Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Expelled Yemeni Jews arrive in Cairo

Expelled by the Iranian-backed Houthis,  13 Jews of Yemen departed for Cairo, Egypt, according to the Times of Israel. This leaves just six Jews in Yemen, including the jailed  Levi Salem Marhabi. The press has speculated that the Jews consented to leave as part of a deal to free Marhabi, but there is no guarantee that he will be released. See my comment below:

The 13 Jews received an offer to go to Israel by way of the port city of Aden, which is controlled by the United Arab Emirates’ proxy in the war-torn country, the Southern Transitional Council. But they refused.

 “They reached an agreement with the Houthi leadership to go to Cairo. They wanted at first to go to the United Arab Emirates, but that proved impossible, so they went to Cairo. 

In Cairo, they have family there,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. 

 Several Yemeni Jewish families have been resettled in the Emirates in recent months. The families were given what the official termed “very good financial conditions,” including housing units.

According to the Jerusalem Post:

The three families arrived in Egypt and are considering whether to immigrate to the UAE or make aliyah to Israel, according to KAN news. Some of the family members are reportedly interested in moving to Israel, but one of the family members is reportedly opposed.

According to KAN news, six Jews remained behind in Yemen, including Marhabi who is still imprisoned, despite the Asharq Al-Awsat report that he would be released if the families left. His conditions in prison have reportedly been improved since the families agreed to leave.

My comment: The departure of the 13 Jews marks the end of the 3,000-year-old community. There are six Jews left, including the jailed Marhabi: an old woman, her crazed brother and three others in Amram province.  (It is estimated that there are also  Jewish women married to Muslims). For reasons unspecified, the thirteen were not able to move to the UAE, which took in three Jewish families from Yemen in recent months. It is highly unlikely that the Yemenite Jews would have family in Egypt, where the community consists of six elderly ladies, all widows or married to Christians or Muslims. The newcomers will not find a Jewish community in Egypt to speak of. It is likely that the 'influential  member' opposed to their aliya to Israel is Rabbi Yahya Youssef, who headed the group of Jews living in a government compound in Sana'a before the Houthis took control of the city.  Yahya unsuccessfully fought for Jewish rights in Yemen.

Rabbi Yahya Youssef

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Tobie Nathan captures mysticism of Cairo Jewish quarter

Tobie Nathan is the author of a dozen novels and numerous psychoanalytic studies. Born to a Jewish family in Cairo in 1948, Nathan had to flee his country with his family in 1957. Educated in France, Nathan is a pioneering practitioner of ethno-psychiatry: 

Alexandria is not Egypt', says Tobie Nathan. " It's next to Egypt.' 

What does Nathan mean? It is to say that Alexandria in the 20th century was home to a cosmopolitan mix of nationalities, many of them recent arrivals, drawn by the port city's thriving commercial life.

The real Egypt is to be found in Cairo, where Nathan was born. Indeed he comes from a long line of native Jews. The family house was in Haret El-Yahud, the Jewish quarter. The quarter had a gate which the Jews themselves locked in order to protect themselves. In fact the gate to the quarter (now removed) was also the gate to the large Nathan family house.

The Nathans were stateless, as were 40 percent of Jews. Only some five percent held Egyptian nationality, a privileged class with connections to the elite. 

Nathan  is the author of several books. The most recent is a novel, 'La Societé des Belles Personnes'. It is a tale of revenge based on real events. (See Akadem Interview  in  French with thanks: Viviane).

The book is the sequel to 'A Land like You'. Here is an extract from a review by Jean Naggar  for the Jewish Book Council: 

 In his latest novel, A Land Like You (short-listed for the Prix Goncourt in 2015),  Tobie Nathan has written a beautiful and immersive novel, plunging readers headlong into Egypt’s unique history and extraordinary variety of cultures. Nathan interweaves the worlds of the voluble Jews from Haret el Yahud—the Cairo Jewish Quarter — with those of the Muslims of Bab El Zuweyla, along with the complex international communities that connect and divide them. 

Propelled forward by vivid, unforgettable characters, the layers of political, historic, and mystical Egypt tumble together into a rich mosaic, encompassing a period of great change from 1918 to the 1950s. Within the crowded Haret El Yahud, Esther, an orphaned child, suffers a traumatic accident that reshapes her future. The trauma leaves Esther’s relatives, and the larger community, convinced she is possessed by alien spirits and demons.

 Beautiful, wild, and ungovernable, Esther clearly marches to the beat of her own drum. Her intimacy with unseen forces commands consternation and respect, distinguishing her in the often claustrophobic community of Jews who inhabit the twisted paths and teeming dwellings of the Haret El Yahud. For Jews and Arabs alike, religious mysticism and close contact with the spirit world imbues their daily lives with wonder and drama.

 Urged on by a multitude of anxious relatives, Esther marries at fourteen, and finds deep love and happiness with Motty, an older man, blind from birth. Sadly, the love between them produces no child in seven years of marriage. Her quest for motherhood eventually results in a son, Zohar, but she has no milk with which to feed him, so she seeks out a woman in the Muslim quarter who has recently given birth to a daugher, Masreya.

Read review in full

Monday, March 29, 2021

Saudi report: last Yemenite Jews are to be expelled (updated)

Update: The American Sephardi Federation has independently verified the report, and confirms that the Iranian-backed Houthis have indeed made refugees of 13 Yemenite Jews. There is no guarantee that Levi Salem Marhabi should be released from jail as a quid pro quo. Six other Jews remain in the country, according to the ASF.

According to a Saudi press report, the last remaining Jews in Yemen are to be expelled and are waiting for the UN refugee agency to find them a country other than Israel or the US which would grant them asylum. Last summer, a Jewish family arrived in Abu Dhabi from Amran province in Yemen and two more families followed in January 2021. The 13 Jews from three families to be expelled would have been living in a Sana'a compound, originally under government protection but at the mercy of the Iranian-backed Houthis since their takeover of the capital in 2014. The departure of the 13  is a condition for the release from jail of  Levi Salem Marhabi, following pressure from the US. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Some of the Jews living in the Sana'a compound

The last three Jewish families in Yemen were deported by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, leaving only four elderly Jews in the country, after heavy pressure by the Houthis, the London-based Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported over the weekend. 

The families, totalling 13 people, told Asharq Al-Awsat that they were now searching for a new home. The families had resisted leaving their home, but finally agreed to leave after the Houthis made their departure a condition for the release of Levi Salem Marhabi, a Jew who was captured by the Houthis about six years ago. 

 “They gave us a choice between staying in the midst of harassment and keeping Salem a prisoner or leaving and having him released,” one of the deported Jews told Asharq Al-Awsat. "History will remember us as the last of Yemeni Jews who were still clinging to their homeland until the last moment." 

 Marhabi was arrested by the Houthis for helping a Yemeni Jewish family move an old Torah scroll out of the country. Despite a court ruling that he was innocent and should be released, he was reportedly held as a bargaining chip, according to the daily. Similar reports have been denied as false in the past.

 In July of last year, Iranian-backed Houthis were said to be rounding up Yemeni Jews and pressuring them to leave, according to Egyptian reports. 

The Israeli Foreign Ministry denied the reports, as did Yemeni and international sources. 


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sing 'Ma Nishtana', Iraqi-style

With thanks: Sandra

A traditional Iraqi-Jewish seder table (photo: New York Times)

As Jewish families the world over sit down to their Passover ceremonial meal or Seder to recall the Biblical exodus, here is a rendition of MaNishtana, Why is this Night Different from all other Nights? This is the first of four questions, usually  recited by the youngest member of the family.

Here is a version familiar to Iraqi Jews. It is recited in Hebrew, and then in Judeo-Arabic. The children carry on their shoulders  a piece of matza  wrapped in a napkin: they knock at the door. The guests call out: 'Where are you coming from?'  'Mitsrayim', they reply. 'Where are you going? ''Yerushalayim' they shout.

Audiofile of Ma Nishtana

Friday, March 26, 2021

May we celebrate Passover using Zoom?

Are we permitted to celebrate Pesah using Zoom ? The question arose last year when the coronavirus pandemic broke, separating families who would otherwise have gathered around the Seder table. Fourteen rabbis from the Association of North African Sages in the land of Israel ruled that it was permissible to use Zoom in order to lessen the impact on mental and emotional health. However, a fierce backlash to the ruling came from other rabbis. Dr Arie Tepper of the American Sephardi Federation writes:

Although the ruling received a large amount of publicity, in strictly legal terms there was nothing really extraordinary about it. 

Consider the “hot-topic” issue of using electricity on Yom Tov (holidays). It’s well-known that many Moroccan Hakhamim (sages) have ruled that the use of electricity—in plainest terms, the ability to turn on and off a light —is permissible on Yom Tov, as did the first Rishon Le’Tsiyon, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the State of Israel, Hakham Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Ouziel (1880-1953). 

Most recently, the Moroccan-born Rabbi David Chelouche (1920-2016), a student of R’Ouziel’s and the Chief Rabbi of Netanya for 63 years, devoted an entire year to studying the intricacies of electricity with expert scientists and engineers. 

He then composed a forty-page ruling in which he reaffirmed that it is, indeed, permissible to use electricity on Yom Tov. Nevertheless, the new ruling was viciously attacked in rabbinic quarters. 

Some Ashkenazi rabbis rejected the ruling by attacking the scholarly credentials of the signatories without bothering to investigate the merits of their arguments, or even acknowledging that a great 20th century Gadol like Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank also ruled that using electricity on Yom Tov was permissible. 

No matter how you choose to mark the festival,  wishing our readers Hag Pesah Sameah.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Jew 'temporarily' released from jail after visiting Israel

In the islamic republic of Iran, just visiting Israel is a crime. Nourollah Shemian may have been sentenced to 10 years in prison, and he may be sent back there again after his 'temporary' release. Sickening report in The Jerusalem Post:

The notorious Evin prison

The Islamic Republic of Iran has temporarily released the 65-year-old Iranian Jew Nourollah Shemian who was imprisoned for allegedly visiting Israel, according to a Tuesday report on the Persian-language website of the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). 

“The temporary release of Nourollah Shemian as the third recently identified Jewish individual put behind bars, is not a cause for celebration. It’s an alarm and likely indication of other Jews behind bars for similar reasons. 

Pilgrimage and visiting holy sites is a part of religious practice for many religious groups around the world, but for Iranian Jews it is evidently a cause for punishment and suffering,” Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, an Iranian in exile in the US who is the founder and director of the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities, told The Jerusalem Post.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Have a Syrian Passover in Judeo-Arabic

Passover begins on 27 March 2021 when Jews sit down to a ceremonial meal called the Seder. 

The Seder celebrates the liberation of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  In many communities it is customary to recite the Haggadah in Judeo-Arabic. 

Here is a Syrian rendition of 'Echad mi yodea?' - Who knows one? in Judeo-Arabic:'Min ya'alam umin yidri? This recording was made in 2020 by Chloe Pourmorady on khamandji and Asher Shasho Levy on oudh.


 For the Hebrew and English lyrics of 'Echad mi yodea?' click here.

Hag Pesah Sameah to all those who celebrate the festival!

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Why was this Tunisian Jew stripped of his nationality ?

This is the Kafkaesque saga of a Tunisian Jew's attempt to renew his expired passport. Said Jew, let's call him Yaakov Cohen, had left his native city in the north of Tunisia some 40 years earlier for France. 

As well as holding a Tunisian passport, he held French nationality by virtue of having married a Frenchwoman.

  Unlike Iraq, where Jews were stripped of their nationality when they fled the country, or Egypt, where 40 percent of Jews were stateless anyway, Tunisia never confiscated passports from departing Jews. 
As he was intending to travel to Tunisia to set up a heritage preservation project in Tunis,  Yaakov was advised go the city hall in order to renew the passport. He handed it over and requested from the clerk a duplicate copy of his birth certificate. But the certificate came back to him with the box marked 'nationality'  blank. 

The same thing happened when he asked a clerk for copies of his parents' certificates of birth. And his grandparents'.  In every case, the box marked 'nationality' was blank.

 It was the same story at the town hall of his native city. Yaakov asked to see the clerk's superior, and was shown into a large and well-appointed office. The woman in charge went through his documents and with a snide grin said that Yaakov would need to put in a formal request to a local judge to issue a nationality certificate. 

At that point Yaakov lost his rag. He had been born in Tunisia, as were his parents and grandparents - who were buried just a few hundred feet away.  

He had to appoint a lawyer to find two witnesses who knew Yaakov's father. The lawyer thought it would be a simple matter. Four months went by. The lawyer responded to Yaakov's  enquiries by sending him suras from the Koran.

The state could only strip a Tunisian of his nationality if he was serving a foreign power or if he had committed a crime. What was the motive in Yaakov's case? Was it antisemitism? Expulsion by stealth?

Yaakov has three theories. The first is that the authorities feared  the real reason for Yaakov's preservation project might be to recover seized Jewish property. (This is said to be the reason why the authorities in Egypt do not allow Jews to access their communal records).

In Tunisia, Yaakov had heard of similar cases to his own, but lacked firm evidence. An order may have  gone out not to re-issue passports to Jews who might want their abandoned property back. 

The final explanation could be that when the authorities made the transition from paper to computer records, those who had not renewed their documents for years simply had their nationality omitted.

The question is, did this also happen to Tunisian Muslims who had long ago left the motherland?

Monday, March 22, 2021

Jews vanish from Iraq, but still have no closure

The compassion and loyalty displayed  by Iraqi Jews like  the surgeon Dhafer Eliyahu, who died last week, have been repaid with a series of injustices. Lyn Julius writes in JNS News:

Dhafer Fouad Eliyahu:'healer of the poor'

The oldest Jewish Diaspora in the world, that of Iraq, edged closer to extinction on March 15, with the death of 61-year-old Dhafer Fouad Eliyahu—an orthopedic surgeon at al-Wasiti Hospital in Baghdad. 

A plethora of tributes to the “last Jewish doctor” appeared on Iraqi social media upon the announcement that Eliyahu had passed away after suffering a stroke. 

 Known as the “healer of the poor,” he ran a private clinic but treated those who could not afford medical care for free. His mother was among the first female doctors in Iraq. She had her own private clinic in Baghdad in the 1950s. In spite of intensifying persecution, her family stayed behind. Eliyahu, too, stayed on to serve his Iraqi compatriots when “tens of thousands” had left. He had sacrificed his personal life to remain in a country where there were no Jewish girls left to marry. 

Before their mass exodus in 1950-51, Jews contributed beyond their numbers to modernity in 20th-century Iraq. Jews comprised 40 percent of the medical profession. When the Royal Medical College opened in 1927, seven out of 21 students were Jews. In 1932, only 12 graduated, though all seven Jews stayed the course. 

 One of the most eminent graduates was Dr. Jack Aboudi Shabi, who specialized in neurology and psychiatry. Shabi practiced in his first-floor clinic in Baghdad. So identified with mental illness was he that the expression “send him to the first floor” became a byword for “this person is crazy.” 

 Another Jewish doctor known for his compassion and loyalty to his patients was Dr. David Gabbay from the city of Amara. In spite of his popularity and good works, Gabbay was jailed and tortured by dictator Saddam Hussein in 1969. Eventually, he fled Iraq on foot and resettled in London. 

Eliyahu’s death leaves just three Jews still living in Iraq. With his passing, a question mark hangs over the issue of who will manage the community’s assets and maintain cemeteries and synagogues. Jewish affairs were administered by Marcelle Azra, who died in her 90s this past September. 

 The origins of the community go back to the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Rabbis at the pre-Islamic academies of Sura and Pumbedita wrote the Babylonian Talmud, the most authoritative source of Jewish law.

 In 1948, the community numbered 150,000 Jews and a quarter of the population of Baghdad was Jewish. They were seen as a fifth column after the establishment of Israel and suffered extortion, execution and a series of discriminatory laws.

 The vast majority fled to Israel in 1950-1. They were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship and much of their property was frozen without compensation. 

 The most recent bone of contention has been the so-called Iraqi-Jewish archive. The U.S. administration has pledged to return to Baghdad this random collection of Jewish books, correspondence and school reports, which was seized from the community by the Iraqi regime but shipped in 2003 to the United States for restoration. 

 Iraqi Jews have been fighting to keep this last vestige of their former lives, arguing that their memorabilia are of no interest or value to the rest of the Iraqi people. 

While Iraqis themselves are increasingly acknowledging the selfless loyalty of Jews like Eliyahu, the return of the archive to Iraq would rub salt in the wound, adding yet another injustice to a very long list.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The mystery behind a Moroccan wedding photo

This is the story of how one Jew living in Paris came face to face with an unexpected evocation of her Moroccan past. Photos collected by Hannah Assouline are now on display at the Jewish Museum in Paris, but  one photo stands out.  See Academ video here of an interview with Hannah (with thanks: Vera):

Shoeless in Tinghir

It was in 1985 that  Hannah Assouline, herself a photographer,  was introduced to the photographer Jean Besancenot. He lived in straitened means in a tawdry Paris apartment. Between 1934 and 1937, Besancenot went on assignment to photograph the inhabitants of the Atlas mountains in Morocco. Most of his Jewish portraits were  of women, and although poor, they wore the traditional dress reserved for festive occasions, weighed down with jewellery.

Besancenot immediately identified Hannah as a Jew, and could even tell which part of Morocco her family came from. They were dirt-poor and came from Tinghir, in the Berber Atlas mountains, where time had stood still for hundreds of years. Hannah was the daughter of a rabbi and the great niece of the famous rabbi Baba Salé, whose tomb has become a place of pilgrimage. 

Sifting through piles of Besancenot's old photographs, Hannah came across a young bride and groom in their wedding costumes. The groom had a pained, even miserable expression. He was barefoot.

Hannah was struck by the boy's remarkable resemblance to her nephew. She bought the photo and presented it to her parents. Her father exclaimed in Arabic,'That's me!' The bride was his cousin Leila Sarah.

Was it really his wedding photo  - and how come did Besancenot choose to photograph him?

Jean Besancenot had actually asked to have a wedding couple pose for him, but the custom in that part of the world  was for girls to be betrothed at a very young age to much older men. 

Bensancenot would have none of this - and called for a much younger groom. That's how Hanna's father was dragged out of a nearby yeshiva to pose for the camera. In fact it all happened so fast that the young man did not have time to put his babooj (slippers) on.

The reason for his pained expression was his embarrassment. A few months before he died, he asked   Hannah: with all the modern technology nowadays, can't you photoshop a pair of shoes for me?"

Photographs by Jean Besancenot, 1934 -7, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris, until 18 April 2021.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Ethnic Studies schools curriculum passes unanimously

After three years of wrangling, California’s State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the third draft of a controversial model curriculum in ethnic studies for high schools, the first of its kind in the country. The vote represents a triumph for JIMENA, which worked hard to get Mizrahi Jews included in the curriculum; the American  Sephardi Federation, however, has raised objections. The curriculum is not mandatory in schools, but will serve as a model not just in California, but in other states and even in Europe. The Jewish News of Northern California reports: 

The 11-0 vote came five years after the legislature first approved a bill requiring a different state body, the Instructional Quality Commission, to develop the draft, and more than 18 months after the initial version roiled the Jewish community for its exclusion of lessons on Jewish Americans and its harsh critiques of Israel. 

The virtual public meeting Thursday included an acrimonious public comment period that lasted more than three hours. Many of the arguments made over the last year and a half — in the op-ed pages of local and national newspapers and in previous public meetings — were reiterated. 

Some read from scripts prepared by activist groups. The public comments focused on whether the curriculum inappropriately carried a left-wing ideology into the classroom or whether, conversely, it had been “watered down” by conservative forces; whether Palestine and Palestinians belonged in the curriculum, or whether a critique of Israel risked demonizing Jews; whether the model focused too much on race or “critical race theory” in a way that would divide students rather than unite them; whether it was sufficiently anti-colonial or too much so; and whether, broadly speaking, it was appropriate for high schoolers. 

Accusations against Jewish groups flew through the virtual space, with many claiming the curriculum had been “hijacked” or “whitewashed” by Zionist organizations and so-called “right-wing groups.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center made this statement: " The Simon Wiesenthal Center, like the majority of Jewish community leaders and organizations, is encouraged that the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum released today does not include any content that is, or can be perceived as, anti-Semitic or anti-Israel,” said Rabbi Meyer H. May, the Center’s Executive Director. “While we remain concerned regarding some of the finer details of the curriculum, the consensus in the Jewish community is that the curriculum addresses the most critical concerns raised by our community.”

The American Sephardi Federation  has criticised the curriculum in the grounds that it commits the 3 Ds: Divides the Jewish people into conflicting identities; Defines Jews by the hateful beliefs and behaviours of others; Denies Jewish agency and achievement, especially in America.The ASF has also charged that the curriculum only includes a partial IHRA definition of antisemitism. 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

A musical record of North African Jewish history

A professor of Jewish history at McGill university in Montreal, Chris Silver has become a leading collector of the work of North African Jewish musicians. These musicians openly identified as Jews, and the synagogue and Shabbat table generated a musical style that non-Jewish artists wanted to emulate. Interesting  JTA feature:

Chris Silver with a shellac record of North African Jewish music

Silver, who is Jewish but grew up in Los Angeles without a strong sense of Jewish identity, went to college at the University of California, Berkeley. There he learned about the history of Jewish North Africa.

After graduating and before he became a collector of records, Silver was traveling in Morocco and contemplating a career in academia. At first, he was most interested in what happened to the musical stars of North Africa after they had left and moved to countries where Arabic was not the dominant language. In one famous example, singer Zohra El Fassia, a cultural icon in Morocco, moved to Israel and was quickly relegated to a remote, dusty corner of the country, with few opportunities to perform, as memorialized in a 1976 poem by Erez Bitton. 

 With time, Silver grew more curious to learn about the earlier period, the heyday of these artists. And he wondered if there was a richer history to be discovered beyond archival documents of conventional historical research. The musical record provided what he was looking for. 

Each album usually indicated not only the name of the performer but sometimes also the composer and lyricist. The name of the record label and the place of pressing were important details. The lyrics and melodies encoded on the shellac told him many stories. 

 “Here we have a history of North African Jews in their own words in Arabic through the music, which is traditional and popular and everything in between,” Silver said. 

He learned to listen for things like shoutouts naming members of the orchestra, or sudden interludes with a musician offering their personal story. 

He encountered the cultural seepage of American influences, as evident, for example, in Arabic renditions of the classic “Yes, Sir! That’s my Baby.” 

 Or, take the music that Tunisian Jewish star Habiba Msika recorded in the late 1920s in Berlin. Faraway from French protectorate authorities, she incorporated subversive messages about her homeland.

“On those records, if you listen to them until the end, she’ll shout out something like ‘Long live Egypt’ or ‘Long live the Independent Levant.’ And then the orchestra erupts into applause,” Silver said. 

Msika’s daring artistic production and lifestyle earned widespread attention, including from Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel, and tragically, from a murderous former romantic partner, who set fire to her apartment, killing her at age 27. 

Famous and universally adored, the particular Jewishness of these musicians was not a secret. They openly identified themselves as Jews, and even if not, their dialects and accents gave them away. The first training ground for many Jewish artists was the Shabbat table and the synagogue, which generated a musical style that many non-Jews wanted to emulate, according to Silver.

 “There are many stories of Muslim musicians who would position themselves outside of the synagogue on Saturday mornings to learn a new or different melody,” he said.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Online Haggadah illustrates Jewish diversity in pictures

A new Haggadah for Passover illustrating the diversity  of the Jewish people in pictures has been produced by acclaimed, award-winning photographer Zion Ozeri, himself of Yemenite heritage, together with Sara Wolkenfeld and Josh Feinberg. The Haggadah follows the traditional sequence of the Seder, the Passover meal, but includes a section on Judeo-Arabic. Article in Jewish Journal of LA:

Yemenite Jewish children, 1992, captured by photographer Zion Ozeri

Renowned Jewish photographer Zion Ozeri is no stranger to creating meaningful Haggadot. His award-winning photographs, which capture the world around him, have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Jerusalem Report, Moment and The Economist, to name a few publications. After reviewing his pieces, Ozeri decided to create a virtual interactive Haggadah that highlights the diversity of Jews, just in time for a second pandemic Passover. 

 Ozeri, along with Sara Wolkenfeld and Josh Feinberg, curated “Pictures Tell: A Passover Haggadah,” a Haggadah that is completely virtual (can be utilized at home or in a classroom) and celebrates the traditions and cultural experiences of the Jewish Diaspora. Ozeri told the Journal that a major goal of “Pictures Tell” is using imagery to tell the story of the Jewish people.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Another Jew dies in Iraq, leaving three

And then there were three.

 The oldest Jewish diaspora in the world - the community of Iraq - edged closer to extinction as the death following a stroke was announced yesterday of Thafer Fouad Eliyahu, 61. Eliyahu was an orthopaedic surgeon at the Wasiti hospital in Baghdad. His death leaves just three Jews still living in Iraq.

Thafer Eliyahu, know as the 'doctor of the poor'

The origins of the community go back to the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem  in 586 BCE.  Rabbis at the pre-Islamic academies of Sura and Pumbedita wrote the Babylonian Talmud, the most authoritative Biblical commentary in Judaism.

With the death of Eliyahu, a question also hovers over who would manage the community's assets, which were handled by ('Sitt')  Marcelle Azra. Sitt Marcelle died in her nineties in September 2020.  Jewish property was frozen when their owners left but rents continued to be paid by some tenants and were collected by Sitt Marcelle.

In 1948, the community numbered 150,000 Jews and a quarter of the population of Baghdad was Jewish. The vast majority emigrated to Israel in 1950-51.

King Faisal of Iraq visiting the Great Synagogue in Baghdad in the 1920s. The synagogue no longer exists.

Monday, March 15, 2021

US Jewry held back 'aliya'' from pre-independence Morocco

Between 1954 and 1956  Israel  was forced to put the brakes on its absorption of Moroccan Jews.  US Jewry, which had funded the 'emergency' aliya of Jews from Yemen, reduced its donations. In this paper, Avi Picard argues that US Jewish groups underestimated the dangers to Jews  from rising  violence, did not want to upset the French colonial authorities or encourage social instability. When Morocco became independent, Jews would not be allowed to emigrate legally to Israel for six years.

Mass Barmitzvah ceremony for needy children in Meknes, 1960

A dramatic change occurred in August 1954, when seven Jews were killed in the town of Petitjean. This event served as a catalyst for the increase of aliyah from Morocco. 

Exacerbating the Jews’ sense of threat was the escalating Moroccan nationalists’ struggle and the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam (then Indo-China), which damaged France’s reputation as a powerful colonial power. Throughout the year following the Petitjean incident, violent attacks increased, culminating in August 1955. 

The prevailing feeling among Moroccan Jewry was that of increasing precariousness. This concern was shared by Israeli and foreign officials, among them representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC).

As opposed to Algeria (where all the Jews had been granted French citizenship in 1870), and Tunisia (where 25 percent of the Jews held French citizenship), only 6 percent of Moroccan Jews were French citizens. The vast majority of Moroccan Jews, as Moroccan nationals, were not able to immigrate freely to France. Nonetheless, due to the widespread influence of French culture, numerous Moroccan Jews did have a good command of the French language, in particular those who were graduates of French-language educational institutions such as the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU). The connection to French culture facilitated integration into a wide variety of occupations and white-collar professions. 

Yet many Moroccan Jews, mainly those who lived in villages in the Atlas Mountains and those of the older generation who lived in Jewish urban neighborhoods known as mellahs, had little or no exposure to European culture (though their children often did, especially if they attended an Alliance school). The majority of these Jews lived in great poverty.

 Prior to 1954, difficult absorption conditions in Israel and economic development in Morocco discouraged Moroccan Jews from making aliyah; only Jews from the poorest parts of society were prone to leave the country. However, following the pogrom in Petitjean and a growing sense of insecurity, a considerable number of Jews—including those who were more established and more involved in French culture—applied for aliyah. Overall, aliyah applications among Moroccan (and Tunisian) Jews increased from 250 a month to between 5,000 and 6,000.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Professor: 'The Pashtuns are not descended from Jews'

What are the origins of the Jews of Bukhara? Do the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan really have Jewish roots? Dan Shapira, a professor of Jewish studies at Bar Ilan University, enlightens us in Tablet:

Jewish girls in Samarkand

Nowadays, the Jews of Central Asia are either “Bukharan,” because they are descendants of the former subjects of the Emir of Bukhara, or else they are Ashkenazi Jews who settled there in the Russian Imperial period beginning in the 1860s, with the addition of political deportees in the Soviet period and Polish refugees who were fleeing Hitler.

 The Bukharan Jews spoke (and some still speak) the local variety of Persian, being urban folk (the cities used to be Persian-speaking). In the second half of the 20th century, they mostly switched to speaking Russian—similar to the ways that Arabophone Jews switched to French in North Africa and the Levant. A geographical Middle Persian text, edited in the Early Islamic Period, mentions Jews in Khvarazm. A Soviet scholar (Tolstov, 1948) built a far-fetched theory linking those Jews of Khvarazm to the Khazars.

 How long have Jews actually lived in Central Asia? It is possible that some Jews were living in the eastern parts of the (former) Achemaenid satrapies by the time the Book of Esther was composed. The Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 31b, implies that Jews were living in Marw/Marv/Margiana in the fourth century CE. Jewish inscriptions dating from the Sassanid Period have been found in Baryam-Ali near Marw/Marv/Margiana, though Michael Shenkar tends to ascribe them to a later date. 

 So, the Taliban Are Not Actually Descended From Jews? There are both pre-modern and modern legends about the Jewish origins of Pashtun/Pathan tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately for lovers of distant cultural correspondences and romantic myths, these legends are baseless. The Pashtun tribes arrived on the historical scene lately and from nowhere, aspiring to a status similar to that of the Persians; their tribal leaders, who were also poets at the same time, invented for them an Israelite origin. “Persians have literature, courtly culture, and food, we are descendants of the people mentioned in the Qur’an.”

 Three stone inscriptions in Early Judeo-Persian were found in Tang-e Azāo in Ḡur Province, Western Afghanistan, Ḡur Province. They were dated 1064 Seleucid Era (752/3 CE). Jews and the Silk Road to China. Two Early Judeo-Persian letters from the eighth century were found on the Silk Road, in Dandān Öilïq in Western China, the first in 1896, and the second, from the ninth century, a decade ago. 

As in many other cases of modern languages first recorded in Hebrew characters, Early Modern Persian is first documented in these private Judeo-Persian letters found on the Silk Road. A Jewish community existed in the Chinese capital of Kaifeng under the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), to which Jews arrived from the Persian-speaking world, as is evident from the Judeo-Persian rubrics in their prayer books. 

Jewish historical stelae in Chinese were erected in Kaifeng in 1489, 1512, and 1663. The Jewish participation in trade through the northern route of the Silk Road was part of the push of multireligious Sogdian merchants and missionaries from Central Asia into China. Sogdian merchants on the Silk Road were divided into several religions—Manicheans, Nestorian Christians, a variety of Zoroastrians, and Buddhists. Dharmaguptaka and Sarvastivada Buddhism seem to have been prevalent in Central Asia and some traces still survive in the Far East. In fact, the name of Bukhara is Sanskrit for “a Buddhist monastery, vihāra.” 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Curriculum controversy divides Sephardi organisations

With the third draft of the California Ethnic Studies curriculum expected to be approved on 18 March 2021, a divide has appeared between JIMENA, supported by mainstream Jewish organisations, and the American Sephardi Federation.  The disagreement stems from the ideological framework behind the proposed curriculum, Critical Race Theory (CRT), itself under fire here and here. CRT sees US society afflicted by systemic racism and ethnic groups in the US as oppressed or oppressors (Jews are lumped into the latter group). While JIMENA has tried to work within the framework to ensure that Jews - and specifically Sephardi Jews -  are mentioned and that antisemitism in conformity with the IHRA definition is not ignored,  the ASF claims that the latest curriculum draft  is in opposition to US values of pluralism and drives a wedge between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, as well as defining Jews by their own oppression.

While JIMENA made a last push to get  US citizens to sign their petition by today's deadline (12 March),  the ASF held an online discussion called Beyond the Curriculum between Isaac de Castro (pictured) and Blake Flayton. De Castro wrote the following Times of Israel blog:

 College campus antisemitism has become a hot topic, but one so many wrongfully isolate. The push for a Critical Ethnic Studies is a consequence of this, a natural ending point to a toxic cycle forming. 

It is all part of the growing movements in American society attacking the pluralism and foundational values this country was created on the basis of, the fact that we are all created equal and our worth is not placed on limiting racial hierarchies. 

 We know the consequences of forcing Jewish people into these fallacies, which is why it is so disappointing to see that many of us are not only allowing it, but applying the same logic from within our community as well. 

The fact that we have accepted being the only ones in this curriculum who are called “privileged.” The fact that we have accepted historical inaccuracies to further division within our community. The fact that we have accepted being defined by our oppression. We are not.; It is no coincidence that American Sephardi Federation’s Young Leaders is hosting this event. Last month, I sent a letter to ASF’s board of directors, asking them to take a stand. I am proud that they did, as they have been one of the only Jewish institutions with the integrity and courage to do so. 

Curriculum writers want us to believe that they are doing this on behalf of the greater Sephardi community, for our own good. I am here today to say, not in my name, a message I hope more of us will soon echo.

 I am a proud Sephardi man, but before that and anything else, I am a proud Jew. I refuse my Sephardi family to be categorized differently than my Ashkenazi family, as they are intrinsically connected. 

I refuse to accept our history being erased for someone else’s agenda, whether that is the Sephardi experience in the Holocaust, or Ashkenazi pogroms and immigration. I refuse to leave out Orthodox Jews from the conversation, as they are the primary targets of religious hate crimes in this country. 

 I could sit here for hours and talk about the issues this curriculum poses in the Jewish section alone, but I have decided not to do that. The problem this curriculum presents is a much larger one as New York and Connecticut accept bills similar to California’s and as college graduates who have internalized these ideologies infiltrate the workforce. 

Millions of children face potential indoctrination; thousands of young adults have already fallen victim.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Egypt to teach Judaism in schools to counter fanaticism

Egypt appears to be following Morocco in promoting the teaching of Judaism in schools. Whereas Morocco seems keen to teach  its Jewish history and heritage, Egypt is more focused on using religious values to  counter Islamist extremism and intolerance. The Jerusalem Post quotes a report in al-Monitor: (with thanks: Roger)

Egyptian schoolchildren (Photo: Al Ahram online)

In an unprecedented move, the Egyptian parliament recently commended the Ministry of Education on approving a new school subject: religious values ​​and verses that have the same meaning in the three Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Al-Monitor reported. 

 The decision will allow Egyptian students to study verses from the Jewish religion for the first time ever. “The Ministry of Education’s approval of the subject of religious values shared between the divine religions expresses the state’s keenness to spread the values ​​of tolerance and fraternity,” declared Kamal Amer, head of parliamentary defense and the National Security Committee in the Egyptian Parliament.

 The three religions “include common values ​​that students must study to be able to confront the extremist and takfirist [apostasy defying] ideas that backward groups are working on to spread in society,” Amer continued. “President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is keen to teach youth the values ​​of respect for others, tolerance and rejection of fanaticism and extremism," he said. "This is why the Ministry of Education decided to teach the subject of common values ​​in schools.”

Read article in full

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Moroccan Jews made 'donations' to Vichy war effort

With thanks: Raquel

In june 1940, France surrendered to the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy government took control of the French protectorates in North Africa and the colony of Algeria. It was not long before the regime began to extort money from the local Jews, as the Nazis had done in Germany. 

 Evidence has appeared on this website that the regime had asked the Jews of Marrakesh to donate money and jewellery to the war effort. Le Petit Marocain of 8 July 1940 has a list of donated jewellery given by Jewish women. Oddly the list also has two Muslim names, perhaps to make it look that the Jews were not being singled out. 

To read the Petit Marocain  article click here 

A decree or dahir promulgated by the Vichy government had demanded that the Jews of Mogador (Essaouira) declare their assets and property. This was, the Jews feared, so that the government could carry out an inventory of Jewish property and assets as the prelude to confiscation. 

The Jewish reaction to this dahir was, according to the civil governor of Mogador in a letter dated 15 April 1942, one of consternation. He accused them of wanting their revenge once the Allies had defeated the Germans. The dahir was greeted with satisfaction by residents of the European quarters (ie the French, some of whom were notorious antisemites.) Interestingly enough, the governor reports that the Muslims were also pleased, as the decree represented 'a victory of them over the Jews.'
The letter includes a breakdown by nationality: while the majority were Moroccan, there were 58 Ashkenazi and even some Palestinian Jews. Most were merchants or traders.

Letter from the local governor of Mogador: 'the Jews sought revenge'

Some 6,506 Jews in Mogador had to declare their assets in 1942.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Saudi Tweeters downplay importance of Temple Mount

Are we seeing a sea change in relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel? Saudi Tweeters have lately been digging a trench between themselves and the Palestinian cause, which has always tried to rally Muslim opinion to protect the Al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount. From the time of the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, Palestinian leaders have periodically claimed that the mosque has been threatened with  destruction  by the Jews.  Now Saudi users of Twitter are insisting on the primordial importance of Mecca and Medina to Islam. Although this line is not being promoted by the Saudi government, it is clear that the Tweeters are acting with its tacit approval. (With thanks:  Edna, Adrian)

The Temple Mount, neglected and overgrown with weeds in the 1930s, before its protection became a rallying cry for the Palestinian cause.

Saudi Twitter users have recently been pushing a new line of thought that plays up the importance of Muslims praying towards the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, while downplaying the importance of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Israel National News(INN) reported Sunday. 

The controversial campaign appears to be designed to push the message emphasizing the importance of the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina as the holy places of Islam, and to eliminate the importance of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount for Muslims, thereby decreasing any Islamic authority the Palestinians have over the site. 

One of the messages reportedly comes from well-known Saudi cartoonist Fahd al-Jabiri, who tweeted that “the direction of the prayers of the Jews is not important to us, what is important to us is only our homeland.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Where should the Mosseri Genizah collection go next?

Posted on the 'Egyptian Jews' Facebook page, a link to a podcast entitled 'Whose Genizah?'reveals a little-known aspect of the Cairo Genizah story.  The podcast, a 43-minute professionally- produced programme by  Kerning Cultures, was remarkable for having been made by a group of Egyptian non-Jews. It is fascinating for reflecting contemporary attitudes about national heritage, the colonial past, and  has curious parallels with another contentious story - the Iraqi-Jewish archive.

Inside Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue

The Cairo Genizah is that trove of discarded documents bearing God's name discovered in a small room in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fostat, old Cairo. in  1897. Some 193, 000 fragments, many dating back to the Middle Ages, were found by the Talmudic scholar Solomon Schechter and shipped off to Cambridge to become the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Unit.

But Schechter left some 17,000 fragments behind. They were collected together by Jacques Mosseri, a member of a prominent Egyptian banking family with a keen interest in education. The programme makers, projecting perhaps their fashionable distaste for the  colonialist exporting to the West of what they consider to be 'Egyptian heritage', explain that Mosseri dreamed of setting up a Jewish library or museum in Egypt. This  would have housed the  Mosseri collection and other Jewish memorabilia. But his idea met with little response.  

When Jacques died suddenly in 1934 aged 50, the Genizah manuscripts followed his widow to the south of France in tea chests and cardboard boxes. A scholar from the Israel National Library, Israel Adler, came looking for one of the family heirlooms, the Mosseri Bible. The Bible had been stolen by the Nazis, but what Adler did find was the Genizah material in the family kitchen. Mrs Mosseri gave Adler just two weeks to put the documents on microfilm before transferring them to a bank vault. Eventually the  Mosseri collection was loaned  to the Taylor-Schechter Collection in Cambridge for 20 years. Most documents have now been restored and digitised. But where should the Mosseri collection go next?

While the Israel National Library would seem to be the logical choice,  Jacques Mosseri's descendants  are resistant to the idea, saying that the collection should not go to Israel until there was peace in the region.' That was a bit like saying 'When pigs fly' or, to use an Egyptian expression,  Bukra fil mishmish.  'I don't won't the collection to be bombed, ' protests Jacques' grand-daughter Anne Mosseri Marlio, showing little faith in Israel's capacity to look after its own treasures. 

Was Egypt any more secure? the question was not asked.  Should it stay in Cambridge ? The UK was tainted with its colonial past. There is a consensus, says Ben Outhwaite, head of the Cairo Genizah Unit, that the collection should return to the Middle East.

Had he lived, Jacques might well have considered Israel as a home for the Mosseri collection, but of course there was no Israel at the time. Nor could he have anticipated that Egypt's Jews would have been thrown out.  Yet the Egyptian programmers struggled with the idea of giving the collection to Israel, Egypt's mortal enemy, pointedly disregarding  the 1979  Israel-Egypt peace treaty.  

The makers had to admit that the Egyptian-Jewish community 'was finished', to quote the leader of the tiny band of Jews still in Egypt, Magda Haroun, although US  scholar of  Egyptian Jewry  Joel Beinin was allowed to blame Jews for their own exodus,  glossing over anti-Jewish persecution and violence in 1948. The seminal event, he said, was  the 1954 failed bomb plot ordered by Israel's defence minister, Pinhas Lavon, Operation Suzannah, which turned every Egyptian Jew into an enemy agent.

But someone on the podcast did make the point that the Egyptian government could not have a claim on the Mosseri collection since it was Jewish private property. The state did nothing to create or preserve the collection. This argument could equally be applied to  the Iraqi Jewish archive, the random collection of documents, correspondence and books belonging to the Iraqi-Jewish community. The archive was shipped out to  the US for restoration; the State department has undertaken to  send it back to Baghdad in 2021, although the Jewish community there is extinct.

The Genizah is Jewish heritage, but the  podcast turns it into a controversial and politicised issue, fuelled by the Mosseri descendants' ambivalence towards Israel. Thankfully there is a solution: it's called digitisation. Scholars will access the collection through their computers: more than half  of Jacques' collection is already online. All that is needed in the money to digitise the rest.

To hear the podcast click here.(43 minutes)

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Pope visits Iraq; but where are the Jews?

(With thanks: Edna, Sami and Gladys)

Update: This report in the Jerusalem Post alleges that the Iraqi government did not pass on the Vatican's invitation for a Jewish delegation to attend the official Papal reception and thus missed an opportunity to highlight the Jewish contribution to Iraq, according to Edwin Shuker, who visits the country frequently.

Pope Francis has made an historic visit to Iraq to give support to the beleaguered Christians and other minorities. The Vatican announced that Jews were invited to a grand interfaith gathering at Ur, but did not attend. No-one bothered to find out why: there are now four identifying Jews in the entire country, the community having been decimated by violence and persecution.  It has fallen to an Iraqi Muslim blogger, Omar Mohammed, to ask the question 'Where are the Jews?' Report in the Algemeiner.

Pope Francis : praying for Christians

Omar Mohammed — an historian who was an essential chronicler of the occupation through his anonymous website “Mosul Eye” — told The Algemeiner that the visit would be a sign of encouragement to the handful of Christian families still living there.

 “The pope — the highest authority in the Catholic Church — will pray inside Mosul; not from Rome praying for them, he will be among them,” said Mohammed, in an interview Thursday. But he also hoped that the papal visit would pressure the Iraqi government to do more to recognize and protect Iraq’s non-Muslim heritage — including its once-thriving Jewish community, which has been all but stamped out.

 “When I speak about the constitution of Iraq, there is almost no recognition of the non-Muslim societies,” he said, noting that the country’s laws are founded in Islamic practice. “This is completely against the meaning of diversity and inclusion. How could you possibly want the Yazidis and the Christians to accept to be living under a constitution that doesn’t recognize them?” 

 Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul has historically been home to populations of Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Circassians and other communities, in addition to the Sunni majority. After the Islamic State overtook the city in 2014, Mohammed was one of the few able to tell the world about the group’s atrocities, publishing work that was critical for journalists and international organizations. 

 The Jewish community in Iraq dates back over 2,500 years, and numbered over 150,000 in 1947. Anti-Jewish riots and persecution drove many to flee their homes after the establishment of Israel, with over 120,000 emigrating to the Jewish state in the early 1950s. Mohammed, who now teaches as Sciences Po University in Paris, says he is working on raising awareness about the Jewish community in Mosul, including projects like the translation of an 1837 population registry that included the city’s Jews.

 He has called for the Iraqi government to do more to recognize their stories, including by amending the constitution and admitting that persecution had taken place. 

 “Can the Iraqi government discuss the confiscated properties of the Jews who were deported from Iraq?” he said. “Can we think about just telling them that we acknowledge that this happened to you? This could be a good step if the Iraqi government would say there was also a Holocaust against the Jews in Iraq, not only in Germany.” 

On Saturday, Pope Francis will pray at the ancient city of Ur, said to be the birthplace of Abraham and held as a shared symbol of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. While recognizing the pontiff’s good intentions, Mohammed said that a visit was not enough. “Where are the Jews? They are not here,” he told The Algemeiner. “You are speaking about diversity, but this is not complete, the picture is not complete.” “

Without recognizing the Jewish history of Iraq, without recognizing the Jewish part of Iraq, without recognizing the Jewish contributions to Iraq from thousands of years ago until now … there will be no real diversity or inclusion at all. And this prayer will have no meaning at all,” Mohammed said. 

 Noting a recent bill in Iraq’s parliament that could criminalize activities related to Jewish culture for fear of stepping toward normalization with Israel, the scholar was not sanguine about the government soon heeding his calls for inclusion. 

 But he found hope during a recent online event he organized — one that brought Mosuli Jews in conversation with residents living in the city today. “The people now are seeking more information about the Jewish population in Iraq and about their past in Iraq, especially in Mosul,” he said. “I believe the young generation is what makes me optimistic.” 

The Canadian Press reports: 

Such interfaith forums are a staple of Francis’ international trips. But its sectarian breadth was startling in Iraq: From Shiite and Sunni Muslims to Christians, Yazidis and Zoroastrians and tiny, ancient and esoteric faiths like the Kakai, a sect among ethnic Kurds, Mandaeans and Sabaean Mandaeans. The Vatican said Iraqi Jews were invited to the event but did not attend, without providing further details. Iraq’s ancient Jewish community was decimated in the 20th century by violence and mass emigration fueled by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and only a handful remain.

Read article in full

Friday, March 05, 2021

Normalisation will revive interest in Moroccan-Jewish heritage

In the wake of 'normalisation' between Morocco and Israel, JNS News has a useful  overview of the Moroccan-Jewish diaspora by Eliana Rudee, ranging from New York, to Montreal to Israel. The younger generation has developed a strong interest in  their grandparents' culture, but 'normalisation' will not change mattters so much for Israelis with Moroccan roots, who have already been able to visit the country. (With thanks: Imre)

Rabbi Gad Bouskila :very happy

According to Moroccan Jewish leader Rabbi Gad Bouskila of the Orthodox Netivot Israel Synagogue in Brooklyn, N.Y. (the first Moroccan Jewish community in the state), the recent normalization has made the Moroccan Jewish community in North America “very happy” for each of their homelands.

 “We visit Morocco often, so this relationship will allow many young Moroccans born in Israel, who were not yet able to travel to Morocco, to see the roots of their grandparents,” he told JNS. The roots of the ancient Moroccan Jewish community date back more than 2,500 years, with many Jews settling in the city of Fez, bringing their economic capabilities that contributed to the “golden age” of Morocco from the ninth to 11th century (a 'golden age' marred by the 1033 massacre of 3,000 Jews in Fez -ed) , when Jews were numerous and powerful in the region. 

 Following the establishment of modern-day Israel in 1948, many Jews of the 238,000-strong population of French Morocco (in addition to the 15,000 in Spanish Morocco and 12,000 in the international zone of Tangier) were forced to leave. In January 1961, following the death of King Mohammad V, Morocco tightened its restrictions on Jewish immigration, causing nervousness among its Jewish community. Many left for Israel and French-speaking areas in Europe and Canada, and for those who had family there, the United States.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Diwaniyya ghetto survivor records his memories

In April 1941, a pro-Nazi regime took over in Iraq. It incited against the Jews: the result was the Farhud massacre in June 1941, but the pro-Nazis were put to flight. During the two months that Rashid Ali al-Gaylani was in power, an attempt was made to set up the first ghetto in Iraq. The round-up of Jews in Diwaniyya was possibly the first stage in implementing the final solution. A survivor, Daniel Sasson, revealed the existence of the ghetto in an interview with Lynette Hacopian, highlighted for the first time on Point of No Return in 2020. Now he has written a book. Lynette takes up the story In Times of Israel:


 While Iraq’s royal family supported the British, who earlier had maintained a mandate in Iraq, the ardently nationalist al-Gaylani instead aligned himself with the Axis powers, seeking to minimize British influence in his country even as the United Kingdom levied harsh economic sanctions in retaliation. 

The relationship between al-Gaylani and Hitler produced a ripple-effect of anti-Semitism which led to a 1941 pogrom called the Farhud, and the eventual exodus of the 2,500-year-old community — including Sasson’s own family, who fled to Israel.

His family was a prominent one, but far from sparing them the atrocities, this brought them all the closer when al-Gaylani gave orders for the establishment of a Jewish ghetto in Diwaniya, a small city 158 kilometers (98 miles) south of Baghdad. Sasson’s grandfather’s house was a prime choice for the location of the ghetto. A mansion some 750 meters (2,460 feet) wide, it was the largest private home in Diwaniya. 

The mansion housed the city’s 600 Jews, plus another 70 who came from Baghdad and other cities, throughout the entire month of May in 1941. “I was five years old,” says Sasson, “but I remember everything like it was yesterday.” 

In 1937 Sasson’s father built a house in Diwaniya. The new mayor, a known anti-Semite by the name of Khalil Azmi, declared its construction illegal under bogus pretenses and bulldozed it to the ground. 

Not deterred, the family temporarily moved to Baghdad and Sasson’s father hired a top lawyer to sue the Diwaniya municipality. They won the case in 1941, and the government was forced to underwrite the home’s rebuilding. “After that event, we understood that there’s no future for us in Iraq,” says Sasson.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

The 'aliya' of Iraqi Jews was negotiated by Shlomo Hillel

 Jews with roots in Iraq are today the third largest community in Israel - after the Soviet and the Moroccan. Did you ever wonder how they got there?  Lyn Julius writes this tribute to Shlomo Hillel z"l in Times of Israel. 

Shlomo Hillel z"l

The mass aliya of some 120,000 Jews between Iraqi 1950 and 1951 is attributable largely to the efforts of one man - Shlomo Hillel, who died on 8 February 2021, aged 97.

The Jews of Iraq, the oldest diaspora in the world, had been through troubled times in the 1930s and 40s. Hundreds were murdered in the Farhud massacre of 1941, and the Arab war against the fledgling state of Israel had led to persecution, extortion and the criminalisation of Zionism. In defiance of a travel ban, 12,000 Iraqi Jews were smuggled over the porous border into Iran. Working with a Jewish-born priest, Alexander Glasberg, to get the Jews French visas for Israel, Shlomo bribed Iranian policemen to look the other way. Posing as a member of the crew, Hillel used freelance American pilots to arrange the first test flights transporting out 100 Jews, Operation Michaelberg.

Before Israel had an official army,  Hillel led the construction and operation of a secret bullet factory, under the noses of the British. The factory, known as the Ayalon Institute, was built  beneath the laundry room of a kibbutz in Rehovot. 

When the Iraqi government briefly lifted the ban on immigration in 1950 on condition that the Jews relinquished  their citizenship, Baghdad-born Hillel returned to Iraq as a Mossad agent to facilitate their exodus. Aged 23, he  posed as  Richard Armstrong, the British  representative of Near Eastern Airlines  to negotiate the airlift of the Iraqi Jews with the Iraqi government. Throughout the meeting he shifted in his seat, fearing he might be recognised by his cousin, the leader of the Jewish community. (He wasn't). Shlomo told his story in Operation Babylon.

Born in Iraq, Hillel was the youngest of 11 children of a Jewish merchant importing goods from India, Japan and Manchester. Iraq Jews were not generally Zionist, but until the rise of pro-Nazi feeling in the 1930s, there was a small Zionist movement, Achi-ever,  where Hillel and his brothers  learnt Hebrew.  In 1934, aged 11 on a family visit to Palestine, Shlomo insisted on remaining with two elder brothers, attending the prestigious Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv. Having lived through the massacre of Assyrian Christians in Iraq in 1933, Hillel's father had a sense of foreboding  'If they do this to Iraqi Christians, what will they do to Jews?" He moved the rest of his family to Israel.

A founder of kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, Hillel married Temima, who came as a refugee from Europe on the Patria.  He reluctantly embarked on a political career, becoming a Minister and Knesset speaker. He also served as as Israeli ambassador to several African countries and was awarded the Israel prize in 1988. But he was always modest about his achievements.

Later Shlomo Hillel was involved in the mass emigration of Jews from Ethiopia. The wheel came full circle when his son Ari fell in love and married an Ethiopian girl. When asked what he thought of the match, Hillel said he was delighted. The Jewish people was completing the 'Ingathering of the Exiles'.

Read article in full

JTA obituary

More about Shlomo Hillel