Thursday, October 31, 2019

Pakistan: The Australian Consul-General's wife's tale

If you visit the Israeli town of Ramleh, you will find a synagogue built by Pakistani Jews. It is named Magen Shalom, after the synagogue in Karachi which no  longer exists. The Jews of Pakistan once numbered about 3,000, but the violent repercussions to the Arab-Israeli conflict have driven the community  away. (In addition, as the case of Asia Bibi has shown, Pakistan is hardly today a beacon of religious freedom.)  The following story is based on real events and centres around the Jews of Karachi, who were desperate to  cross the closed border with India in the 1970s. Wayne Croning has recreated the story in his own words...names are made up.

Hannah made the driver cover the number plates of the Mercedes, even made him remove the flag from the bonnet.  She got in front and gave him the address. Jamila Street, in the Ranchore.

Her husband David was posted to Karachi a few months previously,  as the Australian Consul-General. Hanna and their children arrived a few weeks later. They had been to several countries, including some in South America. The city reminded her of Bombay, where she and her family once lived.

Crowded, bustling, hot and humid. But she loved it. She loved the food, the people and the culture. The first thing she did on arriving at any new country was to look up the Jewish population; being Jewish herself. After a short search with help through a high ranking local official, she found to her amazement, that there was indeed a small but thriving Jewish community with a decent-sized synagogue in the commercial hub of the city.

 As they drove from Clifton to Saddar, they eventually got onto Bunder Road (M.A.Jinnah Road), and took a turn off this busy street.The street they were on now was narrow, but crowded with people, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles. The synagogue was not hard to find. A large stone and brick building soon appeared on their right. Above the steel gate, and on the building itself was a sign: 'Magain Shalome Synagogue’.

An early picture of the Magain Shalome synagogue, Karachi (Photo: Haroun Haidar blog)

 They pulled up to the side of the street and parked. Hannah got out, walked to the gate and was stopped by the chowkidar or watchman.

 “Who is it you wish to see?” he asked, in Urdu. Hannah had picked up a bit of Hindi after spending a few years in Bombay.“Rabbi sahib say milna chatha hoo.” (I would like to meet the Rabbi).

 He replied that this was Saturday and to come back in one hour. She waited in the car, and soon observed a number of people entering the premises. Men, women and children, families, all dressed for Shabbat, in their finest. They all appeared to be East Indian, but some of their features were a little different.

The gates were fully open now and she decided to walk in. The main door of the synagogue was made up of solid oak. She entered and was greeted by a high-ceilinged, cathedral-like room.and spacious, wooden benches flanked each side of a narrow aisle. Women on the left, men on the rght. Men wore kippot, women wore shawls around their head.

An elderly, bearded man stood to the side of the entrance on the inside, greeting everyone. He looked surprised when he saw Hannah.

Smiling, he introduced himself.“Hello and Shalom. I am Rabbi Simone Isaac. And you are...?"

 Hannah smiled back. “I am Hannah. She had covered her head with a silk scarf. After guiding her to a seat, the Rabbi went to the back of the building. Large chandeliers hung down, brightening up the space.

The Ark stood on a raised wooden pedestal in the middle of the wooden prayer platform. Torah scrolls were stored here. The Rabbi climbed the two stairs, removed one of the large scrolls, holding it high above his head with both hands.  He walked around the prayer platform, reciting prayers in Hebrew.

After the service ended, Hannah managed to meet the Rabbi again. She learned a lot after their hour -long conversation. Most of the Jews here were from the Bene Israel community, that originated on the South West coast of India, just South of Bombay. Some were Baghdadi Jews and a few had Afghani connections. Most of them spoke Marathi, Urdu and of course English. Many had left in 1948, one year after the Partition of India and the birth of a new nation: Israel. By the mid 1960’s the population had further dwindled. Most left for the UK, Israel and even India.

 This was now 1972, India and Pakistan had just gotten over a major war. The border was closed between the two countries.

 Hannah was seen regularly at the synagogue; attending Shabbat prayers, weddings and social events. She had even attended two funerals, where the dead were laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery not too far from the  synagogue. She got to know most of the families, made close friends with some of the women, hosting many parties and get-togethers at her home. Her own children also attended prayers at the synagogue every Saturday.  She would supply the community with Kosher wine, grape juice, etc., even medical supplies.

 As she grew closer to the community, and came to know several of them wanted to make ‘Aliyah’ to Israel, especially the younger generation, she devised a plan: Travel to Israel for Pakistanis was not allowed (passports were stamped as such).But many had immigrated to Israel via Iran and India.

 The bizarre idea came into her head one day.  She would drive with two or three Jews to Lahore and then drive across the border at Wagh, hiding them in the trunk of the same consular car.

“Are you insane?” her husband asked as she prepared for the trip. “What if you are caught? What if they are caught? Even if you do, what will happen to them in India? They could be arrested there!”

 Hannah smiled but said with confidence .“They will not stop a foreign consular car. I have made arrangements with the British Embassy in Delhi. They will be given British passports. The ones who want to immigrate to Israel can do so as well. There is a representative from Tel Aviv who will be in Bombay at the end of the year. They are inviting Indian Jews to immigrate to Israel.

 When the day arrived, Hannah and two young women and one man, got into the Mercedes and bid tearful goodbyes to relatives.

The long drive to Lahore took about two days, with stops along the way. Hannah also took the family pet dog along for the trip. The morning before crossing the border, she hid the two young women in the trunk of the car. The rear middle armrest was removed and a plastic pipe fitted to allow cool air from the air conditioner to reach them in the trunk. The young man was given a consular uniform with a badge and would act as the chauffeur.

They drove to the border. It was heavily guarded with signs posted along the fence. Guard dogs began barking at the car. The guards took a walk around and noticed Hannah’s dog in the back seat.  in Delhi.” she told them, holding out her passport.“This is my chauffeur and these are his papers”, she added, handing them his passport.

 After informing her that she would be allowed to cross, they refused to let the chauffeur through. She looked up at the guard, half annoyed. “I cannot drive! Do you want me to walk to Delhi?? ”He appeared confused for a second. After consulting with a senior official, he came back.“You can both go through, but at your own risk. We cannot be responsible for your safety, or the safety of the driver.” With that he handed back the papers, opened the gate and let them through.

 On the other side, she encountered similar problems. “I can’t walk to Delhi!” and an annoyed look finally got her through.

“I have to make this trip two or three times a year. Make a note of my name and my number plate,”she said, as they slowly drove away from the border.

 The two young women made it to the UK. The chauffeur had to return with her to Karachi, so as not to raise suspicion. She made several such trips back and forth. Things became more relaxed at the border crossing.The chauffeur made it out to Israel after the third border crossing.

Hardly any Jews remain in Karachi. Many of them married into other communities, changed their religion or just left for good.

 Many years later, a journalist interviewed the Karachi Jewish community who had settled in Israel in a place called Ramleh. They had set up a new synagogue and named it Magen Shalom after the one in Karachi.

When one elderly man was interviewed he had tears in his eyes.“I miss Karachi. I was born there, I miss the place dearly.What really hurts is that I can never go back for a visit. Never!”

Diplomat's wife smuggled Jews out of Pakistan

Pakistani Jews go to court over synagogue

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Friedman: kudos to Netflix for telling Mizrahi spy story

Matti Friedman is pleasantly surprised by The Spy, the Netflix series about Eli Cohen, Israel's most famous spy. It is long-overdue recognition of a marginalised, yet invaluable group of Arabic-speaking Jewish agents. Read his article in Mosaic:

Sacha Baron-Cohen as Eli Cohen, Israel's legendary spy in the Netflix series

Hollywood’s Mossad movies haven’t been good in part because most Western observers have never really grasped Israel’s secret identity, which is also the secret that made the Mossad’s reputation in its first decades. This is the fact that more than half of the new state’s population came, like Eli and Nadia, from the Arab world and included people who could move in that world with ease, as Arabs. That fact has been obscured by Israel’s own Europe-heavy narrative, by the West’s Holocaust fixations, and by the Mossad’s own PR about derring-do and technical wizardry.

The truth is that Mossad recruiters had at their disposal an invaluable reservoir of people who were loyal to a fault, ideologically motivated, and capable of passing for the enemy. One of them was Eli Cohen. There were many others who, unlike Cohen, remain anonymous because they were lucky enough to make it home.

The series deserves credit for broaching, if only in a peripheral and inelegant way, the harsh ethnic irony of the Cohens’ life: namely, that the same characteristic that made Eli useful to Israel’s young intelligence service was what kept his family on Israel’s margins. Being an Arabic-speaking Jew in those years was useful if you were a spy. In real life it was a handicap to be overcome.

“You know what they see when they look at me?” Eli says to Nadia after a party at the poolside mansion of Ashkenazi friends, where the host mistakes Eli for a waiter: “They see an Arab. That’s it. Jewish, yes. But just an Arab.” Never mind that no such mansion could have existed in socialist Israel circa 1960, or that the host’s 1970s shirt and haircut are off by at least a decade. Eli’s point to Nadia gets at something true, and if there are to be more—and better—Mossad stories told on screen, they’ll have to address it again and in much greater depth.

Read article in full

Eli Cohen's story dramatised on Netflix

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Libyan Jew will help draft new Libyan Constitution

A Libyan Jew based in the UK is set to contribute to the drafting of the war-torn country’s new constitution, according to Jewish News. But scarred by his arrest and interrogation on a visit to Libya in 2012,   Raphael Luzon will only agree to take part in the drafting via Skype.

 Raphael Luzon, who came to the UK in 2001, said he had been invited to take part in the process by Muhammed al-Hosh, president of the High Council of Reconciliation. Luzon said it was “historic” that he had been appointed an “observer and representative of Libyan Jews” in the country’s newly-established Council of Sheikhs, which is the equivalent of Libya’s upper chamber or Senate.

Speaking to Jewish News, he said: “The current constitution, which dates from the days of the King in 1951, talks about equal rights for all citizens, but I am trying to introduce a line that says this should be irrespective of religion.”

He added: “While there is some reluctance from the Salafists [fundamentalists] most Libyans agree that something like this is needed.”

 The activist, who chairs the Union of Libyan Jews, was born in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi but was forced to flee during a pogrom as a result of the 1967 Six Day War fought between Israel and Arab states. He has since been back several times, including in 2012, when he was briefly abducted. As a result of this, he said he would participate in the drafting via Skype “despite a lot of pressure on me to travel back."

Read article in full

More about Raphael Luzon

Monday, October 28, 2019

Women helped Mashadi converts retain their Judaism

This year is the 180th anniversary of the mass forced conversion of the Jews of Mashad to Islam.  Largely thanks to their women, who remained isolated from social and religious pressures,  the Jews proceeded to lead a double life - Muslim outwardly, but Jewish at home - which helped preserve their identity at the height of adversity. Dr Mehran Levy summarises their story in Kinloss magazine (with thanks: Michelle)

 The extraordinary history of the Jews of Mashad began during the reign of Nader Shah (known as the 'Napoleon' of Persia) of the Afshar Dynasty, who ruled from 1736, and his empire briefly stretched across present-day Iran, India, and parts of central Asia.

 At the time, for over 2500 years, Jews lived in various provinces of Persia. They were engaged in trade but were also bankers, and ran depositories. The Shah brought forty Jewish families - trustworthy and reputed for being good financiers and honest business people - to his capital Mashad to run his business, while seventeen families were sent to the nearby city of Kalat, his seat of residence.

Jews were appointed to manage the Shah's vast treasures (including the largest diamonds - Kohinoor and Dariyanoor) brought in after the conquest of India. Initially, they resided in a shanty precinct called Eidgah (Ghetto). Meanwhile, the Zoroastrian community of Mashad, subjected to religious annihilation, were fast evacuating the area. This gave the opportunity to the Jews to purchase their lands and properties, and the Shah sanctioned them to build synagogues and community centres.

Nader Shah, the community's only hope and saviour, was assassinated shortly afterwards in a rebellion (1747).  The country was fragmented and revolts erupted between his successors. Several families tried to flee eastward, to Herat, Bukhara and on to India.  In spite of the long and dismal period that followed, the rest of the community remained united, alert, vigilant. It designated elders to solve disputes and to liaise between the Jewish and the Muslim population. The whole of Eidgah was interlinked with small inconspicuous doors, which could be used as escape routes at times of trouble. The windows faced alleyways rather than areas where onlookers could see into the private dwellings.

Migratory routes taken by Mashadi Jews

 The Jews established business links with local Muslims as means of survival including trading woollen clothes, silk, and other textiles.

There were many assaults on  Mashadi Jewry, the most poignant in 1839. The 180th anniversary of this event  falls this year and the community is commemorating and reflecting upon it. An incident occurred when the inadvertent misconduct of a Jew resulted in the killing of several Jews by a mob. This was the catalyst for more persecution, giving  rise to one of the darkest epochs in the lives of Persian Jewry, followed by the forced 'conversion' of Jews to Islam. Within days, the entire community of about 400 families was forcibly converted to Shia Islam, some were killed and most community centres, including synagogues, destroyed.

These Anusim (forced converts) among the Mashadi Jews were known as Allah-dadi (God given) and recognized as Jadid al-Islam (New Muslims). The sceptics, to ensure they no longer practised their 'idolatrous' religion kept the 'New Muslims' under surveillance. The ghetto was renamed Mahalleh Jadid (The New Precinct). This grim situation motivated a large number to leave for  the Land of Israel and the nearby cities in Persia where they assimilated into the existing Jewish communities, or moved to  more tolerant Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

However, those who remained continued to adhere tenaciously, although undercover, to their orthodox religious activities and began to live a dual life. Kashrut, marriage, and burials were all conducted under strict Jewish laws. Intermarriage was unknown within the community - girls were betrothed to Jewish boys at an early age to avoid a forced marriage to outsiders. The marriage ceremony would be first conducted in a local mosque by the Imam, and then carried out under rabbinic auspices; having two marriage certificates, one in Persian and one in Hebrew, was common. Men had dual names, a Persian Arabic name as well as their Hebrew birth names.

Men attended mosques for daily prayer followed by davening in their secluded synagogues. To make them inconspicuous, miniature Tefillins, Siddurim, and Torah Parshiots printed as separate smaller booklets (read in services even to this day) were in use. A unique form of scriptwriting known as Jadidi (new) was created - this was a mixture of Persian and Hebrew only understandable by the Jews at the time. Some even went on to Mecca for pilgrimage and were commonly ennobled by the title Hajji after returning from Hajj.

Mini-parashiot booklets printed in Lithuania in 1900 and used in Mashad c. 1918 (Photo: UMICA)

Because of this duality, there were no openly Jewish schools in Mashad. Pupils attended local primary and secondary schools while the elders, behind closed doors, taught Jewish studies. When the Alliance Israelite offered education classes, the elders, fearful that their secret faith may be exposed, rejected it. This inevitable but wise decision had damaging ramifications for the community because they were comparatively less educated than their Jewish counterparts in Iran in the first half of the twentieth century.

Under the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925), life for the Mashadi Jews improved immensely. As the courts made strong attempts at secularism and eased many religious restrictions, Jews cautiously began practising their faith publicly. The city thrived as a business and economic centre and the Jews benefited from this and the favourable trading environment of the nearby Russian provinces.

However, with the rise of the Nazism and the outbreak of the Second World War, prejudice and anti-Semitism re-ignited in the country. In search of a safer and more prosperous life, the Jews gradually left Mashad in favour of larger cities, settling mainly in the capital Tehran. The exodus reached its peak in 1946-1948. By the 1950s, Jewish life in Mashad was almost non-existent. This momentous move and the moderate reign of the Pahlavi Dynasty, presented the community with enormous social, vocational and work opportunities and, in particular, they could openly practise their faith with little fear or hindrance. That period also saw the first group of Mashadi Jews going onto higher education and, a few held senior positions within their disciplines in Iran, among whom are remembered and honoured: 'Mohandes'  Nourollah  M., Dr  Aghajan  R., Dr Lotfollah  Y., Dr Yousef  H.

By 1979, with the creation of the Islamic Republic, the majority of the Jews had left Iran. Some moved to Germany, Italy, and America. Israel was also a favourite choice. Mashadis  joined earlier migrants from 1901, forming the largest Persian Jewish community. Those who immigrated to Britain joined the well-established but small community that settled there in 1910. The Anglo-Mashadi community founded their own Synagogue in Stamford Hill in the mid-1920s. This evolved into the present-day magnificent Persian shul.

 Mashadi Jews have been unique in the diaspora because for centuries, they maintained their Jewish faith and practised Orthodox Judaism to the full, if underground, in an Islamic environment. Historians argue that this was due largely to the women who were somewhat excluded and segregated from the public domain and the city's fervently religious atmosphere. The characteristics of the traditional Iranian home and the segregated closed unit of the Jewish household meant that the women had, comparatively, a greater degree of liberty to live as Jews in their homes. Hence, they upheld their ancestral traditions and passed on that unadulterated faith to the next generation. 

Young Mashadis never witnessed or experienced the lives of their parents in Iran. However, in their unique and highly integrated social life outside Iran, and the negligible rate of intermarriage, they have upheld their traditions. They are well-educated, informed and are involved in wider academic, corporate and political institutions. 

 From the outset, the crypto-Jews of Mashad, consciously or not, believed that it was best not to assimilate and to remain unnoticed and united within their tightly-knit community. Some attribute this to the community’s double life in the past as a means of survival and believe that their parents' socio-cultural lifestyle has perpetuated itself and is apparent in the present day. However, it is certain that this unique lifestyle has worked in their favour, keeping the community integral, safe, prosperous and, remarkably, preserving their orthodox Jewish identity unhindered for centuries in the face of extreme adversity.This trait is unlikely to erode in the near future and perhaps unwittingly, they have formed their own diaspora within a diaspora.

This article, written in memory of the author's father, has been reproduced with the kind permission of  Dr Mehran Levy.

More about the Jews of Mashad

Sunday, October 27, 2019

IDF Arabic instructor tells her incredible story

Now an Arabic instructor in the IDF, V. was one of the last Iraqi Jews to make aliya. She tells her incredible story of growing up under Saddam's regime to Israel Hayom (With thanks: Lily)

A photo which V brought out of Iraq shows her with family members and friends

 The family decided not to forgo their Jewish identity, but for their own safety, they chose to hide it as much as possible.

One of V.'s first childhood memories was drawing shapes on a piece of paper. One was a Star of David. Her family panicked and made her promise never to do it again. V.'s first encounter with the Hebrew language was also scary.

 "I remember one time I was sitting at home with my dad and he was looking for something to listen to on the radio. Suddenly, we heard a broadcast in a language I couldn't identify and sounded very strange to me. My dad looked at me in total silence and changed the station."

 "I noticed what station it was and he saw me looking. And he whispered, 'Don't you dare to look for it later. That's Hebrew. It's illegal. If they catch us, we're done for."

 V. falls silent.

 "You have to understand. We didn't show anyone that we were Jews. We weren't taught the language, the religion, or the customs. From age four I knew what I could say to those around me and what I couldn't. I knew we were Jewish, but I didn't really understand what that meant at that age. I only knew I wasn't a regular kid."

  Leading a double life from such a young age came at a price, which was declaring loyalty to the regime. When she started elementary school, V. was recruited for the scouts, the youth movement of the Saddam regime. Unlike youth movements in Israel, the Iraqi scouts was actual military training. V. was given a uniform, a gun, and a hefty dose of Ba'ath party propaganda.

 Israel was always the enemy. "I realized that I had to prove that I was more loyal to Iraq than anyone else. That I was the most Iraqi anyone could be," V. says.

 Her school studies only increased her exposure to the propaganda of the regime and put V. into a permanent dilemma. "The brainwashing was absolute. In school, in the media, the message was always the same. If there is a situation of war or danger, our loyalty was first and foremost to Saddam and the regime. I was confused between my identity at home and the one I adopted when I was with friends at school and in the youth movement."

 When V. reached high school, things only got more complicated. "I finished elementary school without any of my childhood friends knowing I was Jewish. When I got to junior high and high school I encountered difficulties being accepted because of the lessons in religion. It was the first time I talked with my mom about religion. I asked her to stop hiding so I could show myself for who I was. She scolded me and once again there was the threat and the stories about what my father had been put through."

 But this time, V. would not be deterred from revealing her true identity to her friends. She was sick of hiding. "In the end, I decided to tell my friends I was Jewish. I prepared myself for the worst, for anti-Semitism and even violence. There was no violence, but there were anti-Semitic questions… even the blood libel about Passover matzah was brought up. I needed to explain that I was a Jew, not a monster, but in the end it went fine and made me stronger."

 Although her high school friends accepted her, V. began to realize that she had no future in Iraq. The family was living in constant fear that the regime would discover that her brother was living in Israel and that her father would be taken in for interrogation again.

V. secretly started to dream of making aliyah to Israel, and some Jewish girlfriends helped her. "From a young age, I had two Jewish friends and we'd play a game that had real meaning," she says. "We invented all sorts of written codes so in case one of us left Iraq, we could communicate freely in letters. Innocent lines like, 'What's the trendy color there now?' or 'When can you start studying in Holland?' became codes for getting visas to leave Iraq and make aliyah. That funny game eventually helped us a lot at the moment of truth." Surprisingly, the memory sparks a need for V. to explain that while the Iraq of her childhood was a tough and frightening place, it was not hell on earth.

Read article in full

Lavon affair spy Marcelle Ninio dies

Marcelle Ninio, one of six Israeli spies formerly jailed in Egypt in the infamous Lavon Affair of the 1950s,  has died at the age of 90.  The operation caused no casualties but much consternation, and provoled a political crisis in Israel. The Times of Israel reports: 

Marcelle Ninio: jailed for 14 years

 In the Lavon Affair, known commonly in Israel as “The Bad Business” (“Esek Habish”) and officially named Operation Susannah, Israeli spymasters, acting without the knowledge of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, recruited Egyptian Jews to carry out false flag terror attacks against civilian targets in the country in order to destabilize the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

 However, the operation failed, eight cell members were imprisoned and two others were executed. Ninio, who served as a liaison between cell members and was the only woman in the squad, spent 14 years in an Egyptian prison for her actions.

 Operation Susannah was launched due to Israel’s concerns over Washington and London’s good relations with Nasser, and particularly British authorities’ plans to evacuate their forces from the Suez Canal.

 Read article in full

Friday, October 25, 2019

Buffeted by Egyptian winds of exile

At last the historian Bat Ye'or has published the novel she had always wanted to write: it covers all aspects of the exodus from Egypt, the defining experience of her life. Lyn Julius reviews Le Dernier Khamsin in the Times of Israel:

‘There is hatred for everything that is different,’ a friend tells the incredulous young woman, as their world collapses around them in Nasser’s Egypt.

Le dernier Khamsin des juifs d'Egypte  is the novel (in French) which the author Bat  Ye’or ( her pen name, meaning Daughter of the Nile) had always wanted to write. Instead  the Cairo-born  Jewess’s  life was thrown off course by her pioneering research into the dhimmi, the subaltern status of Jews and Christians under Islam.

The Hamsin is the hot wind blowing in to Egypt  from the Sahara. For the 80,000 Jews of Egypt, riots combine with state-sanctioned persecution to blow this age-old community out of the country, never to return. The book is written in an impressionistic style but is nuanced and covers all aspects of the exodus.

 It is heavily autobiographical. Arriving in 1957 as a young refugee in London to study at the Institute Z, Elly ( Bat Ye’or) comes from a well-heeled family. Now she is struggling to survive on a handout of eight pounds a month. Depressed in the cold and the fog, she tries to make sense of what has happened. She is haunted by flashbacks and ghosts from her Egyptian past. Her long-dead,  observant  relatives are resigned to their fate, but Elly, of a new breed of educated, secular, independent women,  can’t accept that Egyptian Jewish life is being wiped out.

Elly’s father is burning their family archives lest they be accused of Zionism before their hurried departure. They can’t leave without signing a declaration forfeiting their property.

 The storm has been brewing for 100 years. Egyptian nationality was only granted to those who could prove roots going back to 1845.

 Elly’s friends at the equestrian club reflect the Egyptian upper crust : there are French, Syrian Christians, wealthy Muslims. Some want her to stay. Many see no future. One tells her to go to Europe. Another to Israel, the place that dares not be named.

 Elly bears no grudge towards the noble and brave Egyptian people. It is Nasser and his cronies who are to blame for the Jews’ plight. There are Muslims who saved Jews from lethal riots.

 The events of 1967, when the regime exacted its revenge on the remains of the community, merge with those of 1956. The book”s most moving episode is Eliyahu Cohen’s story. He is one of 400 Jewish males jailed by Nasser as Israel POWs. They are incarcerated 72 to a cell which measures 8×4 m. They are given food infested with cockroaches. Some are tortured or sodomised. It’s an experience Eliyahu cannot live with.

 Ultimately, the story holds out hope. Forced exile can lead to hell  –  or to redemption. The Egyptian Jews have rebuilt their lives, and none wants to return.

Read article in full

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Jews of Sudan get lengthy BBC coverage

It is almost unprecedented for the BBC to cover Jews from Arab countries at length, yet its website has been focusing on Jews of Sudan recently in the wake of the government's call for them to return. All this was made possible by Daisy Abboudi, who has systematically been collecting interviews for her blog, Tales of Jewish Sudan (with thanks: Ron):

A wedding in Sudan 

David Gabra can still remember the exact date he left Sudan.

"Twenty fifth of May 1965," he said with certainty when talking about his departure. At that time, things were getting increasingly difficult for Jewish people because of growing anti-Semitism.

 "There was chaos... I remember one time we closed ourselves up in our home, and they were throwing stones at us, at our home."

David decided he could no longer stay in the country. "I closed my [textile] store at nine o'clock at night as usual, I told my friends, my neighbours: 'See you in the morning.' And then I went straight to the airport and went to Greece."

 From there he went to Israel. David's departure was part of a movement of Jewish people that saw a community thought to have numbered 1,000 just a few years earlier reduced to just a handful by 1973.

 That was the result of a changing political situation in Sudan from 1956. A rising anti-Israel sentiment meant most Jews no longer felt safe there. This rapid decline mirrored its rapid growth just a few decades earlier.

Read article in full

When Miss Khartoum was a Jew - and other tales

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

When Miss Khartoum was a Jew - and other tales

A call by the government of Sudan for Jews to return has prompted renewed interest from the Jerusalem Post in this small community, now extinct. As Egypt and Sudan were both under British administration, the Jews in both countries shared a similar fate. Daisy Abboudi has been collecting their stories in her blog, Tales of Jewish Sudan. (With thanks Shulamit, Lily)

  Like the much larger Egyptian Jewish community the Jews of Sudan were connected to, it was composed of Arabic speaking Jews as well as Greek and Italian Jews who felt at home in the variety of cultures that made up society at the time. Ashkenazi Jewish people also joined in to create a lively community.

Miss Khartoum 1956 was stripped of her title

In her blog, Abboudi tells the story of how, during those years, a Jewish woman won the title of Miss Khartoum and was meant to progress to compete in the Miss Egypt contest – until her Jewishness was found out*.

  The result was that her title was taken from her and given to the woman who won second place, who was Christian.

Read article in full

*1956 was the year of Suez, when Jews were being expelled from neighbouring Egypt .

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Or Yehuda museum: vibrant centre of Iraqi Jewry

The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre in Or Yehuda is a hidden gem. It testifies to the millenial survival of Jews in present-day Iraq, their glories and tribulations, resulting in the community's extinction in the 20th century. Brian Schrauger writes about the centre in the Jerusalem Report (with thanks: Shimon)


  The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre: designed like a traditional Jewish villa

It was a hot summer day in Baghdad on August 8, 1971. Indeed, it was hot in more ways than one. Life had become dangerous for the few remaining Jews living in Iraq’s capital city.

Sami Dallal, 19, had to make a decision: stay for an interrogation by the antisemitic and murderously minded Ba’ath police, or, with his remaining family, make a break for Tehran? Today at the age of 67, Dallal tells me his story at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, an attractive, modern museum in the central Israeli city of Or Yehuda (meaning the Light of Yehuda). Running parallel to one of Ben-Gurion Airport’s runways, jets were taking off every few minutes, at the same place where most Iraqi Jewish refugees, destitute, arrived in Israel in an exodus that began in 1948, peaked in 1951, and ended in the early ’70s.

The Babylonian Jewry Center is a hidden gem, unknown even to many Israelis. Established in 1973, the museum is laid out as an Iraqi villa like the ones in which wealthy Iraqi Jews once lived. The design is appropriate. Far from feeling like a memorial to what was, the center is a place vibrating with the life of Jews who lived in Iraq for 2,600 years.

Read article in full

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A piyyut for Simhat Torah: Mi Pi'el

The festival of Succot comes to a climax with Simhat Torah, which celebrates the end of the reading cycle of the Torah. Mi Pi'el is a popular Sephardi piyyut which has also become popular in Ashenazi communities and is also sung on Shabbat.

Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael.
 Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael. 
 Ein Adir ka'Ad_ai, V'ein Baruch k'ven Amram.

Ein G'dolah ka'Torah, V'ein Dorsha k'Yisrael.
 Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael. 
Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael. 
 Ein Hadur ka'Ad_ai, V'ein Vatik k'ven Amram.

Ein Zaca'ah ka'Torah, V'ein Homda k'Yisrael.
 Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael. 
Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael.

Ein Tahor ka'Ad_ai, V'ein Yashar k'ven Amram.
Ein K'vudah ka'Torah, V'ein Lomda k'Yisrael.
 Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael. 
Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael. 

 Ein Melech ka'Ad_ai, V'ein Navi k'ven Amram.
Ein S'mucha ka'Torah, V'ein Ozra k'Yisrael.
 Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael.
 Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael. 

 Ein Podeh ka'Ad_ai, V'ein Tzadik k'ven Amram. Ein K'doshah ka'Torah, V'ein Rohasha k'Yisrael. Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael. 
Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael.

Ein Shomer ka'Ad_ai, V'ein Shalem k'ven Amram. Ein T'mimah ka'Torah, V'ein Tomcha k'Yisrael. Mipi El, Mipi El, Y'vorach Yisrael.

Stained glass windows at the Adly syngogue.

 To listen to Mi Pi'el as sung in the Adly synagogue Cairo in 2006, click here.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The festival of Succot brings the first rains

Succot is the festival where Jews are enjoined to live in structures open to the sky to recall the forty years which the Children of Israel spent in the desert before being allowed to enter the Promised Land. On the last day of the festival, Shemini Hag Atseret, Jews pray for rain.

But even the Muslims of Iraq were aware of this Jewish festival, which was associated with the first rain of the season. In fact some called it El Arazeel al Yehud.

EL Arazeel al-Yahud by Ala Atar. As a child in Iraq he recalls his mother using the expression 'Arazeel al Yahud ' to describe a heavy rainfall (عرازيل اليهود)

A friend remembers how, each year, her family would erect a succah with four upright wooden beams in the middle of the garden in Baghdad. The walls consisted of date palm leaves tied at the top and base to horizontal beams. Pomegranates and oranges hung from the roof. The roof had a trellis, but it too was bedecked with palm leaves. The whole was decorated with coloured lights. My friend remembers there was a large table in the centre and divans on three sides of the succah so that the family could sleep there.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Palestinian Journalist: 'help the Jews return to Arab countries'

MEMRI reports that in a two-part article in the Palestinian Authority (PA) daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, journalist Muwaffaq Matar called to adopt an idea presented by Palestinian President Mahmoud 'Abbas in a booklet from 1982, titled "We Need an Arab Keren Hayesod." See my comment below. (With thanks: Lily)

Mahmoud Abbas

In this 14-page booklet, 'Abbas reviewed the activity of the Zionist movement after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, with emphasis on the Keren Hayesod organization, which was established in 1920 to raise funds for encouraging Jewish immigration to Palestine and consolidating the Jewish settlement there. 'Abbas concluded the booklet by stating that Keren Hayesod had served its purpose and that Israel no longer had any use for it. However, he advocated establishing an "Arab Keren Hayesod" that would help Jews leave Israel.

He wrote that the Zionist movement had lured the Jews to Palestine with lies and false promises, and that their lives there have been nothing but "pain, difficulty, anxiety and loss"; therefore, many of them now wished to flee Israel, and helping them do so would benefit both them and the Palestinian cause. After summarizing 'Abbas's arguments in the booklet, journalist Muwaffaq Matar writes that the Zionist Movement deliberately pushed Jews to leave their countries of origin and emigrate to Palestine by drumming up fear of antisemitism, and also by initiating terrorist actions against Jews around the world.

The greatest victims of its activity, he said, were not only the Palestinians but also the Eastern or Sephardi Jews, i.e., the Jews originating in Arab countries, whom he calls "Jewish Arabs." According to him, the Ashkenazi Jews, i.e., Jews of European origin, took over Israel's state institutions and positions of power, while using the Eastern Jews as pawns and settling them in Israel's border regions to serve as cannon fodder in the conflict with the Arabs.

Consequently, these Jews are now disillusioned with Zionism and would be happy to flee the state of Israel. The uprooting of the Jews from the Arab countries, he adds, was the most dangerous plot in the history of mankind, second only to the extermination of the native Americans. Matar claims that the Eastern Jews have remained devoted to their Arab culture and heritage and yearn to return to their Arab countries of origin. It therefore behooves the Arabs to liberate them from "the shackles of the racist imperialist state [of Israel]" by helping them to realize this hope.

My comment: The Palestinians have long realised that their 'right to return' demand looks pretty shaky unless they can neutralise the claims of Jews from Arab countries.  Abbas first wrote his proposal to facilitate the return of Jews to Arab countries after a series of offers made by Arab countries in the 1970s inviting Jews to return. The uptake was negligible because the offers were made on the basis of several false assumptions - that the Zionists caused the Jews to flee, that Arab and Muslim antisemitism did not exist, and that Mizrahi Jews are more attached to Arab culture and heritage than they are to Israel. In spite of a resurgence in interest in Arab culture,  Jews from Arab and Muslim lands are Israeli patriots and have no illusions about the antisemitism that drove them out.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Syrian Jews race to 'restore' Great Synagogue of Aleppo

The US organisation Sephardic Heritage Museum is leading a project to 'restore' the Great synagogue in Aleppo, Syria. One of the leaders of the community, Joseph Sitt, has urged the community to help advance the work on the roof and walls  before the winter sets in. There are no Jews living in Aleppo and only a handful in Damascus.

The Great Synagoue in Aleppo as it was in 2008

A recent photo allegedly testifies  to  extensive destruction

A temporary roof has been erected to protect the graves of prominent Aleppan rabbis and community notables 

 Photos on the recent newsletter show the Great Synagogue in 2008 and the alleged destruction following the Syrian civil war. It is not known if the Sephardic Heritage Museum is in consultation with experts.

Joseph Sitt traces the history of the synagogue in  his Succot newsletter: "One of the recent initiatives of the Sephardic Heritage Museum has been to oversee and fund the restoration of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo. According to legend, the foundation for this holy place of worship was constructed by King David's General, Joab Ben Zeruyah (circa 950 BCE) after he conquered the city. Visitors throughout the centuries were impressed by its beauty. An Italian nobleman, Pietro della Valle, who visited the synagogue on August 23, 1625, writes, “The synagogue of the Jews of Aleppo ... is known for its beauty and antiquity."

"For 3,000 years this synagogue has been a silent witness to our illustrious community's steady growth, yet ultimately has been left standing alone as our entire community of over 25,000  emigrated from the area over the course of the past century.

"Unfortunately the synagogue was severely damaged in a 1947 riot, but rebuilt again by Murad Guindi, Albert Nakash and Jack Chakalo in the 1980's.

"Sadly the recent civil war in Syria  has caused the destruction of the synagogue once again.
As the weather grows cold and wet in the winter months, we are racing against the clock to restore a proper roof and walls of the Eastern portion of the synagogue. This section is the location in which the newly arrived Spanish Jews prayed in the 1500’s and the area that houses the cave of Eliyahu Hanavi.

"This area also protects the graves of our ancestors and many great rabbis of Aleppo, some dating back 2500 years ago."

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Assimilation did not save last Camondo from Auschwitz

There are no heirs left to the Camondo name, but the tragedy of this Ottoman banking family transplanted to a splendid villa on the rue Monceau in Paris, whose last assimilated descendant Beatrice and her family were murdered in Auschwitz, has a lesson for today, claimed Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in his Rosh Hashana sermon. Here it is reproduced in Medium magazine: (with thanks: Lily)

Walk into the home, and find yourself facing a grand sweeping staircase, then a magnificent dining room overlooking manicured gardens. It’s a dizzying experience: The furniture, the paintings, the porcelain. Count Moise De Camondo, heir to a vast Jewish banking fortune, amassed one of the greatest collections of French artistry of the 18th century, including a table covered by petrified wood that once belonged to Marie Antoinette and silverware commissioned by the Empress of Russia Catherine the Great. Moise and his cousin Isaac were early supporters of the French Impressionists, including Manet, Cezanne, Monet and Degas (even though he was an ardent anti-Semite). Isaac donated his collection to the Louvre (the museum curators were at first “horrified” by the radical artwork, and locked the paintings away).

The Camondo brothers were board members of the Louvre; Moise hosted the museum’s board meetings around his dining room tables on Rue De Monceau. If that does not sufficiently describe Moise’s social status — in 1891, Moise married Irene Cahen d’Anvers, daughter of Louis Cahen d’Anvers, one of Europe’s wealthiest Jewish bankers and owner of the bank today known as BNP Paribas. The Cahan d’Anvers family had a tradition that they are descendants of King David. Irene was immortalized by Renoir, who was commissioned to draw her in 1880, in a painting titled “Little Irene”.

'Little Irene' by Renoir: Moise de Camondo married the Jewish banking heiress Irene Cahen d"Anvers

But as we walked through this palace, I did not see not one mezuzah, menorah, kiddush cup, Shabbat candles…. Our curiosity was growing by the minute — who were these Camondos, really? Abraham Salomon managed to become a leading financier in the Ottoman Empire, earning the name ׳the Rothschild of the East’. He became an advisor and confidant of the Grand Viziers, Sultan Abdulmecid I and Sultan Abdulaziz. He helped finance the Crimean War, and was essential in helping the Ottomans implement the tanzimat reforms that were supposed to modernize, consolidate and strengthen their empire.

Abraham Salomon was knighted by Emperor Franz Joseph, and later attended his wedding in Vienna in 1854. After the reunification of Italy, in recognition of his philanthropy to various Venetian causes, King Victor Emmanuel II conferred upon him the title Count on the 28 of April 1867, with the privilege of transmitting it in perpetuity. ; But Abraham understood that being the wealthiest of the 800,000 Jews living in the Ottoman Empire was not merely a privilege — it was a responsibility.

Abraham Salomon de Camondo

He served almost continuously as the president of its Consistoire since its founding. He built Jewish day schools, hospitals, and welfare organizations especially for the impoverished Jews living in the Peri Pasha neighborhood in Istanbul. He even got into a major fight with ultra-Orthodox rabbis because of his support of the building of Alliance Jewish day schools that intended to teach Turkish and French in addition to tradition. They feared the assimilation that may follow. (Every great Jewish leader has to get into a fight with rabbis at some point in their career.) Abraham eventually opened his own synagogue. In 1840, during the Damascus blood libel which accused 13 prominent members of the Jewish community for murdering a Christian child for his blood — Abraham Salomon hosted Sir Moses Montefiore and helped persuade Sultan Abdulmecid I in Constantinople, to issue a firman (edict) on 6 November 1840 to declare the libel as slander against Jews and to be prohibited throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Abraham’s only son Raphael died young, leaving his two sons Abraham Bechor and Nissim. The grandsons joined the family business — which by then had helped finance the Suez Canal — and expanded their grandfather’s banking and real estate activities to Paris in 1868, relocating the bank to Rue Lafayette. The brothers bought adjoining homes 61 and 63 on Rue de Monceau.

They built the home to include a family chapel that was adorned with their grandfather’s Judaica they brought from Constantinople, a collection which included Torah crowns, menorahs, yads, and even a Torah scroll with the inscription: “This case and its Torah scroll belong to the famed, esteemed, superb, lordly, influential, Prince of Israel, R. Senor Abraham of the Camondo lineage; may G-d protect him; may the Lord grant him the privilege of fulfilling all the commandments of the Torah, Amen, year 5620 of the Creation.” (1860)

Read article in full

Monday, October 14, 2019

Jews celebrate the Festival of Succot

With thanks: Lisette

'The four species' used at Succot: a reminder of the agricutural significance of the festival

Today Jews are celebrating the festival of Tabernacles, or Succot.

The holiday lasts seven days in Israel and eight in the diaspora. The first day (and second day in the diaspora) is a Shabbat-like , when certain work is permitted. The festival is closed with another Shabbat-like holiday called Shemini Atzeret (one day in Israel, two days in the diaspora, where the second day is called Simchat Torah).

 A sukkah is the name of the temporary dwelling in which farmers would live during harvesting, a fact connecting to the agricultural significance of the holiday stressed by the Book of Exodus. As stated in Leviticus, it is also intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Throughout the holiday, meals are eaten inside the sukkah and many people sleep there as well.

For video of an Iraqi piyut, or liturgical song, for Succot,  click here

More about Succot

Friday, October 11, 2019

Halle shooting reminds Tunisian Jews of a darker past

The German city of Halle was the scene of a terrorist attack over Yom Kippur on Wednesday  9 October  2019 which claimed two lives. But the city conjures up dark wartime associations for Tunisian Jewry - as academic, writer and journalist Jean-Pierre Allali reminds us.

Chancellor Angela Merkel joins a vigil for the victims of the Yom Kippur shooting in Halle

It was in Halle that three Jews from Tunisia,  Joseph Scemla and his two sons, Gilbert and Jean, were beheaded. Tunisia had been occupied for six months by the Germans (from 23 November 1942 to 7 May 1943). Fierce opponents of Nazism, the Scemlas had decided to join the 2nd Armoured Division of General Leclerc's army.

They made the fatal mistake of trusting one Hassan Ferjani, who gave them away to the Nazis.  Arrested on 10 March 1943, the three men were first imprisoned in Tunis, then in Berlin before being deported to Dachau. Judged by a military court, they were sentenced to death for espionage.The three Scemlas of Tunis were beheaded in Halle. The father was forced to attend the execution of his two sons.

As a student of mathematics in Tunis, I had a friend, Frédéric Gasquet. I  knew he was the son of Gilbert Scemla. His mother, a Jewess of Russian origin, Lila Vilenkine, respecting the last wishes of her husband, had married Louis Gasquet who adopted the young Frédéric and gave him his name. When Frédéric reached adulthood, he threw himself into the search for the truth about the fate of the three Scemlas. I did my best to help him by  sharing any information I had.  At the end of his quest, that led him to visit Halle several times, he published a book whose title translates from the French as: " My father's letter: A family from Tunis in Nazi  hell" (Introduction by Serge Klarsfeld, Feline Editions 2006).

Jean-Pierre Allali: helped research the fate of the Scemlas

In this book, he thanks me me for my advice and information. With much perseverance, Frédéric Gasquet found the graves of Joseph and Jean Scemla at Stutthof camp. The  body of Gilbert Scemla was used by the Medical Institute of Halle and  had been buried in a common grave. After the liberation,  a French Military Court sentenced  Hassan Ferjani  to death and forced labour. This was commuted to twenty years in prison. He ended up being pardoned, shortly after Tunisia gained its independence, by president Habib Bourguiba. I myself told the tragedy of the Scemlas in my book whose title translates from French as "The Jews of Tunisia under the German boot" (Editions Glyph Glyph 2014. Introduction by Elie Wiesel).

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Protest new cultural US agreements with Yemen and Morocco

The organisation JIMENA is  urging  the public to comment on two agreements to be signed imminently between the US and Yemen and Morocco. While ostensibly designed to protect a nation's cultural heritage from looting and smuggling, these agreements, known as MOUs, can give legitimacy to the state confiscation of Jewish property and heritage such as Torah scrolls.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the U.S. Department of State will meet on October 29th – 30th, 2019 to review MOU requests from Yemen and Morocco.The public has just two weeks to submit their comments.

The Yemeni capital, Sana'a

  The signing of the MOUs is done under the auspices of The Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). This law provides for the US to enter into agreements with foreign nations to temporarily restrict the import of “significant” cultural items as part of a multi-nation effort to deter looting of ancient archeological sites.

Over time the State Department has broadened the scope of the law to provide for “near permanent” bans on the import of ALL cultural items to the present time. The MOUs recognize those nation’s claims and seizures of all cultural property, including the personal property of individuals and the communal property of religious and ethnic groups persecuted and expelled from these countries.

The MOUs are based on a flawed premise – that Jewish cultural property constitutes the national heritage of Arab governments. In fact, under the color of law, Jewish cultural property in Arab countries was expropriated from private homes, schools, and synagogues. It is the heritage and patrimony of the Jewish people. Arab governments have done little to preserve the remnants or memory of Jewish history in the countries and verified reports describe Jewish synagogues, pilgrimage sites, homes, and cemeteries being looted and destroyed. Jewish holy sites throughout the Middle East and North Africa have been appropriated and many demolished.

The Cultural Advisory Committee of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is the governing body responsible for signing MOU agreements.The committee will meet on October 29th – 30th, 2019 to review MOU requests from Yemen and Morocco.

The public may participate by submitting comments virtually, by submitting written comments and/or by participating in person.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Moshe Habusha leads Yom Kippur eve prayers

Around 100,000 people thronged the western wall plaza on the eve of Yom Kippur for Selichot (repentance) prayers this year (via The Jerusalem Post). The fast of Yom Kippur, which begins tonight, is the culmination of a month of Selichot and the most solemn day of the year.

It has become a Jerusalem tradition for Moshe Habusha of the Ades synagogue to lead these prayers (56 minutes into the video). Habusha is one of the most distinguished hazzanim and paytanim of the Sephardic-Jerusalem school to emerge from the Ades synagogue, which was founded in the 19th century by Jews from Aleppo.

 Habusha is famous for borrowing popular Arab tunes - especially Egyptian melodies - and reciting religious lyrics to them.

 He was born in Jerusalem in 1962 and served as the hazzan (cantor) for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late  Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. Habusha’s grandfather was the famous paytan from Baghdad Gorgi Yair, who officiated as cantor in Jerusalem and from whom Habusha absorbed music of the foundations of liturgical music. He performs across Israel and abroad.


  More about Moshe Habusha
Wishing all those who are observing Yom Kippur Well over the Fast

Monday, October 07, 2019

Iraqi Jew who remained hidden under Saddam's regime

This extraordinary JTA story by Ben Sales about a Jew who recently left Iraq, Ceen Gabbai, has been widely disseminated in the Jewish media. It has met with scepticism from Iraqi Jews, who had never heard of her and say she was never part of the small Jewish community. Sources close to Point of No Return tell us that Ceen is the daughter of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother. They divorced long ago and she was brought up by her mother. While still in Iraq, she contacted a rabbi in New York to help her, ended up leaving Iraq and marrying him, and now lives in Brooklyn as an orthodox Jew.

Ceen Gabbai: sought asylum in the US

NEW YORK (JTA) — When Ceen Gabbai argued with her first-grade teacher about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, she didn’t realize how big of a risk she was taking.

 The year was 2000 and students across the world held strong opinions about the Second Intifada, an outbreak of violence that claimed thousands of lives and began in September of that year.

But Gabbai’s situation was different: She was one of the few Jewish students in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Standing up for Israel in a Baghdad elementary school was not an advisable move.

 “Saddam was all crazy about Palestine,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I go to school and they’re talking about what a horrible thing that is and how Israel was horrible. And I go and I’m like, ‘I think that’s a lie.’ Gabbai was called to the school office, took a letter home to her mother and her parents had a meeting with the principal.

Soon after they moved homes and she switched schools.

 Following the episode, her parents did not talk with her about Israel or Judaism. Gabbai has had a dangerous life. Born a Jew under an Iraqi dictatorship, she endured constant anti-Semitism from a young age, then survived the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the years of war that followed.

 In 2015, Gabbai received asylum in the United States. She is now living in an Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, raising a child, teaching elementary school and writing children’s literature.

 She does not look back fondly on the hardships she endured, but feels they taught her to persevere no matter the situation.

Read article in full

Sunday, October 06, 2019

The ruthless Ottoman suppression of three 'dhimmi' peoples

Important article in the Tel Aviv Review of Books by Shmuel Trigano pointing to the essential Islamic context behind the violent suppression by Ottoman sultans of the nascent nationalism of three dhimmi peoples - Greeks, Armenians and Jews - in the 19th and 20th centuries. Professor Trigano's book 'Juifs en terre d'Islam' was recently published in Hebrew. 

Caricature of Sultan Abdul Hamid as a 'first class' butcher following the Ottoman  massacres of Armenians in the late 19th century 

Succumbing to the pressure of the European Christian powers, the Ottoman Empire was forced to change the status of dhimmis . The Tanzimat reforms of 1839, enacted by Sultan Abdul Mejid, followed by the edict of Hatt-I humayun of 1856, enshrined the principle of equality for all subjects of the empire irrespective of their religion. However, it preserved the structure of communities or “nations” , by changing their administrative function and keeping the hierarchy intact (with the Greeks, Armenians and Jews at the very bottom).

If these reforms had in effect undermined the established order of the communities and emancipated their members, it was a traumatic insult for the Muslims whose millet had lost its privileged status, making it one nation among many— an insult compounded by the fact that the reforms were imposed by Christian powers. For the Muslims, this evolution was nothing short of the complete capitulation of Islam and the abandonment of its legitimacy. Yaron Harel has shown that in Syria and Lebanon, the Tanzimat reforms changed nothing regarding the segregation of the communities across all areas of everyday life.

 In fact, before the Tanzimat the longing for independence among the dhimmi peoples had already begun with Greece’s 1822 War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire.  Greece’s victory showed that Independence seemed within reach. Though generally forgotten, Zionism began in the Turkish Balkans in Sarajevo with Yehuda Alkalai and not in Europe with Herzl. Inspired by the Greeks, Alkalai developed an extensive theory of Jewish sovereignty and travelled throughout Europe and the Middle East to spread his ideas. Herzl heard of him in Vienna.

After the Greeks and the Jews it was the turn of the Armenians. The national awakening of these three dhimmi people led to the Arab nationalist movement and also the first Islamic repression. The Armenians, under the impetus of the movement of nationalities, committed an act of rebellion against the dhimmi by fighting for national autonomy. After several rebellions in the Caucasus, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation was established in 1890 in Tiflis, and advocated an armed struggle for liberty.

In 1893, Armenian nationalists made public appeals across Armenian territories to rise up against the Sultan’s oppression. A violent response ensued: several massacres were carried out by the Ottomans in 1894-5, in Sason, Constantinople, Trebizond and other places. The death toll stood at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people. Often overlooked is the Jihadi nature of these massacres: not only in their motivation and their legitimation, but also in the nature of the acts themselves and the fact that the surviving women and children (some 150,000) were forcibly converted to Islam. The same pattern was to reappear in the second wave of genocide, this time instigated by the Young Turks, who had toppled Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1908.

 The transition from a caliphal regime founded on religion to a Turkish state centered on the nation, doing away with the Ottoman system of power, cultivated hopes of liberty among the nations of the empire. But this was not to be the case; here too, the Armenian case comes in handy in highlighting the prevalent role played by Islam in modern nationalism in the Turkey—a Muslim, albeit not an Arab, state.

The peaks of Armenian oppression came about against markedly different backdrops but were eventually similar in essence. The massacres of the late nineteenth century were the doing of an imperial power bent on suppressing any attempt to question its authority, religious in effect, which applied to the entire Ummah and derived its power from the and the religious sentiments of its subjects.

 Hit with the reforms, the massacres provided an outlet for their resentment. For the Young Turks, it was the Turkish nation and its ethnicity—their Turkishness—in the spirit of the nationalist movements that consecrated the ethnic homogeneity of the emergent nations, then transformed into a “rationally” thought out and systematically implemented political plan.

 In this respect, the Armenian massacre of 1915-1916, with its 1.2 million victims, paved the way for the genocides of the twentieth century. This plan was later fully achieved via population swaps between Greece and Turkey (1,750,000 displaced persons on both sides). Between 1923 and 1930, 1,250,000 Greek Christians were banished from Turkey, while a smaller number of Turks left Greece for the motherland.

Read article in full

Friday, October 04, 2019

Yemenites who settled in London: a failed experiment?

As documented at the time by Point of No Return, some 20 families from Yemen settled in the ultra-orthodox district of Stamford Hill in London after 2010. Persuaded not to flee to Israel by the anti-Zionist Satmar sect, their integration has been fraught with trouble. As well as the usual difficulties experienced by all immigrants, the Yemenites faced racism and resistance to their integration into the Satmar community. One, Avi Karni, turned to crime. Ben Weich of the Jewish Chronicle has the story:

Avi Karni: convicted of sexual crimes

 Sixteen years ago, Avi Karni, then an infant, was brought to the UK by his Jewish Yemenite family, who settled in the Charedi neighbourhood of Stamford Hill, in east London.

 They had come from Monsey, New York, where his family had lived among the Chasidic community after being lured from Yemen’s largest city, Sana’a, by Satmar missionaries in 1993. The Karnis were one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Yemenite families who were convinced by Satmar Chasidim to eschew emigration to Israel, where they would have received support from the state as new olim, to instead live among Ashkenazi Charedim in New York and London.

 Now 21, Karni — who sometimes goes by his birth name, Abraham Ibrahim — has been sentenced to seven and a half years in jail after being convicted of nine counts of sexual offences against young girls he met through social media.

Karni’s crimes have now cast fresh attention on these Yemenites, many of whom faced great hardships as they struggled to adapt not only to the language and culture of their new countries, but also to the strict and mysterious social mores of the Satmar.

Read article in full

Britain to admit 200 Yemenite families after all

Yemeni families flee persecution for Stamford Hill

Thursday, October 03, 2019

132,000 Sephardi Jews apply for Spanish citizenship

The deadline has expired for Sephardi Jews applying for Spanish citizenship: 132,000 applications have been received, mainly from Jews living in Latin America, AFP reports via Israel National News. The Portuguese law granting citizenship to Sephardi Jews is open-ended. So far, 10,000 applications have been approved (roughly a third).

Under the legislation, those able to prove their Jewish heritage and their "special connection" to Spain, were able to apply for citizenship, with the justice ministry saying it received 132,226


More than half of them were filed in the past month when the ministry received some 72,000 applications.

 The vast majority came from Latin American countries, with around 20,000 from Mexico, followed by another 15,000 from Venezuela and 14,000 from Colombia, the ministry said, without giving exact figures.

 More than 4,000 applications came from Argentine Jews and around 3,000 from those living in Israel. So far, only 6,000 people have been granted citizenship, given the long and complex process involved.

 Read article in full

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Writer and scholar Shimon Ballas dies

 The death in Israel has been announced, after a long battle with Alzheimer's, of the prize-winning writer and scholar Shimon Ballas, 89.

 Shimon Ballas was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1930, and immigrated to Israel in 1951. He published stories and essays in the local Arab press for several years. Later, he spent four years in Paris, where he received his PhD from the Sorbonne. Ballas  taught Arabic literature at Haifa University and latterly divided his time between Tel Aviv and Paris, where he did most of his writing.

The author of 15 books, Ballas began his writing career in Arabic. He published his first novel in Hebrew in 1964 and had been writing fiction and essays ever since. He was awarded the Prime Minister`s Prize for Literature twice (1978, 1993) and the President`s Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2006).

Perhaps he is best known for Ma'abara, an account of the transit camp experiences of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. 

Read Y-net article in full (Hebrew)