Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Jewish dynasty in a changing China

Michael Kadoorie, second from left
The Kadoorie family,  represented  today by Michael, grandson of Iraqi-Jewish founder Sir Elly, first established themselves in China in 1880. They have maintained links with the regime through the decades. Will the relationship survive the current Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong? Jonathan Kaufman writes in the Wall St Journal (With thanks: Dan,Carole; Philip):

Since 1880, when an Iraqi Jewish refugee named Elly Kadoorie arrived in Hong Kong, China has gone through a series of revolutions—from domination by Western powers to independence, from Nationalist to Communist rule, from colonialism to capitalism to communism.

Through it all, the Kadoorie family have been a barometer of the country’s openness to the world, rising to become the richest Western family in China. Leaders have been seeking their advice for generations, drawn by their combination of business skills and political acumen. Now, as China cracks down on dissent in Hong Kong and defiant protesters again take to the streets, the problem facing the family—like other companies and governments seeking to deal with a more repressive and nationalistic regime—is whether China will continue to welcome them.

The Kadoories built their first fortune in Shanghai between the world wars, when the city became a global crossroads. When the communists took over in 1949 and expelled foreigners, they lost almost everything, fleeing to British-ruled Hong Kong to make a new start. Over the next 25 years they grew richer than ever, amassing an $18 billion portfolio that includes China Light and Power, which provides electricity to 80% of Hong Kong’s residents, and the luxury Peninsula hotel chain. When the People’s Republic began to open up in 1972, after President Nixon’s visit, one of the first calls the communist leadership made was to the Kadoories, seeking their help in building a nuclear power plant. The Kadoories, who remain British citizens, became one of the country’s biggest foreign investors, returning to Shanghai triumphantly to build a new Peninsula Hotel. Today they meet regularly with top Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping.

 It has been a steep ascent since Elly Kadoorie landed in Hong Kong at the age of 18. He had been recruited to work for a major trading firm owned by the Sassoons, another Jewish family that had come to China from Baghdad 35 years earlier, just after the Opium Wars. But Elly soon struck out on his own, steering clear of opium, one of the main commodities the Sassoons transported between India and China. Instead he invested in hotels, land and utilities, building the infrastructure for the growing city of Shanghai as it became the “Paris of the East.” In time he built the grandest mansion in the city—43 rooms for just three people—and entertained celebrities like Charles Lindbergh. The Kadoories’ hotels hosted the world’s elites, including the wedding of Chiang Kai-shek.

 The Kadoories were what Americans would call Reform Jews; they attended High Holiday services and spoke about religion in terms of Jewish history and values. Privately, many British businessmen disparaged the Kadoories with anti-Semitic slurs, mocking them as “hook nosed,” members of the “Jew boys club.” But in the early 20th century, as China opened up to Western ideas and students and officials began to travel abroad, many Chinese intellectuals developed a fascination with Jewish culture. Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China, wrote to Elly Kadoorie that the Jews were a “wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world.” Kadoorie, an active Zionist, helped persuade him to endorse the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which laid the groundwork for the founding of the state of Israel.

Like the Jews, the Chinese knew what it meant to be powerless and lose control over their homeland. During World War II, the elderly Elly Kadoorie was imprisoned in a Japanese camp, and he died in captivity in 1944. Soon after the war ended, the Chinese communists swept through Shanghai, seizing the family’s buildings and art collection. Most Westerners in China, including the Sassoons, fled to Europe, Australia or the Americas.

But Elly’s grown sons, Lawrence and Horace, stayed close by, moving to the family’s hotel in Hong Kong. “If we sit down and worry, not only will no progress be made but everything will get worse,” Lawrence wrote to Horace in 1946. “If we go ahead optimistically, and in the belief that Hong Kong has a great future before it…we shall recover our losses and progress.” Hong Kong, Lawrence declared, “may become another Shanghai.” He turned out to be spectacularly correct. Over the next 70 years, through the Cold War and China’s economic rise, the Kadoories rebuilt their fortune in Hong Kong.

  Read article in full

Iraqi Jews made Hong Kong

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Why do Jewish virtue-signallers ignore the F-word?

Fringe Jewish groups like Jewish Voices for Peace obsess about the Palestinian Nakba, but studiously avoid using the F-word. Why are they being so polite? F is for Farhud, writes Rabbi Andrea Zanardo  in the Times of Israel -  and it refers to the cataclysmic massacre of Iraqi Jews which occurred 79 years ago. 

Don’t you dare to say the F-word. It’s rude. We just don’t do it. You’ll end up in the most terrible company if you say the F-word. You’ll become an outcast, a pariah. The F-word must not be said.

 You know (I hope): the series of assaults and violence against Jews and their properties all over Iraq, on 1st June 1941. More than 180 Jews were murdered, plus several hundred, unidentified, were buried in common graves; thousands of Jews were injured; more than 900 houses and buildings were looted.  The massacres had been instigated by Radio Berlin, which broadcasted anti-Semitic slogans in Arabic for months. Jewish owned shops were marked by nationalist youth, so that they could be identified and assaulted by the Arab mobs (Muslim owned shops were equally marked, and escaped the fury).

Rabbi Andrea Zanardo

This was the Farhud, the beginning of the end of the one thousand year long history of Iraqi Jews. Since 2015 the tragedy is now commemorated at the United Nations, every year on 1st June, and this year is no exception, and this is the reason why I am writing this piece.  Like many other Jews in the world, Sephardi or not, I will commemorate the Farhud.  But there are those who plainly ignore the tragedy.

 See for example the web site of Jewish Voices for Peace, the American organisation committed to “achieve lasting peace for Palestinians and Israelis based on equality, human rights, and freedom”. They “believe that a just and comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only happen through acknowledgement of the Nakba of 1947-9, which led to the creation of millions of Palestinian refugees”. On the whole of their web site, there is no acknowledgement of the Farhud. Clearly, the 1947 refugees enjoy a high place in the hierarchy of priorities of Jewish Voices for Peace. But those who suffered six years before, in 1941, do not. There must be an expiration date somewhere.

 The tragedy is absent from the web site of the British equivalent of Jewish Voices for Peace, Na’amod. They aim to take a stand against the moral crises caused by those British Jewish institutions that support the occupation of the West Bank “directly and indirectly, through distorted words as well as deceptive silences”.  Speaking of deceptive silence, I would really like to know why at Na’amod they prefer not to mention the Farhud. It is strange for an organisation that proclaims to be founded on “fundamental Jewish values of equality and human dignity”.

Perhaps Iraqi Jews, being non-Ashkenazi, are less entitled to human dignity? One could point out that both Jewish Voices for Peace and Na’amod are fringe groups, which are either anti-Zionists or openly welcoming anti-Zionists. Everybody knows that anti-Zionists do not like to talk about anti-Semitism in Arab lands: ie the project of depriving the Jewish people of a shelter seems far less noble if one considers the difficult parts of the Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle East.

Read article in full

More about the Farhud

Friday, May 29, 2020

A tale of two converts for Shavuot

Shavuot is the festival when the Book of Ruth is read. Ruth, a Moabite, pledges loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi and joins the Jewish people.  Although Judaism does not encourage proselytism, it does accept bona fide converts. Here is the story by Ronnie Perelis  in HaSefaradi of two converts in the history of Sephardi Jewry: 

The 12th-century Andalusian-Egyptian polymath, Maimonides received a query from a convert named Obadiya who felt that because he could not trace his lineage back to the forefathers of the Jewish people he could not invoke their names in his prayers. We know a little about this intrepid religious searcher from documents uncovered in the Cairo Geniza.

 Maimonides tells Obadiya the convert that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are his fathers because he follows their teachings. Obadiya left his family and home behind in search of religious truth just like Abraham who left behind all that was familiar to follow God’s voice. Maimonides identifies the convert’s commitment to the right ideals and sacrifice on behalf of those ideals as the mark of inclusion in the group. By discounting the power of blood, Maimonides welcomes this outsider in:

 He writes:
 שֶׁנִּכְנַסְתָּ תַּחַת כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה וְנִלְוֵיתָ עַל ייי אֵין כָּאן הֶפְרֵשׂ בֵּינֵינוּ וּבֵינְךָ, וְכָל הַנָּסִים שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ כְּאִלּוּ לָנוּ וּלְךָ נַעֲשׂוּ. הֲרֵי הוּא אוֹמֵר בִּישַׁעְיָהוּ [נ:ו] וְאַל־יֹאמַ֣ר בֶּן־הַנֵּכָ֗ר הַנִּלְוָ֤ה אֶל־יְהוָה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר הַבְדֵּ֧ל יַבְדִּילַ֛נִי יְהוָ֖ה מֵעַ֣ל עַמּ֑וֹ אֵין שָׁם הֶפְרֵשׁ כְּלָל בֵּינֵינוּ וּבֵינֶיךָ לְכֹל דָּבָר. וּוַדַּאי יֵשׁ לְךְ לְבָרֵךְ ‘אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בָּנוּ’ וַ’אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ’ וַ’אֲשֶׁר הִבְדִּלֵנוּ,’ שֶׁכְּבָר בָּחַר בְּךָ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, וְהִבְדִּלְךָ מִן הָאֻמּוֹת, וְנָתַן לְךָ הַתּוֹרָה.

 Because since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. Thus is said in the Book of Isaiah, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from His people’” (Is. 56:3). There is no difference whatever between you and us. You shall certainly say the blessing, “Who has chosen us,” “Who has given us,” and “Who has separated us”: for the Creator, may He be extolled, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Tora.

 Belief in the One God, sacrifice, and commitment to Divine Law is what secures Obadiya the convert’s place within his new community. His foreignness, his gentile blood, is no longer relevant because he has embraced the ideals of his new community and thus has forged his place within their fold. Maimonides is unable to provide a robust family network for this foreigner but he can assure him a spiritual space among his religious brethren. How can it be that I—who descend from such vicious Jew-haters have a place beneath the wings of the Divine Presence?

In the early modern period we find another example of an outsider, tormented by the weight of his foreign blood, with all that it conjures up in the racially charged Atlantic world of the 17th century. Manuel Cardoso de Macedo was born into a well-to-do Old Christian 5 family in the Azores and through a surprising series of religious transformations—he first embraces Calvinism while living in England and then discovers Judaism during his time in the prisons of the Lisbon Inquisition—he found his way to the Jewish community of Amsterdam where after a formal conversion he lived out the rest of his life as a devout Jew.

 Cardoso de Macedo adopts the Jewish name of Abraham Pelegrino Guer—Abraham the convert, the pilgrim, the wanderer. He wrote an eloquent spiritual autobiography about his religious journey that he begins with a fundamental question: How can it be that I—who descend from such vicious Jew-haters have a place beneath the wings of the Divine Presence?7 He talks about how deeply his father and his whole Portuguese society sought to destroy all vestiges of Judaism. He says that for his father “there would not be enough wood to burn all of the Jews”! Confronted with the weight of his blood, Cardoso seeks to retrace his steps towards the Law of Moses and the people of Israel in his autobiography and somehow write his way into the Jewish fold.

Read article in full

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Celebrate Shavuot without cheesecake!

For the festival of Shavuot which starts tonight, many Jews will be eating cheesecake and other dairy foods. This tradition marks the giving of the laws on kashrut alongside the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. But not all Mizrahi Jews eat dairy foods, some put the accent on fruit, cereals and grain - as Shavuot also celebrates the harvest and the first fruits. Mocha Juden has a useful round-up: 

Jews of Persia: In her book, “Jewish Cooking from Boston to Baghdad,” Malvin W. Liebman uncovered some interesting research about Persian Jewish eating on Shavuot. She writes that the holiday symbolized the marriage of God and the people of Israel to the Jews of Persia, so they prepare for it like a wedding, serving grain and cereal dishes, fruits and sweets.

 Iraqi Jews: Kahee, a food made from a dough which has been rolled flat, buttered, folded into squares and fried then sprinkled with sugar on top, is eaten for Shavuot by Iraqi Jews.

 Tunisian/Moroccan/Libyan Jews: Some Tunisian and Moroccan Jews eat a seven-layer cake called sieta cielos (seven heavens) for Shavuot. It represents the seven spheres of God, passed in order to present the Torah to Moses. Jews from Tripoli make various shaped wafers for Shavuot. Some like a ladder, others like a hand and others like two tablets. Moroccan Jews recite the Kiddush on Shavuot eve they take a few pieces of Matza that they saved from Passover and break them into small pieces. They then make a mixture of honey and milk. Immediately after, they blend the Matza pieces into the mix. Everyone gets their own portion, savoring the taste of this Shavuot treat.

Syrian cheese-filled pancakes

 Syrian Jews: Atayef, a filled cheese pancake, and ruz ib asal, a baked rice pudding with honey and rose water, are traditional for Shavuot.

 Kurdistan Jews:For Shavuot, Jews from Kurdistan prepare a ground wheat dish, cooked in sour milk and served with butter and flour dumplings.

 Greek /Turkish/Balkan Jews: Greek and other Sephardic communities serve cheese pastries and pies and delicacies based on cheese, eggs, milk and yogurt for their main meals during Shavuot. They also bake special breads with symbols on the surface of the bread such as a mountain like Mount Sinai, tablets of law, a scroll with pointing hands, Jacob’s ladder, a well in the desert or a serpent. Roscas, sweet yeast bread rings, sometimes braided, called tsoureki in Greek, are also served with cheeses for Shavuot, along with bougatsa, a cheese-filled phyllo pastry.

Read post in full

More about Shavuot

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The West has fed the 'right of return' for decades

The War of Return  has just hit the bookstalls. Its authors, ex-Knesset member Einat Wilf and journalist Adi Schwartz,show conclusively that the Palestinian objective - a  'right of return'  for Palestinian wartime refugees has not changed since 1948. While this book casts the spotlight on Arab rejectionism of Israel, Lyn Julius in JNS News is disappointed that Jewish refugees from Arab countries do not figure more prominently:

Count Bernadotte: Arab rejection of Zionism was immutable

To further their objective, the Palestinian leadership is not  using guns or tanks - all that has been tried and failed. It is to subvert the character of the Jewish state by overwhelming Israel with hordes of returning refugees.
The book shows how the West, whether by accident or by design, has fed this fantasy over the decades.

Although he was assassinated soon afterwards, the Swedish UN mediator Count Bernadotte, Schwartz and Wilf contend, has much to answer for. He was the first to accept that the Arab objection to Zionism was an immutable fact of nature. Instead of letting Arab states solve the  Palestinian refugee problem, he devolved responsibility to the UN . Article 11 of UN resolution 194 of December 1948, oft quoted as the legal basis for the 'right of return', was based on Bernadotte's own plan to use the Arab-Israeli conflict as a means of asserting western control.

 Thereafter Arab states managed to thwart every attempt to wind up the  exclusively Palestinian  UN agency  UNWRA, with its ever-growing tally of registered Palestinian 'refugees', and eventually used it as breeding ground for terrorist violence. Arafat cruised through the Oslo years with a double discourse, paying lip-service to recognition of Israel, while  not deviating from the ultimate, subversive goal of Palestinian return.

The Palestinian objective embodied in the 'right of return' is not bound by time. The Arabs took centuries to dislodge the Crusaders from the Middle East.  So will it be with the Zionists.
There is a precedent - the demand of 10 ethnic Germans to return to what is now Poland. But they never gained political support and were integrated into postwar Germany with full  citizenship.
The Arab League is complicit with the Palestinian leadership, having never repealed  the 1959 resolution 1457,  banning refugees from enjoying citizenship in Arab host countries. However, the authors do acknowledge that Jordan, where 40 percent of Palestinian 'refugees' reside,, is the only country to grant them citizenship.

The 'right of return' has been hiding in plain sight. But western diplomats and media pundits have steadfastly refused to take it seriously.

It is a political weapon, overriding a humanitarian solution for the refugees through rehabilitation or resettlement. In one starting example, Palestinians razed to the ground Musa Alami's experimental farm near Jericho, designed to improve the lot of his refugee brethren.

Arab refugees from Palestine and Jewish refugees from Arab countries fleeing to Israel exchanged places in roughly equal numbers. Disappointingly, the book only makes two cursory mentions of the Jewish refugees, seemingly making more of Bhutanese refugees from Nepal. In fact, several schemes for the exchange of peoples and property were floated.  Indeed in July 1949, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Said, was first to suggest that more than 100,000  Iraqi Jews could be transferred to Israel  in exchange for the same number of Palestinians. (Ultimately only 14,000 Palestinians arrived in Iraq.) There  was also a plan for Israel to buy 100,000 dunams of land in Libya  for resettling 17,000 Palestinian refugees. The authors only mention a similar plan for Gaza.

The omissions  are surprising,  given that the Jewish refugees were the subject of the translator  Eylon Levy's PhD thesis.

Adi Schwartz has also written extensively about the Jewish refugees, pointing out a 'Marshall Plan for refugees' in the early fifties. American aid was to have been split evenly between Israel and the Arab states, with each side receiving $50 million to build infrastructure to absorb refugees.The money to resettle the Arab refugees was handed over to the UN,  and the Americans gave Arab countries another $53 million for “technical cooperation”. In effect, the Arab side received double the money given to Israel even though Israel took in more refugees, including Jews from Arab countries.

It is likely that the authors did not want to deviate from a polemic designed to persuade the West - UNWRA's main supporters - to dismantle this organisation. But linkage with the Jewish refugees  puts the flight of Palestinian refugees in context. They serve as a contemporary model for successful resettlement.

However, this book performs a useful service, by cutting through the thicket of false claims  and misleading terminology surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. The War of Return  casts the spotlight where it needs to be - on the underlying anitsemitism driving Arab rejection of the existence of Israel.

Read article in full

Monday, May 25, 2020

Albert Memmi, Tunisian-born intellectual giant, is dead

The death has been announced on 22 May 2020 of one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, Albert Memmi, aged 99. Born in Tunisia, Albert Memmi was many things - academic, philosopher, writer - but Jews from Arab countries will always remember him as an outstanding defender of  Jewish rights. This article by Daniel Gordon  in the Jewish Review of Books explains (with thanks: Rachel)

Memmi’s startling independence of mind has always been linked to his Jewish partisanship. His sensitivity to the persecution of Jews in political regimes of all types meant that he had no a priori attachment to socialism, nationalism, capitalism, or any other “ism.” He has combined, perhaps more than any other writer since World War II, the compassion needed to articulate the suffering of oppressed groups with the forthrightness needed to censure them for their own acts of oppression.

“[I]f we are to help decolonized peoples,” Memmi wrote in 2004, “we must . . . acknowledge and speak the truth to them, because we feel they are worthy of hearing it.” In the diary, Memmi chronicled how the newly independent regime in Tunisia downgraded the status of its Jewish subjects. Jews were removed from their positions in the bureaucracy; anti-Semitic poems were broadcast through government radio stations.

Albert Memmi z:l

He recounted how the president of the new Constituent Assembly, Habib Bourguiba, summoned Jewish leaders and ordered them to stop showing support for a foreign power, Israel. The president of the Jewish community, Charles Haddad, was defiant. He asked Bourguiba this question: If allegiance to other countries is treason, why do you constantly pledge support to the Arab League?

The debate was especially impressive, Memmi noted, because Haddad previously was a man of “unctuous prudence.” Memmi showed how his fellow North African Jews came to realize that they could no longer fantasize about assimilation or acceptance in a multiethnic postcolonial society, despite the fact that many of them did not descend from European colonists.

Memmi himself possessed a medallion, bearing his family name, that dated to the Punic Wars, long before the arrival of Islam in North Africa. He later donated it to Yad Vashem as evidence that Jews were as native to Tunisia as any other group. As Memmi noted in the diary, he and other progressively minded Jews initially thought they were comrades in arms with the Muslim population against colonialism. Now they had to recognize that they had enjoyed more liberty under colonialism than in the newly liberated states.

 “I have to aid the Tunisians [against the French] because their cause is just,” Memmi wrote. “And I have to leave Tunisia because their cause is not mine.” He departed for France at the end of August 1956. He was not alone. The historian Michael M. Laskier observes that there 65,000 Jews in the capital of Tunisia in the late 1940s. Between 1956 and 1967, the majority immigrated to France or Israel.

 In a 1962 article in Commentary magazine, Memmi wrote that “the fate of North African Jewry is the most important world Jewish problem of our postwar period, just as the fate of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe was the leading problem for Jews before 1939.” The need for a Jewish homeland, he observed, was “not the result of Auschwitz but of the Jewish condition everywhere, including the Arab countries.”

 “The Jewish condition” would remain central to Memmi. In Portrait of a Jew, he coined the French word judéité (Jewishness) to describe the sentiment of belonging to a Jewish community as distinct from subscribing to the tenets of Judaism. Judéité is largely a nostalgic bond—a warm recollection of festivities celebrated at home, for example. Near the beginning of his first novel, Pillar of Salt (1953), Memmi evoked this ambiance.

  Read article in full

Who is an Arab Jew?

How do Jews from Arab or Muslim countries identify themselves?

The debate rages on: are you a Jew from an Arab or Muslim country, an Arab Jew, a Jewish Arab, or none of the above? Sephardi Voices UK have explored identity in their oral history project: this video illustrates different views. 

In this extract from her book Uprooted, Lyn Julius discusses the issue of identity, with particular reference to 'Arab Jews': 

 Widespread is the notion among Arabs and on the radical left, that Jews from Arab countries are not distinct people, but Arabs of the Jewish faith. In other words, the Jews cannot be defined as a people with a right to self-determination.

Anti-Zionists claim that a Machiavellian Zionist conspiracy forced these Jews out of their countries of birth. They buy into the myth that Jews are interlopers from Europe and the US – white Westerners who came to ‘colonise’ and ‘steal land’ from the ‘native’ Palestinian people to whom it rightfully belongs. This myth, drawing on Marxist terminology, gained increasing legitimacy after 1967 when Israel annexed East Jerusalem and ‘conquered’ the West Bank. The notion of ‘occupation’ and the use of the word ‘settlers’ reinforce the concept of Israeli ‘colonisation’ of ‘Arab’ land.

 The colonialism myth supports the idea that Jews are merely adherents of a religion. At the time of the French Revolution, Clermont-Tonnerre said of the emancipation of Jews: ‘We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.’ This would lead to the Jewish community somehow disappearing, leaving only French citizens of Jewish religion or ancestry.

 With the rise of nationalism this concept of the Jew was replaced by a racial stereotype. However, the pendulum has swung back to viewing Jews as a faith community: thus anti-Zionists habitually talk about US citizens of the Jewish faith, Germans of the Jewish faith and now Arabs of the Jewish faith. Mizrahi leftist academics, like Ella Shohat in New York, borrow heavily from Edward Said’s post-colonialist bible Orientalism, which divides the world crudely into ‘the West versus the Rest’, viewing both Mizrahim (‘Arabs of the Jewish faith’) and non-Jewish Arabs (the Rest) as victims of Zionism (the West).

Ella Shohat features prominently in a film made in 2002, called Forget Baghdad, by the son of an Iraqi non-Jewish communist. The film- maker interviews four protagonists, Jewish members or ex-members of the Iraqi Communist Party including Shimon Ballas, who wrote Ma’abara, the first book to describe the experience of refugees in the tent camps. All were forced to flee to Israel, where they suffered varying degrees of cultural alienation. In a study, Professor Shohat finds that Israeli cinema depicts orientalist cultural stereotypes, casting Mizrahi Jews as ‘boors or buffoons’.

 Anti-Zionist Mizrahim like Ella Shohat and Rachel Shabi see their people as conflicted between their binary ‘Jewish and Arab’ identities and despised by Israel’s Ashkenazi establishment. Rachel Shabi writes: ‘If Israel could find a way to reconnect with its own Middle-Eastern self, the chances are that this would result in the country having entirely different relations with the region. Because long before they were apparent arch-enemies’, she claims, ‘Arabs and Jews were culture collaborators, good neighbours – and friends.’

 Shabi interviews Naima, who was seventeen when she left Iraq. Naima declared of her family’s relations with their Arab neighbours: ‘We got along, and how. Believe me, it was a pleasure.’

 Nevertheless, the concept of ‘Arab-Jewish’ identity remains controversial. As one wag put it, ‘Mizrahim are not interested in being Arabs – except for the music and the food; a lot of Ashkenazim are not interested in being Jews, period.’

 Furthermore, many Jews living in Arab countries in the twentieth century were influenced by Western – specifically French – culture, bore European first names, and many had a marked preference for the chan- sons of Edith Piaf over the ballads of Um Kalthum. No-one stole pure Mizrahi-Arab culture from the Jews of the Maghreb, ‘because most of them had lost it long before they came to Israel’.

 North African Jews arriving in Israel were nicknamed Frenkim. ‘France was my soul home’, writes André Aciman. There are Arab-born refugees in the West who still say they are French so as to avoid having to explain their accents and convoluted life-story. The writer Jacqueline Kahanoff coined the term Levantinism to describe the multiplicity of identities she enjoyed, growing up in cosmopolitan Egypt. Based on her personal experiences, she advocated a ‘Mediterranean’ model of coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Egyptian Jews were famously multilingual, speaking an average of 4.5 languages, but often only rudimentary Arabic. It was not unusual for them to have a foreign nationality, go to French schools, be cared for by a Balkan nanny, and a minority were the products of mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi marriages.

 Ellis Douek, an Egyptian-Jewish doctor uprooted to the UK (whose family had been British subjects since the eighteenth century) said that he had never pretended to be British, but that nowadays he felt more at home in Britain – not because he became more British, but because Britain had become more foreign. To tell his patients that he was Egyptian confused them: the Arabs among them did not believe that Jews had ever lived in Egypt. Ellis Douek avoided describing himself as Jewish to British people, since they were embarrassed by religion.

 One Algerian-born Jewess who had lived in France before coming to England described her identity as Jewish. All through her perambulations, it was the one consistent thread of her identity. ‘I’ve been Jewish all the time, the rest has changed’, she said.

 A 2008 conference of Iraqi Jews – the most ‘arabised’ of Middle Eastern Jewries, resoundingly rejected the expression ‘Arab Jew’ as a badge of identity. Purists define an ‘Arab Jew’ as one who is steeped in, or familiar with, literary Arabic. University of Haifa professor Reuven Snir, however, emphasised that the Jews who wrote literary works in Arabic in the early twentieth century felt no need to declare themselves Arabs. It might be more appropriate to describe as ‘Arabic Jews’ those who speak Arabic and have assimilated Arabic culture.

Even if Jews from Arab countries were willing to identify as such, where does the expression ‘Arab Jew’ leave Babylonian, Must’arab, Karaite, Kurdish, Persian or Berber Jews? It is clearly an inadequate description of Haketia-, Ladino- and Aramaic-speaking Jews, not to mention Persian, Afghan, Bukharan and other Jews from the ex-Soviet Muslim republics, who speak Judeo-Farsi dialects and also form part of the ‘greater Babylonian diaspora’ dating back to the First Exile.

 ‘Who am I?’ the Iraq-born author Eli Amir asked rhetorically. ‘I’m a bird wandering between two worlds, sometimes I’m in the West, and sometimes in the East. I’m a man whose dual roots allow me to stand strong. My legs still get confused between two worlds, but I’m a Jewish Zionist Israeli.’

The vast majority of Jews have not historically identified as Arabs – in fact most would be offended to be so labelled. Moreover, to talk of ‘Arab Jews’, when Jews predated the Arab conquest by 1,000 years and lived for the most part under non-Arab Muslim rule, is ahistorical – strictly speaking, it ought only to describe Jews from the Arabian peninsula. Elsewhere the word ‘Arab’ meant, to many city dwellers, Bedouin – someone who roamed the desert and wore traditional robes.

 As well as being an ethnic signifier of comparatively recent vintage, ‘Arab Jew’ gives equal weight to both elements, an equivalence that neither existed under sharia law nor Arab nationalist rule. The ‘Arab world’ is a community of language and culture, but Arabs have never achieved political union, despite efforts to unite various states into Arab federations. It is legitimate to talk of Egyptian and Iraqi Jews, citizens of nation states. But in the same way we could talk of Spanish Jews – citizens of Spain – we cannot do so of Hispanic Jews of Spanish language and culture, an imaginary construct.

  More about 'Arab Jews'

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Ashkenazi Jews must stop identifying as 'white'

There is no doubt that Jews  originate in the Middle East and were victims of European colonialism - so why do so many Ashkenazi Jews feed the myth that Jews are 'white'? Dani Ishai Behan has posted this long, but carefully argued article in the Times of Israel: 

Chaim Weizmann (left) meeting Emir Faisal of Iraq in 1919

The minute we classify as white, we allow ourselves to be seen and treated as foreign colonizers in the Middle East. Ashkenazi Jews who identify as “white Europeans”, and refuse to own their Middle Eastern identity, are opening *themselves* up to delegitimization.

 Arguments about Israel’s Mizrahi majority can only take you so far. We can’t keep using Sephardim and Mizrahim as shields. We need to own who we are, and to tell the Palestinian (and the Lebanese, and the Syrian, and the Mizrahi, and the Sephardi) that we are every bit as indigenous to the region as they are. Not one iota less.

 Exile in Europe and colonization did not transform us into Europeans. We are still ethnic Jews, and therefore still Levantine. We should not be deprived of our indigenous Middle Eastern ethnic identity – and the rights entailed therein – for the fact that we were taken away from our homeland against our will.

To argue that is to argue we should be punished further for the crimes that were committed against us, and is a crass exercise in victim-blaming. So long as we keep thinking of ourselves as white, the Palestinian Arab will have every right to look at us as colonizers.

Remember, it’s not our skin color that necessarily bothers the Palestinian – for there are plenty of Palestinians who are quite white-skinned themselves (Linda Sarsour, Ahed Tamimi) – it’s the connotation that comes with it.

 So if they see us as white, it’s not our skin tone, it’s the connotation of being “white Europeans” and therefore unwelcome colonizers in the Middle East. That’s the narrative we all need to change, and change right now.

Read article in full

Friday, May 22, 2020

Iranian regime wants to 'eliminate Israel, not Jews'

The Al-Quds rallies to reclaim Jerusalem from the Jews have been cancelled this year, but the Iranian regime is as determined as ever, not just to end Israeli rule over Jerusalem, but to end Israel itself. This objective was stated in no uncertain terms in an offensive Iranian  poster calling for 'a final solution''. Faced with an international outcry, Ayatollah Khameini tweets he means to eliminate Israel, not Jews.  The Times of Israel reports:

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday said he seeks Israel’s destruction but not the annihilation of all Jews, after Israeli and American leaders accused him of encouraging genocide.

He said Iran would support any nation or group that fights against Israel. Khamenei was commenting on a poster published on his website that used the words “final solution” in calling for Israel’s destruction, a term usually associated with Nazi Germany’s efforts to eliminate all Jews during the Holocaust.

 “Eliminating the Zionist regime doesn’t mean eliminating Jews. We aren’t against Jews. It means abolishing the imposed regime ; Muslim, Christian ; Jewish Palestinians choose their own govt ; expel thugs like [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” Khamenei wrote on his Twitter account.

Read article in full

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Critics of TV series 'Umm Haroun' view 'Arab Jews' as Zionism's victims

The Ramadan TV series Umm Haroun tries to portray Middle Eastern Jews as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. But deep-seated religious and cultural prejudice against the inferior dhimmi Jews has caused much vituperation, argues Shaul Bartal of the BESA Center (with thanks: Laurence, Frank, Melvyn)

 Um Haroun’s attempt to show the human side of the great suffering endured by Middle Eastern Jewry has aroused harsh criticism in the Arab world, mainly because of its alleged attempt to promote the trend of tatbia (normalization with Israel). The Zionist narrative of Middle Eastern Jewry does not jibe with the Arab-Palestinian narrative, which portrays Zionism as a European colonialist movement that is foreign to the Middle East.

 An article on arab48, which is affiliated, among other things, with the more ultranationalist elements in Arab Israeli society, accused the series of “legitimizing the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states,” which it considers anathema. The article asserts that, contrary to the Zionist view that the “Arab Jews” were a persecuted group, they formed “part of the Arab nation and a religious minority within it, an essential part of the mosaic of communities that lived in the Arab East and in Muslim Spain,” and their move to Palestine was a reflection of “Jewish arrogance.”

 The “Arab Jews” who (supposedly) lived with honor in the House of Islam thought they were coming to a land of milk and honey but instead, so the article claims, encountered humiliation and discrimination at the hands of the European Jews—because Zionism, after all, was no more than a European colonialist movement. Hence, the article asserts, the Um Haroun series serves Zionism because it presents a false narrative that sins against the historical truth. Criticisms in this vein are plentiful across Arab social networks and media channels.

 In the Middle East there are only “Palestinian refugees.” There is no room for other victims. The State of Israel, over half of whose Jewish citizens are descendants of former dhimmis, is an existing fact.

 The indigenous Jews of the Middle East, like their brethren from other Diaspora communities, returned to their ancestral homeland and together reestablished the Jewish state there. Um Haroun insinuates that the Jews of the Middle East could serve as a bridge for coexistence and understanding between Israel and its neighbors. Unfortunately, the series has mainly sparked vituperation in the Arab world.

  Read article in full

More about Arab reaction to 'Umm Haroun'

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Israeli government names 10 ministers with Moroccan roots

Morocco World News is 'kvelling': the new government in Israel is one-third Moroccan. The numbers of  ministers with Moroccan roots exceeds the proportion of Israelis of Moroccan origin - 10 percent, or the second largest community after ex-Soviet Jews.

Orly Levy-Abekassis, Community strengthening and Advancement' minister

Benjamin Netanyahu appointed 34 ministers to form his new government on Sunday, May 17. The list included 10 politicians of Moroccan roots, nearly one third of the government’s members.

 Interior Minister Arye Dery was born in Meknes in 1959, while Economy Minister Amir Peretz was born in Boujad, near Beni Mellal, in 1952.

 Meanwhile, the list of government members with Moroccan parents includes Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Minister Responsible for the Government-Knesset Liaison David Amsalem, and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Rafi Peretz.

The list also includes Community Strengthening and Advancement Minister Orly Levy-Abekasis, Minister Responsible for Civil Affairs Michael Biton, and Equality Minister Merav Cohen.

 Finally, Minister of Transportation Miri Regev has a Moroccan father and a Spanish mother, while the government coalition’s representative at the Knesset, Miki Zohar, was born to a Moroccan father and a Tunisian mother.

Read article in full

Top civil servant with Iraqi roots: Defence Minister Benny Gantz has appointed Maj reserve . Gen. Amir Eshel and ex commander of Israel Air force as Director-General of the Ministry of Defence.
Eshel was born in Jaffa and grew up in Ramat Gan. His father Yehezekel (Hezi) Eshel (originally Batat), was born in Iraq and immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1936. His mother Edna was a Holocaust survivor from Russia.

Fifty-five years since the execution of Eli Cohen, spy extraodinaire

Everybody has secrets, but Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy hanged in Damascus in May 1965, had more secrets than most. Some he literally took to his grave. Liat Collins of the Jerusalem Post writes on the 55th anniversary of Cohen's execution:

Eli Cohen with his wife Nadia

 Tragically, his burial place in Syria is among the unknown.

Many of the mysteries surrounding the super-spy have been revealed over the years, others we might never learn, but Cohen’s courage and fate have returned to public consciousness lately.

 The story of the agent’s life, capture and execution were the subject of a Netflix series last year starring Sacha Baron Cohen. While the poetic license taken in The Spy upset his family, the dramatization did at least attract broad international attention to the affair.

 I devoured the Netflix version of Cohen’s life, which managed to maintain tension throughout despite the fact that viewers knew there would be no happy ending. His wife, Nadia, would be left a widow with three very young children.

 This week, KAN 11 began broadcasting a documentary series “Lochem 566,” (Fighter 566, Cohen’s Mossad codename). Again, I found myself riveted to the screen as I watched the first of three episodes on Sunday. This was Cohen’s story told – to a large extent – in his own words.

The production team, led Itai Landsberg, a veteran Israeli documentary maker, based a lot of their research and footage on the actual court records of his trial in Damascus, which they found in an IDF archive. It is chilling, but compelling to see and hear Cohen answering the judge’s questions, providing his story in first person.

 The best-known of Eli Cohen’s exploits was that the spy persuaded the Syrian army to plant eucalyptus trees on its bases on the Golan Heights which gave Israel their precise locations when the Six Day War broke out in 1967. Landsberg told Yisrael Hashavua’s Ariel Bulshtein that they were not able to confirm this particular widespread belief. But even without it, Cohen’s achievements acting in the guise of flamboyant businessman Kamel Amin Thaabet were incredible.

  Read article in full

More about Eli Cohen

Monday, May 18, 2020

Yemenite henna ceremony is the height of fashion

A traditional Yemenite henna  adorns the front page of  Vogue - the world's leading fashion magazine - who knew? The article, by Liana Satenstein with photography by Talia Collis, has a detailed description of the clothing and jewellery worn at the ceremony, which is even becoming popular among Ashkenazim.(With thanks: Michelle)

Approximately a week before a Yemenite wedding takes place, what’s known as a henna ceremony is performed. Just as the name suggests, the ritual involves the application of temporary natural dye to the hands of the bride in intricate patterns that symbolize fertility.

The crowning glory of her look, which comes in vibrant red—also to symbolize fertility—and gold, is a majestic beaded headdress, or gargush, that is in the shape of a cone and resembles a tiered cake. The headpiece weighs more than two pounds. But that isn’t the heaviest part: That’s where the jewelry comes in. She wears a chestful of necklaces, including one under her neck called a labbah, a thick collar of silver filigree beads braided into red yarn.

Avda and Ahivu Tsur at their henna

 At the henna ceremony of Adva Tsur (née Zabari) last summer in Kadima, a town just outside of Tel Aviv, all of those beautiful sartorial customs were on display. “At first, it doesn’t feel heavy but after a while with the walking, dancing, it becomes very heavy on the chest,” says Tsur over the phone from Tel Aviv. “I felt pretty and I didn’t want to take the jewelry off even after the henna was over.”

Jewelry-making has a special place in Yemenite culture, and many silversmiths today in Israel are of Yemenite descent. The bride’s necklaces speak to that tradition—Tsur wears the traditional labbah, in addition to weighty pieces made from amber and silver, which historically represented wealth. In other words, the bigger the necklace, the richer the bride’s family.

Read article in full

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Let's observe the Nakba - of the Jews from Arab lands

There will be no Palestinian Nakba Day commemorations this year. Douglas Altabef in Israel National News proposes an 'all-weather, virus-resistant' form of marking the real Nakba - of the Jews from Arab lands.

Douglas Altabef: no voluntary leaving by Jews

 In one of the most cruel, calculated and ultimately self-destructive acts of modern history, the declaration of Israel’s Independence was universally accompanied by the mass persecution of the Jews in Arab lands.

 Most egregious was the expulsion of the Jews of Iraq, the oldest Jewish community in the world outside of the Land of Israel. True, Iraqi Jews suffered a barbaric pogrom known as the Farhud during Shavuot 194, in which 180 Jews were murdered in Bagdad, but the Jews of Iraq saw themselves as integral to and integrated in their society. They played an essential economic and social role. So strong was their attachment to Iraq that thousands denounced Israel and pledged their allegiance to Iraq following the 1948 Declaration of Independence.

 However, it was all to no avail once the Baathists seized power. In early 1951 the entire community was deprived of their citizenship, their property and civil rights and were told to leave the country with severe limitations on what they could take with them. Within a matter of weeks, some 150,000 were deported. So severe was the tide of expulsion that the Government of Israel actually appealed to Iraq, in vain, to delay and to stagger the expulsion so that the huge number of deportees could be accommodated.

 The Nakba of the Jews of the Levant is simultaneously a largely ignored human rights catastrophe, and a great but difficult validation for the raison d’etre of Israel, as a haven for Jews throughout the world. To Israel’s credit, it did not wallow in accusations of victimhood of those cruelly displaced, but sought to provide a new home for them.

 In contrast to the flight of the Arabs from mandatory Palestine, there was no voluntary leaving by Jews. There was no attempt to have Jews of thousands of years of standing in their countries temporarily depart to wait out the anger and hostility prompted by the creation of Israel. There was only deprivation and expulsion.

 In all some 850,000 Jews were displaced and uprooted from Arab lands.

 There was a famous quote attributed to the Ottoman Sultan at the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, referring to King Ferdinand, who inexplicably was known as Ferdinand the Wise: “Who is this king who they call wise who so impoverishes his country and thus enriches mine?” This quote resonates greatly in the saga of Mizrachi Jews. Yes, they were the victims of an actual Nakba. Yes, they suffered untold persecution, humiliation, displacement. Yes, they fell from the highest levels of their native societies to being highly dependent, disoriented and often frowned upon members of their new society.

 But theirs has been one of the greatest success stories of modern times, a story of bootstrapping, of achievement and of finding their seat at the table, even when not invited, of Israeli society. So here is a suggestion to our Palestinian and other Arab neighbors: learn from your former fellow citizens and residents. Learn how to move forward, rather than donning the mantle of hapless victimhood. Learn how not to be daunted by the tides of history, but to turn adversity into success.

 Read article in full

More about the Jewish Nakba

Friday, May 15, 2020

Tomb of Esther and Mordechai reportedly set ablaze

Update to the Update: the Iranian regime (briefly) admitted minor damage.

Update: Reliable sources say that an “attempt” to burn the shrine resulted in some smoke damage but the fire was minimal.No arrests have been made.
Reports received by Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the US Anti-Defamation League, state that the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, Iran, has been set ablaze. There have been frequent threats to torch the shrine: this time,  however, they seem to have been carried out  to coincide with the anniversary of  Israel's establishment 72 years ago . The Jerusalem Post reports:  

Inside the tomb of Esther

BERLIN - National Director of Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Jonathan Greenblatt announced Friday on Twitter that the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Iran was torched. Disturbing reports from Iran that the tomb of Esther & Mordechai, a holy Jewish site, was set afire overnight. We hope that the the authorities bring the perpetrators of this antisemitic act to justice & commit to protecting the holy sites of all religious minorities in Iran,” Greenblatt tweeted.

The Jerusalem Post is seeking to obtain the reports cited by Greenblatt in his tweet. Greenblatt has termed Iran's regime the top state-sponsor of antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
Prior to the arson of the tomb, one Twitter user named Mohammad Mahdi Akhyar threatened to destroy the holy site on May 14 in response to a tweet by the Israel's Foreign Affairs' Farsi Twitter page.

Read article in full

More about the tomb of Esther

Israelis airlifted from Morocco after diplomatic crisis

A group of 26 Israelis landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday morning after they were finally repatriated from Morocco following a weeks-long diplomatic crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of a dozen Moroccan Jews. The Times of Israel reports:

The group left Morocco on Wednesday and flew to Paris, where they boarded a private plane owned by billionaire couple Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the Israel Hayom newspaper reported. The paper, owned by Sheldon Adelson, said that Likud MK Nir Barkat approached the couple and asked for assistance in bringing the Israeli travelers home.

 According to Channel 13 news, at the start of the global pandemic, Israel reportedly approached the Moroccan government and began to coordinate efforts to repatriate the Israelis stranded in the North African kingdom. However, the plan was shelved after Foreign Minister Israel Katz tweeted that he had reached out to the Jewish community in Morocco and offered to extract people with dual Moroccan-Israeli citizenship.

 Moroccan authorities often highlight their country’s tradition of tolerance and have worked to rehabilitate Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. Like most Arab states, Morocco has no official relations with Israel, but Israeli Jews visit every year to see the land of their ancestors, mark religious festivals and conduct business.

 Moroccan officials were reportedly outraged by Katz’s tweet, which they viewed as insensitive, and refused to let the Israelis leave on either a commercial or private flight. The Israeli travellers began to run out of money, and started staying in houses of members of the Jewish community in Casablanca and hotels in Marrakesh, which were paid for by the Moroccan government, according to an Army Radio report last month.

 At the start of May, talks between the Israeli and Moroccan governments were renewed on the matter, spearheaded by Israeli-Moroccan businessman Ilan Khatuel who became the de facto leader of the stranded travellers, and a man named by Channel 13 news as “Maoz,” the head of relations with the Arab world at the Prime Minister’s Office. Eventually it was agreed that the Israelis would be allowed to fly home.

 Last month, Army Radio reported that the Moroccan government had refused to approve a joint Israeli-Emirati effort to repatriate the group.

Read article in full

Thursday, May 14, 2020

A skilful and saddening read: 'The Wolf of Baghdad' reviewed

The Wolf of Baghdad: Memoir of a Lost Homeland, a new graphic novel about the Iraqi Jewish experience, is testament to the power that Iraqi roots can still possess across a seemingly definitive distance. Mardean Isaac reviews Carol Isaacs' new book in The Tablet: 

 Carol Isaacs, author of this skilful and saddening book, is a cartoonist known for her work in The New Yorker as The Surreal McCoy, and an accomplished musician. She was born to Iraqi Jewish parents in London. Her family home was in Wembley, an area of northwest London with a Jewish population of various backgrounds. It would transform into a vessel of life from the old country when visitors came on Sunday. Her parents and grandparents spoke Judeo-Arabic. But talk of life in Iraq, and the shock of her family's expulsion from it, was mostly absent. At her “very British” school, Jews were a minority and Isaacs a Mizrahi minority within that minority, but she learned from her Ashkenazi friends that European Jews had also experienced expulsion and dispersal.

 In The Wolf of Baghdad, Isaacs, who has never been to Iraq, places her present self into the imagined past of her ancestors. At the outset of the narrative, her graphic avatar is transported from a torpid evening in the company of family photographs in her northwest London apartment by music to an ancestral Baghdad.

She navigates the city—now inhabited by ghosts—as an observer under a cloak, the same abaya her grandmother used to wear to pass unnoticed in Arab society. The figures she encounters are defined by their translucence: disembodied references to a once richly tangible world. She and they walk the same paths, but separately.

The absence of talking in the action of the novel affirms the distance intervening between Isaacs and the Iraqi Jewish experience she portrays. At the outset of this book, the faces of Isaacs’ family are arranged as portrait miniatures hanging like dates from a tree. The graphic narrative alternates with pages of sparse testimony, provided to Isaacs by her family and other Iraqi Jews, paired with portraits of their younger selves shaped like postage stamps.

  Read article in full

More about 'The Wolf of Baghdad'

More from Mardean Isaac

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

From mini-skirt to hijab: one Iranian-Jewish woman's story

She was named after Jackie Kennedy and loved to wear mini-skirts. Jacqueline Saper grew up under the pro-western regime of the Shah of Iran. After 1979, she lived through the turbulent years of the Islamic revolution until she and her family were able to escape to the US in 1987.  Madeleine Kingsley of The Jewish Chronicle reviews her story:

Everyone laughed at their Seder when a cousin joked that they had no reason to recite the toast, “Next year in Jerusalem”, because they already lived in the best place on earth.

 Jacqueline could see that 1970s Tehran was not everyone’s idyll. Reza Shah’s spectacular parties highlighted the great divide between the wealthy and the have-nots — like her own family’s maids. In 1975, the Shah abolished the multi-party system and, a year later, the Muslim calendar. Violent demonstrations ensued; anti-Shah strikes brought fuel shortages and bread queues. In the freezing cold, Jacqueline’s father would rise at 6am to queue for supplies. Three quarters of the 100,000-strong Jewish community fled, including Jacqueline’s brother and, eventually, her older sister.

 The writing on the walls read, “Death to the Shah”. Jacqueline’s father would not see it. The King of Kings, he judged to be invincible — until 1979, when Iran’s tolerant, affluent and cultured world unravelled. Saper’s recall of the medieval morality imposed by the returning Ayatollah Khomeini (“the Redeemer”) chills the spine. Doubly discriminated against as Jewish and female, her constrained life could be drawn straight from Margaret Atwood’s Testaments.

Barred from higher education, Jacqueline married at 18 and moved, with Ebi, a student doctor, to Shiraz — once, but no longer, the city of wine. Modesty police stalked the streets and called her a “bloody whore” for failing to wear the veil. Women could not shake hands or smile at men. A TV cleric claimed it was scientifically proven that women’s hair drove men mad. Anyone found drinking alcohol risked a flogging.

 To circumvent antisemitism, Jacqueline called herself Jaleh and, like so many, concealed her thoughts, living her internal life under cover of false allegiance. Escape seemed impossible. Jewish families were prevented from leaving the country together. One such family secured passports by converting to Islam. The longing to leave redoubled when Jacqueline and Ebi’s daughter started first grade, wearing the hijab in a drab and joyless school where she kissed the Ayatollah’s picture.

 An opportunity arose when Ebi was invited on to a medical course in Texas and, by some miracle, it was agreed that his wife and two young children could go, too. The young family left with nothing, no household possessions, no jewellery, no promise of work or home, and certainly no matzah. On this essentially secret exodus, they carried just a couple of suitcases and memories untold until now.

  Read article in full 

From Miniskirt to Hijab by Jacqueline Saper (Potomac Books, 2019, £20)

More reviews :  Chicago Sun-Times The JUF Magazine, 

Jacqueline's website

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Lag Ba' Omer in Algeria

Today is Lag Ba' Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, the period between Passover and Pentecost (Shavuoth).  (With thanks: Leon)

The Omer marked a time when the scholar at the time orf the Roman occupation of Judea, Rabbi Akiva, and his 24,000 disciples, suffered a plague.  On Lag' Ba Omer, the dying ceased. It is also the anniversary of the death of  the mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and is celebrated with the lighting of bonfires and parades in Israel.

Visiting the tomb of Rabbi Yehoshua Elkaïm (Photo courtesy of Gisèle L)

In Algeria the Jews had their own customs on Lag Ba' Omer.  Mrs Gisèle L recalls a 1913 pilgrimage to the tomb of Yehoshua Elkaïm (1831 - 77) in Medea, a town some 68 km from Algiers. Rabbi Elkaïm was so well regarded that even the Bey went to him for advice.

At nightfall a large crowd would gather at the Elkaïm synagogue. They carried a candelabra bedecked with candles to the cemetery by car. A procession followed on foot. On arrival each of the candles was lit and each one placed on a grave.

There was a festive return to the town, the candalabra was put away and the celebrants sang and danced into the night.

Read Morial article (French)

Monday, May 11, 2020

From travellers to settlers: European Jews in Iraq

In the old days, travelling was hard and dangerous from Europe to Babylon (Baghdad) or vice versa. Few Jews ventured there, but in the 19th and 20th centuries, several European Jews ended up settling in Baghdad. Historian Sami Sourani explains:

Baghdad in the 19th century

During the Abbasid Empire, there were two caravan routes linking Baghdad to Europe. When  the Calif Harun Al-Rashid wanted to send a gift to Charlemagne, he sent it via a Jew named Ishaq the Jew. This man spoke European languages, learning them  as he managed  the caravan routes to Europe.

Benjamin of Tudela travelled from Spain to all countries in the Middle East that had a Jewish population. He visited Baghdad as the guest of a Jewish family. In his memoir, he described the Jews as very well -versed in the Torah. He  even drew up a table showing how many weavers, carpenters, saddlers, merchants, and shopkeepers it had. His trip took ten years and when he arrived back in Tudela he wrote his famous book The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela.

Five hundred years later, a rabbi from Ratisbon, Romania (real name Benzion Yisraeli)  set out  to follow  the itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. In Jewish history books, they nicknamed  him Benjamin the Second.

He arrived in Baghdad in the late 19th century. He was  the guest of a Jewish family called  Bet Al-Ghawwil. He was also hosted by the head of the only Yeshiva in Baghdad, Midrash Bet Zilkha. The head of this Yeshiva was the late Haham Abdullah Sasson Somekh. Yisraeli was impressed by the Jews' knowledge of Torah and other Judaic subjects. He asked many questions and documented the  answers in his memoir. For one question he did not get any answer: "Why did the Jews of Baghdad arrange the marriages of their daughters at a very early age?"

Owing to the distance and risks,  few European Jews came to Baghdad and settled there. Let me mention the few who did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

* Mr. Ishaq Lanyado, a watchmaker who came from Italy and was instrumental in convincing the Baghdadi Jews to have an Alliance Israelite School.

* Mr. Herman Rosenfeld came fro Austria. He had one son, an engineer, and another, a physician. 

* Dr. Samuel Adato  came from Salonica in Greece. He was a dedicated physician whom the Jews loved dearly.

* Dr. Kich, a physician from Hungary. He left after a few years.

* Dr. Robertchuk, an eye doctor from Czechoslovakia who stayed in Baghdad for several years. He married a local Jewish woman.

*Mr. Saphir from Romania,  a businessman. He settled in Baghdad and married a local Jewish woman.

* Mr. Bonfate from Algeria came to be the administrator of the Alliance school.

*Dr. Max Grobach, a physician, came from Germany and settled in Baghdad together with his wife. He died in 1947 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Baghdad.

* Dr. Max Makovitsky, a physician from Latvia came to Baghdad in WWI. He served with the Russian army. After the revolution, he escaped to Baghdad with his wife. He was the most successful medical doctor. He became an expert in  the diseases of Iraq and he was appointed to be the private physician of the King and the royal family.

He used his contacts to secretly help the Iraqi Jews. When the then Iraqi government wanted to put all the Jews in a concentration camp in 1947/48, he went to the Regent and  persuaded him not to  follow such a policy. The Regent accepted his advice.

This doctor loved to collect antique Persian carpets, woven in silk with pictures that tell a story. He had a large number of them in his mansion.

After the revolution of 1958 and the massacre of the king and royal family, he was afraid for his life. He fled to Switzerland with his wife, leaving a mansion full of treasures. After living in Switzerland for almost three months, his wife and himself died. They had no children. He is a man that deserves true respect.

The Ashkenazim who came to the Levant

More from and about Sami Sourani

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Monitoring responses to 'philosemitic' Ramadan TV series

The fallout contnues from two Saudi-financed  TV series being screened over Ramadan this year: Umm Haroun and Exit 7. Both series have attracted controversy for allegedly portraying Jews  too sympathetically (although one Point of No Return reader tells us that some characters in Umm Haroun, for example the Rabbi David, are callous and miserly). Both series represent a positive step in the right direction. They acknowledge that Arab states had Jewish communities and unfairly persecuted them. The Jews supposedly did not deserve such treatment as they  are viewed as a religious community without political rights. (With thanks Lily; Olivia; Yoni)

The characters in the comedy series Exit 7

The second  controversial Saudi series, MEMRI reports,  is the comedy Makhraj 7 ("Exit 7"), written by liberal journalist Khalaf Al-Harbi and starring famous actor Nasser Al-Qasabi, which deals with Saudi society. In one episode of the series, two of the characters discuss the issue of relations with Israel. One of them says that Israel is not an enemy and advocates holding business ties with Israelis, while stating that it is the Palestinians, who have received extensive Saudi aid over the years, that have actually harmed the Saudi kingdom.

MEMRI has been monitoring the reactions of Arab journalists:

The general director of the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV and Al-Hadath TV, Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on April 30, 2020, under the headline "The Arab Jews and the Toxic Propaganda,"that viewers' negative reactions to the Umm Haroun series have once again exposed the anti-Jewish propaganda and religious hatred that Arab leaders and the movements of political Islam spread in the Arab countries, damaging the social fabric in those countries."

 Saudi journalist Hussein Shubakshi praised Umm Haroun's courage in tackling a sensitive topic that had not previously been discussed – the Jews in Arab countries and the racism and persecution they faced. He wrote:

"The series is courageous in that it dares to raise an issue that corresponds to two very complex topics. The first of these is general and is connected to an ongoing problem, and it is coexistence with the other, with those who are different, with accepting them, and with dealing with the racism and aggression [towards them]. The second topic is the history of the Jewish presence in the Arab world in general, and in the Arab Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula in particular... "These communities... whose members were citizens of these countries, were blamed for the establishment of the State of Israel on the land of Palestine and became an easy target for aggression and violence. The discourse of hatred increased until the Arab countries were emptied of their Jewish citizens...

Read report in full

CAMERA Arabic praises a journalist called As Sa'eed  for his positive attitude towards Umm Haroun, but lambasts him for inventing a fantasy of Jews 'leading an ordinary life' in Arab countries where there are none: 

 As Sa'eed's article from April 29th, 2020 has a favorable tone towards the Jews of the Middle East, defending a Ramadan television series, “Um Haroun”, which features a Jewish protagonist from one of the Gulf States in the 1940s (her character is inspired by the true story of a Bahraini Jewish midwife named “Um Jan”).

 The series triggered vast online protests in the Arab world.  The article, however, claimed that boycotting it due to alleged “normalization” is unjustifiable since it has no connection to Israel.

 “The allegations of propagating ‘the Israeli enemy’ came about at a time when [it was already clear that] the series does not feature or include Israelis, neither do they write nor direct it. Additionally, the story’s events were not about Israel at all, but rather about Arab Jews in Arab countries, who lived and participated in the artistic, cultural and social life in their countries.”

Alas, after the truly brave description of the past, came the jaw-dropping leap into the present:

Many of them still live in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, even in Iran and Turkey, having an ordinary life, freely practicing their rituals and engaging in various walks of life. "

With the exception of Morocco and non-Arab Iran and Turkey, where several thousand Jews still live today, in none of these countries which As-Sa’eed mentioned do “many Jews still live […] an ordinary life”.  

Read article in full

Ramadan TV series with Jewish heroine sparks outrage

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Why US Jews should do more to recall Elghanian's death

Forty-one years to the day, Jewish businessman Habib Elghanian was repaid for his generosity  to Iran's Ayatollahs with his execution on false spying charges. The execution sent ripples of terror through the Iranian Jewish community, most of whom fled into exile. But the US Jewish community has not done enough to honour the memory of an Iranian patriot and to call the regime to account, argues Karmel Melamed in The Forward:

An Iranian newspaper screaming news of Elghanian's execution

"In 1967, when the Islamic clerics of Tehran were in the middle of constructing their new and grand Hossieneh Ershad mosque in the heart of the city, their funds for the project dried up. They turned to individual Muslim business leaders and observant Islamic individuals for financial help to complete the grand mosque after work on it came to an abrupt halt.

But none of the sources were able to provide the needed funds to restart work on the mosque. So the clerics turned to a last option — Habib Elghanian, Iran’s most affluent businessman who was also the leader of Iran’s Jewish community, 80,000 strong at the time. 

Without blinking an eye, Elghanian donated 250,000 rials to the Ershad mosque completion project, and encouraged other Jewish businessmen in Tehran to donate as well. And roughly 12 years later, those same Iranian clerics who Elghanian had helped thanked him by remaining silent as the radical Islamic thugs of the new Khomeini regime executed Elghanian on false charges of spying for America and Israel. 

On May 9, 1979, after a sham, 20-minute trial, Elghanian was executed with a bullet to the heart by Iran’s Islamic revolutionary thugs. On May 9 of this year, the Iranian Jewish communities living in New York and Southern California will again be mourning the loss of Habib Elghanian, our leader.

 It is a tragedy whose wounds have still not healed, even after 41 years. In 1979, Iran’s Jews were not only emotionally devastated by Elghanian’z killing; they quickly discovered their lives were at risk under the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime."

  Read article in full

Jenny K has an interesting Twitter thread and photos

More about Habib Elghanian

Friday, May 08, 2020

Israeli parliamentarians call for US to return Iraqi archive to Israel

In the light of the US State Department's intention to return the Iraqi-Jewish Archive to Iraq, two Members of the Israeli Parliament have written to the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, demanding that the Iraqi-Jewish archive be sent to Israel, the Israeli medium Hidabroot reports.  The US appears bound by a law passed in 2008 to return cultural property to its country of origin, even if that property was taken from a persecuted minority.

Ambassador David Friedman

In their letter, Moshe Arbel and Yinon Azoulay expressed concern about the intention to return him to the Iraqi government. According to them, the time has come for him to return to the heirs of the Iraqi Jewish community in Israel and to the State of Israel: "This is the only way to do justice to the archive and its legal owners."

"Moreover," the two added, "the transfer of materials to the Iraqi government would jeopardize its very existence and limit its access to scholars. We urge you to protect our heritage and history and protect the Jewish archive."

Read article in full (Hebrew)