Thursday, December 31, 2020

Trading stories from Aden

Aden is the former British trading post at the tip of  the Arabian peninsula. Today, no Jews from an 8,000-member community are left, but there is a lasting memorial to their heritage in Tel Aviv. Sarah Ansbacher has written a book about it. Lyn Julius reviews Passage from Aden in Jewish News:

Walk along Lilienblum St, in the Neve Tsedek quarter of Tel Aviv,  and you come to a large modern block. The upper storey is an Adeni synagogue; the lower floor was once used as a bomb shelter. But today it is the Aden Jewry Heritage  museum, one of Tel Aviv's best kept secrets.

A new immigrant from London, Sarah Ansbacher first visited the Aden museum  to do some research for a novel. Six months later, she was offered a job as  the museum guide and manager. So began a love affair with this 'magical' place,  culminating in Sarah's  2020 book 'Passage from Aden'.

At its height the Aden Jewish community numbered 8, 000.  A trading post at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, Aden became a British protectorate in 1839. Jews who moved there from neighbouring Yemen could escape second-class dhimmi status, but with their British links, Adenis are eager to emphasise that they are not Yemenite Jews. Cosmopolitan Aden was  also settled  by Jews from other parts of the Middle East.

Sarah's passion for the Aden community comes through in 'Passage from Aden's succession of short anecdotes. The book is like a colourful meal composed not only of vignettes about Aden’s Jews, the museum’s exhibits, its visitors, but also Israel and its people. Like all good dishes, they tickle the palate and leave us wanting more.

Meeting the many tourists who visit the museum, Sarah feels it is her responsibility to dispel ignorance and misunderstandings. She is moved by philosemitic Germans and Poles and connects with curious Muslims, Japanese, and even a Scottish football supporter. She listens to stories of non-Jews who find Israel is not what they imagined, some falling in love with the place.

Adeni Jews themselves come to study the gallery of photographs,  recognising people they know.  In one heartwarming tale, a Yemenite  disguised himself as a woman in order not to be separated from his fiancée on the first airlift to Israel reserved for women and children. Iraqi Jews recount their adventures, thankful to have made new lives in Israel. 

Tragically, a visiting woman's's father survived the gruelling trek from Yemen to Israel only to be killed by a  ma'abara tent collapsing under the weight of snow.  More than one vignette dwells on the 1947 riots, which sounded the death knell of the Aden community, an event which the museum marks with a yearly Haskara for the 87 dead. An Adeni Muslim sends his heartfelt apology.

  Israel is not short of fascinating characters, such as the over-qualified street sweeper from Estonia or the under-educated Yemenite who ends up with a PhD. Sarah Ansbacher delights in meeting new people and making connections.  She has a gift for bringing their stories to life. Ultimately 'Passage from Aden'   affirms one's faith in human nature - and life.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

PoNR Review of the Year 2020

It's that time of the year again - time to review the highlights and lowlights of 2020.

In the 15 years since Point of No Return has been collecting information on Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, there have been 5,940 posts. This year achieved 426,000 views.

This year will be remembered as the year of COVID-19. It was certainly not the first time that plagues have swept through the Middle East. This year's plague took a heavy toll of Jewish communities (see here and here).

This year gave Iraqi Jews an excuse to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their airlift to Israel.

But the highpoint of 2020 must be surely the historic peace accords achieved with four Arab countries: the UAE, Bahrain,  Sudan and Morocco. This is a teachable moment - to educate about Jewish refugees from the Arab world and Iran. (Some Arabs have already absorbed the lesson. )

 For the first time, the rights of Jewish refugees were explicitly mentioned in the Trump Middle East peace plan announced in January. Unfortunately, the media still refuse to give the issue  the coverage it deserves.

Numbers of Jews continued to dwindle in Arab countries, except in Dubai, which holds out the promise of an expanding Jewish community, serviced by three rabbis. It was a good year for one particular Jewish family from Yemen, who were given refuge in the UAE.

As for Jewish heritage, Morocco led the way in memorialising Jewish culture and history `at Bayt Dhakira, a converted  Essaouira synagogue. It was a bad year for Jewish memory in Aden, where the cemetery has been razed for urban development. As for Ezekiel's shrine, we received  reports of the ongoing erosion of its Jewish character, with a trellis being erected around the prophet's tomb and the adjoining synagogue dismantled. It was not a good year for the shrine of Rabbi Abuhatseira at Damanhour  in the Nile Delta, which was stripped of its protected status.  An Egyptian court banned Jewish pilgrims from visiting it.

However, for 180 Jewish visitors, the high point of the year was the February inauguration of the Nebi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, restored at a cost of $4 million. Sadly, the community in Egypt is on the verge of extinction and the synagogue will not be more than a tourist attraction.

Deaths: the Iraqi-Jewish community went down to four with the passing of Sitt Marcelle, who administered the community's assets. Lebanese-born banker Joseph Safra passed away in Brazil.  Egyptian-born Esther Webman of Tel Aviv University is mourned by researchers into Middle East politics. Leftwing Tunisian-born  lawyer Gisèle Halimi passed away in France. But the greatest loss to the Sephardi/Mizrahi community was arguably the death of the great thinker and author Albert Memmi, six months short of his 100th birthday.

Best articles of the year:

Some Arabs long for Jews to return

Iraqi-born Jew profiled as father of the drone

Pfizer head is Sephardi Jew born in Thessaloniki

How Libyan Jews were deported during WW2.

From persecution to freedom: one Iranian-Jewish family's  story 

Baron de Menasce offered to buy the Western Wall.

Iraqi Jew tells of Nazi plan to deport Jews

What happened on 20 August 1955?

Remembering the beggars of Morocco

Reviews of Past Years










Pfizer head is Sephardi Jew born in Thessaloniki

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has become a household name as  a manufacturer of the  COVID-19 vaccine. But how many know that its CEO is a Sephardi Jew, Albert Bourla? The Jewish Voice reports (with thanks: Ambrosine):

Albert Bourla

As the announcement of a vaccine that is 90% effective in preventing the novel coronavirus has dominated the headlines and given hope to people in every corner of the globe, we pause at this juncture to pay tribute to Albert Bourla, the chairman and CEO of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

Founded in 1849 in New York City by Charles Pfizer, the eponymously named pharmaceutical company is one of the world’s largest of its kind and it ranked 57 on the 2018 Fortune 500 list of the largest United States corporations by total revenue. Pfizer develops and produces medicines and vaccines for a wide range of medical disciplines, including immunology, oncology, cardiology, endocrinology, and neurology. Its products include the blockbuster drug Lipitor (atorvastatin), used to lower LDL blood cholesterol; Lyrica (pregabalin) for neuropathic pain and fibromyalgia; Diflucan (fluconazole), an oral antifungal medication; Zithromax (azithromycin), an antibiotic; Viagra (sildenafil) for erectile dysfunction; and Celebrex (also Celebra, celecoxib), an anti-inflammatory drug.

Currently, Pfizer is under the dynamic and innovative leadership of a man who came from humble beginnings and who rose to prominence in the medical field through his remarkable diligence and his tireless desire to help people.

Born in October of 1961 in Thessaloniki, Greece, Albert Bourla was raised in a Sephardic Jewish family. Bourla is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and holds a Ph.D. in the Biotechnology of Reproduction from the Veterinary School of Aristotle University. He left Greece with his wife when he was 34 and since then he has lived in seven different cities, in four different countries.

In 2020, he was ranked as America’s top CEO in the Pharmaceuticals sector by Institutional Investor magazine. He is on the executive committee of The Partnership for New York City, a director on multiple boards – Pfizer, Inc., The Pfizer Foundation, PhRMA, and Catalyst – and a Trustee of the United States Council for International Business. In addition, Bourla is a member of the Business Roundtable and the Business Council.

Bourla began his career at Pfizer in 1993 in the Animal Health Division as Technical Director of Greece. He held positions of increasing responsibility within Animal Health across Europe, before moving to Pfizer’s New York Global Headquarters in 2001. From there, Bourla went on to assume a succession of leadership roles within the Animal Health Division, including US Group Marketing Director (2001-2004), Vice President of Business Development and New Products Marketing (2004-2006), and Area President of Animal Health Europe, Africa and the Middle East (2006-2009). In 2009, he assumed additional responsibilities for the Asia and Pacific regions.

From 2010-2013, Bourla was President and General Manager of Pfizer’s Established Products business from 2010-2013, leading the development and implementation of strategies and tactics related to Pfizer’s off-patent portfolio, (including legacy brands and generics).

From January 2014 to January 2016, Bourla served as Group President of Pfizer’s Global Vaccines, Oncology, and Consumer Healthcare business, where he was instrumental in building a strong and competitive position in oncology and expanding the Company’s leadership in vaccines.

Previously, from February 2016 to December 2017, Bourla served as Group President of Pfizer Innovative Health, which comprised the Consumer Healthcare, Inflammation & Immunology, Internal Medicine, Oncology, Rare Disease and Vaccines business groups. In addition, he created the Patient and Health Impact Group, dedicated to developing solutions for increasing patient access, demonstrating the value of Pfizer’s medicines, and ensuring broader business model innovation.

Bourla became Pfizer’s chief operating officer (COO) on January 1, 2018, overseeing the company’s drug development, manufacturing, sales, and strategy, as stated in a Wikipedia profile. He restructured Pfizer and spun-off the consumer health care business during his tenure as COO. He was promoted to the chief executive officer (CEO) role in October 2018, effective January 1, 2019, succeeding Ian Read.

Read article in full

Moderna's chief medical officer Tal Zaks is Jewish too (Atlanta Jewish Times)

Monday, December 28, 2020

Tunisian condemned for singing with Israeli

Update: Noamane Chaari has received death threats and been sacked from his job.

A Tunisian composer and singer who recorded a song with an Israeli has been lambasted by journalists, political figures and social media users. Although the song, 'Peace between neighbours' by Noamane Chaari and ZivYeheskel, was viewed over 1.5 million times, it seems that Tunisia is not yet ready to 'normalise' with Israel. In fact Chaari's career may well suffer. See MEMRI report (with thanks: 


 During Chaari's December 12 interview with the Tunisian radio station Mosaïque FM, the interviewer, well-known media figure Hadi Za'eem, asserted that performing alongside an Israeli constituted “a major provocation of Tunisians, Arabs, and Muslims,” and asked Chaari if he felt he was criminally liable. 

 When Chaari replied in the negative, the interviewer noted that the Yemeni lyricist had remained anonymous “because they knew the poem he wrote would get his head chopped off,” and then asked rhetorically, “So what shall be done with the head of the one who sang it?

On December 18, 2020, Chaari appeared on Channel 9’s nighttime talk show “For Night Owls Only,” and was lambasted by the host and panel members, who accused him of offending Tunisians and betraying the Palestinian cause, and even of abetting Israel's murder of Palestinians. Chaari, for his part, rejected the accusations and stood by his actions. 

After he refused to comply with the host's repeated demands to apologize for the song, the host threatened Chaari that all Tunisian artists would from now on boycott him. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

President Roosevelt delayed repealing anti-Jewish laws

It took 10 months following the liberation of North Africa by the Allies during WW2 for President Roosevelt to repeal anti-Jewish measures. Rafael Medoff describes this disgraceful chapter in history in Israel National News (with thanks: Imre): 

Ibn Dahan synagogue, Morocco

The normalization of relations between Israel and Morocco and the U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara have stirred interest in the history of Morocco’s Jews, including during the Holocaust years.Unfortunately some pundits, in their enthusiasm over these developments, have misleadingly portrayed the Allied liberation of North Africa in 1942 as the simultaneous liberation of the region’s Jews from their Nazi and Vichyite persecutors. That narrative papers over the harsh reality of what happened after the Allies’ victory. 

The full story of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt treated the Jews in Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa is a deeply troubling chapter in his administration’s history. On November 8, 1942, American and British forces launched “Operation Torch,” the invasion of German-occupied Algeria and Morocco. In just eight days, the Allies defeated the Nazis and their Vichy French partners in the region.

American Jews expected that the liberation of North Africa would also mean liberation for the 330,000 Jews there. In 1870, the French colonial authorities in Algeria had issued the Cremieux Decree, which granted equal rights to that country’s Jews after centuries of mistreatment by Arab rulers (although it did not affect the Jews in neighboring Morocco).

 When the Vichyites took over North Africa in 1940, they abolished Cremieux and subjected all of the region’s Jews to a range of abuses, including restrictions on admission of Jews to many schools and professions, seizures of Jewish property and occasional pogroms by local Muslims that were tolerated by the government. In 1941–1942, American Jewish newspapers carried disturbing reports that the Vichyites had built “huge concentration camps” in Morocco and Algeria which housed thousands of Jewish slave laborers. 

The prisoners endured backbreaking work, random beatings by the guards, extreme overcrowding, poor sanitation, near-starvation and little or no medical care.According to one report, 150 Jews scheduled to be taken to the camps were so fearful of the conditions there that they resisted arrest and were executed en masse.

With the Allied victory, North African Jews — and their American coreligionists —expected the prisoners to be released and the Cremieux Decree reinstated for Jews living throughout the region. The American Jewish Congress optimistically predicted that the repeal of the Vichy-era anti-Jewish laws would follow the Allied occupation of North Africa “as the day follows the night. 

 But President Roosevelt had other plans.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Why did Israel fail to showcase our Jewish music?

Three Israel ministries got together in 2020 to commemorate and celebrate the 30 November, the day marking the exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, with a musical extravaganza beamed to all corners of the world through ZOOM. But Janet Dallal, writing in Israel Hayom, was disappointed that the performers sang popular Arabic songs, instead of showcasing the unique Judeo-Arabic culture derived from piyuttim, or composed or sung by Jews.  She laments the fact that Israel has erased the specific musical culture it purports to preserve. The event  thus became no more than a bridge-building exercise with the Arab world.

We have been waiting for many years for Israel to begin to commemorate our injustice. The victims of the Farhud, for example, have no place at Yad Vashem, and the education programs lack the contribution of Eastern Jews in preserving the heritage of the people and their part in building the country. 

For many years we have been working, not out of a sense of loss or sacrifice, to connect with government ministries ahead of the annual event, to make accessible to senior officials, the one sitting in the country and the one functioning in the world, consulates, embassies and the United Nations. We've worked with the Jews, to tell them about the plunder, the aggression, the deportation, but also about the period of adaptation that the Jews of the Arab countries and Iran experienced when they arrived in their historic homeland, until they stood  and took an important part in the service of the homeland. 
Janet Dallal

 At an event organized by the Israeli delegation to the UN in 2014 for Jews deported from Arab countries, singer Dudu Tassa and the Al-Kuwaitys performed with his songs influenced by the Iraqi culture he grew up with. With a sense of intergenerational devotion, Tassa said: After a long time, music and culture have been recognized on such a scale, it is not obvious. "Indeed, many Jewish poets, composers and composers can be mentioned, who - if the current generation of educators, music editors and broadcasters and other cultural agents knew - could enrich Israeli culture . 

 How much disappointment and astonishment we felt - the community of entrepreneurs and activists, who made decades of recognition of our heritage - when it was arbitrarily decided, even this year, that if this is an event dedicated to honoring the culture of Eastern Jewry, then it will be "Abd al-Qadir" "Yazein El-Abdin" - songs familiar in popular Arab culture, but devoid of any connection to Jewish culture. 

Even if no one explicitly intended it, these musical choices dispossess ancient communities of Sephardic Jews of their cultural uniqueness, preserved in the chain of generations in exile. But beyond arrogance, as if it were the music we grew up on, and as if playing it was the highlight of our struggle, lies the unfortunate ignorance of contemporary Israel in relation to the cultural heritage of Jewish communities from Arab countries. The fact that most of this culture is not part of the cultural repertoire in Israel, nor is it known to the cultural agents, should bother anyone who cares about preserving the heritage of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

My part in the re-opening of the Heliopolis synagogue

Albert Herscovitch was born in Egypt and now lives in Montreal where he has been actively raising the issue of the forgotten refugees from Arab countries. Less well known is the part he played in the re-opening of the Vitali Madjar synagogue in Heliopolis, Cairo in 2011. He found that his childhood synagogue in Heliopolis had been gathering dust and was colonised by pigeons. He takes up the story.

I have been militating for years for the forgotten refugees of Arab lands. I was one of the founders of AJOE (Assoc. of Jews of Egypt - we don’t call ourselves Egyptian Jews since we were never given Egyptian nationality), here in Montreal in 2002.

Now to my topic. In 2010 (miraculously, just prior to the Midan El Tahrir revolution) I decided to go back to Egypt for mainly two reasons. One, was a very special solo mission to try to reopen the Synagogue of Maimonides in old Cairo which the authorities had suddenly closed for political reasons. That mission was miraculously successful thank G-d, but that’s a topic for another discussion. 

The grandiose chandeliers of the Vitali Madjar synagogue

The other reason, was to go back to my roots and revisit my house, my schools and my synagogue. I needed to be cured of my nostalgia. I was born and raised in Heliopolis, an upscale garden suburb of Cairo not far from Mubarak’s villa. There was only one synagogue in Heliopolis where my family went. That was the Vitali Madjar synagogue, which was attached to the Jewish school I went to.

It would be too long to relate my adventures and experiences during my whole month in Egypt and my attempts to visit my grandparents graves in the Bassatine cemetery in Old Cairo. Suffice it to say that generally, my experience was very positive (except for the cemetery experience) and I encountered absolutely no problems on the part of the authorities or the people I met. They were all very courteous, respectful and accommodating (except for being arrested on a couple of occasions for minor infractions due to my not adhering to regulations I was unaware of).

One of the places I wanted to visit was my synagogue in Heliopolis, where my family had four seats assigned to them. When I went there, I found two policemen armed with machine guns at the door. The door was locked with a huge chain and two padlocks. Since I could not enter, I tried to take a picture of the outside. I was immediately prevented by the policemen. My begging and pleading with the officers did not help. So I tried to snap a picture from far. They saw me and warned me that I would be arrested if I did. Then came the negotiations for a price to be paid to each one of them for one single picture. Fearing subsequent reprisals I refused. That was the end of my visit.

The vaulted ceiling of the synagogue

Frustrated and not wanting to give up, I decided to use a different approach. I went back to meet with Mrs. Weinstein Z’l,  the President of the Jewish community at the time. I had dealt with her for all my other endeavours.

I was told by Mrs. Weinstein that the synagogue had been closed for the last 40 years, no one had entered since, and they didn’t even have the keys to get it opened. After more pleading, begging and negotiating, this time,  with Mrs Weinstein, I found myself in a cab with two of her Egyptian assistants on our way to Heliopolis. Neither the cabdriver, nor the two men wth me knew the way to the synagogue. I had to be the one to direct them. 

When we finally arrived, one of the men paid the cab driver and we got out right in front of the synagogue, where two new policemen were standing on guard with their machine guns. The two men with me, were each carrying a big bag. I was told that we had to wait there for a short while. No explanation was given.

A few minutes later, an open van arrived. It was full of policemen! They all jumped out of the van. Out of the van came out two high ranking officers (I could tell by the number of stars on their shoulders). I got the shivers! I thought that was it, I was going to get arrested again and who knows what else might ensue. No one knew of my whereabouts, not my family, not the Canadian embassy where I had made sure to register upon my arrival in Egypt. 

The high ranking officers approached the two men who were accompanying me and asked them in Arabic if they had brought the tools with them (I understood since I speak Arabic fluently). The men opened their bags and out came hammers and metal saws. Together, they proceeded to smash the padlocks on the door with their hammers and saw off the heavy chain. They pushed the door open. The officers looked at me with a smile and invited me to be the first one to go in by ushering me with their hands and saying: etfadal (welcome). I just couldn’t believe my eyes! I thought it was all a dream!

Together, with the two men, the two officers and about ten policemen, we all went into the synagogue. It was a complete mess! There was dirt and pigeon droppings everywhere. The beautiful Turkish rugs that used to cover the marble floors were all gone. The pews were covered with an inch of dust and pigeon droppings. My heart was racing! I wanted to get to our seats. I knew exactly where they were. Wherever I went, I was closely followed by the contingent that had entered with me. 

Once I got to our seats, I was overcome by emotion and I broke down in tears. The two officers came to comfort me and told me that they understood my feelings. They ordered two of the police contingent to go out and buy me a soft drink after asking me what I preferred. Once I managed to calm down, I thanked them warmly expressing deep appreciation for their gesture and understanding. They were extremely friendly. I asked if I could take pictures.

 Not only did they grant me permission, but they themselves were amazed at what they saw in terms of chandeliers, decor, etc. and proceeded to pull out their cell phones and take pictures themselves. They were amazed at what they saw and told me that they had absolutely no idea of what was inside. They thought it was an old age home that was no longer in service. Yet, the Ten Commandments stand majestically on top of the outside of the synagogue. But who can blame them for their ignorance. In fact, they were not totally wrong. My Jewish school adjoining the synagogue had indeed been transformed into an old age home but was no longer in use. The Jewish community was no more. 

And so, I spent the rest of the time taking pictures inside and outside the synagogue to my heart’s content, all with the tacit approval of my new friends. I could not thank them enough and they in turn, thanked me for giving them the opportunity to find out about the beauty of my Heliopolis synagogue.

And that  is my story of the Heliopolis synagogue, in some detail.  I was instrumental in getting it reopened.

The rest, as they say, is history. A new padlock was installed on the door of the synagogue by Mrs. Weinstein’s people. She later told me with a glean in her eyes that I had started a new era for the forgotten synagogue of Heliopolis. They were going to undertake a full cleanup of the place and try to bring it back to a semblance of its old glory.

Epilogue: since its restoration,  the  synagogue has hosted a photographic exhibition and a concert of Sufi songs and dances. Not every one is happy : some even think its use as a cultural centre is blasphemous. Albert's reaction? "Although I find it regrettable that my synagogue was turned into a concert hall, I am somewhat comforted that it is alive again."

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Who says that Morocco never persecuted its Jews?

'Morocco has never persecuted the Jews'. This revisionist bombshell was dropped by the Moroccan UN ambassador to his Israeli counterpart at a joint candle-lighting ceremony. Lyn Julius sets the record straight in JNS News. 

Moroccan Jews at prayer (Photo courtesy Paul Dahan)

The news that Israel and Morocco are about to 'normalise'  their relations has been met with jubilation in Israel - and in the Moroccan diaspora. The first direct flight has taken off for Rabat from Tel Aviv;  and liaison offices will be opened in both countries,  to be upgraded to embassies in due course.

A wave of nostalgic affection has swept over Jews born in Morocco. 'Morocco has a special place in my heart'  gushes  Casablanca-born columnist David Suissa, who now lives in California. 

On the diplomatic front, the UN ambassadors from Morocco and Israel marked the beginning of their new era with a Hanucah candle-lighting ceremony. Then Rabat's ambassador Omar Hilale dropped a bombshell: he said that Morocco had never persecuted its Jews. 

As far as we know, Israel's ambassador, not wishing to spoil the love-in, said nothing in response.

Morocco is the first of the four countries which have agreed to a peace deal to have had a substantial Jewish population - its 300,000-member  community was the largest in the Arab world. But this community is now one percent of its previous size. If Morocco was such a hospitable place for its Jews, why did almost all leave?

One can point  to the Oujda and Djerrada riots of 1948, in which 48 Jews died. Spasmodic violence in the 1950s was directed against the wedge group caught between the French colonials and the Muslims - the Jews. One can point to the fact that Morocco forbade her Jews from emigrating for five years, provoking increasingly desperate attempts to flee.  

Zionism became a crime and a pretext for imprisonment once Morocco became a member of the Arab League. Jews in mixed areas were frequently harassed and threatened.

Mob violence erupted so frequently that the troubles were hardly worth recording. One Jewish woman asked her neighbours for assurance that  an anti-Jewish riot was not being planned for the date of her daughter's wedding. 

Then there was the ever-present threat of abduction  of Jewish girls and forced conversion.

But Moroccan Jews themselves often deny that they left through persecution. The main reason - their loyalty to the king. 'The king loves us,'  David Suissa declares. Jews believe that the wartime sultan saved the Jews from the Nazis and even wore the yellow star.

But historians have debunked this myth.

Deportation was never a realistic possibility. The king may have prevaricated, but he rubber-stamped every single anti-Jewish decree promulgated by the Vichy authorities, the real 'power behind the throne'.

Morocco's record has been  muddied by a decades-long campaign, spearheaded by the king's Jewish royal adviser, André Azoulay, to project an idealised image through the preservation of Jewish heritage, music festivals and other demonstrations of interfaith coexistence. 

Historically, the Moroccan monarchy generally  did show benign tolerance towards its  Jewish subjects, who lived in a quarter, or mellah, adjoining the royal palace. An attack on minorities was seen as an attack on the sultan's power.

Dhimmi Jews, routinely subject to restrictions and humiliations,  paid for his protection with hard cash. After the post-Inquisition  influx of Jews from Spain, sultans appointed Jews to be their advisers and imtermediaries with the European powers.

But not all sultans were benevolent. At the end of the 18th century Moulay Lyazid ordered Jews in Oujda who dared to dress like Muslim to have one ear cut off. He  planned to exterminate the Jews of his kingdom and incited  a pogrom against the Jews of Tetuan. 

 No persecution there.

The Jews were left without protection  at times of instablility or in the interregnum between rulers. Take the Fez pogrom of 1033, where 6,000 Jews Jews were reputedly murdered. At other times, fanatical preachers whipped the mob into anti-Jewish frenzy, as happened in Touat in 1492, when the entire Jewish population was massacred.

In contrast, a well-intentioned sultan might have wished to protect his Jews but could be powerless to do so. In 1863  Sir Moses Montefiore persuaded the sultan to  issue an edict granting  equal rights for Jews, but  local governors failed to apply it.

The nineteenth century was replete  with riots against the usual scapegoats  - the Jews - as Morocco became a cauldron of tribal and international conflict.

As a new era dawns between Morocco and Israel, let honesty and transparency prevail. Morocco broke new ground recently, promising to  teach Jewish history and culture in schools.  Let's hope that the children are not taught that Morocco never persecuted its Jews.

Read article in full

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

For Mizrahim, values are more important than economics

With their steadfast attachment to values like patriotism and religion, Mizrahi Jews in Israel befuddle US liberals by viewing their universalist vision with horror. For an explanation, liberals should listen to what sociologist Nissim Mizrachi has to say, writes Jonathan Tobin in JNS News (with thanks: Melvyn):

Mizrahim naturally support Netanyahu

Liberal American Jews are generally confused when it comes to Israelis. On the one hand, they claim to have empathy and support for Jews of color. But in order to inflate the number of those who fit that fashionable category, which offers an opportunity for post-Black Lives Matter virtue signaling about race issue, they must conflate Mizrahi Jews who trace their origins to countries in the Muslim world with black or Hispanic Jews into one catch-all category. But while concern about treating all members of the Jewish community fairly are well-founded, the condescension implied in the effort only increases the contempt with which most of the Mizrahi world views this mindset. 

This is amply illustrated by the latest attempt by The New York Times to explain to its uncomprehending left-wing readership why certain populations don’t vote as they think they should. So in an effort to elucidate the stubborn refusal of red-state Trump voters to vote in a manner that the chattering classes think is in their interests (i.e., for liberal Democrats who promise more social justice and entitlements), the Times has turned to Israel for an explanation. Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger took a deep dive into the question as to why Mizrahi Israelis vote for the right-wing parties and support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

 Just as American liberals are frustrated by the failure of their appeals to white working-class voters, the same is true of Israel’s left-wing parties. The Israeli left offers a Mizrahi population that is more likely to be disadvantaged the sort of socialist benefits that ought to entice them, as well as a more universalist view of human rights that promise more inclusion that are instead viewed by this segment of the population as not only undesirable but a threat to their community and the nation. Halbfinger finds his explanation in the work of Israeli sociologist Nissim Mizrachi, who came to his attention as a result of a lengthy interview published in Haaretz in January. In it, Mizrachi (who, as his name indicates, is himself a product of an upbringing in a poor Mizrahi Jerusalem neighborhood with a mother who had immigrated from Iraq) tried to tell the readers of the left-wing newspaper why Mizrahim were solidly behind Netanyahu and the right. 

Much like the 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? in which journalist Thomas Frank sought a reason for that state’s poor farmers’ loyal support for Republicans, the answer is not in economics but values.

According to Mizrachi, values and identity—and the security issues related to them in the Jewish state—all make it nearly impossible for the left to make progress with a demographic group that now forms the majority of Jewish Israelis. It’s not that, as American liberals complain, people vote against their interests or that they are too backward to understand or appreciate liberal values. On the contrary, Mizrahim view the liberal vision of the Israeli left—in which the Jewish nature of the state is downgraded or shunted aside as being less important than a belief in universalism and democracy—with horror. As Mizrahi has written, Mizrahim came to Israel to be in a Jewish state where their rights and security would be protected. They don’t view themselves as an oppressed minority group or desire “inclusion.” They just want Israel to be a Jewish state whose security is defended without compromise. Hence comes their natural support for Netanyahu, Likud and other right-wing parties—just as they supported Menachem Begin in the past—and their utter disdain for the Israeli left, even if it seeks to portray itself as the champion of the oppressed.

Read article in full

More about Nissim Mizrahi

Monday, December 21, 2020

UN envoy: 'Morocco's Jews never faced persecution'

It did not take long, now that Morocco and Israel are about to sign a peace deal, for the historic relationship between Jews and Arabs to be distorted by the Moroccan ambassador to the UN. The 'historical tensions' being glossed over in this Times of Israel news item include massacres, riots and forced conversions. (With thanks: Leon)
NEW YORK — Morocco’s Ambassador to the UN said Thursday that his country’s Jews never faced persecution, glossing over some historical tensions, a week after Rabat’s decision to normalize relations with Israel.

 We are very proud that in the history of Morocco, there was never any persecution of Jewish people. They were just… part of our society,” Omar Hilale said at a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony in New York hosted by Israel’s UN Mission and the Forum for Cultural Diplomacy. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Amid looting, Tunisia struggles to preserve 'its' Jewish heritage

While looting, vandalism and smuggling are to be deplored, this article syndicated by Associated Press assumes that Jewish heritage abandoned in North Africa belongs to the countries concerned and not to the Jewish community driven into exile. While the best one can hope for is that immoveable communal property, such as synagogues and cemeteries, be preserved, for Arab states to be entitled to claim moveable Jewish artefacts as their national heritage is simply to legitimise theft. To this effect, a campaign by JIMENA  seeks to prevent these states signing Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with the US has been underway.

TUNIS, Tunisia (AFP) –Tunisia is struggling to protect North Africa’s Jewish heritage, threatened by vandalism, looting and the smuggling of valuable artifacts bearing witness to the long history of the region’s Jews.

While many of Tunisia’s own synagogues and Jewish graveyards lie neglected, the country has also become a conduit for antiques pillaged in lawless neighboring Libya.

“A huge number of antiques have been looted in Libya, and people are trying to smuggle them to Europe,” said Habib Kazdaghli, a historian at Tunisia’s Manouba University.

Kazdaghli is campaigning for the creation of a museum of the country’s Jewish heritage — a sensitive subject given public opposition to Israel. In October, the Interior Ministry said it had confiscated two 10-meter (33-foot) scrolls in the coastal city of Nabeul, along with five small books in Hebrew. In 2017, police seized a 15th-century handwritten copy of all five books of the Torah, on 37 meters of bull skin.

'Smuggled' Torah scroll seized by Tunisian authorities in 2017

 The ministry described the item as “unique in the world” and said unnamed foreign buyers had attempted to obtain it. In another raid in January, the police said they had seized six Hebrew documents that smugglers admitted they were hoping to sell for 1.5 million dinars ($556,000).Tunisian authorities said a specialist network of antique smugglers had stolen the items from Libyan museums.

Allied soldiers survey the destruction at a Jewish cemetery on the coast of Libya, just west of Tripoli, on March 23, 1943. Many of the gravestones were used by Nazis to build defenses along the coast as the 8th Army advanced toward the city. (AP Photo) 

“Can you believe someone would steal the word of God and sell it?” asked Perez Traboulsi, a prominent elder of Tunisia’s Jewish community.

 Souad Toumi, an expert on Jewish heritage at Tunisia’s national Bardo museum, said she had recorded “dozens of stolen Hebrew artifacts that turned out to be important and rare.

”Many of them are old manuscripts, often meticulously written, sometimes in gold ink and stitched together with thread made from sheep or ox intestines. The subjects include religious songs and prayers, rulings, geometric decoration, plant and animal decoration, diagrams of human bodies and constellations, Toumi said.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Muslims must acknowledge fully their relations with Jews

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid lives in Pakistan, which makes it all the more remarkable  that he has been refreshingly blunt in this Spectator article, in which he urges other Muslim states to follow the Moroccan model of peace-seeking with Israel. The Muslim world must acknowledge the good as well as the negative aspects of its historical relationship with the Jews. (With thanks: Lily)

King Mohammed VI of Morocco visiting Beit Dhakira in Essaouira, a synagogue converted into a museum devoted to the memory of Moroccan Jewry

 After becoming the latest Arab state to formalise ties with Israel, the fourth in as many months, Morocco has gone a step further; it will start teaching Jewish history as part of the school curriculum. Morocco is now the first modern Arabic state to embrace its tradition of religious pluralism — a pluralism that has over the decades faded into mono-cultural Sunni Islam. 

Over the last 70 years, the number of Jews living in Morocco has fallen from half a million to just 2,000. In January, Moroccan King Mohammed VI visited a Jewish museum and synagogue in Essaouira to celebrate the country’s pluralistic past as well as the Moroccan monarch’s recent attempts to restore Jewish heritage sites.

Indeed, in the 18th century, Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdellah oversaw the building of nearly 40 synagogues in Essaouira, a city where once four in ten of its population was Jewish. Before that, Morocco welcomed Iberian Jews cast out of modern-day Spain by the 1492 Alhambra decree, giving them legal autonomy over their worship. 

 As the Muslim world begins to reconcile with Israel, so too must it acknowledge the full history of Islam’s relationship with Judaism. This won’t be easy, of course, since the past is loaded with animosity for Jewish peoples — but there are also neglected, older tales of Islamic multiculturalism. Islam, as its more liberal proponents like to remind us, was the harbinger of the European Enlightenment. 

 The exodus of Jews from the Muslim world began in in earnest in the 1940s, eventually evolving in some countries from persecution to slaughter. Nazi Germany’s Holocaust extended into Axis controlled north African territories during the second world war. Hundreds of camps like the one in Jadu, Libya illustrate tales of barbarism reserved exclusively for Jews in the Arab world under the Axis rule. 

 Many local Muslims didn’t find Jewish discrimination particularly repulsive, perhaps owing to the preceding Ottoman rule which had already established Jews as inferior ‘dhimmis’, legally upholding Muslim supremacism, while overseeing multiple pogroms. Indeed, many Arabs cheered in Tunis when the Jews were paraded by German occupying forces. 

Under the Nazi-allied French Vichy regime, Algeria became the second country where Jews were stripped of their citizenship after Germany. Even so, amid instances of Arab collaboration with the Third Reich, there were many, lesser-acknowledged stories of Arabs safeguarding Jews. 

Tunisian landowner Khaled Abdul Wahab, ‘the Arab Schindler’, risked his life to protect many Jewish families. Similarly, Moroccan Sultan Mohammed V saved the Jews of Casablanca, as he resisted the anti-Semitic laws promulgated under the Vichy rule. 

There are similar tales from Turkey, Iran and other parts of the Muslim world, with over 60 Muslims honoured as ‘righteous’ at the Yad Vashem memorial And it is easy to understand why theirs are lesser-known stories. 

After the war, the Jewish populations of Tunisia, Sudan, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt were pressured to leave, some had their passports stamped ‘exit with no return’ as anti-Semitism spiralled in the Muslim world. While geopolitical commentators often point to the creation of Israel in what was seen as Arab land, the anti-Jewish feeling is in fact millennia old. 

Quranic verses telling Muslims ‘not to take Jews as friends’ and Hadiths mandating the killing of Jews ‘hiding behind stones and trees’ continue to be taught across the Muslim world. Just as Judeophobia mandated by scriptures became the root of the Arab and Muslim world’s antagonism towards Israel, the ongoing formalisation of ties is also backed by an Islamic rationale.

 It is this reformist interpretation of Islam, coupled with recognition of the crimes perpetrated by their states and empires — similar to the ideological course correction undertaken by Europe after world war two — that will help Muslim states progress. And today, the biggest threat to such progression comes not from Arab monarchs or dictators, but democratically elected populists in the Muslim world. 

Judeophobia dominates all from the largest Muslim state Indonesia to the officially secular Bangladesh.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Columbia professor : Israel 'fabricated' Jewish refugees

To mark the 30 November Day of Commemoration of the exodus of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran, Gilad Erdan, Israel's UN ambassador, pledged to press for a UN resolution for the recognition and compensation of Jewish refugees.

Joseph Massad

Enter Joseph Massad into the fray to call out 'Israel's outrageous fabrications'. Massad is Associate Professor of Arab Politics at Columbia University. Erdan's campaign, he alleges in Middle East Eye, is designed to exonerate Israel from the 'original sin'  of expelling the Palestinians and other 'criminal actions'.

Dismissing all  the ''push' factors, he argues that Jews coming to the Jewish homeland  cannot possibly be refugees. They can't be said to have been expelled either, because Yemen defied an Arab League ban  and 'allowed' the Jews to leave.  Israel 'removed'  'Arab Jews', as he calls them, to face institutionalised Ashkenazi discrimination in Israel' and the abduction of hundreds of children'. Massad obviously knows better than three Israeli Commissions of Inquiry, who could find no evidence of an abduction racket.

Ignoring the mass violence and state-sanctioned persecution confronting 'Arab Jews',  Massad resurrects the old chestnuts favoured by Palestinian propagandists of the 1950 'Mossad' bombs in Iraq and the 1954 Lavon Affair bombings in Egypt to infer that Jews had to be made to leave 'the  paradise 'of Arab countries by the Zionists. Then comes a curious inference : because most Jews in Egypt  did not have Egyptian nationality, one could not blame Egypt for expelling them as foreigners. In other words, Jews in Egypt were a mini-settler colony. It does not cross Massad's mind that Jews in Egypt could have been denied Egyptian nationality by racist laws. Of 1,000 Jews detained by Nasser after the Suez crisis of 1956, only half were of Egyptian nationality. (A negligible number, so that's alright then.)

Calling mainly on sources such as Tom Segev's The First Israelis, articles in Haaretz, Joel Beinin's The dispersion of tEgyptian Jewry and writings by Ella Shohat,  Massad passes over  massive evidence that Jews were stripped of their rights as Jews . He claims that there was no population swap between Jewish refugees and Palestinians, as Israel argues : while Jews were given Palestinian homes and land, Palestinians were not given Jewish property in return  (Not true: some Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were housed in Jewish property, and it was Arab League policy neither  to complete the exchange, nor resettle the refugees - ed). Massad inflates Palestinian losses to $300 bn, so that they dwarf Jewish losses.

According to Massad  the PLO got wise to Israel's trickery and all the Arab countries issued invitations for the'Arab Jews' to return in the 1970s. Massad does not provide any explanation for why they did not go back, choosing to stay and 'face  Ashkenazi discrimination'.

Curiously,  Arab governments can dodge their responsibility for what happened to their Jews because they are no longer in power, whereas an Israeli government which expelled the Palestinians is still in power. Hmmm.

Nice try, Joseph Massad, but no cigar.

Morocco's light of peace defies the darkness

The Israel-Morocco peace deal is a reminder of  how far we've come in our history of struggle and persecution, writes Libyan-born Gina Waldman in JNS News. Morocco's decision to teach Jewish history and culture in schools is unprecedented.

A Moroccan mellah

Before normalizing relations with Israel, Morocco included the history of its Jews in an unprecedented national school curriculum—a move that also “defies darkness,” by embracing the richness of the country’s pluralistic society.

 Indeed, Jewish history is an integral part of the colorful, textured tapestry of Moroccan history. No Arab country has ever included Jewish history in its curricula. In fact, most of my Arab friends tell me that they only know about Jews living among Arabs from what their grandparents told them. 

 During my last visit to Morocco, I “relived” my days in Tripoli, Libya as a child. While walking in the mellah (Jewish quarter) in the Old Town in Fez, my family and I would encounter young men with large trays over their heads. The trays had freshly baked cookies that they were bringing back from the local community oven. 

No matter how many trays we encountered in the mellah the carrier of the cookies would always stop and offer us some. At the sound of our shukran (Arabic for “thank you”), the young men would invariably ask, “American?” and give us a warm welcome.As I walked the narrow labyrinth of the crowded mellah. I traveled back to Tripoli as a young girl with a tray over my head carryin nonna (grandma) Regina’s Shabbat bread to the community oven. The smell of coffee beans roasting on the open fire, the fragrance of the cumin, harissa and other spices, invaded my nostrils. 

 While in Morocco, we visited Jewish sites, the ones the guide “chose to show us” that were still standing. We saw a cemetery that we were told was maintained with funds from Moroccan Jews in France, some small synagogues and a dilapidated Jewish community center.

Unfortunately, the cemetery in Tripoli where my ancestors were buried has been desecrated.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Morocco-Israel deal projects 'well-respected, non-Zionist Judaism'

What are Morocco's motives for  'normalising' its relationship with Israel? It has more to do projecting a 'well-respected non-Zionist Judaism, coinciding with political strategy'.  This Haaretz article by Jonathan Shamir contains interesting insights, especially from the Israeli specialist on Morocco, Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli.

Moroccan Jewish women in traditional pre-nuptial costume

Saaid Amzazi, the Moroccan education minister, drew on the constitution in his interview with Med Radio on the historic decision. “Judaism and Jewish Moroccan history is enshrined in our constitution, and it needs to be part of the curriculum. We want to include students in all the constitutional reforms and changes happening in their country,” he said. 

 “It is time. We’ve turned our back on this chapter for years. We started with Amazigh culture and history, and now we’ve moved to the other components of Moroccan history,” he added, using another name for Berber culture. 

 Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli, a specialist on Morocco at the Middle East Studies Department at Ben-Gurion University, says this was a long time coming. She also notes that in the Mimouna Association’s lobbying, interfaith matters are very much a “top-down initiative” interlaced with “bottom-up” feelings, and that “very senior figures are involved.” 

 She also connects some of the NGO’s Jewish patrons to the syllabus decision, including the late Simon Levy ( (Abdou)Ladino*, who is Muslim, uttered the Hebrew honorific for the dead, zichrono livrocho, when mentioning Levy’s name). Ouaknine-Yekutieli also notes the king’s senior adviser, André Azoulay, as another person who has pushed for such projects for nearly two decades. It’s little surprise, then, that Amzazi, the education minister, said “he faced no obstacles” to the initiative, while Ladino says “there was no pushback” from ordinary Moroccans. Sure enough, these ideas have been pushed by grassroots groups. 

The Mimouna Association, with the help of Moroccan historians and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, designed an Arabic-language syllabus on the Holocaust in 2017, which was taken on by several public and private institutions. Meanwhile, in recent years, many conferences have been held in Morocco discussing Jewish and Hebrew culture, while in 2013, the participants at a symposium in Fes had already called for Hebrew studies to be taught at universities. At private universities, with independent and international research centers, it’s easier to discuss these subjects.

 ‘Well respected, non-Zionist Judaism’ Although Morocco’s diverse culture has become a key part of national identity, spikes of activity related to multiculturalism as policy and discourse “often coincide with political strategy,” Ouaknine-Yekutieli said.

 In post-independence Morocco, the nation-building process allowed little space to express religious identities. But this soon subsided. She traces Morocco’s pluralistic self-image to King Hassan II’s fanciful call for Moroccan Jews to return to the country following the failed coup d’états of the ‘70s; Hassan was king from 1961 to 1999. This rhetoric “invoked an imagined idealized past and created legitimacy for the kingdom,” Ouaknine-Yekutieli said.  

After a series of terror attacks in Morocco post-9/11, including the Casablanca attack in 2003 aimed at Jewish targets, “Multiculturalism was also seen as part of the fight against phenomena of Islamic extremism, which threatened the regime,” she said. 

A further example is Morocco’s 2011 constitution, which arose as a palliative amid the simmering demands of the Arab Spring. The clauses ensured the co-opting of moderate minorities and projected an image of tolerance and progress. What lies behind the latest efforts, however, is unclear given the opacity of the Moroccan royal court. 

The proclivity to connect recent trends to Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab countries is tempting but remains speculative: The rift between Rabat and Tehran over Iran’s support for the separatist Polisario Front and its recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is another factor that could bring Morocco and Israel closer together. The website Axios, meanwhile, has reported that Israel has pushed the Trump administration to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

  Western Sahara was occupied by Spain until 1976. Morocco then claimed most of the territory but faced guerrilla resistance from the local population. The United Nations maintains that the Sahrawi people have a legitimate right to self-determination, but the status of the desert region remains under dispute. Still, even the Mimouna Association’s Facebook page posted #SAHARA_IS_MOROCCAN last month. The picture was embellished with many languages, and included “thanks” in Hebrew.

 Among the precursors to Israel’s deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were the proliferating interfaith initiatives in the Gulf. While these shifts could have the unintended effect of helping Moroccans accept normalization with the country where most of its Jews ended up, Ouaknine-Yekutieli says most of the intelligentsia and common people still criticize Zionism. She points to a conclusion of her academic paper. 

The resurgent interest, she wrote, is “not a tribute to Zionism but an example for the existence of an alternative, well respected, non-Zionist Judaism.” However, for the time being, Morocco is normalizing something else: a respect for diversity and difference that draws on the country’s often tangled history. Like all national histories, this self-image and the syllabus add a certain gloss. 

When asked about the 1912 pillaging of Fes’ Jewish quarter by Moroccan soldiers, killing over 50 Jews, or about anti-Jewish riots in 1948 in Oujda and Jerada, killing 43 Jews and one Frenchman, Ladino doesn’t hold back. “We cannot deny the fact that there were dark chapters in the history of Moroccan Jews,” he said, adding that many discussions have taken place at his Mimouna Association. “But it’s good to emphasize multiculturalism as a model for how we want to society to look today and in the future.”

*from his name, Ladino is likely to be descended from Jews who converted toIslam - ed

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Emirati sheikh buys half of 'racist' Jerusalem football club

The media have been purring their satisfaction over the irony that an Emirati sheikh has bought a 50 percent stake in  Beitar Jerusalem, the football team whose Mizrahi supporters are so 'racist' that the team would never recruit an Arab Muslim player. Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz explains  the club's 'racism' by its historical 'underdog' status vis-avis the Ashkenazi Labour establishment. But this bastion of Likud  now represents the political elite. The fans' families' long experience of Arab antisemitism never seems to be considered as a factor.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife and son at a Beitar match in February 2020 (photo: Nir Keidar)

The irony in the sale of 49 percent of the ownership of Beitar Jerusalem to Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, an Emirati billionaire and member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, can be easily summarized in one sentence: the only major soccer club in Israel to never have fielded an Arab player now has an Arab owner. 

But the historic and political symbolism of the deal goes way beyond irony and the comeuppance of Beitar’s “Forever Pure” racist supporters. It is the culmination of an 85-year journey for the team that represented the historic underdogs of the Zionist enterprise. 

 In recent years, outside of the sports pages, Beitar and its hard-core La Familia ultra-supporters group have mostly garnered media attention for being a hub of anti-Arab racism and violence. Beitar is known for the songs praising the Hebron mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein and Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir, and the roving gangs of youngsters who, after matches in Teddy Stadium, cross the road to Malkha Mall and hunt for Palestinians. It has become one with its unvarnished hatred, proclaimed proudly with the chant “Here it comes, the most racist team in the country” at the start of every match, and which forced the management to never sign an Arab player. Beitar is the essence of the poison that has entered Israel’s public discourse.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Remembering Gilbert Mazouz, shot in 1942

Around this time in December, a ceremony is held annually in France to remember the first round-up or 'rafle' of the Jews of Tunisia who fell under direct Nazi occupation in 1942.  It is also a time to remember the first victim. 

Gilbert Mazouz: shot in cold blood

Since the German invasion of France in 1940, Tunisia had been under the collaborationist Vichy rule, but now the Nazis moved in. The Allied landings during Operation Torch in November 1942 triggered the simultaneous invasion of Vichy metropolitan France and Vichy Tunisia by Hitler’s forces, on November 10 and 9, respectively, according to Edith Shaked, a Shoah specialist. Although the Allies were 25 kilometers from Tunis. the Nazis continued to persecute the local Jews.

An Einsatzkommando unit (an SS task force, a unit of the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing squads in charge of annihilating Jews) led by SS commander Walter Rauff, who was responsible for the murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe using mobile gas vans, also entered Tunis, prepared to continue to implement the “Final Solution.”

Tunisian Jews being marched to forced labour camps

 Edith writes: "He (Rauff) was empowered to “take executive measures against the civilian population” – Nazi jargon for robbery, murder and enslavement.” During its six months of occupation, the ruthless Nazi regime forced the creation of local Judenrat, and imposed antisemitic policies, including fines, 
confiscation of property and the forced wearing of the yellow badge (Star of David) by Jews, especially in Mahdia, Nabeul, Sousse and Sfax. 

About 5,000 Jews were sent to more than 30 forced labour camps. " On 9 December a German soldier shot in cold blood the first Shoah victim, Gilbert Mazuz, a young handicapped man who was not able to continue to march to the slave labour camp. At its Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, where it records the Shoah victims, Yad Vashem has a Page of Testimony for him. 

 Edith Shaked estimates that 700 Jews are known to have died during the Nazi occupation. This figure likely includes those who perished in the wartime bombings of Tunisian cities.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Reviving a feminist tradition at Hanucah

Hag Habanot (Eid al-banat) is a holiday celebrated by Mizrahi communities on Rosh Hodesh of the Jewish month of Tevet. The festival takes place on Hanucah to honour the story of the Jewish heroine Judith and the important role of women in Jewish life. It is customary to sing, dance, and light the night's menorah candle in honour of women. (See event being organised by JIMENA); suggested blessings for the Hag)

 JTA — As a child growing up in Tunisia, Peggy Cidor and her sister would count the days to Hanukkah. But the traditional lighting of the menorah and the eating of fried foods was only part of the excitement. 

The other part was Rosh Chodesh el Benat, or “head of the month of daughters,” a holiday that North African Jews would celebrate on the sixth day of Hanukkah, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tevet. Sometimes called by its Arabic name Aid al Benat, the holiday celebrates daughters, who would be gifted exquisite pastries and expensive gifts by their families.

 In Cidor’s case, the gifts came from her father’s jewelry shop in the capital, Tunis.fter her family immigrated to Israel when Cidor was 10, the holiday was mostly abandoned, as it was by many North African Jewish families after they immigrated to Israel. But in recent years, Cidor has made an effort to bring it back. “We do it on and off for now,” said Cidor, 69, a journalist and mother of three who lives in Jerusalem. 

“But we finally have a granddaughter in the family and it’s coming back.” Cidor is not alone in seeking to revive a tradition that is scarcely observed anymore even among Jews living in Tunisia, its country of origin. The World Federation of Tunisian Jewry in Israel has celebrated the day for the past 15 years, producing a festive event for about 200 participants that culminates with an homage to prominent female members of the community.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Beirut-born Joseph Safra dies in Brazil

The richest man in Brazil, financier Joseph Safra, has died in Saō Paulo aged 82. 

Joseph Safra z"l

 Born in Beirut, he was in his 20s when he and his brothers Elie, Edmond and Moïse fled persecution in Lebanon and continued to develop the Safra banking group, set up by their father Jacob,  in Brazil.

Like his brothers, Joseph was deeply involved in Jewish community affairs in Brazi and internationally, spending a great deal of his time and fortune funding health, education and charity projects and paying for the construction of synagogues and community centers. 

 Both Joseph and Moise funded the construction of the largest synagogue in Brazil, an ornate structure serving Saõ Paulo's Sephardic Jews, and the restoration of the country's first synagogue, in the northeastern city of Recife.

 In the 19th century the Safra family banked the Ottoman empire's caravan trade between Aleppo in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt and Constantinople.

Joseph Safra is survived by his wife Vicky, four children and 13 grandchildren.