Sunday, January 31, 2021

Grouchy Jean-Pierre Bacri mourned by French cinema fans

Followers of French cinema are mourning the comic actor and screenwriter Jean-Pierre Bacri, who has died of cancer aged 69. He was born in Castiglione, Algeria, but this Guardian obituary makes no mention of the fact Bacri was Jewish. His collaborator (and long-term partner) Agnès Jaoui is from a Tunisian-Jewish family. 

Jean-Pierre Bacri, known for his gruff charm and hangdog look

 Any admirer of French cinema over the past 40 years will have developed a soft spot for the hangdog looks and gruff, rumpled charm of the actor Jean-Pierre Bacri, who has died aged 69 of cancer. In the tradition of Walter Matthau, he brought sympathetic comic shading to even the most irredeemable worrywart or miseryguts. His speciality was a saturnine impatience with life that was nonetheless susceptible to glimmers of optimism; he could mope and hope with equal conviction. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, praised his “laconic and sensitive humanity”, calling him “the tenderest of our grouches”. 

 Those qualities were present also in Bacri’s award-winning screenplays, written mostly with his longtime partner Agnès Jaoui; their collaboration outlived the end of their relationship in 2012. They co-wrote and starred in a series of urbane and insightful comedies of manners, which Jaoui also directed, and which earned her comparisons to Woody Allen. In Under the Rainbow (2013), it was Bacri who took the Allen-esque role of a disconsolate driving instructor convinced his number is up after a fortune teller predicts the date of his death. “You’re shut tight like a vault,” his girlfriend tells him, prefiguring a pleasure common to many of Bacri’s performances: that slight eventual unclenching as his characters start to entertain the remote possibility of joy. 

 The couple’s biggest success was The Taste of Others (Le Goût des Autres) (2000), Jaoui’s directing debut, in which Bacri played a philistine factory owner besotted by the lead actor (Anne Alvaro) in a production of Jean Racine’s Bérénice. It was an international hit, and a surprise Oscar contender for best foreign language film. They won the best screenplay prize at Cannes for Look at Me (2004), starring Bacri as an arrogant publisher who behaves cruelly toward his overweight daughter. 

In their follow-up, Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008), he was a struggling film-maker. Their final project together, Place Publique (2018), cast him as a washed-up TV presenter. “I would have made more egocentric movies without him,” Jaoui said in 2008. “He is self-taught, and when he knows something, he knows it forever.” She called him “my favourite actor and writer” and “the man that understands me the best and the quickest”. 

The affection was reciprocated. “It’s a vacation when I work on a film with Agnès,” Bacri said. “We talk, smoke joints … We like each other.” The critic David Denby said the couple had “mastered the art of complex narrative. They have a story to tell, but they go so far into manners, quirks, and undertones that we feel, at the end of their films, that we have understood not just a dramatised anecdote but an entire way of life.” Denby called Bacri “a master of the many shades of half-interest and sullen boredom. His expression asks, ‘What’s the point?’” 

 He was born in Castiglione (now Bou Ismaïl) in Algeria, the son of a postman and a housewife, and raised in Cannes; he traced his love of film to his father’s weekend job at one of the town’s cinemas. He was educated at the Lycée Carnot in Cannes, then moved to Paris in 1976 to become an advertising copywriter. He studied drama from 1977 at Le Cours Simon and won a prize two years later for his play The Sweet Face of Love. French film and television work followed, with early parts including a pimp in Le Grand Pardon (1982), a would-be actor in postwar Lyon in Diane Kurys’ Entre Nous (1983), and a cop in Luc Besson’s stylish thriller Subway (1985), for which Bacri earned his first César nomination. He met Jaoui in 1986 when they appeared in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They began writing together soon after.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Biden, don't send the Jewish archive back to Iraq

This year, the US State Department is set to send back the Iraqi Jewish Archive, the collection of Jewish documents and memorabilia found in the flooded basement of the secret police headquarters in Baghdad and shipped for restoration to the US. This JTA article by Carole Basri and Adriana Davis, written on the anniversary of the Baghdad hangings,  is a timely attempt to plead with the Biden administration not to add insult to injury by legitimising the dispossession of a persecuted community. (With thanks: Eta)

For the Basri family, leaving Iraq meant leaving behind not only our own personal belongings but a vast collection of material belonging to the Frank Iny School, the last Jewish school to operate in Iraq.

 Frank Iny was my grandfather, and his school was an island of security for Jews as the fires of anti-Semitism raged around them. School records, photos and more were lost, we thought forever. 

Frank Iny at his wedding to Muzli

 However, by a series of miraculous events, in 2003, the communal and personal property that had been stolen by the Baath regime was discovered in a flooded basement of the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s secret police by US troops. 

The United States undertook to salvage and restore the collection. Presently, the collection is in the custody of the U.S. National Archives, where they were restored and displayed at various locations. But now, this priceless collection is once more in danger of being lost forever. 

 The Iraqi Jewish Archives chronicles the 2,700-year history of the Jews of Iraq — a history that ended when the Iraqi Jewish community was forced to flee. The collection contains tens of thousands of items, including a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible, a 200-year-old Talmud, Torah scrolls, Torah cases and other sacred books including manuscripts by the Ben Ish Hai, the late 19th-century Baghdadi scholar, as well personal and communal records. 

 Until Saddam Hussein was deposed, many Iraqi Jews were afraid to speak publicly about their heritage. Today, when we interviewed members of the community for our latest film, “Saving the Iraqi Jewish Archives,” one woman we spoke to told us how the discovery of the archives strengthened her desire to protect the remnants of their past for future generations. 

We filmed other Iraqi Jews touring the archives and, for the first time in 50 years, seeing images of themselves and their records as young students at the Frank Iny School. Now, the historical record of this once flourishing community is in danger. The State Department plans to return it to Iraq in 2021. We are now in danger of losing the tangible proof of our very existence in Iraq. Only the Administration or U.S. State Department can prevent this from happening. 

 The US State Department has signed agreements with various Middle Eastern states, including Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Syria, about sending Jewish cultural and religious artifacts back — material that had been stolen from the Jewish communities when they were dispossessed of all their property (and sometimes of their lives). 

The Iraqi Jewish Diaspora is fighting against such a miscarriage of justice. If the Iraqi Jewish Archives are sent back to Iraq, it will be another step in the ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Jews. These agreements could have far-reaching consequences for all Judaica that had been saved from these countries and are now in use in synagogues or in museums and cultural centers in the United States.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Shoah survivor tells her story to Arab audience

 With thanks: Michelle

An unprecedented Zoom meeting brought together an audience of 200 Emiratis, Bahrainis, Moroccans 15 Saudis and even a Syrian woman to listen to a Shoah survivor tell her story. Report on Israel's Channel 12.

The survivor, Vera Grossman-Kriegel, a twin, underwent experiments by the satanic Dr Mengele in the Auschwitz conentration camp. 

The initiative comes from Sharaka, a 'partnership' between Israelis and Arabs and would have been unthinkable before the peace agreements reached between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. It is a breakthrough and vitally important. 

 However, as with the Aladdin project, there is a danger that the Arab participants in this exercise will come away with the misconception that Israel was established in respsonse to the Shoah, a purely European story.

 Arabs are shown touring Yad Vashem, the Shoah memorial in Jerusalem, where evidence of the complicity of the Palestinian Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini in Hitler's extermination project and the enduring legacy of Arab and Muslim genocidal antisemitism, has been downgraded.  


Thursday, January 28, 2021

How one Iranian Jew survived the Shoah in Europe

 Menashe Ezrapour was one of a few Iranian Jews in Nazi-occupied France during WW2. He had been studying there and survived internment. (Some 2,000 MENA Jews are thought to have been deported to death camps in continental Europe.)  Karmel Melamed tells Ezrapour's story of miraculous escape  in this 2006 Jerusalem Post article:

Menashe Ezrapour: miraculous escape

He said he stayed in the Grenoble home of a Christian woman for two weeks and used false identification papers to get around. He was ultimately arrested after the woman was tricked by a police officer into revealing his whereabouts. 

After 45 days in jail, Ezrapour said he was convicted of using false papers and sentenced to serve 40 more days in the Shapoli work camp. From Shapoli, he and other Jewish prisoners were taken to the infamous Gurs concentration camp, 80 kilometers from the Spanish border. 

According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Gurs was the first and one of the largest concentration camps in France, with approximately 60,000 prisoners held there from 1939 to 1945. According to the 1993 book, Gurs: An Internment Camp in France, the internees included approximately 23,000 Spanish Republican soldiers who had fled Franco's Spain in 1939, 7,000 International Brigade volunteers, 120 French resistance members and more than 21,000 Jews from all over Europe.

 Ezrapour said that  living conditions there were unbearable, with too many people crowded together into small barracks and very little food. "Every day, the only food available was one bowl of watered-down turnip soup and 75 grams of bread, which is the size of a teaspoon," he said. Gurs held thousands of Jews prior to their final deportation to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor.

 However, more than 1,000 detainees died of hunger, typhoid fever, dysentery and extreme cold. 

After a month at Gurs, Ezrapour said he and 40 other prisoners were sent to a work camp near Marseilles called Meyreuil, instead of being deported to Auschwitz with thousands of other Jews. "After two days there, an officer issuing identification cards asked me if I was Jewish, and I told him I was not, and he luckily did not identify me as a Jew," Ezrapour said. 

"This was an incredible miracle, because later in 1944, two Gestapo officers came to the camp and saw my Jewish name on the list and asked for me. The camp commandant told them I was an Iranian-Iraqi, and they didn't ask for me any further." 

Ezrapour said he was subsequently sent to labor long hours in the coal mines near Meyreuil. He also worked as an electrician. In August 1944, he said, Meyreuil was liberated by American forces, and he left the camp. He sought refuge with rebels in the Spanish underground living in a nearby border town. For the remainder of the war, Ezrapour returned to Grenoble, where he completed his education in engineering.

 He returned to Iran in June 1946 and worked in the spare auto parts business. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Baghdad hangings: the family which got away

Exclusive to Point of No Return

Corpses hanging in Liberation Square on 27 January 1969

Today is the 52nd anniversary of the public hangings of nine Jews in Liberation Square in Baghdad on trumped-up spying charges.

The date  is especially meaningful for Dora Saddik and her family. Dora will never forget the night of 27 January 1969 when  nine Jews, who had been given a hurried show trial, were executed. Then aged 24, Dora was jailed, also on trumped-up spying charges, together with her mother and twin brothers aged 22 and a younger brother aged 16. 

 Only one wall separated Dora from the condemned men." We were forced to clap hands and call them traitors," she recalls. That same night a helicopter picked up the corpses and ferried them to Liberation Square. Half a million Iraqis came to sing, dance and 'eat chocolates' the next day under the gallows. The regime had declared a public holiday. 

Dora is convinced that she and her family would have been 'next on the list' for execution. They were freed following a visit from the Red Cross, which came to see if there were any Jews in Iraqi prisons.

During the three months that Dora and her family were in jail, they were tortured. Her brothers were strung up to the ceiling fan and hit with rubber hoses and iron bars. That was the least of it.

On their release, the family were told that if they said they were treated badly, their house or car would 'accidentally' catch fire. 

 The family were finally able to to be smuggled out of Iraq in December 1971. Some 2,000 Iraqi Jews took such illegal and risky routes out of the country. Dora has lived in Israel since. She has vowed never again to set foot in an Arab country.

Wiesenthal recalls MENA Holocaust as well as Baghdad hangings

Today, January 27,  is Holocaust Memorial Day. According to the records of the Wannsee conference in January 1942, it is clear that the Nazis planned to exterminate 11 million Jews, including those in North Africa and the Middle East. January 27 is also the date in 1969 when ten Jews were executed by the Ba'ath regime in Iraq on trumped-up spying charges. In this article for the Jerusalem Post, Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the leading organisation fighting antisemitism, has incorporated the impact of the Holocaust on Middle East and North African Jewry. He also mentions the Farhud in Iraq and the Baghdad hangings. It was noted that Samuels was present at a Zoom commemoration of the Baghdad hangings organised by the Spanish synagogue in Montreal on 24 January. 

The villa at Wannsee where the Nazis planned to exterminate 11 million Jews. The figure listed for Jews in France is 7000, 000, thus incorporating the North African Jewish communities, and the figure for Italy is 59,000, including the Jews of Libya and Ethiopia.

  In the spirit of the Abraham Accords, there is a growing interest in the Holocaust and its impact on the Jews of MENA (Middle East/North Africa). On this Yom Ha’Shoah / International Holocaust Commemoration Day on January 27, we should contemplate what the fate of MENA Jewry would have been had German general Rommel won the Desert Campaign. Would the Mufti Haj Amin al Husseini’s calls for Nazi Germany’s extermination of the Jews have been activated across the Arab world, despite the stories of protection from Vichy by Moroccan King Mohammed V and Tunisia’s Moncef Bey?
Italo-German occupied Libya was a story of deportation persecution. Even after the Allied victory, a November 1945 pogrom in Tripoli killed 130 Jews (36 of them children), destroyed five synagogues and plundered most remaining homes and businesses.
In brief, the Jews of French North Africa, Syria and Lebanon and the British mandates of Palestine and Iraq, and even – until the British/Soviet invasion – the millennial community of Persia (Iran) were all in danger. On June 1, the United Nations will mark the 80th anniversary of the Farhud (violent dispossession in Arabic) in Iraq. The pogrom was orchestrated by Rashid Ali al Gaylani, a pro-Nazi antisemite, who fled to Germany after the return of British forces. Hitler dubbed him “head of the Iraqi government in exile.”

 The pogrom in Baghdad and Basra left 600 dead, hundreds raped and beaten – with the corpses dumped in a mass grave. Following the 1948 establishment of Israel, most of MENA Jews were expelled or fled – many to France, the United States and the United Kingdom, but most to Israel.

 In the case of the 2,600 year-old Iraqi Jewish community, most left for Israel as a realization of the Biblical prophecy, “By the waters of Babylon we laid down and wept as we remembered Zion.” Of the 120,000 Iraqi Jews, some 2,000 remained in Iraq, becoming a target of the Baathist coup d’etat in 1968. The Jewish community was accused of “treason and collaboration with the Zionist On January 27, 1969, nine Jews were charged with espionage for of Israel (together with three Muslims and two Christians) and were hung in a public execution in Baghdad. 500,000 Iraqis were, reportedly, bused in to dance around the corpses. Another three Jews were executed on August 26. Baghdad Radio broadcast, “We hang spies, but the Jews sacrificed Christ.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Memorial to Jewish refugees to be sited in Jerusalem

For the first time a memorial to the 850,000 Jews forced to leave Arab countries is to be erected in Jerusalem. The project is expected to receive final mayoral approval this week.

The inscription will read: "With the birth of the State of Israel, over 850, 000 Jews were forced from Arab Lands and Iran. The desperate refugees were welcomed by Israel. By Act of the Knesset: November 30, annually, is the Departure and Expulsion Memorial Day. "

The Memorial has been donated by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, with support from the City of Jerusalem and the World Sephardi Federation.

Mock-up of the memorial

Jerry Klinger of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation says he has received preliminary approval for the siting of this major project in Jerusalem. 

Though the memorial will not be directly facing Jerusalem it will be on the Haas Promenade in Talpiyot, with its sweeping views over the Old City. 

"  It will have high end visibility and prominence, says Klinger. "It has never been done in Israel. It is long, long overdue." 

 The sculptural group is based on this iconic photograph, which has come to symbolise the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries.

The photograph shows a family of Yemenite Jews who had walked all the way to the port of Aden in 1949, the departure point for Israel.

Monday, January 25, 2021

WWII 's impact on MENA Jews, country-by-country

A recent book by Reeva Spector Simon, emeritus professor at Yeshiva university, chronicles the impact on the Jews of the MENA during WWII. Wolfgang G Shwanitz reviews 'The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa: the impact of World War II (Routledge, 2019) for Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2021):

 Hitler's plan for the "Final Solution" of the Jews included the destruction of "some eleven million," which likely included victims from Turkey to North Africa. Simon of Yeshiva University believes that only timing and logistics prevented the annihilation when, after 1940, the Axis turned to that region. Simon provides the first country-by-country account of the war's impact on a million Jews from Morocco to Iran.

 Simon recounts how most North African Jews came under the control of the German collaborators in the Vichy government after France surrendered in June 1940. Vichy regime regulations excluded 110,000 Jews from government jobs in Algeria, 68,000 Jews in Tunisia, and 35,000 in Syria and Lebanon. Italian planes bombed Haifa in July and September 1940. In June 1941, the Luftwaffe bombed Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Haifa. 

As German troops approached, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, called on the Arabs to kill Egypt's 80,000 Jews. The Farhud pogrom in Baghdad killed 200 Jews in 1941. Thousands were forced into labor camps in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya, and some were sent to death camps, as were 1,200 Algerian Jews and 2,080 Turkish Jews from metropolitan France. Although Turkish leaders stayed neutral, they were often pro-German.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Jewish sites to be 'protected from war', but already ruined

With thanks: Edna

Ruined synagogue in Mosul,northern Iraq

According to the Jewish Chronicle, researchers from the UK, US and Israel have listed more than 2,000 “nationally and important Jewish heritage sites” in Iraq and Syria that they say should be protected during military conflict. The researchers are from the UK based Foundation for Jewish Heritage (FJH), the Center for Jewish Art (CJA) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR).But is it too little, too late?

  An earlier report  by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage stated that almost all Iran and Syria's Jewish  sites are already 'beyond repair', especially following the rampage across northern Iraq by Da'esh and the ravages of the Syrian civil war. This report, published in June 2020 but no longer online, said that the location and condition of over 350 Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria had been identified.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Bahrain synagogue to be re-dedicated next month

Following the Abraham accords with Israel and in anticipation of the revival of the Jewish community,  Bahrain's Jews  will celebrate the  re-dedication of the Manama synagogue and the inauguration of a new Torah scroll *next month. The synagogue has not had a scroll, a rabbi or services for  decades, ever since the majority of the 600-member community fled, mostly to Israel. Sir Charles Belgrave, the British advisor to the Sheikh of Bahrain, recorded in his memoir, Personal Column, the anti-Jewish disturbances of December 1947, which saw Jews injured and two killed, the synagogue ransacked and a Torah scroll desecrated. Here is an account based on his book: (With thanks: Mary)

Inside the Manama synagogue (Raphael Ahren)

 On 4 December 1947, soon after partition was declared at the UN, riots broke out in Bahrain. Jewish houses and shops were looted, and everything was removed, including window frames. Women and children were badly beaten, and many needed hospitalisation. Two old women died from their injuries. Some families lost everything they had. 
The synagogue was looted and everything inside was destroyed. The siddurim were torn, and the Sefer Torah was taken out by a Pakistani man, thrown to the ground and desecrated. He was recognised by a family that lived very nearby, and family members witnessed the event. 

Rabbi Shimon Cohen, who was the Rabbi of the community at the time, was beaten up in a street on his way home. He managed to flee from his attackers and found refuge in a bank, and later received treatment in hospital. His house was looted too, and he and his family lost everything. He organised a flight for all his family and made aliyah. 

The looters were almost all Persians; among them there were a number of women; very few were Arabs. Some Arabs shielded Jews. 
In the evening one of the Sheikhs went with Sir Charles Belgrave to visit some of the Jewish houses. It was a tragic sight, with some huddled in corners. 

The rioters and looters were sentenced to prison terms between three and nine months in length. 

Many years later, some people tried to sell bits of the Torah scroll to a couple of prominent Jewish businessmen. The sellers were told that the fragments were not useable in their state. Another man just wanted to return the piece in his possession because his family had experienced bad luck since it had fallen into their hands.

Fortunately, a second Torah scroll-- which had been stored in the home of a member of the Jewish community -- survived the looting episode. Another Jewish community member carried it on a 'plane to London some years later, and handed it over to Rabbi Abraham Levy (of Lauderdale Road Spanish and Portuguese synagogue ) at Heathrow Airport. Now it is being used by pupils at Naima JPS, a London Jewish primary school.

*According to this article, Jared Kusher commissioned and paid for a new Torah scroll and presented it to the King of Bahrain in September 2020.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Tunisian president makes antisemitic remarks

Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed has apologised for blaming Jews for instability in Tunisia after his remarks were picked up by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of the European Jewish Congress and reported in The Jerusalem Post. Although his supporters have said that his words were misunderstood, Saïed has form, repeating a spurious distinction between Jews and Zionists he made in March 2020. (With thanks:Lily)

Kaïs Saïed

The president of Tunisia called up the chief rabbi of Djerba, Rabbi Haim Bitan, and apologized for his diatribe against the Jews, faulting them for unrest in the country,” Goldschmidt tweeted.  

Saïed seemed to refer to “the Jews who are stealing” while discussing the political situation with Tunisian citizens, as heard in a video posted to his Facebook page on Tuesday. 

However, others have said that Saïed did not refer to Jews at all, and said “those who are sitting around stealing” in Tunisian dialect.

US and Moroccan NGO sign anti-antisemitism MOU

Update: Israel and Morocco sign an agreement for direct flights (Jerusalem Post)

The United States and a Moroccan NGO signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on Friday to combat all forms of anti-Semitism. Mimouna has been active in promoting Muslim-Jewish understanding.

Elan Carr, the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and El Mehdi Boudra, president of the Morocco-based Association Mimouna, signing an MOU to combat anti-Semitism on Jan. 18, 2021. (Twitter/Elan Carr.) 

 The MOU was signed by Elan Carr, who leads the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and El Mehdi Boudra, president of the Morocco-based Association Mimouna, which has never received financial assistance from the Moroccan government. 

 The Memorandum of Understanding states the United States and Mimouna “intend to work together to share and promote best practices for combating all forms of anti-Semitism, including anti-Zionism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel” and “for combating other kinds of intolerance and hatred, including Islamophobia.”

Read article in full

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Cairo-born rock musician Sylvain Sylvain is dead

The mainstream media have been running obiiuaries for Sylvain Sylvain, who has died of cancer aged 69. Sylvain made his name as rhythm guitarist with the rock band The New York Dolls. Sylvain Mizrahi came from a Syrian-Jewish family which settled in Egypt and fled after the 1956 Suez crisis. Here is his Wikipedia entry (with thanks: Nigel):

Sylvain was born in Cairo, Egypt, to a Jewish family, but his family fled in the 1950s first to France and finally to New York, United States. The Mizrahis lived first on Lafayette Avenue in Buffalo, New York, but later moved to the New York City neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens, while he was still a child. 

Sylvain had dyslexia.[ He attended Newtown High School in Queens and Quintano's School for Young Professionals in Manhattan. Prior to joining the New York Dolls, Sylvain and future New York Doll bandmate Billy Murcia ran a clothing company called "Truth and Soul," which helped define his fashion sense and would play a role in the band's groundbreaking look. He had one brother, Leon (deceased), and one sister, Brigitte. 

 Before joining the New York Dolls in 1971, Sylvain was a member of the band Actress, which also featured Arthur Kane, Johnny Thunders and former fashion partner, Billy Murcia. He played rhythm guitar for the Dolls[ from 1971 until the group's final dissolution in 1977. 

Sylvain and singer David Johansen were the last remaining members at the time the group broke up. After the dissolution of the Dolls, he frequently played with Johansen on some of his solo records. 

He started his own band, The Criminals, with another ex-Doll, Tony Machine, and continued to play the New York club scene. He landed a solo recording contract with RCA, and released one album with Lee Crystal (drums; later of Joan Jett's Blackhearts) and Johnny Ráo (guitar).

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Israel's great Syrian-born spy, Isaac Shoshan, dies

One of Israel's greatest Arabic-speaking spies, Isaac Shoshan, has died aged 96. Shoshan, who was one of the subjects of Matti Friedman's  book, Spies of No Country, was born to a poor Aleppo family and smuggled into Israel in the 1940s. Yvette Alt Miller  takes up the story for Aish: 

Isaac Shoshan

Finally, after hours of walking, the group of Syrian Jews arrived at a kibbutz. They were amazed to hear fellow Jews speaking Hebrew, and offered them tea, bread and jam. Years later, Isaac remembers being “shocked” to meet Jews working to build a Jewish state.

Isaac settled in a kibbutz, working on the collective farm. One day, some men arrived at the kibbutz looking for Arabic speakers. They were from the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah, which was the underground army that Jews in the land of Israel formed in the years of British control of the land, and which later formed the foundation for the Israel Defense Force. Isaac volunteered to be part of the Palmach, and soon was one of a small group of Arabic-speaking Jews who formed a top secret elite unit, dedicated to collecting intelligence, sabotage and other actions in Arabic-speaking communities.

The group became known as the Arab Platoon. Made up of Jews who’d grown up in Arab-speaking environments, its members learned about Arab customs. Historian Matti Friedman notes: “The recruits were from the Islamic world, but at home they had known little of the majority religion beyond the dangers it posed to people like them. Now they learned laws, scripture, superstitions, and figures of speech.” (Quoted in Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel by Matti Friedman: 2019.)

If any of these Jews’ true identities were discovered, they'd face certain death. The Jews living in present-day Israel were ruled by Britain before 1948, and were barred from raising their own army. The Palmach was an underground organization. As Matti Friedman notes: “They (the fighters of the Palmach’s Arab Platoon) had no country – in early 1948, Israel was a wish, not a fact. If they disappeared, they’d be gone. No one might find them. No one might even look. The future was blank. And still they set out into those treacherous times, alone.”

If their true identities were discovered, they'd face certain death. Isaac was soon ready to work as a spy. His first missions were within the land of Israel. In one operation, he disguised himself as an Arab Muslim and attended services in the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where he heard a sermon calling for local Arabs to rise up and wage a war against Jews.

In Spring 1948, Isaac was given his most dangerous order yet. Arabs were streaming out of Haifa, heading north into Lebanon ahead of an anticipated declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel. Isaac was to pretend to be one of them. Adopting the name Abdul Karim, he caught a bus from Haifa going to Lebanon, alongside another Arabic speaking Jewish spy, Havakuk Cohen.

The two men had only one gun for defense. Once they crossed into Lebanon, a group of Arab military officers stopped the bus. Seeing two able-bodied young men, the Arab officers demanded to know why they weren’t fighting Jews. “We leave our homes, our wives, our kids, to help you fight the Jew, and you are running away?” they asked. Isaac reacted quickly. He showed the soldiers his gun. “We’re not escaping,” he told them in Arabic, “If this gun had a mouth, it would tell you how many Jews it killed.” Isaac’s local dialect and accent in Arabic was perfect. The officers never suspected they were speaking with a Syrian-born Jew, not a locally raised Arab man, and let Isaac and Havakuk go.

In Lebanon, Isaac and Havakuk observed the Arab Legion’s military convoys. Another Jewish spy brought them a wireless radio transmitter hidden inside an ordinary radio, and Isaac set up a makeshift intelligence center inside the small apartment he’d rented in Beirut. He began describing the military technology that Jewish fighters would soon be facing – and he heard a wondrous piece of news. Israel had declared itself a Jewish state. It was the first time he’d heard of the existence of his new country. He also learned that six Arab states had immediately declared war on Israel, and the new nation was desperately fighting for its very life.

Soon, Isaac and Havakuk were told that a car bomb was being assembled in a garage in Beirut and were tasked to stop it. The men asked a garage worker if they could come in to use the restroom. In the few minutes they were able to be inside the garage, they set a bomb, which destroyed the building, as well as some surrounding structures. Five people died in the bombing, and although he’d been acting to save Jewish lives in the course of Israel’s War of Independence, Isaac was profoundly shaken by the loss of life. Later on, still in disguise, Isaac met a man who’d lost both of his sons in the explosion. He often spoke about the experience and began to advocate for Israel to use less deadly means of spying and sabotage.

“Although we were sent to gather intelligence,” Isaac Shoshan later recalled, “we also saw ourselves as soldiers, and we looked for opportunities to act.” He and Havakuk set up a small snack kiosk in Lebanon’s capital Beirut, which they used as a cover for their spying activities. Isaac also drove a taxi part-time.

In 1948, Isaac and Havakuk were sent a coded message from Israel: a ship had docked in Beirut's harbor and Israeli sources indicated it might be there in order to be fitted with a cannon and used to attack the port of the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Isaac and Havakuk had to find the boat’s location.

This wasn’t any ordinary ship. Called the Aviso Grille, it had formerly been Adolf Hitler’s personal property. He and other senior Nazis enjoyed sailing in it, and Hitler planned to use it to travel to London in the event that he managed to defeat the British military. After the war, a wealthy Lebanese Christian bought the ship and sailed it to Beirut. Isaac managed to locate its whereabouts, and one dark night, he and Havakuk welcomed another Syrian-born Israeli Jew, Eliyahu Rika, who was dropped off along the Lebanese coast and swam to shore carrying two mines. With Isaac’s help, Rika swam to the ship and placed the mines on its hull. The resulting explosion – days later – rendered the boat inoperable.

In 1950 Isaac Shoshan, along with Havakuk Cohen, was relieved by yet more undercover Israeli Arabic-speakers. Isaac returned to Israel and helped other Jews infiltrate terror cells disguised as Arabs. Isaac helped create the cover for Eli Cohen, one of Israel’s most famous spies, who infiltrated the upper echelons of Syrian society in the 1960s – and who was discovered, tortured and executed in Syria in 1965.

“Generations of warriors learned their trade at his feet,” explained Ehud Barak, former Israeli Prime Minister and a former elite spy. “Me too,” he added, upon learning of Isaac Shoshan’s death.

Isaac continued to go on missions well into old age. He found that the persona of a helpless old man was a useful one for a spy. He also worked with Arab spies who cooperated with Israel. “He turned out to be blessed with a talent for this job too,” explained Rafi Sutton, a fellow intelligence officer with whom Isaac Shoshan wrote Men of Secrets, Men of Mystery (1990). “Agents are a problematic lot, and you have to know when they are lying to you or telling the truth, and how not to allow them to extort you and take control of the relationship between you, without damaging their readiness to work with you,” Rafi Sutton explained. Isaac was able to cut through the lies and recruit high quality spies, and support their work.

Most of the world will never know how many missions Isaac Shoshan went on, nor how many lives his decades of heroism saved. After his death at the age of 96 was announced on December 28, 2020, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak recalled that Isaac had “risked his life again and again” for the Jewish state.

Isaac Shoshan leaves behind a legacy of helping build and defend our homeland against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Kurdish 'Jewish' leader Mamsani exposed as an imposter

Some five years ago, the Jewish press began reporting on the activities of Sherzad Mamsani, who claimed to represent some 450 'Jewish' families in Kurdistan when all had been airlifted to Israel in 1950.  Point of No Return has always had its suspicions about Sherzad Mamsani's 'Jewish' identity. Now Times of Israel blogger Levi Clancy has exposed Mamsani as one of three imposters, who saw that there was money and influence to be gained if they posed as Jews. The one area Clancy does not investigate  is whether Mamsani was an Iranian agent, and  any part he might have played in the abduction of Mawlud Afand, the editor of the Israel-Kurd magazine in 2012.

Sherzad Mamsani hoodwinked the media  into believing he was a Kurdish Jew

For several years, the Kurdish Jewish leadership in Israel has tried to build constructively on their historic ties with the Kurdistan Region, but has been obstructed by a small group of impostors who rightly saw the actual Kurdish Jews as a challenge to their scheme. The impostors were led by publicity-seeking figures such as Sherzad Omar Mahmoud and Ranjdar Abdulrahman (under the aliases “Sherzad Mamsani” and “Ranj Cohen”), as well as Sherko Othman. These men pleaded in the media for visa cards and visa stamps — for themselves and their clients — under the false pretense of being forgotten and dispossessed Jews. 
The National Association’s press statement on this issue is available here. 

 The fabricated Jewish past of Sherzad Omar Mahmoud, a.k.a. “Sherzad Mamsani”: Sherzad insisted that he was born Jewish, but at different times claimed three entirely different backstories: in one version, he had Jewish parents who raised the family as Jews; in another, he had Jewish parents who raised the family as Muslims; and in yet another, he had two Muslim parents, but with unsubstantiated Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side. 

 “My two grandmothers were Jews,” stated Sherzad in an interview where he explained that both of his parents were Jewish. “We celebrated Jewish holidays very secretly” and “never learned about Islam at home” explained Sherzad in another interview. However, his level of knowledge indicated otherwise. “Clearly his first,” remarked an unimpressed Rabbi about a religious dinner attended by Sherzad overseas. 

“Hanukah is the Jewish New Year,” explained Sherzad incorrectly in a television interview. But at other times, Sherzad stated that his whole family “lived as Muslims” — and on this, there seemed to be some agreement. Sherzad’s brother Azad clarified that Sherzad came “from a family of Muslims” and offered photos of the family observing Ramadan, and doing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

 Sherzad weakly suggested in a report that his father and brothers became Hajjis as a ruse and that they secretly were observant Jews. 

 Levi Clancy's three-part series is here, here and here

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Shohat downplays antisemitism causing Iraqi-Jewish exodus

The 70th anniversary of the Tasqeet - the mass airlift  of the Jews of  Iraq to Israel - is an opportunity for New York university professor Ella Shohet to examine the causes in Jaddaliyya. From the start, her article obfuscates the reasons for leaving: it's because the Jews were 'caught in a vortex of political forces and conflicting ideologies' - an unsavoury soup of colonialism, monarchism, communism, Zionism and Iraq/ Arab nationalism.

Somehow she seems to miss the one 'ism' that overrode all the others: antisemitism.

'A new world order could not accommodate Jewishness and Arabness', she declares. And so she might, as Shohat effectively patented  the antonym 'Arab Jew'. But what was fatefully conflated  was not Jew and Arab, but Jew and Zionist. And it was not a new world order, it was a deliberate policy specific  to Arab League countries. The criminalisation of Zionism in Arab countries permitted arbitrary dispossession, arrest, trial and execution.  It turned every Jew into an enemy alien deserving of collective punishment, although they were not citizens of that enemy state. Yes, Arabs who remained in their hundreds of thousands in Israel were subject to limitations at first,  but Zionism did not scapegoat them in this way.

Ella Shohat

Although she recognises their suffering, Shohat cannot bring herself to call Iraqi Jews 'refugees' - only Palestinians can be refugees. Jews are neither refugees nor immigrants returning to their ancestral homeland.  To Shohat, the campaign for justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries is 'narrative envy' - an appropriation of the sacred Arab nakba.

The 1941 Farhud now recognised as a Holocaust event,  was the decisive break between Jews and Muslims in Iraq, but Shohat only mentions the massacre in order to suggest that Arabs were not Nazis. Did Arabs not save Jews in the Farhud? she complains, ignoring the part played  by Iraq's  pro-Nazi government.True, the history of Jews under Muslim rule should not be 'farhudised', but neither should one forget that Jews were second-class dhimmi until the colonial era.

While Iraq stole from Iraqi Jews, Israel 'betrayed' Iraqi Jews by 'excluding, rejecting and otherising them as Arabs  orientals'. Shohat meanders into an  inexplicable digression about the leader of the Iraqi Jewish community, Rabbi Sasson Khaduri, 'much maligned' in Israel for his declarations of loyalty to Iraq'  - and his son Shaul, who spent a year in the fearsome prison ' The Palace of the End'. But loyalty did not save the Jews.

Shohat's invective sounds embittered and  out of touch with today's Israel, where Iraqi Jews  have made their mark on  economy, society and culture. She may have a following in the sociology departments of US universities, but few Iraqi Jews would recognise themselves or their experiences  in her writings.

More about Ella Shohat

Friday, January 15, 2021

Sixty years since Operation Yakhin in Morocco

It is 60 years since Operation Yakhin, the rescue mission mounted by Israel to bring half of Morocco's Jewish community to Israel. 

Moroccan Jews arriving in Israel

According to Wikipedia, Operation Yakhin was an operation to secretly emigrate Moroccan Jews to Israel, conducted by Israel's Mossad between November 1961 and spring 1964. 

About 97,000 left for Israel by plane and ship from Casablanca and Tangier via France and Italy. The accession of Hassan II on 26 February 1961 enabled negotiations to begin on a secret agreement between Mossad's "Misgeret" division and the Moroccan authorities (principally Prince Moulay Ali and labour minister Abdelkader Benjelloun), together with the American organisation HIAS. 

An economic arrangement was agreed between Israel and Morocco, with the agreement of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and King Hassan II of Morocco, whereby $500,000 would be paid as a downpayment, plus $100 per emigrant for the first 50,000 Moroccan Jews, and then, $250 per emigrant thereafter.[1][2] The operation also received important help from Francoist Spain.[3] 

However, some Jews settled in France, Canada and the United States instead of in Israel. Morocco received "indemnities" for the loss of the Jews.[4] The operation was fronted by the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, who financed approximately $50 million of costs.[5] The Jewish community of Morocco spans nearly 2,000 years. 

During the 1948 anti-Jewish Riots in Oujda and Jerada 44 Jews were massacred in the northeastern Moroccan towns of Oujda and Jerada. This event contributed to a dramatic upsurge in the departure of Jews from Morocco, most of them to Israel. On May 14, 1948 – the Moroccan sultan, Mohammed V, delivered a speech in which he warned his country’s Jews not to demonstrate "solidarity with the Zionist aggression." If before Oujda and Jereda there had been a stream of Jews departing Morocco, afterward the immigration became even more extensive. 

During the next year, 18,000 of Morocco’s 250,000 or so Jews left for Israel. Between 1948 and 1956, when emigration was prohibited, the number reached about 110,000.[7] At the time, Morocco was home to the largest Jewish community in North Africa.[8] Fears that Moroccan independence, which appeared increasingly likely through the early 1950s, would lead to persecution of the Jewish community led to an initial wave of migrants. From 1948 to 1951, approximately 28,000 Jews emigrated from Morocco to Israel.[9] 

Upon Moroccan independence from French colonial rule in 1956, full rights and status were conferred to the Jewish population under the subsequent reign of Mohammed V. Nonetheless, immigration to Israel continued. In 1959, under pressure from the Arab League and facing the specter of the Jewish population's continued decline, emigration to Israel was prohibited, narrowing Jews' options for leaving the country. Despite retention efforts, Moroccan immigration to Israel rose to approximately 95,000 Jews for the period spanning 1952-1960.[9] 

The formal prohibition on emigration remained in place only through February 1961. While the formal prohibition was ended, Mohammed V maintained a clear public preference that the Jewish community remain within Morocco and barred foreign action to facilitate or encourage emigration.[10] Beginning in 1960, Israeli authorities engaged Moroccan officials in discussions intended to negotiate the facilitation of Jewish immigration to Israel with official (or, at least semi-official) blessing.[11] Even with the removal of the prohibition on such movement, these talks continued. Eventually, this evolved into Operation Yakhin. 

On 10 January 1961 a small boat called Egoz carrying 44 Jewish emigrants sank on the northern coast of Morocco.[12] This created a crisis both for the Moroccan authorities and for the foreign aid groups responsible for assisting the refugees.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Sign petition to have MENA Jews included in school curriculum

Unless public opinion mobilises, schools in California may fail to incorporate antisemitism and the experiences of Middle  East Jews in their Ethnic Studies curriculum.

The California-based organisation representing MENA Jews,  JIMENA is warning the public that it has its last opportunity to influence the California State Board California's Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). The deadline is 21 January 2021. 

 As we are now in the very final stretch of public comment for the ESMC, JIMENA is urging people to sign a simple email petition. The petition is also endorsed by 30 Years After, the Iranian American Jewish Federation and the Sephardic Educational Center. Anyone can sign.

 According to Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA,"The lesson plan, Antisemitism and Jewish Middle Eastern Americans should be situated next to lessons focused on other forms of bigotry targeting Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans."

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

1939 Yemenite hero memorialised in Shiloah

A plaque to  a man who tried  to save synagogue property during an Arab riot in 1939  has been unveiled in the vllage of Shiloah, on the southern slopes facing the old city of  Jerusalem. Following the riot, theYemenite residents were evacuated.  In 2019 the 19th century Yemenite synagogue was rededicated. Report in Israel National News: 

Rahamim Madmoni recited Kaddish for his father Shlomo, killed in the 1929 riot in Silwan

Today for the first time a memorial day was held in the village of Shiloah (Silwan) - also known as the Yemenite village - for Shlomo Madmoni, who was murdered in 1939 on his way to the village to save the Torah scroll and other synagogue property that was badly damaged during the Arab riots led by Haj Amin al-Husseini against the Jewish community. 

 The annual memorial day was initiated by the public council of the Shiloah village headed by Gadi Bashari, a member of the Zionist Archive. 

 During the memorial service, a marble plaque was placed in memory of Madmoni and his work to save the village, and for the first time in 82 years since the murder – the Kaddish was recited in the old Yemenite synagogue by Rahamim Madmoni, 86, the son of Shlomo Madmoni. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Two more Yemen families flown out to UAE

Two more Jewish families from Yemen have been flown out to the UAE, where they were reunited with members of their family living in the UK and Abu Dhabi respectively. The families were effusive in their thanks to the UAE. The Fayez family consists of the parents of Losa Fayez and her uncle. The Salem family were a family of four. By this blog's reckoning, this leaves just 31 Jews in Yemen, most living in a compound in the capital.  The Jerusalem Post reports (with thanks: Jeremy):

 Yitzhak Fayez, 35, told WAM (Emirati News) that he had not seen his grandparents and uncle since he was a child, when he moved to the UK from Yemen. 

He and 11 family members from London, including five great grandchildren, met with Fayez's grandparents and uncle from Yemen. "They are today meeting their great grandchildren for the first time," said Fayez. "Today, the UAE made my family's dream come true after we had lost hope on getting reunited, after 21 years of separation." 

"The saying goes: those that give water to the thirsty, will live in prosperity for the rest of their lives," added Fayez. "This is what the UAE has done for us. The people of peace, of bliss, of love."


 Fayez's mother, Losa, said that the reunion had put an end to 21 years of suffering. "I'm living a dream, not quite sure if it's a dream or reality," said Losa. 

 "Only Almighty God is able to reward the UAE for this deed. What they have done for us is unparalleled by any means. Humans aren't capable to return this favor," said Yousif Habeeb, a family member. The second family, the Salem family, was reunited after 15 years apart. Haron Salem, his wife and two children flew from Yemen to visit their relative who lives in Abu Dhabi. 

"Words cannot express how grateful we are to the UAE. We are very happy being here reunited with our family member. The UAE is truly the homeland of love, tolerance and peace," said Salem. Rabbi Elie Abadie, the senior rabbi of the Jewish community in the UAE, thanked the government for reuniting the Jewish families, in a video on Twitter, adding in a separate tweet that he was honored to have taken part in uniting the families. 

 In August last year, the al-Nati family, who live in northern Yemen, were flown out to Abu Dhabi and reunited with relatives from the UK at the airport. (Story here.) Their departure left one old lady, her crazed brother and three others in Amran province. (As far as is known Levi Salem Musa Marhabi is still in jail there). It is probable that the Salem family were living in the government compound in Sana'a the capital..

Monday, January 11, 2021

Morocco plans for 200,000 Israeli tourists

Morocco is gearing up for hundreds of thousands of Israeli visitors in the wake of the announcement Morocco-Israel  peace accords. Clearly, Morocco views descendants of Moroccan Jews living in Israel as 'attached to their homeland'. It is interesting that  the reverse tourist traffic of Moroccans to Israel  is not really contemplated. Article via Dafina (with thanks: Leon)

Some 200,000 Israeli tourists  are expected in Morocco from 2021 The official flight on December 22 opened the way for air services between Israel and Morocco.

 In three months, direct daily flights will link  Tel Aviv, Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakesh, Nadia Fettah Alaoui, Morocco's Minister of Tourism, told  i24 television channel.  Some 200,000 Israeli tourists are expected  to visit the kingdom in the first instance, announced Nadia Fettah Alaoui, adding that, "this type of agreement (with Israel) will contribute to a better interaction between communities and populations". The very first who will land on Moroccan soil, says the Moroccan medium  L'Economiste, are mostly tourists of Moroccan origin who are eager to set foot on their homeland, to which they remain so attached.

Jews of Moroccan origin make up a large community in the Hebrew state, at 800, 000 or even one million people, roughly one-tenth of the Israeli population, the same source observed.  Sephardim  present  great potential:  the Israeli diaspora (in France, Belgium, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia ...), economic operators, investors or trips organized by tour operators, pilgrimages. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Evidence found of North African Jews killed at Sobibor

It is well documented (thanks to meticulous Nazi records)  that some 2,000 Mizrahi Jews living in Europe during WW2 (mostly, but not exclusively North African) were deported to Nazi concentration camps. Among the best known were Young Perez, flyweight boxing champion, who perished on the Death March, and Alfred Nacache, swimming champion, who survived Auschwitz. Now an Israeli archeologist of North African extraction has unearthed dog tags belonging to North African Jews who were murdered at Sobibor camp. Report in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily):

Maurice Ben Zaken, a relative of the archeologist Yoram Haimi, died in Sobibor champ

Messasud Aknine, from Marseilles, France, was arrested in 1943 and deported to the Drancy internment camp outside Paris. 

The 73-year-old Jew’s fate was sealed. Before long he was sent to the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland, where the Nazi German invaders killed him in the gas chambers. 

In all likelihood, no one would have heard about him again were it not for a recent find, deep underground, of a chilling memento. 

For several years now, Yoram Haimi of the Israel Antiquities Authority has been excavating at the Sobibor site with Polish colleague Wojtek Mazurek. 

Among the tens of thousands of items belonging to the camp’s prisoners that they have pulled from the earth, they recently found five ID tags. The Germans used the numbers etched on these dog tags to identify the prisoners, similar to the numbers tattooed on the arms of Jews at Auschwitz. 

Through archival research, Haimi was able to identify several of the names behind the numbers, shedding light on a little-known chapter of the camp’s history: Hundreds of the Jews killed at Sobibor, about 160 miles east of Warsaw, came from North Africa. Aknine, born in Tangier, Morocco in 1870, was one of them. 

Another victim, David Aknine, was born in 1900 in Tlemcen, Algeria. He too was killed at Sobibor in 1943. Such was also the fate of Shalom Levy from Boufarik, Algeria, whose ID tag was also unearthed by Haimi.

JewishGen Holocaust database (with thanks: Edna)

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Sudan signs Abraham accords with Israel

In another ground-breaking development , Sudan has joined the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in signing the Abraham Accords with Israel. The US will removed Sudan from the terrorist list, thus opening the way to Sudan receiving loans and access to know-how. The Voice of America reports:

KHARTOUM - Sudan has officially signed the Abraham Accords, agreeing to normalize relations with Israel. 

 The deal paves the way for Sudan to relieve its massive debt to the World Bank.The historic signing took place at the U.S embassy in Khartoum Wednesday. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin signed on behalf of Washington, while Sudanese Minister of Justice Nasereldin Abdelbari signed on behalf of Khartoum. 

 Speaking to reporters after the signing, Abdelbari said Khartoum welcomes the rapprochement and the diplomatic ties between Sudan and Israel that Sudan will boost for its own benefit and for other countries in the region. 

He said Khartoum appreciates Mnuchin’s historical visit and hopes to strengthen ties between Sudan and the U.S.

In his brief statement, Mnuchin said it was "a great honor to be here with you today, and I think this will have a tremendous impact on the people of Israel and the people of Sudan as they continue to work together on cultural and economic opportunities.”  

Friday, January 08, 2021

The Jew who helped bring cinema to the Ottomans

Not much is known about Sigmund Weinberg, a Romanian Jew who opened a photographic and optical equipment shop in Istanbul. Official photographer to two Ottoman sultans, he became one of the pioneers of Turkish cinema. Now a film has been made about him by Savas Arslan. Profile in the Daily Sabah (with thanks: Edna):

Sigmund Weinberg: represented the French Pathé company

Weinberg was one of the photographers taken under the care of the palace. Sultan Abdülhamid II supported and directed all photographers in the country at the time. The earliest photographs of the Ottoman era date back to his reign. He had photographs taken of all the statesmen, including himself, the army and even inmates in prisons. The entire Ottoman territory, including Istanbul, Mecca and Medina, was also photographed upon his request.

Was Weinberg the one who brought cinema to the Ottomans? Yes, he was one of the people who brought this technology in his era, but he was not the only one. From the first quarter of the 1900s, cinema gradually became an important part of entertainment life in Istanbul, with longer and more extensive film screenings.

The organizers of film screenings in these years were Istanbul’s artisans, Ottoman merchants who followed the technologies of the period and businessmen from abroad. Among those who were instrumental in the introduction of cinema to the Ottomans were Weinberg, French painter Henri Delavallee, music hall and circus operator Ramirez, French palace illusionist Bertrand, engineer and film equipment manufacturer Pierre-Victor Continsouza and Yıldız Palace’s interpreter Sabuncuzade Louis Alberi.

The first film was screened in 1896 by a Frenchman named Bertrand who organized cultural and artistic activities at Yıldız Palace. Sultan Abdülhamid II watched the film with his family and took great interest in it.

In 1897, Weinberg started to show films to the people of Istanbul as the Istanbul representative of Pathé Film. These screenings were short but engaging pastimes attended by families, including children. From that year onward, film screenings continued to increase.

The machine used in this screening was brought by Weinberg from France. It was a projection machine that produced light through oxygen, used in early cinema technologies of the pre-electric era. He projected minute-long films on a 2-meter-wide screen.

After carrying out screenings in various places, Weinberg in 1908 opened the Pathé cinema, the first established cinema hall in Istanbul. He operated this hall until 1916.

Weinberg produced films of historical importance as well as operating the movie house and broadcasting and distributing films. In October 1899, he wrote a letter to the sultan in order to film the Ottoman army. He also presented the sultan with a catalog of cinematographers, which are motion picture film cameras also serving as film projectors and printers.

The French Pathé is one of the film companies that operated in the early years of cinema in the Ottoman Empire. As in many countries, they opened a representative office in Istanbul.

Nearly all of the films screened from 1902-1913 belonged to Pathé. The company was the sole dominator of the Ottoman market with its distribution network. It did not limit its investments to Istanbul and opened movie theaters in Izmir and Thessaloniki, two of the most cosmopolitan cities.

Weinberg also made records in the name of Pathé film that were watched in Ottoman territory. Thanks to him, many historical happenings were recorded on film. He filmed one of Sultan Abdülhamid II's Cuma Selamlığı, a tradition practiced by Ottoman sultans on their way to Friday prayers, in the Hamidiye Mosque in 1908. He also recorded other important events of the period, such as the election held in November 1908 and the opening of the Assembly in Istanbul.

Weinberg also filmed Sultan Mehmed V Reşad, who ascended to the throne after Sultan Abdülhamid II. He recorded the parade of the Ottoman navy at a ceremony at which Sultan Mehmed V Reşad was present in 1910. Documentary films, which he took by approaching the sultan as close as 5 meters away with special permission from the sultanate, were screened in various halls.

Additionally, he shot occupied Istanbul and filmed many current cases. These included sports competitions, the funeral of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Joachim of Constantinople and some large fires in Istanbul. He was documenting history with both films and photographs.

Weinberg was a figure with supreme commercial acumen, foreseeing the future of all kinds of innovation. Between 1885 and 1889, his shop both assumed representation of various foreign companies and imported photographic material.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II

By the time of World War I, the film industry had developed considerably. Thus, it was used as one of the most effective means of propaganda. The government of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which dragged the Ottomans into the war, wanted to use it well.

During this period, Weinberg was appointed head of the Central Army Cinema Department (MOSD), which was established by the order of Enver Pasha, minister of war and acting commander-in-chief. He was ordered to film the Romanian and Galician fronts. These important images were shown in the Palas Cinema on June 9, 1917.

However, the government of CUP, which cooperated with the Germans in the war, dismissed Weinberg. Surely, the ultra-nationalist CUP officers who cooperated with the Germans would not trust a Jew who was the representative of a French company. Romania was also a hostile force, and Weinberg descended from a Romanian family.

Grandparents of Edna-Anzarut-Turner (who alerted us to this article) after their wedding in Constantinople. They are sitting at the back. Signmund Weinberg is at the wheel. Next to him is Karl Karlmann, one of the first to found Bon Marché, an elegant and select department store in Constantinople.

Although he always considered himself an Ottoman citizen, the concept of the nation-state of the new world prevailed after the war.

What did Weinberg do after the founding of the Republic of Turkey? Information about him is scarce as he was pacified during the war years. His wife Caroline moved to Tel Aviv in 1927, with her son-in-law Josef and daughter Regina. Weinberg continued to live in Istanbul after 1927.

He died in 1936, and at the initiative of his other daughter Elsa and son-in-law Harry, who lived in Romania at the time, his body was brought to Bucharest and was buried there.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

The term 'Arab Jew' is an act of colonisation

Anti-Zionists have manipulated the Mizrahi story for the sole purpose of demonizing the Jewish state. UC Berkeley’s Bears for Palestine is the latest group to join this trend, as part of their Palestine 101 curriculum. (What is more worrying, is the trend has also been seeping into the mainstream academic curriculum - ed. ) Maya Reuven writes in Jewish Journal:

Jewish refugees arriving in Israel

Although much of the curriculum plays on routine anti-Zionist arguments and tropes, Bears for Palestine’s lesson materials for week five (“The Character of the Zionist Settler-State”) take a more creative approach to demonizing Israel by including an article by Ella Shohat titled, “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims.” 

The article proceeds to tell a story of “Arab Jews,” a majority of whom now seek to form a “Palestinian-Sephardi alliance” in order to combat the evils of Zionism. The article attempts to make an argument about settler-colonialism while indulging colonialist language. In the piece, Shohat routinely refers to Mizrahim as “Arab Jews” or even “Jewish Arabs,” terms that are themselves a product of Arab imperialism. 

Mizrahi Jews had been living in the Middle East long before the Arabization of the region, and pushing the use of the term “Arab Jew” over our preferred indigenous title is itself an act of colonization. As a result, a vast majority of Mizrahim today reject the term “Arab Jew” in favor of “Mizrahi Jew.” The irony of using this language of erasure for a unit entitled “The Character of the Zionist Settler-State” cannot be understated. Shohat also dodges the topic of the Jewish exodus from Arab lands in favor of a narrative that paints Israel, the place of refuge, as the ultimate oppressor. 

If we wish to have an honest discussion about the oppression of Mizrahi Jews, should we not begin with the Farhud in Iraq? The internment of Jews in Egypt? Nazi-inspired concentration camps in Libya? To gloss over all of these atrocities in favor of an argument that demonizes the country that gave my family and the families of the 850,000 refugees a future is disingenuous at best.

 But it is Shohat’s suggestion that there is a “Palestinian-Sephardi alliance” against the existence of Israel that is indicative of just how disconnected from reality and incredibly manipulative the article is. The mainstream Mizrahi perspective is a Zionist one.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

The hanging of Iraq's wealthiest Jew (Part 3)

Here is the final part of the report by Marvin Goldfine of the American Jewish Committee into the status of Iraqi Jews after Israel was declared in May 1948. (For Parts 1 and 2, see here and here). The crowning act of Iraq's expropriation of the Jews was the much publicized case of Shafiq Ades, of Syrian origin, who became one of the wealthiest residents and business men of Iraq. Ades was hanged in front of his family house in Basra in September 1948. The hanging sent shock waves through the Jewish community. 

The city of Basra where he lived had a record of more intense anti-Jewish activity, due in part to the personal bias of its chief of police. Prison sentences against Jews there during the period in question were more frequent and severe. That there took place a subsequent flight of Jews from Basra to Baghdad involving a very large part of its Jewish community clearly marks the difference in degree of treatment meted out in these two centers, This is further borne out by the fact that the brother and partner of Ades who lives in Baghdad was simply put under surveillance. Otherwise, he was not molested nor was his property touched. 

Ades was charged with complicity with the enemy in selling arms to the Israeli forces in Palestine, Military equipment which he had purchased from British surplus stock two years ago and which he claimed to have sold in Italy was discovered during the Arab-Israeli battle in Palestine, 

Curing the initial period after his arrest, Ades threatened he would expose several high government leaders. His trial was thus held huis-clos, only one witness was heard, and the court refused to admit into the chamber the defense counsel composed of three prominent Moslem attorneys. 

Shafiq Ades: his close connections with Muslims did not save him

For some time previous to the trial of Shafiq Ades in September, demonstrations and threats had been directed against him. As one whose close connections and business interests with the highest Moslem leaders were well known, his arrest came as a shock to many. Furthermore, the Jews did not immediately sense the incident as a threat against themselves, since Ades had never been part of their community. He neither identified himself with them nor helped their institutions.

 The circumstances surrounding the hanging of Ades and the barbarities which accompanied it have already been told to the world. His assets valued at 20,000, 000 dinars were officially confiscated, although it is claimed that he succeeded in disposing.of the title of much of it before his execution. 

None of Ades' Moslem business associates, involved as much as he was in the same deal in question, were arraigned before the law. That this represented a deliberate attempt by the Government to deal at one and the same time a coup against the wealthiest Jew — because he was a Jew —» and to get some easy capital for its empty Treasury, is a matter no longer questioned. 

Recent Developments

 In October there were some indications that the fury was abating. As one Iraqian testified, it seemed as though the thirst was assuaged after the Ades incident, '»/hat is more probable is that it became only too clear that the policy was leading the government headlong into confusion at an accelerated pace. The Minister of Defense, whose nationalistic policy was attacked as directly responsible for the chaos, had to resign. 

He pleaded in his statement that he had merely carried out the directives of the government. That some Jewish businesses were then encouraged to resume operations, and that a few Jewish officials, particularly accountants, were taken back into their old civil service -19- jobs reveal that the government felt it had carried matters too far for its own good. 

Whatever the motives, the trend during the past three months has unmistakably been towards a less violent course. In the debate in the lower house on the reply to the Speech from the Threw, one of the prominent members described the "staff reductions" as an "oppressive measure," and added, "we cannot fight communism by police, but by raising the social standard of the country." (The Iraq Times, December 20, 1948). Jews have come out of their hiding places and shops are beginning to reopen. 

The application of martial law has been eased and there is no longer the same fear of riots. By no means does this mean that tension has dissipated. On the contrary, arrests and arbitrary judgments seem to be almost as prevalent as before.

 The following excerpts from Iraqian newspapers give some idea of the steady pace with which these trials are proceeding? "The court nartial rules that Shaoul Yahya must deposit a guarantee of 200  dinars as it is alleged that he has committed acts which disturbed the public order." (Sawt al Ahrar, Dec. 19, 1948, liberal daily). "Shaoua Bekhar has been sentenced to one year of hard labor as the court martial rules that he is a Zionist, having quarreled with the witness, Mr. Thomas, when the latter insulted the Zionists and Moshe Shertok." (El Shaab, December 30, 1948, pro-Government paper).

 "It is ruled that R. Sasson Ghazale and Nissam Rahim must pay a 500 dinar guarantee assuring their good conduct and the maintenance of order, as it is alleged to the court that Nissam Rahim had received a letter from his aunt, Theresa Rabin, who is now in Palestine. 

It is further ruled to indict the latter, Theresa Rabin, in absentia." (El Shaab, December 30, 1948). "Ezra Hanania was fined 100 dinars for propagating false news and disturbing the public." (El Shaab, December 30, 1948). "Moshe Ezra was fined 100 dinars for propagating false news." (Liwa al Istiklal, November 30, 1948, extreme rightist}. "Youssef Khedouri was fined 50 dinars for propagating false news thus disturbing public order." (El Shaab, January 6, 1949)

 "It is ruled that Ezra Heskel and Murad Abraham must each pay 1,000 dinars as a guarantee that they will observe good conduct and maintain public order during the next two years. If they cannot pay the guarantee they will be imprisoned for two years as it is alleged to the court that they were involved in the smuggling of Jews to Palestine and such actions are dangerous to the security of the State." (El Shaab, January 6, 1949.) 

Furthermore, the general situation is such that the Jews cannot at all be sure that further trouble does not lie ahead. The growth of the Istaklal (Independence) Party is cause for much anxiety. Composed of pro-Nazi elements whom the British confined during the war, it is now receiving British support. 

Nationalistic, militaristic and anti-Semitic in temper, it is playing a more vocal role both in the government chambers and in framing public opinion. With the dissolution of the Democratic and Liberal parties during the past year, the Istaklal remains the only one of consequence officially permitted to operate. With the most recent change in Government of January, I949 ushering back into office the pro-British Prime Minister, Nuri es Said Pasha, one wonders whether this will mean further development of this group.

  England's Role in Iraq 

England's influence in the direction of the Government itself is said to be far-reaching and decisive. Through her Embassy and Consulate, her British Institutes, the oil companies and business firms, her presence is felt in shaping all official policy matters. That this included a share in the anti-Jewish activity is affirmed quite categorically by many who follow events closely. It was explained that her motive is identical with that of the Arab leaders — namely, to divert attention from opposition both to the government and to Britain, and to channel the wrathful emotions of the discontented toward a vulnerable and powerless minority.

 It is said that England has been encouraging the development of the Moslem business firms as opposed to the Jewish ones, and that her Embassy has a blacklist of about 100 business establishments, practically all of which are Jewish-owned, It is from this list that the names were  - supposedly - taken for the arrests made last July on the trumped-up charges of trading with Russia,

Thus, the Jewish community hardly looks to Britain as a source of protection in her present plight.Iraqian Jews also pointed out that American influence has not been relatively significant, and particularly now that the United States is considered pro-Zionist. Even though Iraq was one of the three countries which did not vote for the Human Rights Declaration, they feel that the drawing of the United Nations' attention to their plight would have positive results.


The main hope for an improvement in the situation rests on a speedy settlement of the Palestine conflict and the re-establishment of relations between Moslem and Jew. Iraqian Jews are well aware that renewed relations will not automatically take place because of the intense anti-Jewish sentiment which has recently become so current. But they know the Arabs to be fickle and gullible, easily stirred to commit violence, but as quickly prone to forget their animosity. 

Even the leaders of the Government who carried out the oppressive measures are not considered basically intolerant, and are capable of dealing fairly under a different set of circumstances. The Iraqian Government is conscious of world opinion and. very sensitive to pressure and newspaper publicity. But the Jews caution, however, that such revelations as are made should not be in the nature of attacks, but rather should appeal to the traditional harmony that has characterized Arab-Jewish relations in the past. 

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