Tuesday, March 31, 2020

How Baghdad plague led to Sephardi cultural revival

In these coronavirus days, Point of No Return is moved to reflect on the impact of epidemics through the ages. Quite a few affected the Middle East, and no doubt devastated the local Jewish communities. But the plague of 1743 brought an influx to Baghdad of 50 Sephardi families from Aleppo, led by Rabbi Sadka Hussein, born in 1699. Although he and his sons Nissim and Yacoub were to die in the plague of 1772 -3*, he exerted a significant Sephardi influence on Jewish cultural life in Baghdad.

 According to Wikipedia:

In 1743 there was a plague in which many of the Jews of Baghdad, including all the rabbis, died. The remaining Baghdad community asked the community of Aleppo to send them a new Chief Rabbi, leading to the appointment of Rabbi Sadka Bekhor Hussein.[26]

 Culturally, it would prove a decisive moment when Chief Rabbi Shmuel Laniyado of Aleppo picked his protegé for Baghdad. It is said he was accompanied by fifty Sephardic families from Aleppo.[27]
Many of them were Rabbis who were to sit on the Beth Din of Baghdad and Basra.[27]

 This led to an assimilation of Iraqi Judaism to the general Sephardic mode of observance. Jewish culture revived, with communal leaders as Solomon Ma’tuk being renown for his work as an astronomer, library and piyyutim.[28]

The Ottoman empire in 1774

This brought the leading Jewish families of Baghdad, and with it, their Jewish practice into the network of Sephardic scribes and later printing presses established in Aleppo, Livorno and Salonica. Surviving records of the contents of the library of Solomon Ma’tuk shows a great number of books purchased from Sephardic scribes and some even originally from Spain.[29]

Further driving this process was the high esteem in which Rabbi Sadka Bekhor Hussein was held as a halakhic authority.[27] This saw him accepted as a halakhic authority by the Jews of Persia, Kurdistan and the fledgling Baghdadi trading outposts being established in India.[27]

 Sephardic Rabbis and their rulings and practices were held in higher esteem. The historian Zvi Yehuda says the period saw the wheels turn in the relationship between the Babylonian Jewish communities and those of Iraq and Persia: “Before the 18th century, the Baghdadi Community needed the support of those communities; now the Baghdadi Community influenced them.”[24]

 The 18th century saw the Jewish community of Aleppo exert a significant influence over the Jewish communities of Baghdad and Basra not only culturally but economically.[27] Syrian Jewish families establishing themselves in Iraq were often formerly Spanish Sephardic families from Aleppo. These were typically high-class families such as the Belilios family who were frustrated with the dimming prospects of Aleppo and attracted to Baghdad and Basra's booming trade with India.

This process saw the leading Jewish families of Baghdad, Basra and Aleppo grow to be heavily interlinked through marriages, religious life, partnership and trade in the 18th century.[27]

 As this process of cultural assimilation saw the Jews of Baghdad come to more closely resemble the Jews of Aleppo, economic decline in Syria, Kurdistan and Persia worsened. The 18th century saw a growing number of Jews leave from there to Baghdad, Basra or the Baghdadi-led outposts being established in the Far East.[27]

The still small and reemerging Jewish community of Baghdad became a migration destination with Jewish families settling in Baghdad from Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, Ana and Basra. A key driver of this was decline of the old caravan route running between these cities.[27]

There was also migration from the communities of Palestine, the villages of Kurdistan, and it is said that a handful of Jews settled in Baghdad from Germany.[27] By the early 19th century, Baghdad had been reestablished as a leading Jewish center in the Middle East. There were over 6,000 Jews in city, two synagogues and strong community institutions.[27]

 This was not a golden age, however. Over time, the centralized Turkish control over the region deteriorated and the situation of the Jews worsened, but the population continued to grow very rapidly. An example of this deterioration is the persecution of Dawud Pasha, which began in 1814 and lasted until 1831. Many leaders of the Jewish community, such as Solomon Ma’tuk, were forced to flee. One of the foremost leaders of the community, David Sassoon, was forced to flee first to Busher and then to India.[30]

*This outbreak is  recorded as being one of the most severe, killing an estimated two million people in Persia (Iran) and Persian-controlled lands to the west, including 250,000 in the city of Basra alone. 

Postcript: the Iraqi Jewish Archive, now in the US, has a treasure trove of original manuscripts by Rabbi Sadka Hussein that have never been published. There are enough manuscripts of sermons and novellae to publish three volumes,  and manuscripts on Jewish law to publish a fourth volume. The Sephardic Heritage Museum is currently having them printed.

Maimonides on Jewish humiliation under Muslim rule

We should not idealise Jewish life under the Muslims, which in some cases, was just as bad as life in Christian lands, writes Eli Kavon in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Michelle) :

Maimonides: Jews bear burden of humiliation

Judaism and the Islamic world, “God has entangled us with this people, the nation of Ishmael, who treat us so prejudicially and who legislate our harm and hatred…. No nation has ever arisen more harmful than they, nor has anyone done more to humiliate us, degrade us, and consolidate hatred against us.”

The myth that historians have propagated is that Jewish life under the Muslims was safer and more successful than the life of Jews in Christendom. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in this proposition; “Golden Ages” in Baghdad, Andalusia, and the Ottoman Empire highlight periods of tolerance and the powerful status of court Jews.

Read article in full

Monday, March 30, 2020

Pillar of Casablanca community dies of coronavirus

With thanks: Vanessa

Coronavirus  has claimed the life of a pillar of Jewish life  in Casablanca - Meir Michel Tordjman. An entry by a wellwisher on his Facebook page on 25 March records that he had been ill.

Born and bred in Casablanca, Tordjman, 62,  was open-minded enough to make available the Benarroch synagogue, built in1912 and famous for its acoustics, for concerts. One such concert  in 2013 was  the first public concert in a working synagogue in Casablanca,  and was arranged as as a goodbye gift to US Ambassador Sam Kaplan and his wife Sylvia.

The Tordjman family are responsible for maintaining the Benarroch synagogue, which is in the centre of town and popular for Barmitzvahs and other communal occasions. Casablanca has about 2,000 Jews.

Casablanca has the highest number of cases of the virus in Morocco, with 133 cases on 29 March. There have been 24 deaths in the country.

Meir Michel Tordjman z"l

Some other Jews lost to coronavirus

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Gaza in a bygone age of Jewish-Arab cooperation

Fascinating piece by Nadav Shagrai in Israel Hayom exploring Gaza's unknown Jewish history, before the strip became associated with religious extremism:

The old town of Gaza before 1963

Who would believe that only 110 years ago, then Chief Rabbi of Gaza Nissim Binyamin Ohana, and then mufti of Gaza Sheikh Abdullah al-Alami, co-authored a book?

 "In Gaza," Ohana wrote in one of his essays, "I wrote a book, Know What the Heretic Will Say in Response with the mufti of Gaza, Sheikh Abdullah, who would visit my home twice a week because he wanted to know the exact meaning of the verses copied from the Old Testament into the New Testament by the apostles."

 Ohana also wrote that he initiated the construction of a mikveh (ritual bath) for women in the city, as well as a project to purchase ground for a Jewish cemetery after he saw how the dead of Gaza were transported to Hebron for burial on the backs of donkeys.

 The children of Gaza – Jews and Arabs – liked to wear daggers embellished with locally produced beads. On Muslim holidays, Avraham Elkayam would take part in horseback and wrestling competitions. "We purposely lost to the Bedouin, lest they be offended," the Jews of Gaza would later recall.

 In September 1910, the newsletter "HaPoel HaTzair" reported that "relations between Arabs and Jews are very good, and no Jew has ever suffered in Gaza for being a Jew."In 1914, Zvi Hirschfeld, the founder of the Ruhama moshava in the western Negev, wrote in his diary that "On Tu BiShvat the children from the Gaza school had an excursion on our land and planted trees and ate the fruits of the land and celebrated the New Year for trees in a befitting manner, with songs and poetry."

Read article in full

More about Jewish Gaza

Friday, March 27, 2020

How a Canadian musicologist helped rescue 3,000 Syrian Jews

This is the story of Judy Feld Carr, a Canadian musicologist, who played an important part in the rescue of Syrian Jews, held hostage by the regime until the 1990s. Article in the Jerusalem Post magazine: 

Judy became involved in saving Syrian Jews from 1975

Judy came across an article from The Jerusalem Post that reported on the tragic deaths of 12 Syrian Jewish men, who ran across a minefield while attempting to flee the country to Turkey.

Judy was struck by the fact that the Syrian guards callously stood by and watched them die, one by one.

 “I was a musicologist, I didn’t know anything about Syria,” says Judy. “But something inside of me wanted to learn more and raise awareness.”

 Judy and Rubin approached the Israeli Consulate to see what they could do, where the consul instructed: “schrei gevalt” (Yiddish for “yell a lot”).

 Since independence, Syria’s estimated 40,000 Jews were subject to some of the worst forms of violence and discrimination imaginable. Unlike other Arab states,Syrian Jews were not officially expelled from the country.

 That did not stop the government from torturing and murdering anyone attempting to flee, while holding their families hostage. Sporadic riots killed dozens of Jews and destroyed hundreds of homes, shops and synagogues. The community itself was under heavy surveillance by the Mukhabarat (Syria’s secret police) and Jews could not travel more than three km from their neighborhoods without a permit.

 In 1975, Syrian president Hafez Assad explained why he refused to let the country’s Jews leave. “I cannot let them go,” he says, “because if I let them go how can I stop the Soviet Union sending its Jews to Israel, where they will strengthen my enemy?” Judy explained, given the narrow streets and where Jews were physically located, they were being leveraged as hostages against Israel.

Read article in full

More about Judy Feld Carr

Thursday, March 26, 2020

As corona hits Libya, Jews tell ex-countrymen: 'stay at home'

A video message  in Arabic produced by Libyan Jews outside Libya urges their ex-countrymen to stay at home, as the country records its first case of the corona virus. The irony is that these Jews were forced out of their homes in Libya. The New Arab reports:

Libyan Jews living abroad recorded themselves expressing support to Libyans in a Facebook video  amid the corona virus global pandemic. "A loving message from Libyan Jews in the diaspora to their Libyan brothers inside beloved Libya," reads the introductory message to the Arabic-language video.

The men featured in the video, some speaking with Libyan accents and dialects, urged Libyans to stay in their homes, as the North African country records its first case of the coronavirus.

"I have a request for the Libyan people: please, please stay at home," said Benghazi-born Simon Bedussa, 68, from Italy. "Because we love you. Okay?"

Read article in full

The man bringing Jews back to Libya (OZY)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Sephardi rabbis approve Passover seder by ZOOM

In a demonstration of how the Sephardi interpretation of halacha (religious law ) can often be more practical than that of Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis,  fourteen Sephardi rabbis passed a ruling that the Passover seder can be held this year via video conference to allow elderly  relatives isolated from their families to celebrate together. The Times of Israel reports:

A family seder (Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

The rabbis argued that there is a precedent, given that Shabbat laws can be put aside to give medical treatment even when patients are not in a life-threatening situation.

“Just as it is permissible for a non-critical patient to receive treatment on Shabbat in order to cure him of illness, such is the case here,” the rabbis wrote, giving the okay for the retelling of the Exodus story via Zoom or other videoconference software.

They were responding to a question they had received about the use of Zoom on Seder night to connect elderly relatives to their families in “a time of emergency,” and stressed it was a one-off dispensation granted in view of the extreme current circumstances.

 The rabbis outlined three potential problems with using the software to observe the festival custom: turning on an electrical device during a holiday; committing a “secular act” during the holiday, which could cheapen its value; and the fear that the practice would continue in the future, when it was no longer necessary.

The rabbis addressed the problems by referring to previous rulings by Sephardic and North African religious authorities that allowed using electrical devices on similar occasions, and by specifying that the devices needed to be turned on before the start of the holiday and left on throughout. They made clear that during the present crisis, using the software helped fulfill a mitzvah (commandment) for families to celebrate the festival together.

 The ruling said that the allowance would address “the need to alleviate sadness from elders and the needy.” The rabbis emphasized that “it’s clear to everyone that the ruling is for a time of emergency only,” and that young peoples’ connections to their grandparents are an essential part of many Seders.

While lenient religious rulings in Israel are often backed by rabbis from the liberal wing of Orthodoxy, this statement appears to be backed by more mainstream figures, although none are Ashkenazi. They include Eliyahu Abergel, head of Jerusalem’s rabbinical court, local rabbis such as Kiryat Gat’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Ben Hamo, and yeshiva rabbis such as Eyal Vered of Jerusalem’s Machon Meir institution.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau on Wednesday morning criticized the ruling, branding it “irresponsible, beyond ridiculous.”

Read article in full

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Coronavirus: warning to broad bean allergy sufferers

 Amid talk in the media that  an anti-malarial drug may be used to treat people with coronavirus, a warning has been sounded that people from the Middle East should exercise caution.

David Basson, chairman of Academics from Iraq in Israel, said that people with coronavirus who may suffer from the fava (broad bean) allergy should tell their doctor before being prescribed the drug hydroxychloroquine.

Millions around the world suffer from an allergy to broad beans. It is common among Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and Armenians. The allergy is common among Jews from Morocco. Kurdistan and Iraq. To a lesser extent it affects Yemenite, Iranian and Georgian Jews.

The allergy is caused by a genetic defect where the person lacks the enzyme G6PD. Quinine-based drugs such as chloroquine, commonly prescribed against malaria,  may cause hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells leading to severe anaemia). Little data is available on the effect of the derivative hydroxychloroquine on those with G6PD deficiency.

There is a positive side to this allergy -  statistics support the fact that broad bean allergy sufferers are better protected against malaria.

When it comes to the treatment of  coronavirus, Mr Basson adds: 'This drug may be safe and necessary, but just be aware."

Monday, March 23, 2020

Indian Jew attacked for 'spreading corona virus'

While the coronavirus crisis has for many brought about a sense of solidarity in adversity, there have been distressing instances of racism in Israel, such as the odd attack against Asian Jews. +972 magazine *reports:
Bnei Menashe women in Israel

Last Saturday, Am Shalem Singson, a 28-year-old yeshiva student, was walking toward downtown Tiberias with some friends when two Israeli men scrunched up their nose and called them “corona, corona.”

Singson told them that he wasn’t even from China, but India — he and his friends are Bnei Menashe, a community of Indian Jews, several thousand of whom live in Israel. But the men, angry at being questioned, first shoved, then repeatedly kicked him. Singson had to undergo surgery for severe injuries to his chest and lungs.

 Singson, who is still recovering in the hospital, believes that the novel coronavirus pandemic has become a catalyst for racists to escalate their bigotry. “They don’t want to live with us, they just want to fight,” he says. “They take advantage [of the situation] using coronavirus…and it’s not just me, many people face this.”

Read article in full

The story was also reported in the Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post

Sunday, March 22, 2020

My trip to Egypt for the re-dedication of the Alexandria synagogue

The re-dedication of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria was attended by almost two hundred Jews, mostly Egyptian-born or their descendants. Michelle Baruch wrote up her impressions of her trip for the Jerusalem Post. One of the highlights was her visit to the Jewish cemeteries. (With thanks: Vivi)

THE WRITER (second from the left) at the ancient pyramids of Saqqara. (photo credit: (DAVID FIALKOFF)

Michelle Baruch at the pyramids of Saqqara (Photo: David Flatioff)

The most moving day of our eight-day trip to Egypt was Friday, February 14, the visit to the two Jewish cemeteries of Alexandria, which are known as Chatby and Mazarita, and the rededication of the Nebi Daniel synagogue. On that Friday morning, buses and minivans shuttled all the visiting delegations to the two main Jewish cemeteries of Alexandria. An Arab family that lives in the Chatby cemetery, along with a team of other people, had worked relentlessly cleaning up the cemetery over the couple of weeks prior to our visit. Some 40 tons of garbage were removed from both of the Jewish cemeteries in Alexandria. This was also made possible by donations and financial assistance totaling $30,000 by members of the Egyptian Jewish community worldwide.

 After the rubbish was cleared, the extent of the damage became apparent. Many graves are no longer recognizable; either they were smashed or marble was stolen so there are no names on the graves. Fortunately, Al Zahraa Adel Awed, a kind Egyptian tour guide, had volunteered to search the Alexandria Jewish cemeteries for the names that people emailed in before the delegations arrived. Al Zahraa, can be contacted through her email: tourguide_egypt@yahoo.com.

She managed to locate one of my relatives, my mother’s father, Isaac Acker, who had passed away when my mom was only 15. It was moving for my mother, now 75, to find her father’s grave and light a candle and say kaddish there for him. More than 60 years had passed by without her having this opportunity.

 The following week we had a short visit to the Bassatine, the Jewish cemetery of Cairo, which is in even worse condition than Alexandria’s. Apparently the cemetery was being used as a garbage dump, and it took several hundred garbage trucks to clear out all the rubbish that had accumulated there over the last few decades. The Bassatine Cemetery is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world, after the Mount of Olives. Only 1,200 graves remain there with partial names, which is only 25% of the original amount. Several years ago, the cemetery was mapped and names can be searched online at: http://bassatine.net/bassamap.php. Additional info can also be obtained by emailing: jcccairo@gmail.com. 

Read article in full

Sisi authorises clean-up of Bassatine cemetery

Project to restore overgrown Jewish cemeteries is launched

Friday, March 20, 2020

Remembering Solaiman Haiim, Farsi dictonary pioneer

The author of what is widely considered the best English-Farsi dictionary yet produced died 50 years ago. Iranian Jews still revere the memory of Solaiman Haiim, while the Iranian regime has erased his legacy. Karmel Melamed writes in JNS News: 

As most Americans focused on Super Bowl Sunday last month, nearly 600 Iranian Jews gathered at the West Hollywood Temple Beth El to mark 50 years since the death of Solaiman Haiim, one of their community’s greatest scholars.

The name Haiim may not mean much to Americans or even most American Jews, but in Iran he was a legend, respected by Jews and non-Jews alike for creating the first English to Farsi and Farsi to English dictionaries. At the start of the 20th century, when Iran was modernizing and many Iranians were gaining higher education overseas, Haiim’s comprehensive two-volume dictionary was an invaluable resource, helping hundreds of thousands of students overcome the language barrier.

Solaiman Haiim: legacy erased by the regime

 While Haiim is still remembered and honored in Iranian Jewish circles, however, the Iranian regime has done everything in its power to erase his legacy. Haiim’s life story is something that must be kept alive for the new generation of Iranians.

 Haiim was born in 1887 in the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in Tehran to a religious Jewish family. His early education was in the maktab, or a grade school, but he later attended the Etehad High School in Tehran, established by the French Jewish non-profit organization “Alliance Israélite Universelle.”

The Alliance was created in 1860 by affluent Jewish philanthropists in Europe to provide a Western education to Jews living in Muslim lands. It was not until 1898 that the Alliance was permitted by the Iranian Qajar dynasty to establish their schools in Iran. Indeed, Haiim was one of the first beneficiaries of the Alliance school in Tehran, later enrolling himself in the American College of Tehran to complete his education and learn English. After graduating from the college in 1915, Haiim became a full-time teacher at the college and single-handedly began work on an English-Farsi dictionary.

His first, smaller dictionary received praise from students and scholars, but beginning in the 1920s, it became obvious there was a need for a more comprehensive work due to Western governments’ business and diplomatic activities in the country. Haiim worked nearly 18 continuous hours per day to complete this more comprehensive English to Farsi dictionary, finally completing it in 1929. It was published in two expansive volumes.

Read article in full

Dictionaries of Judeo-Arabic

Thursday, March 19, 2020

How education evolved for Jews in Beirut

In April 1856, the Austrian-Jewish writer Ludwig Auguste Frankl stayed in the old Jewish quarter of Beirut. He describes seeing a small room in  the  synagogue where 70 students were learning to read and write Hebrew and study the Bible. The rabbi was Aaron Yedid-Levy.

According to Nagi Georges Zeidan, a Lebanese researcher with a special interest in the Jewish community, this institution was the forerunner of the Talmud Torah school in Beirut. In 1922,
the Jewish newspaper of Lebanon announced that  the Talmud Torah school in Beirut  had celebrated its 42th anniversary.
When the school was founded in 1880, it was only attended by boys. It was located on Philip El Khazen Street,  later known as Wadi Abu Jamil. A letter in Hebrew (left) dated 12 July 1920  was sent from the Torah Mizrahi in Beirut to notify the Central Committee in  Jerusalem of the school's change of name.

According to Zeidan, the Maghen Avraham synagogue was built on the site of the school which was moved to the rear of the building and renamed Selim Tarrab school.

The Maghen Avraham synagogue prior to its restoration

A classroom in the Selim Tarrab school, 1960s (courtesy Charles Khodri)

The Selim Tarrab school acted as a primary feeder school for the Alliance Israélite Universelle*.  It took in mostly needy children and was the second largest Jewish school in Lebanon. The school's director until 1970 was Joseph Khodri. The Selim Tarrab school was closed in that year and demolished in 2003. Khodri went on to become deputy head at the Alliance Israelite until he left for Mexico in 1974. The Alliance school closed a year or two later.

Joseph Khodri, director of the Selim Tarrab school until 1970 (Courtesy Charles Khodri)

*A second high school called the Ecole Commerciale, taught practical skills  such as shorthand typing, to less academic pupils

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

'The Jews are to blame for the coronavirus''

It did not take long for people in Muslim countries to blame the Jews for the coronavirus. Indeed, it  is  one of the oldest libels in the history of antisemitism: Jews are responsible for spreading the plague.  Here is its latest iteration, in Turkey and among Islamists. In Iran, a Zionist American conspiracy is being blamed.  

Tourists strolling in Istanbul

According to the Jerusalem Post, the coronavirus is a Zionist plot spread by Jews to decrease the world population, some members of Turkey's press and public have said, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

 MEMRI, which specializes in translating Middle Eastern media into English, has uncovered a number of incidences of Turks blaming the coronavirus epidemic on Jews and Zionism.

 In a video posted to Twitter on March 13 by IMChaber24, a minibus driver and his passengers can be heard engaging in antisemitic conspiracy theories. The driver claims that all outbreaks, from AIDS to Ebola were created by pharmaceutical companies, before asking: "And to whom do the companies belong?" A passenger suggests "the rich," but the driver immediately counters with "the Jews."

 A fellow passenger then opines: "[The Jews] will do anything to end the lineage of the Turks," to which another adds: "Not only Turks, sister, they will do anything to bring the world to its knees."

  Read article in full

  The Algemeiner reports: 

When initial reports about the virus came out of China, Salafists in Egypt, Morocco, and elsewhere dubbed it a “Soldier of God” targeting those infidels who work against him.

“The power of God strikes upon China, Communism and Buddhism: Crowded Hospitals. China declared war on Islam and Muslims and persecuted our brothers Uyghurs,” Abdul Razzak al-Mahdi, a Syrian Salafist, tweeted on Jan. 20.

“God gave them a soldier (virus). And many of God’s soldiers said, Glory be to Him … O God, increase their suffering and affliction until they stop fighting your religion and worshipers.” An Egyptian cleric celebrated that the “power of God strikes upon the Buddhist communist China. China launched a war against our Muslim Uyghur brothers and God sent his soldier [coronavirus]. God is not unjust to his worshipers.”

Videos of Islamist clerics praying for the demise of Chinese communists were common. “After China isolated more than 5 million Muslims,” one wrote on January 25, “the whole world is isolating China because of the outbreak of the coronavirus among Chinese in fear of contamination.”

The tenor of Islamist comments changed after the outbreak spread into other countries, particularly Iran. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Major General Hossein Salami suggested that the coronavirus might be a biological weapon developed by the United States against China and Iran. Iran now is suffering one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, with a reported 853 people killed by the illness as of Monday. The actual number could be dramatically higher. Its victims include high-ranking government officials and senior clerics.

Read article in full

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Cairo-born Jewish leader dies in Italy of coronavirus

Michele Sciama, a former secretary-general of the Jewish Community of Milan,  has died of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Born in Cairo in 1941, he was a driving force behind the Edoth project, which aimed to collect oral testimony from Jews born in  Arab and Muslim countries. Article in Moked:

Micky Sciama

 Sciama, known to his friends and family as Micky, was 79 when he died Monday morning. He is survived by his wife, Viviane, and two daughters, Dalia and Stefania, the Italian-Jewish Moked news site wrote in an obituary. He was particularly close to the family and that of the Egyptian Jewish community.

Life had led him to study in London, where he had graduated in engineering, and subsequently in Milan, where for decades he had been first company manager and then, from 1993 to 2007, secretary general of the Jewish Community.

 After his professional experience he had made his skills and enthusiasm available to Milanese Judaism and the CDEC Foundation. An overwhelming force, a fire that animated him and that forced those around him to share his planning. Micky was one of the main animators of the Edoth (community) project, which is responsible for collecting the testimonies of Jews forced after the Second World War to abandon the Mediterranean communities, from Syria to Lebanon, from Libya to Iran and precisely to Egypt.

He had promoted it and through numerous interviews with Egyptian Jews and their testimony, which enriches the CDEC collection,  it would have been impossible without the indispensable role played by Micky Sciama.

Read article in full

Monday, March 16, 2020

London rabbi contracted virus 'before Morocco visit'

The Council of Jewish Communities in Morocco is claiming that a  London rabbi who has shown symptoms  of the coronavirus after a four-day visit to Morocco contracted the virus before he arrived in the country. This article in Yabiladi is desperate to show that Morocco does not have a problem with the virus. A health crisis would be disastrous for the country's tourist industry. Morocco has reported 17 cases of Covid-19 and one death. (with thanks: Michelle)

St Johns Wood synagogue, London

London’s St John’s Wood Synagogue rabbi Yoni Golker contracted coronavirus before traveling to Morocco earlier this month, the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco said in a communiqué sent Sunday to Yabiladi. 

 The rabbi 'went for a four-day trip to Morocco (between March 2 and 5,' the same communiqué read, adding that 'the Federation of Synagogues Ohr Yisrael in the UK has confirmed that Yoni Golker 'has been contaminated by one of the old members of his congregation before his Morocco trip'.

 'The few members of the community that the British rabbi has briefly met are feeling well and have not shown any symptoms,' the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco concluded.

 The British rabbi has said that he 'had mild symptoms and is feeling better than when they first appeared last week'. He is currently 'in quarantine isolation in London.'

Read article in full

BBC Arabic downplays Egyptian antisemitism

In this profile of two young Australian Jews 'returning' to Egypt for the re-opening of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria,  BBC Arabic seems to have taken on the role of promoting Egypt's tourism industry. In a trend noted here and here, it misleads on the ethnic cleansing of Jews whose numbers have reduced from 80 -100,000 to fewer than 10, and vaguely blames 'wars and politics'.  In fact,  Egyptian Jews were victims of state-sanctioned antisemitism. (With thanks: Tarek)

Egypt is now witnessing what may appear in the eyes of some to a change in the nature of the relationship between the Jews and Egypt, in which tens of thousands of them lived in the first half of the twentieth century before politics and wars interfered and spoiled their lives.

Alex and Jack March, following in the footsteps of their grandfather

This change prompted the numbers of Egyptian Jews who left nearly 70 years ago and their families to return - albeit at least to visit - the motherland.

Among them are descendants of Egyptian Jews visiting Egypt for the first time. The two Australian brothers, Alex and Jack, went to Egypt for the first time early this year to visit the home of their Egyptian Jewish grandfather, Nissim March, whose family left the country and left after the flare-up of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 and none of them ever returned since then.

 The March brothers say that they have long heard about Egypt and about Alexandria, in which their grandfather founded a house whose name is still engraved on it until now. Therefore, the visit was postponed until the opening of the "Eliyahu Hanabi" temple on Prophet Daniel Street in central Alexandria after the restoration.

Read article in full (Arabic)

Sunday, March 15, 2020

At least two Jews have died in Iran from coronavirus

One of the worst outbreaks of the corona virus has occurred in Iran.  Unconfirmed reports say at least 15 members of the ruling Islamic regime have died. Now the virus is taking its toll on the 8,000-member Jewish community, The Jerusalem Post reports: 

Some of the members of the ruling regime said to have died from coronavirus (Photo montage: K Melamed)

Two members of the Jewish community in Iran died after contracting coronavirus, a source within the Jewish community told Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) newspaper "Yated Neaman", Walla reported on Friday.

These are the first two deaths in Iran's Jewish community that were officially reported since the virus first broke out in the Islamic Republic. According to the source, "it remains unclear whether it will be possible to bring [the two] to a proper Jewish burial."

Read article in full

Saturday, March 14, 2020

How a Beirut institution went from welcoming to banning Jews

Nowadays, the American University of Beirut bans Jewish students; historically, it welcomed them. (Indeed, some alumni would go on to prominent posts in the state of Israel.) Tamara Berens in Mosaic explains how the school, started by an American missionary,  became the crucible of Arab nationalism, itself founded by Arab Christians, and Palestine its signature cause.

At its height in the early 20th century, Jews made up 12 percent of the student population—no small feat in an era when Jews faced restrictive quotas at major universities in America and Europe.
In those days, AUB’s Jewish students made up a vibrant and diverse community, drawn variously from recent Ashkenazi immigrants to the yishuv in Palestine, Iraqi Jews, the mixed Jewish community of Beirut itself, and elsewhere. And Jewish life at AUB was comfortable. Thanks to the availability of kosher food, the proximity to Palestine, and such extras as Hebrew-language instruction courtesy of the campus Jewish club, students were able to maintain their specific identity while benefiting from an excellent liberal-arts education. Jewish graduates of AUB would go on to hold prominent positions in public life, including eventually in the state of Israel.
What kind of school was AUB, and how did it come about? Its origins, in fact, lay outside of the Levant: in the United States, and in the dreams of a Christian missionary.
In 1855, the young Daniel Bliss sailed from Boston to the Ottoman province of Syria. As a student at Amherst College, he had been inspired by the religious dynamism of antebellum America. The Second Great Awakening was bringing thousands of “witnesses” to evangelical meetings centered on the theme of humanitarian service. One sermon in particular, by the Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins, struck the young man with its emphasis on Christian love as the cure for “poverty, injustice, and oppression.” To him, this was God’s mission not just for America but for the whole world—and he would be its agent. In his Amherst commencement address in 1852, he foresaw “no finality this side of the gates of the New Jerusalem” until liberty broke out “like day” across the world.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Latest photos: Ezekiel's tomb enclosed by latticework structure

With thanks: Kobi Arami at  Jews of Iraq (Jews of Babylon)

The decoration in the burial chamber of  the shrine of Ezekiel is intact at al-Kifl, Iraq. But the  tomb of Ezekiel itself is being enclosed in a large wooden structure.

Contrary to reports, photos taken one month ago show that the  Hebrew inscriptions  and original floral decoration have not been removed. However, a large latticework structure will prevent pilgrims from approaching or touching the tomb itself. The photos show an imam directing a group of workmen to erect the structure.

All photos courtesy Jews of Iraq (Jews of Babylon)

Within the last ten years, the shrine was transformed into a Shi'a mosque which dwarfs the original site, owned by the Daniel family. The shrine at the centre is said to be that of Dhu al-Kifl, a minor prophet  mentioned in the Koran, but wall hangings emphasise the Imam Ali, the most important figure in Shi'a Islam.

Before the flight of the Jews of Iraq in the 1950s, the shrine of Ezekiel was the most popular of Jewish holy sites, drawing some 5,000 pilgrims for the festival of Shavu'oth. The ministry of heritage and tourism wanted to restore the original character of the site in order to attract tourists. However, the Wakf, with funding from Iran, prevailed and undertook the major redevelopment of the site.

More about the shrine of Ezekiel

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Yemenite exhibition opens in Jerusalem

A new exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum on Yemenite Jews and their relations with the land of Israel has opened. Report by Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am in the Times of Israel:  

Over time, Jews living at Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea learned to produce rare cosmetics from the balsam tree that were coveted by wealthy Europeans. A small jug whose resin is thought to be from the balsam tree, dating back nearly 2,000 years and discovered near the Dead Sea, is on display at the exhibit. Museum visitors are invited to get a whiff for themselves of balsam, frankincense and myrrh.

Potsherds from the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, engraved with South Arabic writing, were discovered at several sites in Judah, evidence of commercial connections between the two countries. One shard on display is even inscribed with the word KHN which could possibly relate to the word Kohen — or priest, in Hebrew. Other artifacts at the exhibit include several Yemenite funerary steles, stone monuments to mark a grave. Engraved on the face of one that dates back to the fifth century BCE is the word Abd, the name of the deceased.

 An alabaster funerary stele depicts a woman whose right hand is raised in a gesture of prayer, and whose left holds a sheaf of wheat. A third, made of limestone, is a statuette of a woman’s head, with an inscription mentioning both her name and that of her father.

On the wall, a photo by Naftali Hilger showing a Yemenite Jew reading a book upside down

The exhibit’s statuette of twin alabaster camels dates back to the first century BCE. According to Yehuda Kaplan, our guide and one of the curators of the exhibit, the fact that they were given names points to the standing of camels as integral to the Spice Trail. Resin from the spices was so highly valued that in 26 BCE, Roman emperor Augustus tried to capture South Arabia and wrest control of the spices from its rulers. To that end, he sent an army of 10,000 soldiers, 500 Jews drafted by King Herod, and a thousand Nabateans — locals who served as middlemen in the spice trade — to help in the conquest. The Nabateans led the Roman army in circles until they ran out of food and water, and were forced to give up the attempt.

 The fact that Judean soldiers accompanied the Roman army into South Arabia is the first indication we have of Jews in Yemen. Whether they remained or not is uncertain. But we do know that during the first centuries of the common era, when the Kingdom of Himyar controlled the land, Yemenite Jews did well for themselves. They even had a strong influence on the country’s rulers, for around the year 375 the royal family adopted Judaism, and so did many of their subjects. They called their god the Merciful, and sometimes, the Lord of the Jews. Yemenite Jews often expressed a longing for their homeland — and quite a few asked to be buried in the land of Israel. One burial cave in Beit Shearim in the Lower Galilee, dating back to around 250 BCE refers to “the Jews of Himyar,” and a funerary stele found southeast of the Dead Sea (today part of Jordan) notes that the deceased died in the land of the Himyarites.

Read article in full

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Myths and facts about the 'Right of Return'

Arab leaders falsely point to UN Resolution 194 as proof that Arab refugees have a Right of Return, but what about the forgotten Jewish refugees? Eli Hertz in Myths and Facts takes a long look at what the Resolution does and doesn't mean (with thanks: Michelle):

Resolution 194, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 11, 1948, addressed a host of issues, but only one paragraph out of 15 dealt with refugees created by the conflict. Resolution 194 attempted to create the tools required to reach a truce in the region. It established a conciliation commission with representatives from the United States, France and Turkey to replace the UN mediator. The commission was charged with achieving “a final settlement of all questions between … governments and authorities concerned.” The Resolution’s “refugee clause” is not a standalone item, as the Arabs would have us think, nor does it pertain specifically to Palestinian Arab refugees.
Of the 15 paragraphs, the first six sections addressed ways to achieve a truce; the next four paragraphs addressed the ways that Jerusalem and surrounding villages and towns should be demilitarized, and how an international zone or jurisdiction would be created in and around Jerusalem. The resolution also called on all parties to protect and allow free access to holy places, including religious buildings.

Jewish refugees in an Israeli transit camps in 1950

One paragraph has drawn the most attention: Paragraph 11, which alone addressed the issue of refugees and compensation for those whose property was lost or damaged. Contrary to Arab claims, it did not guarantee a Right of Return and certainly did not guarantee an unconditional Right of Return – that is the right of Palestinian Arab refugees to return to Israel. Nor did it specifically mention Arab refugees, thereby indicating that the resolution was aimed at all refugees, both Jewish and Arab. Instead, Resolution 194 recommended that refugees be allowed to return to their homeland if they met two important conditions: 1. That they be willing to live in peace with their neighbors. 2. That the return takes place “at the earliest practicable date.”

The resolution also recommended that for those who did not wish to return, “Compensation should be paid for the property … and for loss of or damage to property” by the “governments or authorities responsible.”

Although Arab leaders point to Resolution 194 as proof that Arab refugees have a right of return or be compensated, it is important to note that the Arab States: Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen voted against Resolution 194. Israel is not even mentioned in the resolution. The fact that plural wording also is used – “governments or authorities” – suggests that, contrary to Arab claims, the burden of compensation does not fall solely upon one side of the conflict. Because seven Arab armies invaded Israel, Israel was not responsible for creating the refugee problem. When hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews, under threat of death, attack and other forms of persecution, were forced to flee Arab communities, the State of Israel absorbed the overwhelming majority of them into the then-fledgling nation.

 The Forgotten Jewish Refugees: For a host of reasons – practical to parochial – Israel has failed to raise the issue of the mammoth injustice done to almost a million Jews from Arab countries. The scale and premeditated state-sponsored nature of persecution that prompted the 1948 flight of close to 900,000 Jews from their homes has only recently begun to emerge. Arab publicists have sought to detach entirely the flight of Jews from Arab lands from the Arab-Israeli conflict, claiming they are two separate phenomena, and that Israelis should take up the issue with each respective Arab state that was involved, not with the Palestinian Arabs.

Clearly this is an attempt to rewrite history. One only needs to reexamine the almost prophetic article in The New York Times two days after Israel declared independence ("Jews in Grave Danger in all Moslem Lands") to confirm the tie. The New York Times reported on May 16, 1948:
"For nearly four months, the United Nations has had before it, an appeal for ‘immediate and urgent’ consideration of the case of the Jewish populations in Arab and Moslem countries stretching from Morocco to India."

The New York Times country-by-country table estimated the Jewish population-at-risk as 899,000 people. The article cited the dismissal of Jews in the civil service in Syria, per capita ransom payment of $20,000 by Iraqi Jews seeking to leave Iraq, a forced levy on the Lebanese Jewish community to support the Arab war effort parallel to incitement and physical attacks on Jews, and Jews fleeing to India from Afghanistan. It quoted the UN Economic and Social Council report as saying:
"The very survival of the Jewish communities in certain Arab and Moslem countries is in serious danger, unless preventive action is taken without delay."

Hostility and oppression only grew, ultimately leading to the exodus of almost all Jews from all Arab and Moslem countries from Casablanca to Karachi.

Read post in full

At last, Trump grapples with refugees

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Shah pressed Jews of Iran to buy Esther's tomb

To project an image recalling Cyrus the Great, liberator of the Jews of Persia, its ruler Reza Shah pressed the Iranian Jewish community to buy the site of Esther and Mordechai's tombs at Hamadan in the 1970s, Chen Malul writing in the Jerusalem Post reveals.

  In a letter sent by the director-general of the Department of Archaeology and Public Education, Mr. Abdolali Pourmand, to Mr. Lotfollah Hay, the representative of Iran’s Jews in parliament, Pourmand clarified that the office of National Education would assist the Iranian Jewish community in purchasing the tomb and the land surrounding it from the Bazargani Bank, its owner at the time. The purchase would be funded by the selling of tickets to the site.

 Rabbi Garami of Tehran reads the Megillah at the tomb of Esther and Mordechai during the festival of Purim in  2020. Click here to see video clip

In the correspondence, the sense of urgency expressed by the regime’s representative is clear. Pourmand pressed the Jewish community to reply to the initiative – with an affirmative response being the obvious preference – as the department’s queries had so far gone unanswered.

In addition to the tomb-purchasing initiative, the Jewish community also planned to build a vocational school named after Cyrus the Great, as well as a hospital. There were even plans for a Hebrew-Persian dictionary and an exhibition dedicated to Cyrus’ achievements which would focus on the topic of Torah-based human rights, in various languages.

 It is unclear how much of all this actually came into being. The archives, however, do include evidence that the purchase of the grounds of the tomb was indeed completed, with final approval arriving on January 18th, 1970. 

It appears that the land was transferred into the hands of the community – though it is difficult to say for certain as the documentation ceases at this stage. A letter certifying that the grounds of the tomb were purchased; this is also the latest document found in the correspondence, from January 18th, 1970.

The honeymoon period between the Jews of Iran and the state authorities would come to a quick, cruel end with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the rise to power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This event also saw the last Shah of Iran, “The New Cyrus”, flee the country for the United States.

Since then, the tomb of Esther and Mordechai has been the focus of bitter dispute. In 2011, regime-supporting students rioted outside the compound and called for its removal from the list of protected Iranian heritage sites – as a response to their claims that Israel was seeking to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque. 

Their efforts were something of a success, with the sign noting the tomb’s status as a site of pilgrimage being removed. From time to time, protesters from across Iran issue threats to destroy the tomb and replace it with a Palestinian consulate. A recent incident of this kind occurred in February. So far however, the site remains intact, with only Jews allowed entrance to the tomb enclosure.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Forget Hamantaschen, try these Algerian Purim biscuits

The festival of Purim, which celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the evil Haman in ancient Persia, begins tonight. It is one of the most joyous of the Jewish calendar. It is customary among many Jews to bake Hamantaschen, triangular filled biscuits. But Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews have their own traditional recipes too. Here is a recipe from Algeria (copyright: Morial):

500 g flour
3 eggs
1/2 cup oil
pinch of salt
1/2 cup orange juice
1 sachet vanilla sugar
1 sachet yeast
200g icing sugar
juice of one lemon
Decorative sprinkles

METHOD: Mix oil, orange juiced  and vanilla sugar in a bowl, add flour,  salt and yeast until the dough is smooth.
Roll out the dough and leave to rest for an hour. Cut into biscuits with a glass and space out on a non-stick baking dish. Bake for 30 mins in a hot oven.

Whip up egg whites until stiff and add sugar and lemon juice. When biscuits have cooled dip into icing sugar. Allow to dry and add cake decoration (sprinkles, silver balls, etc)

Read article in full (French)

הג שמח! Have a happy Purim!

More articles about Purim

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Jewish Disney family of Egypt: their rise and fall

A new documentary has been doing the rounds of the world's film festivals: it tells the story' of Egypt's Jewish Disneys, the Frankel brothers. Raz Greenberg describes their rise and fall  in The Tablet:

The Frenkel family were wandering Jews. More specifically, they were Russian Jews who fled from the pogroms of the early 20th-century Russian Empire to Palestine, only to be banished from there to Egypt by the Ottoman regime following the outbreak of World War I.

 It was in Egypt, the country to which they were banished, and to which they had no preexisting linguistic or cultural connections, where the Frenkels found their greatest success. Inspired by early American cartoons and silent comedies, the three brothers released their first animated film in 1936, creating an instant landmark in the history of Egyptian and Arab cinema.

The film’s title, “Mafish Fayda,” literally means “it’s useless,” and is rumored to have been inspired by the reaction of a potential investor to the brothers’ request to finance their film. The protagonist, Mish-Mish Effendi, is prone to the same slapstick mishaps typical of Hollywood cartoon characters and film comedians, yet he is unmistakably a person of Egypt of the 1930s. He wears a fez on his head, and is ready to enjoy the good life offered by the streets of Cairo of that era, where traditional architecture and desert landscapes come together with modern vehicles and recreation spots, especially when he is trying to woo a beautiful woman in a revealing Western outfit.

As noted by an animation scholar in Michael’s film, the physicality of the woman’s character in the Frenkels’ film was clearly inspired by American cartoon star Betty Boop, which was created by the Fleischer bothers—another Jewish family that found success in the animation field, only to see it slip away as social circumstances changed.

Read article in full

How Egypt's beloved cartoon Mishmish fell into oblivion

Saturday, March 07, 2020

US Jewish leaders' visit to Saudi Arabia 'a big step forward'

In the two weeks since an important delegation of Jewish leaders visited Saudi Arabia, much has happened. The kingdom has been grappling with the threat of corona virus to  Mecca; today it was announced that Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had tightened his grip on power. But the Conference of Presidents' visit deserves a mention - the first of its kind:

The heads of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said Sunday that last week’s visit by a delegation from the US Jewish umbrella group to Saudi Arabia represented a “big step forward” in the kingdom’s warming ties with Israel.

L to R: Malcolm Hoenlein, Arthur Stark and William Daroff

“We just came back from a very important trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was the first such trip we have had to the kingdom and we feel it was very productive. Very encouraging,” said Conference of Presidents chairman Arthur Stark in a press conference in Jerusalem alongside  executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein and CEO William Daroff.

 Read article in full

Friday, March 06, 2020

Tunisian president makes fence-mending visit to Djerba synagogue

With thanks: Kouichi

Attempting to mend fences with Tunisian Jews, Tunisian president Kaies Saied paid a visit to the Al-Ghriba synagogue  on Djerba on 4 March. But his remarks separating Judaism from Zionism will not have done much to attract pilgrims to Djerba's main tourist site. The president has been  accused of antisemitism, and the recent sacking of the Jewish Tourism minister Rene Trabelsi  at the behest of a nasserist party has made matters worse. Report by the Tunisian press agency: 

President Saied is shown around the al-Ghriba synagogue by Perez Trabelsi, head of the pilgrimage organising committee

(TAP)- President Kais Saied visited, on Wednesday, the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, accompanied by the Ministers of Defense, Transport and Logistics, former Minister of Tourism, René Trabelsi, as well as regional officials.

 "This visit was an opportunity to evoke the historical, civilizational and cultural depth of Tunisia and the peaceful and spontaneous coexistence between its citizens of different religions", underlines a statement of the presidency of the Republic.

 Visiting the Jewish neighbourhood (Hara) in Djerba, the Head of State met with representatives of the Jewish community and some local people.

Rene Trabelsi, recently sacked as Tourism Minister, shows the president (foreground) a Torah scroll 

 "Tunisian Jews are equal with the rest of Tunisians in the eyes of the law, especially in terms of rights and duties," Saied said, stressing that "it is not a question of speaking of a Jewish community but, fundamentally, of citizens.

 In this context, the Head of State recalled the activist path of several Tunisian Jews against the French occupation. They had participated in the building of the country after independence and some of them had assumed important responsibilities of the State, he recalled.

 "It is necessary to make the difference between the Jewish religion, as a heavenly religion, and the Zionist movement that deprived the Palestinian people of their land," Kais Saied insisted.

 Read article in full

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Aden Jewish cemetery has been razed

The main Jewish cemetery in Aden  - a British colony until 1967 - has been razed to make way for urban development, in violation of western and Islamic values. The news was relayed by Dr Edy Cohen in BESA Center News.

The current desecration of the cemetery in Aden is being done in the service of a huge construction project in a much-sought-after neighborhood in the city, not far from the sea. (Click here to watch a video clip.)

 The buildings are to be erected on top of the ruins of the cemetery. This is contrary not only to the accepted values ​​and ethics of the Western world, but to Islamic values ​​and Muslim law as well.

 This does not appear to be a limiting factor in the minds of the “Transitional Council” in Yemen, established in 2017 under the leadership of Gen. Aidarus Zubeidi.

The Council views its control over Aden as a springboard for the establishment of an independent state in southern Yemen, and it does not intend to be thwarted by ethical or religious reservations.

 The construction project will bring about the final erasure of the last remnants of the Jewish community in Aden, whose roots are considerably older than Islam itself.

Read article in full

Mizrahim, the backbone of Likud's support

This New York Times article by David Halbfinger spotlights Benjamin Netanyahu's key Mizrahi constituency. But it ignores the Mizrahi attachment to patriotism and tradition (well explained in this interview with academic Nissim Mizrahi), and fails to identify a key motive behind their support for Likud: mistrust of Israel's Arab neighbours, who caused the exodus of their parents and grandparents. 

Benjamin Netanyahu at a Moroccan Mimouna ceremony

Mr. Netanyahu failed to win an outright majority, leaving Israel’s political standoff unresolved until he or another candidate can build a governing coalition, a process that seemingly could last indefinitely. But the Likud voters came out in droves.

In cities in central Israel like Rishon Letzion, blue-collar and middle-class police officers, contractors and government workers who had dallied with other parties over pocketbook issues came home to Likud in Mr. Netanyahu’s hour of need.

They turned out in cities like Beersheba, in the south, and in a string of rural northern towns where Mr. Netanyahu had gone hunting votes “from neighborhood to neighborhood, from street to street,” as he said in his victory speech. These Likud strongholds are replete with so-called Mizrahi Jews, whose parents and grandparents immigrated to Israel at midcentury from countries like Morocco, Egypt, Libya and Iraq.

Mizrahim — the name is Hebrew for eastern, or Oriental, Jews — have been a crucial pillar of the Likud party since its formation in the 1970s, when Menachem Begin galvanized them as a political force that drove the party’s rise to power. Having fled or been expelled from Arab countries, many readily took to the party’s hard line against Israel’s Arab adversaries and its embrace of Jewish nationalism.

Progressive Israelis have been baffled for years by the Mizrahi allegiance to Likud when liberal politicians promise earnestly to address the social inequities and economic inequality that have disadvantaged the Mizrahim. But many Mizrahim credit Likud for their advancement: Its local centers serve as social hubs and hiring halls. The party’s push to expand settlements in occupied territory has improved the lives of many working-class Mizrahim who moved into subsidized homes in the West Bank.

 Netanyahu has made himself one with the Mizrahim, championing their causes and nursing their grievances. He has elevated Mizrahi lawmakers to prominent posts, including some who are lightning rods for the left, like his culture minister, Miri Regev, best known for crusading against artists she sees as anti-Israel. “When they attack her, it just makes the base stronger,” Ms. Amiran, the columnist, said.

For many younger Mizrahim, Mr. Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for a decade, most of their adult lives, is not only Likud, he is a towering figure in the great Jewish narrative, a latter-day king of Israel. Prof. Nissim Mizrachi, a Tel Aviv scholar of Iraqi descent, said that many experts made the mistake of treating Mizrahi voters as a minority.

“Just like white people in rural America feel that they’re the real Americans, Mizrahim don’t feel like a minority group,” Professor Mizrachi said. “They feel like the Jewish people. And Bibi, for them, is their safeguard.” They also account for upward of 40 percent of the population, though their families have become so blended that government demographers have given up trying to count them. But identity dies hard. The Mizrahim remember well the harsh assimilation of their parents and grandparents at the hands of the Ashkenazi elite, the European-born Jews and their descendants who founded and led the state of Israel through its early decades. Generally poorer and less educated, thousands of Mizrahim suffered bigotry, discrimination and abuse in health care, housing, education, employment, and even army service, historians and activists say.

While Ashkenazi children were encouraged to go to college, experts say, Mizrahi children were steered into vocational schools. While Ashkenazi immigrants were settled in the heart of Israel, Mizrahim were shunted to slum-like peripheral “development towns.” Those resentments have not cooled with time. Many still mourn relatives who were kidnapped as infants and secretly given away for adoption, or died of cancer after being irradiated to treat ringworm upon arrival in Israel. Mr. Netanyahu, a scion of Ashkenazi elite himself, has played to those resentments, attacking as illegitimate the media and legal establishments, powerful sectors of Israeli society considered bastions of Ashkenazi power. Where the Ashkenazi see checks and balances, Mr. Netanyahu’s base sees the deep state.

“When you attack Bibi, it just makes the base support him,” said Revital Amiran, a political columnist. “They just feel they have to protect him.”

“The tension is between democracy as Mizrahim view it, and liberalism, the deep state,” Professor Mizrachi said. “The Blue and White people” — Mr. Gantz’s party — “basically want to undermine their position by using the institutions of the deep state. They have control over the media, the legal system. But the Mizrahim can win the election. And they felt like it was an emergency.”

Read article in full

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Letter of thanks by Damascus Affair women surfaces

According to The Librarians, a letter written by the wives of prominentJews accused of the Damascus Affair has been discovered. In it the wives thanked Judith Lady Montefiore, who accompanied Sir Moses Montefiore on his mission to intercede with the Ottoman sultan for the successful release from prison of their husbands. The wives themselves had suffered, and one, who became a witness for the prosecution,  converted to Islam.

The sources dealing with the affair describe in graphic detail the torments inflicted on the prisoners, but the wives were also interrogated and played an active role in the affair.  Oro (or Ora, as she is called in the interrogation protocols), wife of Moshe Abulafia—the scion of an illustrious rabbinical family who, as a result of the torture, admitted to the crimes he was accused of, converted to Islam and became a witness for the prosecution—was herself beaten during her husband’s interrogation and forced to watch the awful tortures he was subjected to.

The letter, written in Judeo-Arabic (Hebrew characters), was addressed to Judy, Lady Montefiore

The widow of Yosef Laniado, who died as a result of the torture, testified to demands for sexual bribery made by the French consul, a claim also reported by the daughter of David Harari, another of the men accused in the affair. They and other women who were forced to appear before various interrogation committees showed tremendous fortitude during their testimonies.

 With the conclusion of the affair, the women wished to thank their saviors. The letter before us, written in Judeo-Arabic, was composed by the wives of those prisoners who remained alive after the granting of the pardon. The letter is addressed to Lady Judith Montefiore (pictured) , who accompanied her husband on his mission. After the customary praises spread over many lines, the women note that they will always remember “the light of our eyes, our crown, the great lords and ministers, His Excellency Senor De Roschel (Rothschild] and His Excellency Senor De Montefiore.”

 “Today, this blessed Sunday, which falls on the eighth of Elul, the light has shone, from the honorable cause of our lord and crown, your cousin, His Excellency, the glorious Sir Moses Montefiore … the great news of their release from prison to their homes.”

Read article in full

More about the Damascus Affair of 1840