya (immigration) of Moroccan Jewry to Israel are being planned all over the country. The Jerusalem Post gives a useful overview of the events leading to the exodus: (with thanks: Michelle) 

The story of Moroccan Jewry’s immigration to Israel is not simple, beginning many years before the State of Israel was established.
To mark their difficult journey home, as well as the major contributions Moroccan Jewry has made to Israeli society, the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry has organized dozens of events in the forthcoming months for the approximately one million Israeli Jews who are Moroccan or of Moroccan descent.

Toward the end of the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and prior to the signing of the Fez Treaty in 1912 that entailed French protection of Moroccan Jews, there was a mass immigration of Jews from large cities – including Fez, Rabat and Marrakech – to the smaller towns and villages surrounding the cities.
However, the decline in the financial circumstances, overcrowding, and the need to pray in secret to avoid persecution by locals caused some young families to immigrate to Israel. Between 1908 and 1918, some 80 families moved to Tiberias and Jerusalem.

In the years prior to the Holocaust, Moroccan Jews were encouraged to enroll their children in French schools. The community was also prompted to receive a French education and integrate into French culture, as French influence in Morocco began to grow in the early part of the 20th century.

But as the Vichy regime came to power in 1940 and the Holocaust began, the situation for Moroccan Jewry began to change.

The David Amar Moroccan Jewish Heritage Center, Jerusalem

Although King Mohammed V is credited with blocking efforts by Vichy officials to impose anti-Jewish legislation upon Morocco and deport the country’s 250,000 Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps in Europe, partial Nazi race measures were put in place in Morocco despite Mohammed’s objection.

Vichy officials also forced Mohammed to sign two decrees, which barred Jews from entering certain schools or obtaining certain positions.

Following the end of World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel, Moroccan Jews were encouraged to move to Israel by Zionist groups and organizations.

With French rule remaining over Morocco, Jews were allowed to immigrate legally, and many young Moroccan Jews left to help fight during the War of Independence. Others left as they also felt mistreated by the French government.

With the establishment of the State and the country’s victory over several Arab nations, antisemitism skyrocketed. The Moroccan Nationalist Movement incited hatred against the Jews, and on June 7, 1948, 44 Jews were massacred in pogroms across the country.

This encouraged further immigration to Israel – in the five years following Israel’s independence, around 30,000 Jews made aliyah, and the numbers increased in subsequent years.

By 1954, when it became clear that France was advancing its plan to grant Morocco independence and pogroms and sporadic attacks against Jews started to increase, there was a massive wave of immigration to Israel.

As their situation deteriorated, more and more Jews began to leave. Following Morocco’s independence in 1956 and its joining the Arab League in 1958, immigration to Israel and Zionism were banned.

Although Jews had full rights as citizens following Morocco’s independence, they were still treated with disdain and subjected to antisemitism.

Viewed as one of the most tragic incidents to have happened to Moroccan Jews trying to escape persecution is that of the Egoz, which was a ship smuggling 43 Jewish Moroccans as well as an Israeli representative, Chaim Tzarfati. During the night between January 10 and 11, it sank.

Between 1948 and 1955 around 70,000 Jews left Morocco, and another 60,000 Jews left Morocco from 1955 to 1961.

WITH THE ascension of Hassan II to the throne in 1961, an agreement was made that he would accept a large per-capita bounty from the international Jewish community for each Jew who emigrated from Morocco, and under this agreement Jews were allowed the freedom to leave. By the eve of the Six Day War, some 120,000 emigrated during this six-year period alone.

According to the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry, over 300,000 Moroccan Jews have immigrated to Israel since the 1960s.
“Today, before the Federation’s figures, more than one million immigrants [and their descendants] from Morocco live in Israel, making them the second-largest community after immigration from the Commonwealth,” it explained. “On Sunday, there will be a second salute on the eve marking the first series of events, which commemorates the 60th anniversary of the mass immigration from Morocco.”

Read article in full

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Morocco demolishes Holocaust memorial (updated)

Update (with thanks: Lily): According to MEMRI, Ahmed Wihmane, the President of the Moroccan Observatory against Normalization with Israel, said that he salutes the Moroccan authorities for destroying the shameful "so-called Holocaust memorial." However, he criticized the government for, in its idleness, having allowed the building to be erected in the first place, particularly since, according to Wihmane, the owner of the project is a homosexual Freemason with Zionist ideologies. Wihmane compared the Moroccan government's inaction to previous inaction he claimed took place regarding firearms training camps in Morocco that had been under the supervision of "generals and rabbis from the Israeli War Forces" and that had the purpose of establishing a "second Israel" in Morocco.

It seems that Moroccco is not ready for a Shoah memorial, despite its strategy to memorialise its Jewish heritage.  Moroccan Authorities demolished a Holocaust memorial on Monday that was being built by German NGO PixelHelper in Ait Faska, southeast of Marrakesh on the grounds that it did not have the necessary building permits. This comes less than a week after The Jerusalem Post revealed that the Holocaust memorial was in the works. (With thanks: Lily; Imre)

Bulldozers had moved in to destroy the Memorial (Photo: O Bienkowski)

"We thought that there was acceptance of Jewish society in Morocco but it's not [the case],”  (Oliver Bienkowski, founder of PixelHelper)  told the Post. “We get a lot of antisemitic and anti LGBTQ+ messages.”

Late on Monday, Moroccan Authorities denied in a press statement that the memorial was being built, adding that such claims were “unfounded.”

Read article in full

  Huffpost Maroc had reported:

 For the first time in North Africa, a Holocaust memorial (Shoah) honoring the millions of Jews killed during the Second World War will be built by the German non-profit organization PixelHelper.

After the one in South Africa, this second memorial on the continental level will be built 26 kilometers from the city of Marrakech, on the road that leads to Ouarzazate, in the small town of Aït Faska.

Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post, Oliver Bienkowski, founder of PixelHelper and manager of the memorial in Morocco, said the project aims to "show Moroccans, especially students, and Jews in Israel the horror of the Holocaust", adding that the memorial will be composed of more than 10,000 blocks of stone that visitors can browse. A call for donations was launched to fund part of the project.

The monument will also dedicate a portion to homosexual victims of the Holocaust. "In the middle of the monument, there will be rainbow-colored blocks for LGBTQ + people who have died in concentration camps," Oliver Bienkowski said, adding that the project will be completed at the festival of Hanukkah in late December.

The Memorial was to include coloured blocks to remember the homosexuals who perished in the Nazi camps

Moroccan king acknowledges the Holocaust

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Debunking the myth of the ' Arab Jew'

Anyone who keeps abreast of the growing academic field of Mizrahi/Sephardic studies cannot help noticing that the vast majority of papers focus on the purported “discrimination” or “racism” of the Ashkenazi establishment. The expression 'Arab Jew' is widely used too, but is rejected by Jews born in Arab countries themselves, argues Lyn Julius in JNS News:

The 650,000 Jews who overwhelmed Israel in its early years were sent to languish in tent camps or deliberately consigned to the country's periphery - development towns in the far north or south of the country with little employment and prospects, their culture disparaged as 'primitive'.

Typical is this paper by one Sarah Louden, Israeli Nationalism: the Constructs of Zionism and its Effect on Inter-Jewish Racism, Politics, and Radical Discourse. It has 455 views, more than any other paper of its genre. It pulls no punches in attacking the 'racism' of Zionism. But its sources are drawn almost entirely from Mizrahi anti-Zionists like Ella Shohat.

Shohat, a professor at New York university, made her name by applying Edward Said's theory of 'Orientalism' to Israel,  claiming that both the Mizrahim and the Arabs are victims of the West (Ashkenazim). Mizrahi Jews and Arabs are assumed to have more in common with each other that Jews from the East have with Jews from the West. The former, they contend,  were 'torn away' from their comfortable 'Arab' environment by Zionism and colonialism.

 These academics widely assume that the Mizrahim support the Likud and rightwing parties  to 'get their own back' on the Labour-dominated Ashkenazi establishment. According to Sarah Louden, "Mizrahim support the rightwing in Israeli politics as a means of affection and maltreatment by the ruling left-wing Ashkenazi elite, and then set out to promote their own cultural and ideological thoughts."

 But Louden  and those like her hardly mention, or downplay, the  elephant in the room - the subliminal memory  of Arab and Muslim persecution experienced by parents and grandparents driven  from the Arab world. Is is not plausible that   Mizrahi Jews view the rocket  attacks and bombings afflicting Israel as just the latest chapter in a long history of Arab and Muslim antisemitism?  Do they vote Likud  because  they believe that only the right can deliver the necessary tough response?

Western academics almost invariably use the expression 'Arab Jew'. The term  figures in the title of a book by Professor Sasson Somekh - The Last Arab Jew.

Professor Sasson Somekh died last week. Far left media sites like +972  proceeded to mourn him as an 'Arab Jew'.

Born in Baghdad in 1933, Somekh (pictured) published two autobiographies, the first “Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew,” about his life in Iraq and the second, “Life After Baghdad: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew in Israel.”

Somekh was the guru of Arabic Literature studies at Tel Aviv University and spent two years in Cairo where he became a close a friend of the Egyptian Nobel prizewinning author Naguib Mahfouz, whose work he claims to have introduced to a wider audience.

Some of Somekh's disciples in the  Arabic Literature department of Tel Aviv university were anti-Zionists in the Shohat mould. But Somekh never thought of himself as an Arab Jew in their terms.

He told Almog Behar, one of his former students: " The tendency among leading Mizrahi intellectuals of the younger generation to speak of themselves as Arab Jews is first and foremost a political position, that is, their desire to protest sharply against the sense of discrimination that they feel has been directed at Mizrahim. They are, in fact, seeking to highlight their reluctance to be part of the Zionist existence of the state. I do not have a problem with these positions, but for me this is not how the Arab-Jewish identity is defined."

 For Somekh, Arab Jew is a “cultural definition of a Jew who speaks Arabic and grew up in a Muslim environment.” He wanted to emphasize that "his identity stemmed from his point of view as a person who grew up in an Arab culture and continues to engage with that culture."

Iraq was one of the few Arab countries where Jews took a leading role in the Arabic cultural and literary renaissance of the 1920s and 30s.  “I am the last Arab Jew,” Somekh said. "That is why I wrote Baghdad, Yesterday: to document the life of a Jewish Arab child. Anyone who defines himself as an Arab Jew to attack others but who does not speak Arabic… does not count as such. While I do not define myself as a Zionist, if being Zionist means all Jews should come here, I am an Israeli patriot.”

In other words, Somekh saw himself as being an Israeli Jew of Arab culture,  not of Arab ethnicity. Another professor of Iraqi origin, Reuven Snir of Haifa University, concurred: Jews who wrote literary works in Arabic in the early twentieth century felt no need to declare themselves as Arabs.

A conference held some 10 years ago among Iraqi Jews resoundingly rejected the expression 'Arab Jew' as a badge of identity. The vast majority of Jews from the Arab world have not historically  identified as Arabs - in fact many would be offended to be so labelled.

But post- and anti- Zionists academics continue to turn a deaf ear to what most Jews raised Arab countries themselves say and feel,  as long as 'discrimination' against Mizrahim can serve as a useful stick to bash Zionism.

Read article in full

Monday, August 26, 2019

Egyptian spy worked for Mossad 'for world peace'

This is the little-known story of Heba Selim, an Egyptian woman who spied for Israel. Heba was recruited into the Mossad while a financially-strapped student in Paris. Later she passed on military secrets through her husband Farouk Abdul Hamid el-Feki, which enabled Israel to bomb targets in Egypt with pinpoint accuracy at the outbreak of the Six-Day War. Both Heba and Farouk were later executed. A film was made in 1978 about her. Egyptian Streets has the story: 

If one were to list the most influential and important scenes in the history of Egyptian cinema, a strong contender would have to be the ending of the 1978 movie Climbing to the Bottom (El Soud Ela Al Hawia). Actress Madiha Kamel plays the character of Egyptian spy Heba Selim, or ‘Abla’ in the film, who was on a plane approaching Cairo airport after her arrest. Next to her was an intelligence officer, who pointed at the pyramids and the Nile and said the famous line, “and this is Egypt, Abla.”

Heba (Abla) Selim and her husbank Farouk el-Feki

 At a time when Egyptian President Sadat was planning his next step for peace with Israel as part of the Camp David Accords, young Heba Selim was in the shadows working with the Mossad to seduce an Egyptian army officer and gather confidential information to help Israel defeat Egypt during the Yom Kippur War. In her own words, she reckoned that she was also working for peace, telling General Rifaat Osman Gabriel in her last days, “I am not a spy, but I work in order to preserve the human race from destruction.”

Read article in full

Yolande Harmor

Shula Cohen

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Last known Hebron massacre survivor tells his story

In the week in which the 90th anniversary of the Hebron massacre is being marked, the last survivor, Avraham Kiryati, 98,  recalls the horrific events of that day in the Jerusalem Post:

Time has not dimmed the powerful memories that 98-yearold Avraham Kiryati has of the moment his grandfather Eliyahu Capilouto was stabbed during the Hebron massacre of 1929.

“My grandfather was dressed just like the Arabs,” said Kiryati. He went out to see what was going on. They [the rioters] pushed him inside and stabbed him on the side of his body. Kiryati was then a boy of eight.

He and his 18-year-old uncle Moshe Capilouto were in their grandparents’ home as Arabs made their way through the Hebron streets calling for Jews to be slaughtered. The two boys escaped out the back door of their grandparents’ home, safely making their way to the family chicken coup where they hid until it was safe.

When they came out of hiding, they found Eliyahu lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

He is a descendant of Jews who escaped the Spanish inquisition, settling first in Safed and then in Hebron.

His grandfather Eliyahu was a well-known carpenter and electrician, so well respected that he was even hired to work in the Tomb of the Patriarchs at the time when Jews were not allowed into the building – for 700 years, they could only pray up to the seventh step on the outside of what was then a mosque.

Eliyahu built a home a slight distance away from what Kiryati called the Jewish “ghetto,” on a road that led to Gaza.

Kiryati’s parents had moved to Jerusalem, but had sent him to spend some of his summer vacation with his grandparents, a decision that placed him in the wrong place at the wrong time.
> In a separate interview, Kiryati’s nephew, Yossi Saness, also described how in that moment Eliyahu and his wife, Rivka, a gold dealer, had initially stood outside their house to try and dissuade the rioters from entering. After her husband was stabbed, she was able to bribe the rioters to leave by offering them gold she had stashed in the house, Saness said.

“All the survivors were taken first to the police station and then to Jerusalem,” Kiryati said.
In the following months, his grandfather died of his wounds.

When he thinks about it now, he said, the events of that day “is more or less what happened in the Holocaust.” In the early 1930s, his grandmother Rivka was among a small number of families who returned to the city and attempted to resurrect the Jewish community in the biblical city. Their efforts came to naught, as the British insisted that they leave in 1936.

Read article in full

Friday, August 23, 2019

Agreement with Algeria will 'legalise theft of Jewish heritage'

 A Memorandum of Understanding signed earlier this week by the US State Department with Algeria is causing consternation among organisations representing Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. They argue that it is simply an instrument for legitimising the seizure of Jewish heritage in that country.

 The cultural property agreement negotiated by the State Department under the U.S. law implements the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The United States has similar bilateral agreements with 19 countries around the world, and has imposed emergency import restrictions on cultural property from Iraq and Syria as well.

 The primary aim of the agreement is to place U.S. import restrictions on categories of Algerian archaeological material dating from 2.4 million years ago to approximately 1750 A.D., including some of the earliest human remains found at Ain Boucherit and cultural objects from many of Algeria’s World Heritage sites, including the spectacular Roman ruins of Tipasa, Timgad, and Djémila.

The new MOU is intended to protect the prehistoric sites and Roman sruins at Tipasa, Timgad and Djemila (above) from looting. 

  In the past JIMENA, the US organisation representing Jews from the MENA, has clearly stated its objections to such MOUs: "These MOUs claim to be about looting, but their broad scope and limited evidence of success suggests their real impact is providing a legal vehicle to legitimize foreign confiscations and wrongful ownership claims. Legitimate efforts to curb looting are essential, but they must be targeted to preserve archaeological resources, and not to disguise the brazen property confiscations of tyrants."

 The Jewish community of Algeria, once numbering 130,000, no longer exists. Synagogues, cemeteries, sifre torah and other Judaica were abandoned at the time of the great exodus of 1962, when Algeria acquired its independence.

In April 2019,Rep. Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1) introduced the Protecting US Heritage Abroad Act. With North African Jews in mind who are now US citizens, the bipartisan legislation, cosponsored by Rep. Michael McCaul (R, TX-10) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D, FL-23) would extend the current mandate of the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad to include the Middle East and North Africa, and would provide access to protected cemeteries, monuments and buildings.

More about the campaign against MOUs

Thursday, August 22, 2019

How did the Arabs help the Nazi war effort?

In this important 9-part series in Israel National News, historian Dr Alex Grobman examines the influence of the Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini on Arab opinion, and the Arab contribution to the Nazi war effort.  Here is an extract from Part 3, 'Enlisting Arabs for the Nazi cause':

Dr Alex Grobman

From 1941-1945, historian Antonio J. Muñoz estimated that about 5,000 Arab and Indian Muslims volunteered to serve in the German armed forces, hardly sufficient to constitute an army of liberation. Their worth as a military force was negligible compared with units created with Muslims in the Balkans and the USSR. Though the Germans failed to conquer the region, the units did have propaganda value which the Nazis exploited.

Joseph Schechtman credited the mufti in helping establish espionage networks to provide information about British troop movements. His news transmissions to the Middle East reported acts of sabotage that would normally have been censored. His agents, who infiltrated the Middle East by land or by air, cut pipe and telephone lines in Palestine and Transjordan and destroyed bridges and railways in Iraq.

His agents, who infiltrated the Middle East by land or by air, cut pipe and telephone lines in Palestine and Transjordan and destroyed bridges and railways in Iraq.

The Mufti's famous meeting with Hitler in November 1941

 He also organized an Axis-Arab Legion known as the Arabisches Freiheitskorps that wore German uniforms with “Free Arabia” patches Schechtman said. As part of the German Army, the unit guarded communications facilities in Macedonia and hunted down American and British paratroopers who jumped into Yugoslavia and were hiding among the local population. The legion also fought on the Russian front. Another major success was el-Husseini’s recruitment of tens of thousands of Balkan Muslims into the Wehrmacht.  Moshe Shertok (Sharett), chief of the political department of the Jewish Agency, reported that on a visit to Bosnia in 1943, the mufti appealed to local Muslims to join the Moslem Waffen-SS Units and met with the units that were already operational.
In addition, Middle East expert Robert Satloff said Haj Amin used his contacts with Muslim leaders in North Africa to urge them to obstruct the Allied advance in every way possible. After Allied troops invaded North Africa in November 1942, Vichy officers in Tunisia established the Phalange Africaine, also called the Légion des Volontaires Française de Tunisie. There were 400 men in the unit, approximately one-third Arab and the rest a mélange of European pro-Fascists. The German Army assumed command of the Phalange in February 1943, fighting the British and the Free French for most of 1944. In 1944, a French military court convicted the unit’s commander, Pierre Simon Cristofini, of treason and executed him.

A second all-Arab unit under German command, known as the Brigade Nord Africaine, Satloff noted was established by Mohamed el-Maadi, a former French officer and antisemite whose nickname was “SS Mohamed.” They fought the partisans, a group of resistance fighters, in the Dordogne region in South-West France.

In March 1944, Schechtman said the mufti urged the Arabs to “Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history and religion.” In keeping with this religious imperative, historian Raul Hilberg said the mufti asked the German Foreign Minister on May 13, 1943 “to do his utmost” to prohibit further departures of Jews from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary to Palestine.

Read article in full

The Arabs who fought with the Jews against the Nazis: 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Spain throws up hurdles to citizenship for Sephardim

As the deadline approaches,  Sephardi Jews applying for Spanish citizenship have been frustrated by bureaucratic hurdles and exams to demonstrate linguistic and historical knowledge. Fewer than 10,000 Jews are supposed to have been successful, Soeren Kern argues in The Gatestone Institute. The process to apply for Portuguese citizenship is much easier:

A piece of much-heralded legislation to grant Spanish citizenship to up to 3.5 million descendants of Jews expelled from the country in 1492 is about to end in failure: fewer than 10,000 Jews have been awarded Spanish passports ahead of an October 1, 2019 deadline.

 Spanish leaders promised that the law — which entered into force on October 1, 2015 for a period of three years and was extended for one additional year — would “right a historic wrong” and demonstrate that more than 500 years after the Inquisition began, Jews are once again welcome in Spain. The legislation, however, introduced so many cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles to obtain Spanish citizenship that most prospective hopefuls appear to have been deterred from even initiating the application process.

 Also known as the “Right of Return” for Sephardic Jews (Sepharad means “Spain” in Hebrew), the law purported to grant Spanish citizenship to anyone able to meet two seemingly straightforward requirements: prove Sephardic heritage and demonstrate a “special connection” to Spain. In practice, however, the process has been far more complicated.

 The legislation’s main barriers to Spanish citizenship have been obligatory exams on Spanish language and socio-cultural history, the need to travel to Spain and exorbitant fees and costs. Although prospective applicants do not need to be practicing Jews, they must prove their Sephardic background through a combination of factors, including ancestry, surnames and spoken language (either Ladino, a Jewish language that evolved from medieval Spanish, or Haketia, a mixture of Hebrew, Spanish and Judeo-Moroccan Arabic). According to the law, even if applicants speak Ladino or Haketia — essentially dying languages that are spoken mostly by the elderly in some parts of Latin America, Morocco and Turkey — they are still required to pass a Spanish-language proficiency exam.

Congregants at the synagogue in Porto, Portugal

 In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, the director of the Sephardic Center in Istanbul, Karen Gerson Şarhon, noted the paradox that even though Sephardic Jews have preserved Ladino or Haketia for hundreds of years, proficiency in those languages in and of itself does not qualify them for Spanish citizenship. “A Sephardic Jew who speaks Ladino perfectly understands spoken Spanish,” she said, “but fails the exam because the differences in the written and the oral are very great.”

Read article in full

Melanie Lidman article (Times of Israel)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Talkshow host Maher talks of Jewish ethnic cleansing

With thanks: Lily, Michelle

 By now, everyone has heard that  the two Democratic Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar were banned from visiting Israel on account of their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The debate has been raging in the press and media  - should they have been let in? Should they have not? - and was the subject of a recent discussion on  TV host Bill Maher's popular HBO talkshow.

While the panellists lamented the ahistorical nature of the discussion, Bill Maher wades in at 2:30 minutes in with a point not often heard on mainstream TV: Saudi Arabia won't let Jews in, and the Jewish population of Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran has declined dramatically. Maher cited figures which today are out of date (see table below), but the point was well made. ' It's not a one-way street," he said.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Professor Sasson Somekh passes away

One of the most prominent specialists in contemporary Arabic literature, Professor Sasson Somekh, has died. Born in 1933 in Iraq, Professor Somekh was a prolific writer on contemporary Arabic poets and authors. In the 1990s, he spent two years in Cairo and was a friend of the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. He was awarded the Israel Prize in 2005. 

  According to Wikipedia, Somekh did his doctorate at Oxford University in 1966–1968. His subject was the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, concentrating on the Cairo Trilogy. Over the years Mahfouz and Somekh became friends. The thesis supervisor was Egyptian scholar Mustafa Badawi. Upon his return to Israel he became a lecturer in Arabic Literature. He served as chairman of the Arabic Language and Literature department at Tel Aviv University in 1972–1984. In 1980, he became a full professor. Between 1982 and 2003, he held the Helmos Chair for Arabic Literature. In 1996–1998 he was head of the Israel Academic Center in Cairo. He was a visiting professor at Princeton University, St Antony's College, Oxford, Annenberg Research Institute, NYU and Uppsala University. In 2004, he received an honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University

He is among the founders of the Arabic Language Academy in Israel, established in December 2007 in collaboration with several former students.

He wrote ten books, many translations from Arabic to Hebrew, among which are four anthologies of modern Arabic poetry, and about 90 articles in academic journals. Over the past 50 years Somekh published hundreds of articles in literary magazines and supplements such as Iton 77, Halikon and Moznayim. His articles deal mainly with modern Arabic literature and writers.

At the age of 70, Somekh wrote the first volume of his autobiography, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew. The book was published in Hebrew and has been translated into Arabic, English and Turkish. In the book he describes his life as a Jewish child and teenager in Baghdad during the first 17 years of his life.

The second volume, Yamim Hazuyim ("Call it Dreaming") was published in 2008. It describes his life between Tel Aviv, Oxford, Princeton, and Cairo between 1951 and 2000. The book moves between the four major stations of his life: Tel Aviv - where he lived and worked for 40 years as a professor of Arabic literature; Oxford - where he received his PhD; Princeton - where he was occasionally a visiting professor in the 1970s and '80s; and Cairo - the city in which he did much literary research and where he headed the Israel Academic Center.

More about Sasson Somekh

90th anniversary of Hebron massacre

It is 90 years since 67 Jews were massacred in Hebron in a display of exceptional barbarism. The Hebron massacre was notable for being the first in which members of the traditional Yishuv (and not recent Zionist arrivals), which had been established there for five centuries, were brutally murdered. Some Arabs still feel no remorse (see video clip). The Jewish Press reports (with thanks: Frank) : 

On Friday, August 23, 1929, Arab youths threw rocks at Hebron yeshiva students on the street. A student named Shmuel Rosenholtz was trapped by the rioters who killed him. At 7:00, Shabbat morning, hordes of nearby Arab villagers began to flock to Hebron. Some of the Jews who were hiding in the home of Eliezer Dan Slonim, head of the Jewish community of Hebron, encountered a shower of stones when they ventured into the street.

 Two brothers, Eliyahu Dov and Israel Aryeh Haykal, begged Hebron police chief Raymond Cafferata to keep the rioters away. The rioters murdered both of them at the foot of the policeman’s horse.

 Thousands of Arabs, armed with knives, axes and pitchforks, started crying victoriously: “The government is with us!” It was their cue to start attacking the Jews in earnest. They broke into the home of Eliahu Abushadid and stabbed him and three other men to death, seriously wounding the women and children.

 Next, they broke into the home of the old Chacham Yosef Kastil, murdered him and burned down the house. Rabbi Chanoch Chasson, the rabbi of the Sephardi community, was murdered along with his wife. Ben Zion Gershon, the lame pharmacist in the Beit Hadassah clinic, who had served Jews and Arabs alike for decades, was tortured and murdered, but not before his daughter was raped by dozens of rioters and murdered, and his wife’s hands were cut off and she died in agony.

 When rioters stormed Eliezer Dan Slonim’s home, Slonim, who was armed with a pistol, did not shoot them but shouted at them instead to calm down. A Jewish tourist from Poland named Grodzinski recalled what happened next: “We all rushed to strengthen the front door and walked around the rooms like crazy people …

“The shriek of women and the howling of babies filled the house … “We set up boxes and tables … but when we saw that the assailants had broken the door with axes, we left the door and began to flee from room to room, but in each room we were met with a hail of stones …

 “When I entered one of the rooms I saw my mother standing by the window and shouting ‘Help.’ “I looked out the window and saw a mob of wild Arabs laughing and throwing stones. …

Read article in full

More about the Hebron massacre

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue restoration almost complete

As part of the Egyptian government's policy of taking charge of Jewish heritage, the restoration of the Eliahu Hanavi (Nebi Daniel) synagogue is nearing completion; another Alexandria synagogue, the de Menasce, has been registered as an antiquity. But others still, like the once-grand Hayyim Imshati synagogue, are crumbling to dust:

 CAIRO – 9 August 2019: Egypt will complete the restoration works of Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria within three months, announced the Ministry of Antiquities in a statement this week.

“The restoration works at the synagogue continue regularly, as 75% of the project work has been completed, the statement said, adding that Minister of Antiquities Khaled Anani and other officials from the ministry visited the synagogue on Tuesday.

The remains of an ancient synagogue were found beneath the 19th century Italianate building

Read article in full (Egypt Today - with thanks: Boruch))

The de Menasce synagogue in Alexandria is now a listed building - the government will undertake to preserve and restore it (with thanks: Boruch):

Egypt’s Official Gazette published on Thursday Minister of Antiquities Khaled Anani’s decree to record Jacob Menasce (Menashe) Synagogue in el-Mansheya area of Alexandria in the list of Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities.
Baron Yacoub Levi de Menashe built the synagogue in 1860 in el-Mansheya square.

The de Menasce synagogue in Alexandria

Read article in full (Al Masri al-Youm)

This ancient synagogue will crumble to dust unless it is registed as an antiquity:

Around 150 kilometers away from Cairo, at the Mahala Al Kobra’s Souk al-Labn in the Delta, stands the ruins of Rabbi Hayyim El-Imshati Synagogue.

The synagogue is also known as Synagogue of Khokhet El Yahoud, Ostad Synagogue and Rabbi El-Imshati Synagogue. The history of Khokha makes it a good candidate to be part of the Ministry of Antiquities’ future plan of developing and restoring the Egyptian Jewish heritage. The ministry has started on a big project to restore Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, and has also registered Alexandria’s Menasce Synagogue as an antiquity, giving it further protection and potential restoration privileges.

Read article in full  (Egypt Today)

Alexandria restoration reveals earlier synagogue

Friday, August 16, 2019

Mizrahi Shoah suffering to be taught in school curriculum

The fate of Jews living in North Africa under Nazi occupation will be a mandatory chapter in the history matriculation exam in Israeli schools starting in the next school year. In addition, the subject of European Jewry during the Holocaust will also be reinstated, reports Ynet News. (The  decision to remove Holocaust studies in the first place is mindboggling.  It was made by the maverick ex-Education Minister Shai Piron  of the Yesh Atid party.)  (With thanks: Imre)

The move comes four years after the subject of the Holocaust has been removed from the school curriculum. The removal was part of a proposal by former Education Minister Shai Piron, which was later rectified by another former Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Students at Auschwitz (photo: EPA)

Piron’s proposal included teachers being allowed to assign the subject of the Holocaust as a research project but not teaching it as part of a mandatory program. The move drew harsh public criticism from academics and history teachers who have claimed that excluding the Holocaust - perhaps the most important subject in the nation's history - from the curriculum sends a negative message about the genocide.

 After many protests on the issue, Bennett has decided to reintroduce the Holocaust as the mandatory subject shorty before he was fired from his position by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition to the reintroduction of the previously studied chapters, the students will now also be able to learn more about the Holocaust of North African Jewry as part of the mandatory program.

 For instance, the circumstances of North African occupation by the Nazis and its purpose as well as the German policy towards Tunisia and Libyan Jews. Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz said the decision to incorporate the study of Mizrahi Jews during the Holocaust into the mandatory curriculum is a moral one, meant to create a common denominator among the students.

 "For years, the story of Jews living in Muslim countries under the Nazi occupation has been absent from our discourse," Peretz said. “The painful stories of thousands of Jews who were sent to concentration camps and forced to participate in the death marches. “It is also our conscientious duty to make every student feel that they are a significant part of the story being taught within the framework of the education system, which reflects all parts of Israeli society."

  Read article in full

Persecution of North African Jews  to be included in 12th grade exams

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Re-orient the Jewish world towards the East

Hen Mazzig has made his reputation as a champion of the rights of Mizrahi Jews. In this JNS News piece, he criticises Jewish academics in the West for ignoring or patronising Mizrahim. In this, he says, evoking Edward Said's Orientalism, they are being 'orientalist'. (However, it must be remembered that Said himself had little to say about Mizrahi Jews, let alone women or slaves. The western orientalists Said attacked often also harboured 'orientalist' antisemitic attitudes towards Jews living in the West. ) (With thanks: Imre, Carol)

Hen Mazzig

 Yet for as much as my family has assimilated, these layers of my identity are triggered as I encounter the ideas held by some in the Western (mostly North American) Jewish communities.

By and large the articles, the Jewish publications, the speakers and the Jewish academics see “World Jewry” as an exclusively Western phenomenon. They gloss over the history of the Jewish people in the Middle East. To them, the Jewish world is centered in North America, with its origins in Europe. While they may see Israel and Jerusalem as their homeland, they present the Jewish community as belonging to the West. It seems they are the only ones who really matter.

 My story—the story of almost a million Jews from the Middle East and Africa—is often ignored, or looked down on in a way that mimics a post-colonial approach.

Although some scholars have begun to realize the diversity of our global Jewish community, the main voices, as well as the majority of ideas espoused by English-speaking Jews, are still centered in the European/North American hegemony. Discourses on the meaning of Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, Israel and the Middle East seem to come from a naturally superior standpoint: that of the Westerner.

 It is as if knowledge about Middle Eastern and African Jewish communities is generated not from facts, but from paternalistic tendencies. Preconceived archetypes envision all the Jews of the East as fundamentally similar to one another and alien to the Western Jewish community.

 While I disagree with much of Edward Said’s writings, his descriptions of “Orientalists” remain accurate.< According to Said, these are people who study the East, but not purely as scholars attempting to understand other cultures. Intermingled with their scholarly pursuits are self-serving political biases that undermine the actual needs of the Middle Eastern communities they study.

 Orientalism converted the “Orient” into a legitimate academic field, about which the West invented facts. According to Said, these thinkers and scholars were politically driven. Through their discussions of the Middle East, they fashioned themselves into the self-appointed representatives of the Orient.

 They actively misrepresented the Middle East and its people, creating stereotypes and perpetuating false characteristics. The global Jewish community is diverse and multicultural. In Israel alone, more than 60 percent of us are descendants of Middle Eastern and African Jews.

 Regardless of our origins, we should be united in the constant struggle for global equality and against anti-Semitism. But we must also remember that the Jewish world is centered in the East.

 It is in the East that the Jewish people began, and where today, in Israel, our peoplehood is maintained and continues to blossom.

 More Jewish writers and thinkers need to understand this key fact, and reorient their scholarship with it in mind. The rich history of Eastern Jews should not be nullified by the superficial biases of Western scholars.

Read article in full

More from Hen Mazzig 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

California drops biased ethnic studies curriculum

A controversial 'ethnic studies' model curriculum which excludes Jews is being shelved after the California State Education Board received scores of objections, letters and petitions. 

The Californian State Capitol

The  curriculum was widely criticised for not including Jews as well as Armenians, Copts, Indians and others. The curriculum was also branded as 'biased',  'Israel-bashing' and promoting antisemitism.

On 12 August 2019 The California State Board of Education issued a press release stating the following:

“Ethnic studies can be an important tool to improve school climate and increase our understanding of one another.A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all.The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned. Following the Instructional Quality Commission’s review and response to all public comments, a new draft will be developed for State Board of Education review and potential approval. The Board will ultimately adopt an ethnic studies model curriculum that aligns to California’s values.”

The California- based organisation JIMENA, representing Middle Eastern and North African Jews,  led the response of Sephardi communities in California to  the draft curriculum.

New ethnic studies curriculum erases MENA Jews

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

When Arabs fought with Jews against the Nazis

This article by Nadav Shragai in Israel Hayom shows that the picture of Arab collaboration with Nazism was not as black-and-white as is often thought. However, the numbers produced by Israeli-Arab professor Mustafa Abbasi are misleading: according to the historian Georges Bensoussan, the Palestinian Arabs who served with the British during WW2 (up to 12,0000) were outnumbered by a factor of 15 times by the Palestinian Jews, and there were half as many Jews in Palestine as Arabs. According to 'Nazi Palestine' (Mallman/ Cuppers, p 145) 134,000 Jews came forward to enlist in the British army - every second Jewish man - and 20,000 women. (With thanks: Lily)

One of the 200 Palestinian Arab women who served in the Women's Auxiliary Corps and in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, featured in the newspaper Filistin.

One day, completely by chance, Professor Mustafa Abbasi from the village Jish in the upper Galilee, uncovered a family secret. Abbasi had wondered aloud how there could be a five-year difference between his mother's date of birth and that of her younger sister. He then heard for the first time that his grandfather, Said Abbasi, had spent five long years away from home, volunteering with the British Army in World War II, battling the Nazis alongside Jewish volunteers.

 Only later, after he had become a researcher and delved into the subject, did Abbasi learn how widespread a phenomenon that had been: thousands of Arabs and Jews from Mandate Palestine had fought side by side against the Nazi scourge.

 As a historian and as a professor of the history at Tel-Hai Academic College, Abbasi has personally interviewed or secured testimonies from dozens of Palestinians who served in the British army in World War II and fought alongside Jews. Radwan Said of Kafr Kana told Abbasi that he had served as a sniper and killed three Nazi soldiers in battles in Italy. Abbasi spoke to the elders in his home village of Jish. One, Zaki Jubran, fought the Nazis along with his brother. Abbasi would eventually discover lists of more and more Arabs who volunteered for the British army and served alongside Jews – from Jaffa, Jerusalem, Safed, Jenin, and Nablus. Tiberias alone, a city in which Jews and Arabs coexisted peacefully for many years, supplied hundreds of Arab volunteers.

Hundreds of Arab fighters lost their lives. Others were taken prisoner. Yet more are still missing in action, over 70 years later. This is a historical episode that is rarely discussed. It does not align with the various narratives about the history of the Jewish-Arab conflict prior to or after the war years. Abbasi's research reveals that this was certainly no passing "phenomenon."

He writes about the joint Jewish-Arab war service in an in-depth article published in the last issue of Katedra, the oldest academic journal on Land of Israel studies, published by the Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi. He might turn it into a book. All in all, some 12,000 Arabs from Mandate Palestine volunteered for the British army during World War II, approximately half the number of Jewish volunteers who joined up. Hundreds of Palestinian fighters were captured. Approximately 300 died in battle.

Relations between the Jewish and Arab volunteers were mostly good. The leaders of the Jewish Yishuv, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, eventually had the Jewish volunteers removed from the mixed unit to establish the famous Jewish Brigade, which would go on to provide a crucial military basis for Israel in the 1948 War of Independence. The leaders had never liked the idea of Jews and Arabs from Mandate Palestine serving together, and there were also plenty on the Arab side who were against it.

Read article in full

Monday, August 12, 2019

Israeli campaign shakes up Arabs with Jewish roots

An outreach campaign aimed at Muslims with Jewish roots has attracted thousands of enquiries across the Arab world. Yad Le'Achim, led by Rabbi Shmuel Lifschitz,  began a social media video campaign fronted by the Arabic liturgical singer Ziv Yeheskel at Shavuot, and has been gobsmacked at the response. What this Al Monitor article (via Israpundit) does not say, however,  is that Arabs with Jewish roots usually have  female Jewish ancestry, where the Jewish woman was seduced or abducted by a Muslim and thereafter made to convert to Islam. (Love matches probably did occur, but would have been rare.) (with thanks: Michelle)

Fluent Arabic speaker and musician Ziv Yeheskel fronted the Yad Ve'Achim video

According to the organization, quite a few people approached them in response to Yehezkel’s video. “To date we have been contacted over one thousand times by people from across the Muslim world, as well as from Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” said (Rabbi Shmuel ) Lifshitz.

“Each message we receive is investigated in depth to confirm that the person really does have Jewish roots. As of now, some 30% of these messages is in an advanced stage of investigation to uncover Jewish roots. We have also been contacted by many people who are unable to prove a connection to Judaism. In those cases we do not continue to investigate.”

 Yad L’Achim never expected to receive so many responses. It will soon be posting another video, in which Yehezkel will talk about the Jewish Sabbath. The decision to use the well-known performer is based on his fluency in Arabic and his familiarity with the Arab world.

 “I have a very supportive audience in quite a few Arab states,” he noted. “These include Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Dubai and Kuwait. I have been invited to perform in all of them. I also receive lots of private messages from wonderful people across the Arab world, including Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Yemen. I have even received messages from the Gaza Strip.

Yehezkel is excited to make more video clips. “Social networks have sparked a revolution; it is now possible to reach anyone. They are a powerful tool,” he said. “The fact that I sing in Arabic helps to reduce anti-Semitism, because there is nothing like music to reduce the level of hatred. The fact that I am now reaching Jews who live in Arab states is more exciting than anything to me.”

 One of the people who contacted Yad L’Achim is Nabil, 42, from Amman. Nabil, who asked for his last name not to be divulged, told Al-Monitor that he has always known about his Jewish roots. “Yad L’Achim’s page popped up in my Facebook feed, so I looked at it,” he wrote the organization.

“I watched the video and became curious. My mother is Jewish and my grandmother is Jewish too, of Iraqi heritage. I didn’t know that I was Jewish, because in Islam religion is passed on through the father. The moment I found out that according to the Jewish religion I am also Jewish, I wanted to find out more. My only problem is that I am not in touch with my mother. It would be very interesting to speak to her, especially now.”

 “Judaism was the first monotheistic religion in the world,” said Nabil. “As a Muslim I have never been religious, but now I am intrigued by the Jewish religion and I want to proceed. I have watched all sorts of YouTube videos about Judaism and the Bible, and I feel a connection.”

 He also admitted that he hides his Jewish identity from his surroundings, “If they find out that I am Jewish, I would have a big problem. The community I live in here in Jordan is very anti-Semitic, so I hide it.”

 He noted that until he contacted Yad L’Achim he had never spoken to any Jews or Israelis. “I saw a group of Israelis in Amman once, but I never spoke to them. I felt a kind of distance from them. Now I feel very different. This is really shaking up my life. I can’t stop thinking about my complicated identity.”

Read article in full 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Morocco is what every tourist expects

In her two articles about her first visit to Morocco (first one here), Khen Elmaleh goes in search of an authentic identity, as if an Israeli Jew with Moroccan roots can never wholly feel at home in Israel. Haaretz loves articles idealising Morocco, and Khen is not the only Israeli to be seduced by its charms - she meets an Israeli fashion designer, an artist and singers who have made their careers there. But in the second of her articles, discomfort creeps in: Morocco's enchanted image of the Orient is for foreign consumption only, there is no local middle class and a huge gulf separates rich and poor. (With thanks: Michelle) 

Everyone loves Marrakech. Yves St. Laurent loved it. Winston Churchill loved it. Everyone who has ever visited has loved it. I have never heard a bad word about Marrakech. And the truth is that it’s easy to see why. It is an enchanted urban oasis with pink buildings and towering green palm trees. It is a combination of modern and old, of urban tumult and ancient narrow alleyways. It is exactly what every tourist from abroad would expect to see in Morocco, in one place. Maybe because of that, I had a hard time with it.

 In Marrakech you are a tourist, first and foremost a tourist. The whole city is aimed at serving you as a tourist, selling things to you as a tourist, presenting to you what you want to see, massaging your back as a tourist and taking from you what can be taken from a tourist: money. In return the city sells you the perfect Orient, and it's embodied in exclusive nightclubs like Comptoir Darna, designed as a showy colonial salon; in the cobras and monkeys at the big square, Jemaa el-Fnaa; in the huge bazaar where, between a traditional djellaba and pointy babouche slippers, someone will also try to sell you a massage at a questionable establishment nearby. It is waiters in a tarboosh at a highly rated restaurant that locals hardly patronize, it is one thousand and one nights, every night. And when you say “No thanks” in Arabic everyone is surprised – “Aha, she’s one of us!” – but that doesn’t stop them from trying to sell you something.

 Despite all that, I was glad to be in Marrakech now. I could forgive those characteristics of the Marrakechis. First of all, and this something that can be said of all of Morocco – these folks are just plain courteous and friendly even when they are trying to take something from you. And secondly, who can blame them? People are just trying to make a living – and poverty is no stranger to urban Morocco – and if the masses of Frenchmen and Brits swarming in the streets of the Old City want their couscous served with a tarboosh and traditional garb, so be it. I think I was simply angry because they saw me as a tourist. And as a Moroccan I got angry all over again at the Europeans who set standards and have a certain perception of how Morocco ought to look, and everyone simply scampers around them.

Khen Elmaleh

 There’s something in this split experience that manages to trouble me during my entire trip in Morocco. On the one hand, I am a tourist with money that enables her to experience things and sit in places where the locals, if they aren’t wealthy, don’t sit. On the other hand, I am not a wealthy Moroccan nor am I even really Moroccan. But when I arrive along with my whole aura of foreignness at one of the hottest spots in town, the Nomad restaurant in the medina of Marrakech – and I ask the waiter about a French word on the menu that I hadn’t understood, and he tries to explain it to me in English (“It’s something that looks like an onion and has an anise flavor”) and a second later I come back with “Aha! Bish bash!” – he cracks a smile that's even bigger than the one that in any case had been spread across his at-your-service face, and says with a kind of a sigh of relief, like someone who has discovered that the connection between us doesn’t pass only through my foreign currency: “Oh! Bish bash!”

  Read article in full

Friday, August 09, 2019

Ten things you didn't know about Baghdad Jewry

Did you know that the famous Baghdad rabbi Yosef Hayim was rescued from a well aged seven? That a woman, Rachel Hacham,  founded the Baghdad School for the blind? Here are 10 things you may not have known about early-20th-century Baghdad Jewry, according to Bet Hatefutsot (the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) (With thanks: Ruth):

Renee and Abraham El-Kebir on their wedding day in 1926

There were 35,000 Jews in Baghdad at the beginning of the 20th century, comprising about 35% of the city’s population. There were no less than 30 synagogues and eight Jewish newspapers were published.

A portrait of the Hacham Rabbi Yosef Hayim – known as the Ben Ish Hai - hung in every synagogue. Legend has it that when Yosef Hayim was seven, he fell into a deep well and was miraculously saved. He swore an oath in the well to devote his life to studying Torah if he made it out alive. Yosef Hayim eventually became one of the great sages of his generation in Baghdad and throughout the Jewish world.

Rabbi Yosef Hayim never missed delivering before an audience of thousands a Shabbat sermon that lasted three hours. Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s expounding on the Torah became legendary and was peppered with anecdotes and riddles. Rabbi Yosef Hayim died in 1909 on a pilgrimage to the Prophet Ezekiel’s Tomb in the Iraqi village of Al Kifl.

Britain took control of the Land of the Tigris and Euphrates in 1917 and named King Faisal I it's ruler. His reign was considered the Golden Age of Iraqi Jewry. The Jewish community was represented in Iraq’s parliament and its commercial trade with Britain was heightened. Sir Sassoon Eskell, who was among Baghdad’s greatest Jewish merchants, would become the first Jewish finance minister of Iraq and a leader of the Iraqi nationalist movement.

Known as the “Rothschilds of the East,” the Sassoon family’s tremendous influence in Iraq extended throughout the early decades of the 20th Century to Britain, India, Hong Kong, Singapore and other corners of the Far East. The family’s expansive commercial network included multiple branches of its original business in Baghdad, making Iraq an important player in global commerce. Among the family’s famous offspring are Victor Sassoon, owner of the international Coffee Bean chain and Rachel Sassoon Beer, the former chief editor of the British “The Sunday Times,” who played a central role in the Institute of Journalists’ and Institute of Women Journalists’ campaign to prove Alfred Dreyfus’s innocence.

In 1924, a woman named Rachel Hacham established the first school for the blind in Baghdad, considered the first school of its kind in the Jewish world. The school offered a modern curriculum and its students learned to play a variety of musical instruments. Several of them were later hired to play for Baghdad’s Iraqi radio station orchestra. They were thankful to Rachel Hacham throughout their lives.

In 2003, American soldiers discovered a collection of thousands of books, photographs, and documents pertaining to Iraqi Jewry in the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat Iraqi National Intelligence Service in Baghdad. The precious collection was airlifted to the US to be dried, demolded, restored and preserved. It was named the Iraqi Jewish Archive. Among the artifacts were dozens of copies of a Hebrew language instruction textbook entitled “Alfa Beta.” Pages 73-74 were ripped out of nearly every copy, because they featured a song declaring loyalty to King Faisal I, who was hung by rebel forces in a 1958 military coup.

The “Alliance” school network, combining Hebrew-language instruction with a modern curriculum, operated in Baghdad. The school contributed greatly to bridging the gap between religion and secularism among Iraqi Jewry. This enlightened atmosphere gave rise to what would become a Jewish intellectual elite of Baghdadi descent. Among them were Israeli writers Samir Naqqash and Sami Michael, Professor Sasson Somekh, and others who defined themselves as “Jewish-Arabs” and combined Muslim-Arab culture and Jewish culture in their works.

King Ghazi rose to power in 1933. A new wave of pro-Nazi sentiment in Iraq at that time was heightened by the visit of Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin Al-Husseini – who maintained close ties to the Nazi Party – and by the translation into Arabic of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

The Farhud pogrom that erupted on the holiday of Shavuot in June 1941 is still considered an open wound among Baghdadi Jewry, who numbered 150,000 at that time. During the riots, rape, chilling murders of infants, women, and the elderly, and looting and burning of stores took place. Children were thrown into the Tigris River in front of their parents. More than 180 Jews were murdered and nearly a 1,000 were wounded. “We saw through the window dozens of people armed with knives, axes, and firearms. A few of them were dragging objects and furniture that they had looted from Jewish homes,” testified Baghdadi Jew Yosef Nimrodi. “I saw a woman carrying a baby’s leg in her hand.” The Jews were buried in a mass grave.

From The Jew in You, Facebook page of the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora

Video for the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center (with thanks: Sami)

Thursday, August 08, 2019

What are the Sephardi customs for Tisha b'Ab?

Religious Jews are currently observing the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha b'Ab (Tisha B'Av), which begins on Saturday night. Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning marking the destruction of the First and Second Jewish temples, but also commemorates other Jewish tragedies. As Askhenazi and Sephardi traditions differ slightly, I am reproducing a blog by Rabbi Hassan to clear up the confusion. It was written in 2016.

Detail from the Arch of Titus in Rome showing the Romans carrying off booty from the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD

There are four stages of mourning. The first stage is the 17th of Tammuz till Rosh Hodesh. In this period Sephardim don't listen to music or wear new clothes or say the blessing of Shehecheyanu on a new fruit except on Shabbat. When it comes to buying new things the general rule is it is forbidden unless the sale is an unusually great sale. Then the purchase can be bought and used after Tisha B'Av. Likewise for major purchases like a car or a house, one should avoid the purchase unless the availability will vanish if delayed. Such purchases should not be used till after Tisha B'Av.

The next period of mourning intensity is from Rosh Hodesh Av till Shabbat. The third period is called Shevua Shechal Bo - the week that Tisha B'Av falls. (E.g. if Tisha B'Av falls on a Monday night/Tuesday then Shevua Shechal Bo is from Saturday night until midday the day after the fast.)

Finally we have the most severe mourning customs on Tisha B'Av itself. Generally speaking the Sephardic customs are more lenient than for Ashkenazim. Starting on Rosh Hodesh and including Rosh Hodesh Jews from Turkey, as well as Ashkenazim have the custom to abstain from meat (including chicken) and wine until the 10th of Av. The exception being on Shabbat when we eat meat to the same level that we would on a regular Shabbat. Other Sephardic communities including many from Rhodes refrain from meat from the 2nd of Av till the 10th. When it comes to drinking the wine/grape juice after havdallah, Ashkenazim give the cup to a child whereas for us we follow Rabbi Yosef Caro and drink it ourselves.

  Shevuah Shechal Bo 

 Starting from Saturday night, Sephardic men refrain from haircuts and shaving. (Some follow the custom of our Ashkenazic brothers and do not have haircuts for the entire three week period from the 17th of Tammuz.) We do not do any laundry, we only take cold showers, we only change our undergarments or any clothes that are soiled. We also aren't allowed to go swimming for pleasure (and most people don't have swimming lessons either since they can be fun too). This year since Tisha B'Av is nidche (pushed off) to Sunday. Many halachic authorities do not consider there a need to have a Shevuah Shechal Bo at all. As such it is permitted to do laundry and shower and even to swim. Most people are strict and avoid having haircuts.

  Erev Tisha B'Av
The day before Tisha B'Av we continue to learn Torah until sunset. (Ashkenazim stop learning regular Torah portions at midday.) After this time we are only allowed to learn Torah that is upsetting such as reading Eicha - The book of Lamentations describing the destruction of the First Temple, Sefe Iyov - The Book of Job, Sections from the prophet Jeremiah, Sections from the Talmud dealing with the destruction of the First and Second Temples and Kinot - poems about Jewish tragedies throughout the ages. On Erev Tisha B'Av we have a Seudah Hamafseket. This is the last meal before the fast. The meal should consist of only one cooked dish. Two foods that are normally cooked together are considered one dish. So for example a dish of egg and lentils would be ok to eat. One can also eat bread with this meal too. My practice, has been to have a normal pre fast meal a few hours before the fast. Then just before the fast I have a piece of toast and I sit on the floor and think of the destruction.

 This year (2016) since erev Tisha B'Av is on Shabbat none of these laws apply and we treat the day like a regular Shabbat just. However, one must be careful to finish Seudah Shelishit before the fast starts. Please note that the fast begins before Shabbat ends. Apart from learning Torah that makes us happy there are five things which are prohibited on Tisha B’av. Eating and drinking, washing, rubbing one’s body with oils or lotions, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations. Although not strictly forbidden, it is strongly recommended to take the day off on Tisha B'Av or at least not to work until halachic midday (1:15pm). Since we are all considered mourners on this day, we do not greet each other.Ladies who have given birth within 30 days are exempt from the fast. Similarly, anyone who has a serious illness or would become ill from fasting is exempt.

 The liturgy on Tisha B'Av is very powerful and the tunes are very moving. Although one isn't supposed to enjoy the tunes on Tisha B'Av, my grandfather of blessed memory would love to hum the melodies of Tisha B'Av throughout the year. One of the powerful kinot contrasts the festival of Pesach with Tisha B'Av using the famous "Ma Nishtana - Why is this night different from all other nights?"

 On Tisha B'Av night the lights are dimmed low, or tea lights are used. We sit on the floor and read Eicha - The book of lamentations. On Tisha B'Av day we don't wear talet and tefillin in the synagogue and we continue to sit on the floor. (Some Sephardim have the custom to wear them privately at home before coming to services but that is not the SBH minhag). We again read Eicha and more sad kinot. After midday we are allowed to sit on regular seats and at minha we wear talet and tefillin. Since we are forbidden to learn Torah on Tisha B'Av, if one learns daily, that learning should be done either the day before or the day after Tisha B'Av. Tehillim may be recited on Tisha B'Av itself but only after halachic midday (1:15pm).

 The mourning practices are in reverse to those of a loved one. Instead of most intense to least intense, we go from least to most. The idea being that we must prepare ourselves for it. If we were to go straight into the strict mourning of Tisha B'Av without the three weeks of preparations we would struggle to find meaning. Instead we build up gradually. As we do that this year let us work on our mitzvah observance and the way we interact with others. May Hashem grant peace in Israel. When the fast finishes, one should still not eat meat or drink wine until Midday the following day. The reason being that when the Second Temple was destroyed it continued burning for much of the 10th of Av. Other restrictions such as showering and shaving etc. are permitted from the end of the fast. (Ashkenazim wait until midday for those too).

  Read post in full

More posts about Tisha B'Ab

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Jordan closes Aaron's tomb to Jewish pilgrims

Not for the first time, Jews were banned from praying at the purported site of Aaron's tomb in Jordan after they were seen performing 'Jewish rituals'. The same no-prayer regimen appears to apply at the Temple Mount, also administered by the Jordanian Wakf. One wonders if the Jordanian authorities were intending to turn a blind eye to busloads of arriving Israeli tourists had the story not been broken by a Turkish news agency. Report in the Jerusalem Post.

Some five hundred Jewish tourists danced with a Torah scroll at Aaron's tomb

Aaron’s Tomb in Jordan was closed by the nation’s Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Antiquities on Thursday after the “illegal entry” of Jews to the site without knowledge of the ministry, according to Arab media.

The decision to close the site was made after Israeli tourists were filmed performing “Jewish rituals” at the site, according to the Turkish Anadolu Agency. It was also decided that all visitors would have to obtain approval from the Awqaf in the Ma’an Governorate before entering.

Thursday night began the first day of the Hebrew month of Av, which is also the anniversary of Aaron’s death.

In an interview with Ynet, tour guide Roni Ayalon, who was with the group of tourists, described being subjected to humiliating treatment by Jordanian authorities.

“They just stripped down all of us,” he said. “They took off the women’s head scarves. All the boys’ yarmulkes were taken off. They took off everyone’s shirts to see if they had tzitzit (religious fringes) under their clothes and took [the tzitzit] off them. They confiscated any religious symbols they found on us.”

“If there was this kind of humiliation of an Arab on our side who wanted to enter Jerusalem and they would dare to tell him to take off his shirt or confiscate his Koran, there would be a world war,” Ayalon said. “All the Arabs would jump up. But they can do whatever they want to us."
At the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located, visits by religious Jews are monitored by Wakf guards and Israeli police – and all Jewish prayer, including silent prayer, is forbidden, according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The Wakf, an arm of the Jordanian Ministry of Sacred Properties, administers the site. No sacred Jewish objects, such as prayer books or prayer shawls, may be brought onto the mount, according to tourism website Tourist Israel.

“None of us came to make a mess,” claimed the tour guide. 
“There was one boy who had a bar mitzvah and at Aaron’s Tomb we made a little celebration for him. When the policeman saw that we were singing, he quieted us and said that it’s forbidden for us to sing.”

Purported photos of Jewish tourists at the site which circulated through Jordanian media showed them praying with a Torah scroll. Read article in full