Monday, November 30, 2020

Israel puts on online musical spectacle for 30 November

Three ministries in the Israeli government have united to organise a two-hour global online event on 30 November, the day to remember the exodus of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran. Communities all over the world are marking this day with special events. All are online this year owing to the global pandemic. The 30 November, being the anniversary of the outbreak of riots in the Arab world the day after the UN Partition plan was passed, was designated as the annual date in the calendar by a Knesset law approved in 2014.

The accent will be on honouring the contribution of Eastern Jewry to the establishment and prosperity of the state of Israel. 

 A spectacular one-time musical show will take place in the heart of Jerusalem. It aims to share the story of communities which fled Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Iran. 

The star-studded line-up of singers and musicians with Sephardi/ Mizrahi roots includes Sarit Haddad and the band Subliminal.

Sarit Haddad

There will be 10 Hebrew-language community rooms. Three international ZOOM rooms, in English, French and Arabic, will open up half-an-hour before the show at 5:30 Israel time.

There is still time to register for the event.

Register at this link to receive the Zoom details.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Mass Kaddish started with Miss Baghdad, 1947

Update: 15,000 institutions and individuals signed up to the Mass Kaddish this year, a record.

This weekend, many synagogues around the world will be reciting kaddish for Jews  buried in inaccessible cemeteries in Arab lands. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Ashley Perry describes how the initiative was born, and its unlikely link with a 1947 beauty queen:


Jewish cemetery, Sadr city, Baghdad

Many will remember how in 2017 Miss Iraq Sarah Idan was forced out of her country after sharing a photograph on social media of her posing at that year’s Miss Universe contest in Las Vegas with Israel’s representative. Idan was ostracized in her country but became an international cause célèbre, invited to speak by many Jewish and Zionist organizations, including at the United Nations.

 However, this unique turn of events had many other ramifications that could not be foreseen. As a result of this episode, the person (whose name cannot be published due to death threats) who ran the Miss Iraq contest lost their government funding and sponsorships and went looking for other sources of revenue. He learned that the first-ever Miss Iraq was a Jewish woman named Renée Dangoor, who was crowned in 1947 in Baghdad, and her son, David Dangoor, is a prominent philanthropist and businessman living in London. 

Reaching out to the global Jewish Iraqi community around the Diaspora looking for Renée’s son, the pageant owner stumbled upon Sass Peress, an Iraqi Jew who lives in Montreal and a relative of Dangoor’s. Peress agreed to help but asked him for a favor in return for the contact. Peress asked if he knew a certain cemetery in Baghdad where his paternal grandfather was buried, although lacking the exact location. 

Within 72 hours, Peress was sent a picture of his grandfather’s grave in Sadr City. When he saw that the grave and others in the cemetery were in such dire condition, he asked the Iraqi to record for posterity as many of the names on other graves as possible. Then came the sad realization that Peress would probably never be able to stand over his ancestors’ graves and recite the mourners’ Kaddish. 

Not just him, but few of the almost one million Jews, and their descendants, who fled or were pushed out of Arab countries during the last century would be able to visit or tend to their family’s graves. Peress decided that he would organize a few local synagogues to say a mass Kaddish prayer on the Shabbat closest to November 30, which due to a law passed in the Knesset in 2014, is officially the Day of Commemoration to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran.

 He found that many Jews from the Middle East and North Africa had similar stories to his – and worse – with many cemeteries in the region either completely destroyed or in a high level of neglect and disrepair.

Mass kaddish will  honour Jews buried in Arab lands

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Actor outrages Egyptian audience by posing with Israeli

A sad reminder that a peace agreement does not necessarily mean an end to popular hostility and ostracism. The victim here is Egyptian actor Mohamed Ramadan, who found himself under fire for taking a photo with Israeli singer Omer Adam in the United Arab Emirates. The Times of Israel reports: 

Egyptian actor Mohamed Ramadan with his arm around Israeli singer Omer Adam

Egyptian actor Mohamed Ramadan came under fire over the weekend after an Emirati journalist posted a photo of the star embracing Israeli singer Omer Adam during a trip to the United Arab Emirates. 

 The picture gained further traction when it was retweeted by the State of Israel’s Arabic Twitter account under the caption “Art brings us together".

According to reports, the photo was initially posted by Emirati journalist Hamad Al Mazrouei on his Twitter account, captioning the shot: “The most famous artist in Egypt with the most famous artist in Israel, Dubai brings us together.” 

 However he later deleted the picture as outrage grew.

Nervana Mahmoud in al-Hurra (Elder of Ziyon)

Friday, November 27, 2020

Extraordinary tale of the 'German' doctor of Beirut

It is well known that Beirut had a small population of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th century. One such family was the Rosenthals. How and why they ended up in Lebanon remains a mystery, writes Dr Daniel Rosenthal. He himself was known as the 'German' doctor treating prisoners and illegal immigrants in Beirut's roughest districts.  He now lives in the USA :(with thanks: Nagi Gergi Zeidan)

I was born on 2 July 1935 at the "Hôpital de la communauté Israelite d'Alexandrie" in Egypt. I was delivered by a midwife, Mme Kroushkin, one year before Fārūq the First became Egypt's king.

 I spent seven years in Beirut(1953-1960), the duration of the French Medical Curriculum. I spent the last four years of my training as an intern in various hospitals including a year at the (government-run) Quarantina Hospital, situated near the Beirut slaughter houses ( )في المسالخ ). Taxis from the "Place des Cannons" refused to drive there after 9-10 pm. 

 It was 1958 and a civil war was raging in Beirut. Camille Chamoun was the President and the Muslim population wanted him out. The US Marines landed in Beirut. 

 At the Quarantina Hospital I was known as the Hakim al-Almani. They never mentioned that I was a Jew! Working for the government I also handled medical problems at the Beirut prisons (Habs El Qal'a and Habs el Raml) when the doctors assigned to said prisons refused to go there fearing for their lives. 

It was left to the "German Doctor " to make the calls! I also had some great moments dealing and treating "Arabs" living in the ghettos surrounding the hospital. Most worked in the slaughter house and were illegals in Lebanon. The Beirut police, incidentally, never entered the ghettos. 

 When I arrived in Beirut in 1953 to start medical school the following aunts were there to greet me: Rebecca married to Nessim Tayar, a very well-to-do grain merchant whose partner was the Muslim Sinno family. Nessim Tayar wa born in Tetuan, then Spanish Morocco, hence his Spanish nationality and close friendship with Signor Sidi Y Del Burgo, chancellor of the Spanish Embassy in Beirut. ( How a Sephardic Jew got that position and kept it, in spite of the Lebanese authorities' objections, is another, great, story). 

 My aunt Rachel was married to Shlomo Krouk who came from Poland. He had a small but very well-stocked food store in Bab Idriss. He had another small 'workshop' where he made wonderful butter, cream and other dairy products. My aunt Liza, who suffered from a severe neurological problem yet possessed the clearest and most penetrating intellect, lived with Rebecca. My aunt Betty already lived in Israel, and so did uncle Joseph. 

 How did the Rosenthals end up in Beirut? While most of their story is verifiable, some of it, I think, belongs to the realm of family legend. My father claimed he was born in Safed in Galilee (northern Palestine) at a time when the Holy Land was politically no more than a sleepy, poor, dry and dusty little parcel of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. He was born on Monday 13 Sivan 5650 (15 February 1890). His Hebrew name was Lev ('heart'); in the world at large he was called Leon. 

 His father Asher Rosenthal was a bookbinder, He was the first of eight children born to his mother Sarah (nee Leibowits). What brought the Rosenthal family to Galilee is a mystery. Where they came from is another one. Rosenthal is a German surname, but I have met Rumanian, Russian, Polish and Austrian Rosenthals. 

 One thing I am quite sure about is that somewhere between the Rhine and the Volga a Yid surnamed Rosenthal decided to go to Eretz Israel for better or for worse. He probably did so in the mid 1800s. Why did I pick that time frame? Because in Safed, Asher’s father Yehuda and his grandfather Joshua are buried in the old cemetery: the line seems to stop there. 

 Family lore tells that Joshua was a learned man, a rabbi. Did he go to Safed to be with Rabbi Isaac Luria 's latter-day disciples and walk out in the fields on Friday evening to welcome the Sabbath bride, or was he simply reluctant to remain the victim of the anti-Semitism that pervaded Europe in the 1850s? 

 My grandfather's mother was Hanna Mendel, and that is all I know about her. My father's mother Sarah Leibowits was born in Balta in the Ukraine near the Moldavian border, a city visited by a vicious pogrom in 1882 where over 1200 Jews were slaughtered. The Jewish Encyclopedia (Keter, ed. 1971) teaches that after the atrocity Balta became a center of Zionist activity. Could it be that Sarah escaped the massacre and her and her family went to Palestine to escape further pogroms? How, why, and when did Sarah go to Safed and ultimately marry my grandfather? It's a mystery. Sarah died in Beirut, Lebanon of influenza during the great epidemic of 1918. 

 How did the Safed Rosenthals end up in Beirut? The story goes that by the turn of the century, Palestine, a backwater province of the Ottoman Empire, probably had little need for bookbinders. My grandfather and his family were, according to reliable sources, close to starvation, when rumors reached Safed that a mighty new American school had just moved from Damascus to Beirut. 

The American University of Beirut, formerly the Protestant Mission to the Near East.

The next thing I know, my grandfather is working as a bookbinder in Beirut for the "Protestant Mission to the Near East". That Mission, later to become the American University of Beirut, was originally located in Damascus, Syria. Missionary efforts to convert the local Muslim population met not only with poor results but also with overt hostility from the authorities and the local sheikhs. 

The Mission wisely transferred its activity to Beirut. There, in spite of the fact that Lebanon was also under Turkish Muslim rule, the Ottomans left the Americans do their thing, provided that they stayed away from the true believers and devoted their energy to making better Christians of the Greeks, Melkites, Assyrians, Armenians, Maronites, Catholics, etc. 

 Needless to say the Mission found strong political and some doctrinal opposition from all the well-entrenched Christian sects, but the Americans handled them with ease. All it took is probably some baksheesh to the Wali (Turkish local ruler) and his minions. They could not care less whether the potential "better Christians" ultimately believed in predestination, double predestination, or anything else for that matter, as long as they all accepted their Dhimmi ( non Muslim “submitted” people) status and paid their taxes. 

 Around 1904, my grandfather, fearful that his oldest son Leon would be forcibly drafted by the Turks to go and  fight  the infidels in some forsaken corner of the Empire, gave him two gold pieces, bid him goodbye, and arranged his semi-clandestine departure on a boat carrying melons destined for Alexandria, Egypt. 

 After a short stopover in Jaffa, my father landed in Egypt and went to live in Alexandria with his uncle Joseph Rosenthal who was already an established "downtown "jeweler. It is somewhat unclear to this day whether Uncle Joseph was truly an uncle, or in fact an older cousin deferentially called uncle. 

 How, why, when and from where did Joseph arrive in Egypt is a mystery to me. One important fact is that Egypt since 1882 was under British control and for many Jews and Middle Eastern Christians escaping Turkish rule, Egypt was a safe haven. My father went to work as a clerk in a general store owned by a burly old Russian who revered the Czar, despised Jews and appreciated vodka.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Ethnic cleansing of Jews was egregious rejectionism

As the day to remember the exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries approaches (30 November) James Sinkinson writes  in Israel National News that the ethnic cleansing has to be acknowledged (with thanks: Imre, Yoram):

The crux of this conflict—and the reluctance of media and international bodies to address it—has always been about recognizing the Jews as a nation who reconstituted national sovereignty in their indigenous and ancestral homeland. 

The attacks and ethnic cleansing of Jews in Arab countries was one of the most egregious examples of the violent rejectionism of Jewish human rights by Arab leaders. While some measures—like the Clinton Parameters, guidelines for an end to the conflict presented by then-President Bill Clinton in 2000—did refer to an international fund for both Arab and Jewish refugees displaced by the conflict, the issue remains on the sidelines.

 Ideas such as an international compensation fund, or one funded by Arab countries that expelled the Jews, or the proposal for one refugee crisis to annul the other, have all been raised at one point or another.

Regardless, in order for the Israel-Arab conflict—including the Israel-Palestinian conflict—to be resolved, the crime of ethnic cleansing of Jews has to be acknowledged. Then generous redress must be demanded and granted. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The inexorable triumph of 'ethnic simplification'

In the week in which the flight of Jews from Arab countries is being remembered, the term 'ethnic simplification' springs to mind. It's an ongoing process that has included massacres, discrimination and national homogenisation following the dissolution of empires. Lyn Julius writes in JNS News: 

Jewish refugees from Yemen in a ma'abara in Israel

Earlier this year, a Jewish man, Saad al-Nati, his disabled mother and three daughters were forced to leave their home in Amran province, Yemen. The family had been harassed by the fundamentalist, Iranian-backed Houthis whose slogan is 'convert or die'.  Saeed was jailed  but was released after promising to sell his home. He was offered asylum by the United Arab Emirates, which was about to sign a peace deal with Israel.

The departure of the Al-Nati family leaves just five Jews  - an old woman, her crazed brother and three others - in Amran province. There are 33 Jews still living in the capital San'aa. 

The  cleansing of Yemen of its Jews is almost complete, from a population of 55,000 we now have 38. This pattern has been repeated across the Middle East and North Africa . Of almost one million Jews  in the Arab world in 1948, barely 4,000 remain.

This month has been declared Mizrahi Remembrance Month. The initiative comes not a minute too soon to recall the exodus of 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Arab world in barely a generation. The expulsion of the Jews is seen increasingly in the context of the plight of other MENA minorities - Copts, Assyrian and Palestinian Christians, Bahai's and Yazidis, persecuted or driven from the region.

What is the solution?  Greater education? Enshrining minority rights into a country's constitution? 

Even if the comparison is not made as often as it shoud be, the Arab-Israeli conflict produced an exchange of populations between Jews and Palestinians not dissimilar to the exchanges produced by other 20th century conflicts.The Indo-Pakistan conflict displaced 14 million Muslim and Hindus.  In the post -WWI Greek-Turkish conflict one-and a half million Greeks and half a million Muslims swapped places.

These exchanges were part of a process that the American social and political theorist Jeff Weintraub calls 'ethnic simplification'. 

This a hugely euphemistic term for what has included massacre (eg Armenians and Assyrians by Turks)  discrimination (Christians and other religious minorities are ground down to the extent that they have no choice but to flee), the redrawing of boundaries and a process of national homogenisation following the dissolution of empires:  the Austro-Hungarian empire no less than the Ottoman empire. Thus Poland has divested itself of 30 percent of its non-Poles - Germans, Jews, Russians. Now  97 percent of the country is Polish and Catholic.

In 1900 the Ottoman port of Smyrna (Izmir) hosted a motley population of Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Today the city is 100 percent Turkish.

Nowhere is 'ethnic simplification' more pervasive than in the Middle East. The Christian population continues to shrink, while tribal and religious strife has ravaged countries like Syria and Iraq.

Some people look wistfully back to the 'coexistence' prevalent in the Ottoman empire. Weintraub calls  Ottoman coexistence  'despotic multiculturalism'.

But the system, says Weintraub, is built on a protection racket: minorities are forced to pay for protection, while the ruler holds the ring between different sects. Sometimes the ruler throws a minority to the wolves.The system is difficult to maintain in the face of mass mobilisation movements.When it breaks down, a minority finds itself without rights and vulnerable to other groups, usually motivated by fear,  who act violently towards it. 

Ethnic nationalism, ironically founded in the Arab world by Christians, was a movement intended to cut across religious and sectarian lines and build loyalty to an over-arching identity. But it failed and has been replaced by forms of theocracy.

To protect minorities it is not enough to enshrine their rights in a constitution. It is not enough to educate succeeding generations. Both of these are important, but not as important as what Weintraub terms 'a culture of democratic pluralism'. 

It is difficult to see how such a culture might emerge in the Middle East in the near future. The UAE is taking baby steps towards liberalisation and de-Islamisation. But for the Jews of Yemen, it will be too late.

Read article in full


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Yisrael Yeshayahu, an architect of the Wings of Eagles airlift

If it were not for Yisrael Yeshayahu, Jews from Yemen' and Aden' might never have been airlifted to Israel, or might have arrived much later and in smaller numbers. Yeshayahu, who later became speaker of the Knesset, put constant pressure on the Histadrut (the Israel trade union federation) and Mapai ( Labour party). Sephardi Ideas Monthly showcases research by Daniel Gladstone into Yeshayahu's contribution: 

Yeshayahu plants a tree outside the Knesset building in 1976

Yemen today is in tatters, torn asunder by war and famine. The Yemen in which Yesh’ayahu came of age was comparatively stable and ruled by a single ruler: the Zaydi Imam Yahya.

 Yahya reinstated the dreaded “Orphans Decree,” which permitted the kidnapping and forcible conversion to Islam of any minor Jews whose fathers had passed away. While the decree was only sporadically enforced, it loomed ominously over the entire community. Yesh’ayahu helped to smuggle Jewish children out of the country to protect them from forced conversion. 

 In 1929, Yesh’ayahu made ‘aliyah, arriving in a Land of Israel that was still under British dominion. He rose to a place of significance in the Histadrut, the union that, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, was one of the most important institutions of pre-state Zionist society.

 His initial achievement, however, was due in large part to the more grassroots, radical activism of the Yemeni Union, a Yemeni lobby first established in 1920 with which Yesh’ayahu briefly affiliated before he became one of its leading opponents. The Yemeni Union competed with the Histadrut for Yemeni Jewish membership, charging the leading institutions of the Yishuv with neglecting and discriminating against Yemeni Jews.

 The Histadrut responded by tapping Yesh’ayahu to lead its Department for Sephardim and Yemenis, established primarily to compete with and discredit the Yemeni Union. Indeed, Yesh’ayahu campaigned fiercely against the Yemeni Union and against Zachariah Gluska, who represented the Union in Israel's first Knesset (parliament) in 1948, although Yesh’ayahu later mourned Gluska’s passing.

 The two men were enemies, and Gluska surely considered Yesh’ayahu a traitor to Yemeni Jews. But Yesh’ayahu may have known that, ultimately, any good that he was able to do—for the Yemeni Jewish community and for Israel—would never have been possible if not for the Yemeni Union’s demands for radical change.

Monday, November 23, 2020

California schools to teach about Middle Eastern Jews

JIMENA has won its campaign to revise the California State board's ethnic studies curriculum  to include a lesson on Middle Eastern Jews. 

California's model school curriculum will be revised to contain a lesson on Middle Eastern Jews. 

The decision was made by the California State Board of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) at its November 19th meeting. 

The revision represents a victory for the California-based advocacy group JIMENA, which has been lobbying hard for Middle Eastern Jews to be included. 

Some 10,000 people called on the school board to incorporate its lesson plan, “Antisemitism and Jewish Middle Eastern-Americans."

That lesson adds Jewish Americans from the Middle East, a large and vital part of California’s diverse ethnic composition, to the State’s new Ethnic Studies framework. 

 JIMENA released the following statement: "JIMENA strongly supports the revisions made to the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) recommendations the California State Board of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) approved at its November 19th meeting. Now the IQC will be handing the State Board of Education an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum draft that is balanced and inclusive, as legislators intended when passing AB 2016, the groundbreaking legislation that spurred the creation of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum." 

 At least 60 percent of California’s diverse MENA population were in danger of being excluded from the curriculum. 

 “We are so deeply grateful that the lived experiences of so many minorities, including American Jews from the Middle East, are one very important step closer to being taught in California’s classrooms,” JIMENA Executive Director Sarah Levin said. 

 She hoped the revised curriculum would help combat antisemitism. Jews comprise just two percent of the population but are the target of 60 percent of religious-based hate crimes, according to 2019 FBI statistics. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

How Ashkenazim and Sephardim mixed in the Old Yishuv

There was a surprising degree of intermarriage between the orthodox Ashkenazi and Old Yishuv communities living in 18th century Palestine. They were both small, poor and relied on the munificence of the Sephardi community of Istanbul. Fascinating article in Jewish Link by Joel Davidi Weisberger:

Two Ashkenazim and a Sephardi in the Old Yishuv

By the mid 18th century, separate communities of Ashkenazim and Sephardim developed in various parts of the Land of Israel. While there had been various Jewish communities in the Holy Land since the destruction of the Temple, the Sephardic community of the “Old Yishuv” owed its genesis to descendants of Spanish exiles who arrived in the years following the great expulsion in 1492. 

The Ashkenazim, on the other hand, arrived in several waves, the most well-known being the aliyah of the chasidic community on the one hand and those of the misnagdim—disciples of the Gaon of Vilna—on the other. The former began arriving in the mid 18th century while the latter came about a half century later The chasidim and perushim (as the misnagdim came to be known) formed their separate communities. 

Because of the very small size of both communities and the common challenges that they faced, it wasn’t long before there was a degree of intermixing (something unheard of back in Eastern Europe where the chasidic-misnagdic battles were still raging). Another interesting phenomenon is the slow and steady rate of intermingling between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. This was perhaps more evident among the chasidim (who as I mentioned in previous articles adopted a modified Sephardic rite based on the writings of the Arizal, who was himself of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic parentage).

Read article in full 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Albert Nissan remembers his mother the rebel

Widowed in 1952, Albert Nissan's mother Victoria remained in Iraq through the 1950s, witnessing the exodus of her nieces and nephews to Israel, and the crack-down on the Iraqi Communist party in the 1960s. But she was wise enough to use her connections, and brave enough to stand her ground against injustice and extortion.  Albert Nissan was deported from Iraq in 1970 but Victoria obtained a passport to leave the country legally. Her son looks back on her remarkable life:

Albert Nissan: deported from Iraq in 1970

Free thinker, independent, self confident, clear-headed with excellent social skills. That was my mother.

 The youngest of five sisters, she decided to pursue a career in teaching. She shed her abaya, changed her name to Victoria (hence the name Albert for her firstborn), applied to be a teacher and got her certification from The Teachers' Institute.

 She got assigned to a position in Khanekin, some 150 kilometers north-east of Baghdad. Mother insisted on going to her post while her friend Sit Simha resigned her post. Her family sent one of her nephews with her as chaperone. In Khanekin she registered her nephew in an Islamic school. But mother’s assignment did not last more than a few months as she was offered a job in the Alliance for Girls in Baghdad and quit her job in Khanekin. But not before her nephew received  praise for knowing more about Islam that the Muslims in school. 

  On Wings of Eagles 

Victoria was excited by the prophecy of Isaiah to the exiles of Babylon; that they would return to their land on wings of eagles. She saw the possibility of seeing the realisation of  the prophecy during her lifetime. She used to tell me that in more than two thousand years, Jews did not know how to interpret the prophecy until she saw Jews returning to Israel on (wings of) planes. 

She walked in pro-Zionist demonstrations and walked against anti-Zionist demonstrations. She told me that in the anti Zionist demonstrations she was shouting “Down with Arabism”. And together with my father, they bought land in Palestine. 

Sefer Berlik سفر بر 

Mother always whispered when she talked about her uncle not returning from the war in the Balkans. In 1912, Montenegro rebelled against the Ottomans. It was  later followed by other Balkan nations. Sefer Berlik was a “Call to Arms” by the Ottomans. Muslims in Iraq and the Levant had to join the army. Non-Muslims who did not want to go to war had to pay 40 gold Turkish pounds, a large sum in those days. Those who could not pay the Jizya, had to join the army, but many young Jews went into hiding. The Balkan war was a disaster and it showed the Turkish organizational deficiency. People say that when the Ottoman army arrived to a frozen lake, they received the order to cross without verifying if the ice could support the weight of the army and its mechanized equipment. The ice collapsed and a large part of the army drowned. 

There is an old song that goes like this: 
“The army of the Sultan 
Slept in the elements 
And drank salty water”

One can deduce that the Ottoman army was not equipped with adequate winter gear and there was a shortage of supplies. A large chunk of the army died from cold and malnutrition. It is said that only one to five percent came back from the war. The husband of my eldest aunt used to tell the story that when he saw the Turkish gendarmerie approaching, he jumped on his horse and fled towards Iran. He reached safety but his horse died under him.

  Nieces and Nephews 

When one of her sisters died leaving teenage kids, Victoria counselled them on their education and later arranged for some of them to get married. Her house was open for all her nephews and nieces and at age three and four, I still remember them in  my home. Suddenly they weren’t there, as they left  for Israel. 

More than two decades later,  there was constant celebration when she was with them and later, every time she visited Israel. Speaking to the Nissan young ladies, I wish that mother had lived to see you in adulthood because you have her tact, her clear-headedness and her approach in attaining goals.

Communist Purge 

In the early 1960s and following a coup d’état, there was a bloody purge of communists in Iraq. Those in power did not have a solid base. They armed their civilian party members and posted them around the capital and perhaps in other cities of Iraq too. Most of them were high school teens who went on the rampage collecting people under suspicion of being communists. And by the same token, the teens arrested young women and threw them in camps: cases of rape, pregnancies and suicides followed and were very common. The young women who were raped and pregnant were killed by their families to cleanse the family’s honour. 

And one day, people arrived at our home looking for Victoria the communist. Mother calmly told the group that she was staying in her own house. Then they started asking about the other Victoria. Little by little, with logic and tact, they were convinced that they should be looking somewhere else and left. 

Dealing with officers in positions of power

 In the mid 60s, someone arrived at our house, escorted by police, claiming that my brother “ Roubel” caused a car accident and killed a woman and heavily injured his brother. The man claimed his brother was dying in hospital and he was seeking justice for him. Now, Robin and Albert were both spoken of as "Roubel" in Iraqi slang. So we weren’t sure which person it was. But the claimant said that “Roubel” was heavy-set. 

In the police station, mother asked if the accuser could identify “Roubel” and he pointed to the only heavy-set guy. My mother wanted to see the dying brother and the police colonel asked the same question. The man changed his story and said his "dying" brother was coming to the police station. And suddenly the “dying” brother walks into the station without a scratch on him. And mother sarcastically asked the colonel if he thought that this guy was injured, And the case was dismissed. We believe that this was a scheme to extract money from a heavy-set young Jewish man who fitted the Muslim name “Roubel” and was spending money in nightclubs. The brothers hit on the wrong “Roubel”. 

  A lioness protecting her cubs 

 After our arrest ( in 1970 the author was detained for attempting to cross the northern border illegally - ed) mother wanted to monitor Lieutenant Muthanna*’s moves, as she mistrusted him. She started showering his warrant officer with gifts and money. And it paid off. The warrant officer told mother one day that Muthanna was sending a letter to all government deparments inquiring if I owed money to the government. A mean-spirited move intended to keep us for years in detention until all replies had come in. Upon hearing of Muthanna’s move, mother went above his head and complained to the chief. She was indignant, saying it was absurd if he believed that a “boy” in his early twenties owed money to the government. Muthanna was ordered to destroy the letter and expedite our paperwork so we would get out of Iraq. 

Social Skills Pay-off 

After our deportation, mother requested from one of many of her contacts, a Kurdish sheikh, to get my future wife Rosy over the border. Rosy was in Iran in less than two months after our deportation and preparing to leave for Holland via Israel. 

No Harm in Asking 

Soon after our deportation, mother applied for a passport in a time when the issuing of passports was practically unattainable. In her application she wrote that she did not want to stay in this country after her children had been deported. She wanted to leave “this country” and she would not be coming back. She endured ridicule and sarcasm for her act. She arrived to Holland in less than 12 months after our deportation.

 I see a lot of mother in her three granddaughters. Their tact, their social skills, analytical approach and business sense remind me of our mother. Mother lived 17 years after her arrival in Holland.

 I try never to miss the anniversary of her death where I go up to the sefer torah and sing the Haftarah to her. Her Haftarah could never be more appropriate. It talks about a woman whose husband died and left her with two boys (and one daughter).

* Lieutenant Muthanna was in charge of Jewish affairs at the Nationality and Passports office in Baghdad. He was a notorious antisemite, known for his humiliating treatment of Jews seeking his services.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Moroccan schools will teach Jewish history and culture

Another triumph for Andre Azoulay's strategy of making Jewish culture mainstream in Morocco. We hope that the version of Jewish history taught in public schools will be honest and not gloss over the more difficult times that Jews experienced throughout history - riots and forced conversions, for instance. The Forward reports: (with thanks: Danny)

Jewish history and culture will be included in the Arabic-language curriculum for Moroccan primary school students. 

 The decision, approved by Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, is an effort to “perpetuate the Judeo-Moroccan legacy as an integral part of the Moroccan identity,” according to a joint statement from the American Sephardi Federation and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Ensuring Moroccan students learn about the totality of their proud history of tolerance, including Morocco’s philo-Semitism, is an inoculation against extremism,” said the joint statement. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Bahrain ministers visit Israel

Update:Arab news reports falsely stated that al-Zayani’s sit-down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Tel Aviv, when it took place in Jerusalem. (Times of Israel - with thanks: Edna)

Two Bahraini ministers will today head the first official delegation from the Gulf kingdom to Israel. 
The Times of Israel reports (via HonestReporting): 

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani delivers a statement upon the arrival of a US-Israeli delegation in the Bahrain International Airport on October 18, 2020. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

During the visit, a trilateral meeting is slated to be held between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al- Zayani. Israeli officials are reportedly working to finalize an aviation agreement for direct flights between Tel Aviv and Manama so it can be signed at the meeting, and are also expected to discuss opening embassies and exchanging ambassadors.

 Earlier this week, the Israeli cabinet voted unanimously to ratify the “Joint Communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic, peaceful, and friendly relations” with the Kingdom of Bahrain, concluding a formal process that began roughly two months ago.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

How the Great Synagogue of Tunis came to be built

It is a handsome Art Deco building, a landmark in the city of Tunis. How did the Great Synagogue come to be built? Here is an extract from a fascinating  Facebook post at Musee juif deTunis by Freddy G:

The Great Synagogue of Tunis  is the main synagogue in the Tunisian capital. It is located at number 36,Avenue de la Liberté in the centre of Tunis, in the Lafayette district, not far from the 'Republique' Metro sation ′′ and the Habib-Thameur garden. 

The initiative for  its construction came from Baron Giacomo Di Castcelnuovo. The building was intended to replace the synagogue in the Jewish district of the Hara. Castelnuovo was a  doctor, explorer and diplomat from the Grana community. He  wanted a common place of worship uniting the  Grana and Twensa, the two branches of Tunisian Jewry.

 In the 1870 s, he reclaimed a plot that had been offered to  Sadok Bey  in 1832. However, the current site was  donated by Daniel Iffla Osiris, who wanted  his architect to build on land provided by the community, in order to comply with all usual permits and regulations.

Upon his death in 1907, Osiris bequeathed his fortune to the Pasteur Institute. They were  forced by his will to acquire  land unsuitable for building  in Garibaldi square. This was re-sold and replaced with  the site  at number 100 of Avenue de Paris, currently avenue de la Liberté. 

 A first Romano-Byzantine project for the dome was presented on March 31, 1909, but the high cost and lack of  enthusiasm scuppered the project; it was soon replaced by a new version after an architectural  competition  in 1911.

The jury unanimously retained the services of a  young architect, Victor Valensi, combining oriental shapes and structures and materials like concrete. The dome was begun  in June 1933; it was inaugurated on December 23, 1937. 

During the occupation of Tunisia by the Axis forces, from November 1942 to March 1943, the building was occupied by the German soldiers who came to arrest community leaders. In 1967, in the context of the Six-Day War, the synagogue  was ransacked by rioters. Restored in 1996 and then in 2007, after intervention by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it is guarded by the municipal police and sometimes is open to visitors though services are rare.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Mass Kaddish will show religious solidarity for exodus

Synagogues, communities and individuals are being urged to recite the memorial prayers or Kaddish for Jews buried in inaccessible Arab lands. The Kaddish is necessary in order to show religious solidarity for the exodus, writes David A Dangoor in JNS News:

Whole communities of almost 1 million Jews, living in these areas for millennia, were emptied within a few short decades, with very little left of their presence or existence. Thanks to organizations like Diarna, The Geo-Museum of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Life, many of us can see our former homes and communities, albeit virtually. 

 The few who manage to see them in person, such as like Libyan Jewish exile David Gerbi, risk life and limb. Gerbi returned to see his family’s synagogue in Tripoli 44 years after they fled, and almost paid with his life. 

David Gerbi praying in the Dar al-Bishi synagogue in Tripoli before he was thrown out of Libya (Photo: Reuters)

While there briefly to clean up the prayer hall and say a few prayers, angry crowds formed around him. They told me that if I am not leaving now, they are going to come and they are going to kill me because they don’t want Jews here,” said Gerbi, who was then whisked away by hired security guards. 

 This is the sad reality for many of us, although we have hope that the Abraham Accords could usher in a new era of rapprochement between Jews and Arabs in the region. Nonetheless, before we are able to push these issues with our neighbors, there needs to be greater understanding, awareness and displays of solidarity within the Jewish world. 

 For many years, the history and exodus of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa were barely recognized or remembered by Jewish institutions, synagogues, schools and organizations in Israel and around the world. 

While the majority of Jews in Israel and around 1 million Jews in the Diaspora are from the Middle East and North Africa, there needs to be a greater sense of awareness of the history, culture and tradition of these communities. 

 Unlike the case of other Jewish tragedies, there is no communal showing of religious solidarity for the exodus and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries. It is vital, thus, that this be a widely recognized initiative to say these prayers annually in synagogues and Jewish institutions in Israel and around the world. 

Even in communities where there are few Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, these prayers and a display of religious solidarity are vital for breaking down the barriers between our different communities.

To sign up and download the prayer, please go to

Sunday, November 15, 2020

UAE to overhaul Islamic personal laws

Islam will no longer govern some aspects of personal law in the UAE. This development could begin a sea change, making the Gulf a more tolerant place for westerners and the fledgling Jewish minority. Times Now digital reports:

The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) move to overhaul its Islamic personal laws is part of a larger trajectory of the Middle Eastern country that is seeking to become more liberal and attract more Western tourists and businesses. 

Small Emirati boy walking among flags (Photo: AP)

 The weekend announcements to expand personal freedoms will loosen restrictions on alcohol consumption, allow unmarried couple to live together and criminalise “honour killings”. The implementation of such laws has triggered controversies in the past in a country where a vast majority of residents are expats. According to the UAE’s government-controlled news agency, the reforms will “consolidate the UAE’s principles of tolerance” and bolster its social and economic image. 

 Penalties for consuming alcohol and its sale and possession for those above the age of 21 have been done away with. Though alcohol was available in clubs and bars, there were several restrictions governing its transport, purchase and storage at home. 

 “Cohabitation of unmarried couples” will no longer be a crime. Attempt to suicide has been decriminalised. Also, the notorious set of tribal custom laws governing so-called “honour crimes” will be scrapped in a step to enhance women’s rights. Under the existing laws, a male relative who assaulted a woman could escape prosecution if she was deemed to have brought ‘dishonour’ to the family. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Three remarkable Moroccan-Jewish women scientists

Jewish women of Moroccan origin were pioneers in  medicine and biological sciences. Omer Keinan profiles three prominent scientists on his Facebook page (with thanks: Judith):

From left to right: Bendahan, Benoliel, Besaude

It is important to remember that to-date the only Nobel Prize Venezuela has received was awarded to  a Jew of Moroccan origin, Baruch Ben Asraf. Dr. Sarah (Rosa) Bendahan was the first woman in Venezuela to graduate in medical studies. Bendahan was born in 1906 to a couple of immigrants from Morocco. At that time, remember, women couldn't even vote in the vast majority of countries of the world. Academic studies for women looked like a distant fantasy. 

Bendahan started studying in 1924  at the Central University of Venezuela. Due to health and family issues, she had to stop her studies after the third year. Bendahan, determined to continue, did not give up and returned to the school bench to complete medical studies. 

In 1939, she graduated, receiving a PhD degree in medicine, thereby becoming the first woman in the country to be a doctor. Moreover, Dr. Ben Dahan's schoolmates appointed her to be the spokesperson for the graduation ceremony. There she gave a great speech to the  adoring crowd. Dr. Bendahan broke the glass ceiling, and paved the way for thousands more doctors women in Venezuela. See Wikipedia link. 

Another Venezuelan Jew of Moroccan origin, Prof. Baruch Ben Asraf, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for 1980. His brother is the philosopher Prof. Paul Ben Asraf And as far as I know, the rest of the family continues until today to make an impact  in the academy, medicine, science and more. 

 Dr. Sarah Benoliel  was  the first paediatrician in Portugal. Benoliel was born in Brazil in 1898. At the time of her birth her family migrated to Portugal. At the age of 7 she contracted polio, from which she never recovered. Her illness was apparently her motive to be a paediatrician. In 1925 Benoliel graduated in medical studies at the University of Lisbon and received a PhD degree in medicine. Later, she took courses in Germany, Austria and France. Not only was Dr. Benoliel  the first paediatrician in Portugal, but she was also among the specialists in the field in her time. Her most important studies in the field contributed much to the development of paediatric medicine when infant mortality was rather high in Portugal. See Wikipedia link  

Prof. Mathilde Bensaude  was the world's leading researcher in her time in the field of plant diseases. Ben Saouda was born in 1890 in Lisbon, Portugal. She was the daughter of Dr. Alfredo Bensaude, and granddaughter of Prof. Juza Bensaude (Note: a whole book can be written on him). 

Bensaude graduated with a  PhD from the  Sorbonne, Paris in 1916, and then studied at Lausanne University in Switzerland. In 1918, her work  began to be published in herbal medicine. And with the passing of the years she became a world pioneer in the field. 

One cannot begin to appreciate the contribution of Professor Bensaude. Prof. Bensaude is now defined as ′ one of the founders of biological  sciences in Portugal' and she won the above degree with great diligence. Wikipedia link

Thursday, November 12, 2020

In Bahrain I was a privileged but silent Jew

Gayle Meyers was posted by the Pentagon to Bahrain. She felt safe and privileged. If she had revealed her Jewishness, she now reflects that it would have caused nothing more than a moment of uncomfortable silence.  She never thought she might return to the Gulf, but with the signing of the Abraham Accords, who knows? Report in JTA News: 

Bahrain Jewish community leader Ebnrahim Nonoo marks Kristallnacht for the first time at Bahrain's synagogue

I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I talked about being Jewish. Although it’s a major part of my identity and obvious to anyone who gets to know me, I already kept a low profile about my Judaism at the Pentagon.

 I was certainly not the only Jew in the building, but the culture of the place was overwhelmingly Christian, from earnest invocations of God and country to office doors that were lovingly decorated with wreaths and Santas at Christmastime. When I was working on Middle East policy, I feared it would paint me as biased, or at least as caring too much about the region.

 In Bahrain, the fear was different. In my wildest nightmares I imagined being called out loudly as a Jew and all heads turning in my direction. My fear of being seen as an outsider was magnified by the nature of the country itself, which is marked by social inequality, sectarian discrimination and police repression. Among the Kingdom’s half million citizens, the in-group is composed of Sunni Muslims, with the ruling family at the center. Next come Shia Muslims and a few dozen Jews. 

 They are all outnumbered by foreigners, who form 80% of the country’s work force. Here too, there is a strict hierarchy: Arabs from Gulf countries can be executives and consultants. Other Arabs and educated South Asians can be clerks. Maids are Filipina. Sex workers are Eastern European and Asian. Construction workers are Bangladeshi. It almost goes without saying that women have fewer rights than men. 

 As an American and a member of a high-level delegation, I moved easily across lines. I could speak up and be heard in meetings with men twice my age. I ate lunch with the three female Bahrain Defense Force medical officers who attended our meetings, which would have been inappropriate behavior for my male colleagues. I went shopping in the pearl and gold markets in the evening with the guys from the delegation, while black-veiled Bahraini women shopped in quiet malls during the day. 

 Foreign workers have no such flexibility. They are allowed into the country to perform a specific job and can be transferred or sent home without their consent. Despite recent reforms, many are still employed under a sponsorship system that allows employers to withhold their passports and wages and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds.

 I became aware of this oppressive system in brief glimpses of Bangladeshi workers on scaffolds in the intense, humid heat and Pakistani restaurants crowded with men seeking a taste of home. That’s when I realized that I was safe. I was a privileged, protected “other.” In spite of my fears,

 if I had revealed my Jewishness, I would probably have suffered nothing more than a moment of uncomfortable silence.

 I left government service long ago and now I live in Israel. I assumed I would never go back to the Gulf, but with Bahrain and the UAE opening diplomatic relations with Israel, it just might be possible. This time, I would be coming not from Mt. Olympus, but from Mt. Moriah, the holy plateau in the heart of Jerusalem, which sits just across the valley from my home.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Campus campaign launched for Mizrahi Jews

CAMERA, the media watchdog, has launched a campaign to highlight the refugee experience of Mizrahi Jews through videos and written stories. We applaud this inititative, as it takes the issue of Jewish refugees to the heart of the Jewish student population. 

 One of our goals at CAMERA on Campus is to educate university students on complex and pertinent issues that are either not normally addressed or may have been discussed with inaccurate information,” said CAMERA on Campus international director Aviva Rosenschein.

 The campaign will focus on the voices of& Mizrahi>Jews as they share their own and their families’ experiences in online videos and written stories that will be spread widely on social media,” said Hali Spiegal, one of the CAMERA on Campus directors.

The campaign features videos and graphics. Students who interact with the campaign online can win prize money. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Mass virtual kaddish planned for 28 November

Over 2,000 synagogues, organisations and individuals have already signed up to taking part in  a Mass Kaddish scheduled for 28 November to remember Jews buried in inaccessible cemeteries in Arab lands. Many of these cemeteries have been neglected, desecrated or built over, Lyn Julius writes in Times of Israel (Jewish News):

Any Jew who wishes to visit the Jewish cemetery in the Libyan capital Tripoli would be shocked to discover that three tower blocks, including a hotel, now stand on the site. 

Three tower blocks stand on the site of the Tripoli Jewish cemetery, Libya (From Facebook)

 Cemeteries across the Arab world have been built over, or lie neglected or desecrated, as the memory of 2,000 years of Jewish life in Arab countries fades away. Except in Morocco, Jews are unable to access the graves of their ancestors and relatives. That’s why, for the third year running, a mass kaddish is being planned all over the free world to enable Jews to say prayers for their loved ones buried in inaccessible cemeteries. 

 When the project started, 19 synagogues took part. This year over 2,000 communities, organisations and individuals have lent their support to the initiative, including the Board of Deputies. A special prayer has been composed for the occasion by senior rabbi of the UK Sephardi community, Rabbi Joseph Dweck.

The mass kaddish is being planned for 28 November, being the Shabbat nearest to 30 November, the official day designated by the Israeli Knesset to commemorate the exodus of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries in the second half of the 20th century. 

 The kaddish grew out of one man’s initiative to clean his grandfather’s grave in the new Jewish cemetery in Baghdad. Inspired by Miss Iraq posing for a selfie with Miss Israel in 2017, a Canadian of Iraqi origin, Sass Peress, engaged two Iraqi Muslims to help him. He directed operations remotely from his home in Montreal. The cemetery was in a state of disrepair. Saddam Hussein had planted grenades on some of the gravestones.


The ‘new’ Jewish cemetery at Sadr City in Baghdad (courtesy: Sass Peress) 

Before long the clean-up operation had been extended to 150 graves. Peress hopes that eventually all 3,000 graves will be photographed and digitally catalogued. The clean-up had to be conducted in the utmost secrecy in case of official interference.”While some Iraqi Muslims stepped up and saw the positive, some tried to get in the way to the point of threats against the lives of those who sought to help me”, says Peress. 

 The old Baghdad Jewish cemetery, including the mass grave of the victims of the 1941 Farhud massacre, was demolished in 1958 to make way for a highway. The community managed to exhume and re-inter some dignitaries and famous rabbis.

 In Tunis, there was no time to exhume all the dead before bulldozers moved in and turned the old Jewish cemetery into a park. 

 Egyptian Jews in exile have been paying to restore two cemeteries in Alexandria. The Egyptian government is funding the clean-up and restoration of the vast 9th century Bassatine cemetery in the centre of Cairo. Its marble slabs have been pilfered and squatters have moved in.

 In Algeria the French government pledged to allocate 1.4 million euros in 2003 to restore vandalised Jewish cemeteries. Since 2016, however, it has sought to amalgamate cemeteries and encourage families to have their relatives’ remains shipped over to France – at their expense. 

 As in the West the desecration of Jewish tombstones is a common manifestation of Jew-hatred. Some 50 armed men sought revenge on dead Jews by breaking up tombstones and firing shots at graves in the Jewish cemetery of Sidon in Lebanon after Israeli troops left the country in 1985. 

 Caretaker of the Sidon Jewish cemetery Nagi Zeidan stands in front of a tombstone riddled with bullet holes (Photo: courtesy) 

Another threat is from urban renewal: the Aden Jewish cemetery has been razed to the ground to make way for redevelopment. With the global pandemic, most synagogues will not be open for the reciting of kaddish, but it is hoped that online synagogue services, which hundreds continue to attend from the comfort of their own homes, will incorporate the memorial prayers. A fitting and respectful way to remember. 

 To join the prayer sign up at Annual Mass Kaddish.

Monday, November 09, 2020

'The Jews are our dogs' heard in Jerusalem's Old City

'The slogan 'The Jews are our dogs' is back - this time chanted by Palestinian boys in Jerusalem's Old City. This dehumanising age-old cry recalls that Jews are worthy of contempt and must submit to Muslims. The Jewish Voice tells us that a Palestinian named Mohammed Nashwan recorded the incident on video and posted it on Twitter.  It is disheartening evidence that the old bigotry remains.

Screenshot from vdeo posted on Twitter showing Arab youths jeering at a group of hasidim.

A video posted on Twitter has showed young Arab children taunting and insulting Jewish worshippers as they walked through the Old City of Jerusalem. 

 The video showed a group of at least four young Arab boys calling in Arabic “Palestine in Ladna” and “Elihud Kilbana,” “Palestine [is] our land” and “the Jews our dogs,” as a group of about 16 Jewish men walked by, some of them holding the hands of small children or carrying them in their arms.

 The Jews were dressed in traditional black suits and hasidic outfits and appeared to be heading to sabbath prayers at the Western Wall on Friday evening, Channel 20 news reported. The group was walking past stores on Hagai Street in the Old City and that adults joined in the shouting of profanities.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Iraqi Jews suffered discrimination on arrival in Israel

In her 2017 book, Impossible Exodus, Orit Bashkin paints a bleak picture of the difficulties encountered by Iraqi Jews arriving in the tent camps of the 1950s. But this was, by and large, an educated and adaptable  urban population, unlike the Moroccan Jews who arrived in the 1960s. It is a pity that Bashkin, infected by the language of identity politics,  cannot resist depicting Iraqi Jewish refugees, as is the fashion,   as victims of 'Ashkenazi elites' in Israel.

This ideal of Aliyah contrasted sharply with the realities in Mandatory Palestine and Israel. As Aziza Khazzoom has shown, each wave of Jewish migrants to Palestine and Israel othered and orientalized the next generation of migrants.However, the Jews who had lived in Palestine before 1948 , namely the members of the old Sephardic community and especially European Zionists, shared certain formative experiences.

 The insightful scholarship of Michelle Campos and Abigail Jacobson has underlined the differences between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine.However, for both communities, the years of the national Palestinian revolt (1936–39), the years of the Holocaust, in which many Ashkenazi Zionists lost their entire families in Europe, and during which many Jews denied entry to Palestine by the British perished in Europe, and the 1948 War, in which one percent of the Jewish population in Mandatory Palestine was killed, were crucial in shaping their collective mentality and their ideological commitments. 

The members of the yishuv hus looked differently at the new waves of migrants who arrived in the state of Israel after 1948, who included Holocaust survivors (labeled plitim, “refugees,” in state discourse), Jews from Romania and Bulgaria, and Jews from Middle Eastern countries. Despite the property taken from the Palestinian population during the 1948 War, support from international Jewish organizations, and financial compensation from Germany, the state of Israel, which demanded that each and every Jew make his or her way to the Jewish homeland, did not have sufficient financial resources to absorb such masses of people and provide them with housing, employment, instruction in Hebrew, and basic social services. 

Although many members of the yishuv helped the newcomers in important ways (often by volunteering), the former also felt superior to the latter, who, the former felt, did not come to Israel out of ideological commitment, as had the previous Zionist migrants, but rather out of necessity.

Friday, November 06, 2020

How Ezra the Great fed the poor of Aley

Only the walls of the synagogue in Aley, in the mountains of Lebanon, survived the 1975 Civil War, but it remains a monument to the philanthropy of Ezra Anzarut, who built it in 1892. So generous was Ezra el Kebir (as he was dubbed) that he was respected not just by the Jews, but the local non-Jewish population. His great-grand-daughter Edna Anazarut Tuner tells his story.

The synagogue at Aley, built by Ezra Anzarut, dubbed El Kebir (the Great).

The Anzaruts were Cohannim  and were an  Orthodox practising Jewish family.  They were so pious that my Gt. grandfather Ezra would build a synagogue as close to where he was living as possible, so that he would not have far to walk during the Sabbath or the High Holy Days.

He built one adjacent to his lavish country house in Aley (in the Shouf Mountains of Lebanon). This synagogue had electricity, which the one in Beirut lacked. He also built one in Camp de Cesar in Alexandria (Egypt), within a few minutes’ walking distance  from the family villa.

These synagogues were always built "In honour of his father Jacob".

I was informed that the Anzarut synagogue in Alexandria has now been turned into a mosque. The one in Aley was badly damaged by rockets during a Lebanese Civil War. One of my relatives who was in the IDF and was stationed there for a while,  took photographs of it.

The exterior walls are still standing. In the middle of the floor in what was the Great Hall, he found the Anzarut alms box, which he took back to Israel.  I was shown it when I visited the family in Jerusalem.

According to tradition, Great Grandfather Ezra and Great.Grandmother Rachel were not only extremely philanthropic but they were also very hospitable, and the Sabbath and High Holy Days were a time for wonderful family gathering and togetherness.

One of my father's cousins Ezra Charles of Melbourne (Australia) recalls that the dining room table was so big that it could easily accommodate three families.

My Grandfather Leon told me that Great Grandfather Ezra was a very loving and proud father, but was rather formal and aloof with his children, but he always had an amused twinkle in his eyes when he spoke with his young children and his eventual grandchildren  He was very kind, and they loved him dearly.

My Great Grandfather was given the title of " Ezra El Kebir,'   (Ezra the Great) a tribute to his great philanthropy.

According to an Israeli historian who contacted me, Ezra el Kebir was the founder and first president of the Jewish community in Beirut.

He mentioned that he was writing a book on the Jewish community in Beirut at the time my ancestor resided there.  He discovered that the name of Ezra el Kebir kept cropping up, and that he seems to have been a very important and highly respected figure at the time, not only by his co-religionists but also by the rest of the non-Jewish population.

I was later sent a photograph of the prominent and wealthy  Jewish businessmen of Beirut.  My great grandfather is sitting in the middle, and my Farhi great Uncles are standing behind him.

Ezra demanded absolute respect. It was customary for his children and grandchildren to kiss his hand when they saw him.  My Great Grandmother Rachel on the other hand, was a relaxed, nurturing and loving human being, according to her grandchildren.   They all adored her, and whenever they visited the villa, they never left empty-handed, as she showered them with gifts.

In the very large three storey stone country house in Aley, it was the tradition to keep the entrance doors open during the Sabbath, and the High Holy Days, when all the poor of the area, including the Druze inhabitants could come and eat to their heart's content.

Nothing was ever stolen, in spite of the fact that all the silver and valuables were left on display. Not one of the Druze, or any poverty stricken guest would have ever considered pilfering anything.

When we were in Israel many years ago, visiting very old tombs in a cavern near the border, I met an ancient looking Lebanese Druze who came from Aley.  He was selling entrance tickets from a small tin can kiosk.

When I informed him that I was an Anzarut, he became very excited, and stopped yelling at our three sons who were boisterously hopping over the rope barrier and hopping back.  He threw his arms around me, and said in Arabic that Ezra el Kebir and his son Leon (my grandfather) had been so incredibly kind and generous, that when they died, they must surely have gone straight to Paradise.

Read the rest of Edna Anzarut Turner 's memoir  at Les Fleurs de l'Orient.

The synagogue at Aley will feature in a talk (in French) hosted by Harif by Nagi Zeidan on 10 November at 7:30 pm UK time. Details from

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Book review: who colonised whom and when will we care?

Nina Lichtenstein is an independent scholar and author of Sephardic Women's Voices. Here she reviews Uprooted by Lyn Julius in Sephardic Horizons (Fall, 2020). The Jewish exodus from Muslim lands  and the flight of Palestinian refugees  constitute an unfinished population exchange, Julus argues, and Jewish rights have yet to be addressed.

It is not uncommon that a book has its beginning as a blog where over time the posts reveal patterns or themes based on the preoccupations and interests of its author. This is what happened to Lyn Julius, a British blogger and journalist who is the daughter of Jewish refugees from Iraq. Uprooted: How 3000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight is the formidable result of ten years of research shared on her edifying blog Point of No ReturnJewish Refugees from Muslim and Arab Countries. 

There have been few modern history books on Jews in Islamic lands penned by Mizrahim or Sephardim. Knowing that this author is both a woman and Mizrahi makes Uprooted a most welcome addition to the field of Jewish studies. The 340-page volume is packed with invaluable information for anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of the complex dynamics around the uprooting of the Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa and the issues of injustice that remain unaddressed by the governments of Muslim countries in the region, by the international community, and even to some degree by the State of Israel.

 In Uprooted, Julius’s mission is to demonstrate how Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees from Islamic lands are victims of an injustice. She does this deftly by taking her readers on a journey recounting the events leading up to and following the “wholesale destruction of their millennial Jewish communities over a single generation” (243). Several converging historical forces are discussed as the situational underpinnings of the tragedy, such as the advent of the pan-Arab nationalist movement, the end of the Second World War, the establishment of the State of Israel,  and the end of the colonial era. 

However, Julius underlines that the major root cause of this post-1948 exodus of over 850,000 souls “was pan-Arab racism, itself influenced by Nazism” (104). When Nazi ideas of Jewish conspiracy and control penetrated the Arab world in the 20th century, amalgamated as they were with Christian anti-Semitism dating back to the blood libel tradition of the Middle Ages, the earlier Muslim belief that Jews were powerless and inferior (as dhimmi) morphed into a modern version of Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment in which Zionism and being Jewish were conflated. Combine this with the manifest victory of the nascent state of Israel over its Arab aggressors in 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba and we can begin to understand the psychological underpinnings of the defeated party and how this fueled anti-Jewish sentiment in the Arab world, making it impossible for Jews to remain. 

 Julius also grounds her modern story in the rich, two millennia-long history that Jews have experienced in the region following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and how their presence is often misrepresented as a “settlement,” as in the example of the Jews of Djerba who “preceded the Arabs on the island by 1,000 years” (10). Naturally, points like this bring attention to the Zionist/colonialist argument that is such a large part of the current liberal and anti-Zionist discourse on the conflict, for as Julius reminds us, Jews were organic to the region and it was the Arab conquest of the Middle East and North Africa which “subjugated indigenous peoples, colonized their lands and expropriated their wealth” (7). 

So, "Who really colonized whom, and when do we decide to start to care?" she seems to be asking, challenging this often arbitrarily drawn line in the sand. In Uprooted, pages are also devoted to rectifying the often-held belief, or myth promoted by Islamic countries now void of Jews, that the lives of Jews in the region were haloed by peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbors and landsmen. We are reminded that the safety of Jews was largely dependent on the attitude of the given current-day ruler and that this shifted randomly from generation to generation. Julius provides dates and details of numerous pogroms and injustices the Jews in this region were subjected to over the centuries. 

The more time that passes from the Jewish exodus from Muslim lands, the more candid and revelatory the memories and testimonies of injustices suffered seem to become. The book tells us that not only did the Jews lose everything in their typically hurried and often clandestine departures, but because they were successfully resettled and absorbed in Israel, and other countries, their internationally recognized status as refugees by both the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, has been ignored, willfully or by ignorance. 

Overshadowed by the persisting focus on the enduring status of Palestinian refugees, inherited as it is by children and grandchildren of the originally displaced Arab population, the rights of the Jewish refugees have yet to be formally addressed. In effect, Julius says, this is a population exchange that has not been completed, as Palestinians have been refused absorption and citizenship to any surrounding Arab nation with the exception of Jordan. We are also reminded, however, that although the Jewish refugees in question were absorbed, it does not negate the social, cultural, and political discrimination they have battled in Israel. Though the Mizrahim constitute the majority of Israel’s current population and Mizrahi music, food, and aesthetics have recently become all the rage on the Israeli pop-culture scene, the ball has been dropped by the Israeli government on several occasions as it pertains to the pursuit of their rights of restitution and how their refugee status could and should be used in any peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

 Many black and white photos of Jewish individuals from the Arab world, both well and lesser known people, social and cultural events both public and domestic, holy sites, important buildings and properties that once belonged to the now vanished communities and families, and documents appear throughout Uprooted. The result is a rich text teeming with information supported by archival and private materials that document much of the soul of what is lost.

 For a reader who is already familiar with the story and complexities of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, Uprooted offers a rich and varied sixty-page Appendix as a fresh, added value. Aside from tables, legal documents, and transcripts, we find a country by country chronology of important events relative to Jewish life going back to the late 1800s. It is especially the collection of brief personal narratives by Jewish refugees that add a level of intimacy to the more journalistic and historical narrative style of the main sections of the book. 

More reviews here , here , here, here , here, here and here.