Tuesday, May 18, 2021

BBC airs tale of Jew's escape from Iraq in 1971

With thanks: Sarah

Edwin as a child with his parents and grandmother

Almost exactly fifty years ago, 2,000 Iraqi Jews made the perilous journey from their homes in Baghdad through the north of Iraq and Kurdistan and over to border to freedom. One of them was Edwin Shuker, then a 16-year-old. 

He tells his story in the BBC series Witness. (9 minutes.) His family had two hours to prepare for their departure. This happened in the dead of night, using a succession of taxis and smugglers. There was always the risk of arrest and imprisonment.

The final leg of Edwin's journey was in a truck. The driver was a young Kurd. ' When you tell the story of your escape,' said the driver,' Never forget to say that the Kurds saved your life.'

By chance, Edwin was to meet the young man again thirty years later. His name was Massoud Barazani, and he became president of Kurdistan.

More about Edwin Shuker

Emil Somekh's escape

Monday, May 17, 2021

The dispossessed Jews you will never hear about

The Sheikh Jarrah properties owned by Jews in East Jerusalem are the tip of the iceberg: it may come as a surprise to many that Jews owned land all over the 'occupied Palestinian territories'. But East Jerusalem is the only place where Jewish restitution is a realistic possiblity. Lyn Julius blogs in the Times of Israel (Jewish News):

Yemenite Jews were evicted from Silwan (Jerusalem) in the 1930s

By now the name ‘Sheikh Jarrah’ will be familiar to anyone who has been following events in Israel and Gaza. You will have learned that Arabs living in four houses in this neighbourhood in East Jerusalem have been under threat of eviction. The full facts of the case, which has been winding its way through the Israeli courts for over ten years, have been frequently distorted – but are well set out here. It is not, as reported by The Guardian, ‘that Israel had plans to evict hundreds of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem’. It is because they refuse to pay rent. 

 Furthermore, the Guardian editorial states: “Under Israeli law, Jews who can prove a title from before the 1948 war can claim back properties in the city. This cannot be justified when no similar law exists for the Palestinians who lost their homes. “ This is not strictly true. Arab-Israelis internally displaced by conflict have been able to file claims in the Israeli courts. 

The media almost never tell the Jewish side of this story. Jewish property rights, and the ethnic cleansing of Jews from their homes are never mentioned. The issue is framed to convey the impression that Jews claiming these homes are ‘settlers’ or ‘interlopers’. 

It is estimated that 3,000 Jews were expelled from East Jerusalem in 1948 ( between 17,000 and (according to historian Benny Morris) 40,000 Jews were made refugees from Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem). 

The descendants of those Jews expelled from 100 homes in the Eshel Avraham neighbourhood in East Jerusalem in 1929 still retained their title deeds until April 2014, when they decided to sell the properties. Jews were evacuated from Hebron after 1929 and Silwan (Shiloah) in Jerusalem in the 1930s for their own safety, upon orders of the British. Some of the latter are trying to recover their homes.

 The JNF purchased hundreds of individual parcels of land in and around Jerusalem during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Some ended up under Jordanian control. In 1948, on one of these parcels the UN built the Kalandia refugee camp, seizing the land without permission from the owners, the JNF. The JNF also lost land in the Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank.

 Other parcels of land in ‘Arab’ East Jerusalem were cut off from their Iraqi and Iranian Jewish owners after they came under Jordanian rule. It is also a little-known fact that hundreds of thousands of dunams in the rural West Bank – including the Gush Etzion settlements, land between Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm, and in Bethlehem and Hebron – were seized by the Jordanians after 1948. Jews also owned land in Gaza.

 In leaked documents called the ‘Palestine Papers’, the Palestinian leadership frankly acknowledged former legal Jewish ownership of land in Jerusalem, on its outskirts and in the West Bank, as well as Gaza. 

 The Beit Yehuda Society on the western slopes of the Golan Heights owned 2,000 dunams of land ( one dunam equals one English acre – or 1,000 sq.metres). The JNF even owned land in what is today southern Syria. No Jews have been able to recover lost land and property in the West Bank since 1967. The property came under the control of the Jordanian Custodian of Absentee Property after the 1948 war. Jordan frequently leased or sold Jewish-owned land to Jordanian citizens. The Israeli government has not wanted to open this particular can of worms.

 Hundreds of thousands of Jews, scapegoated as Zionists in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, etc, in a mass uprooting resulting from the Arab-Israeli conflict and evicted from their homes, have never received compensation or restitution for millions of dollars worth of lost property and assets. Because it has come under Israeli jurisdiction, 

Jerusalem is the only place in the Middle East where Jews are in a position to claim restitution. But the rights of the existing Arab tenants remain protected under Israeli law as long as they have been paying rent – which in the Sheikh Jarrah case they have not. 

 Jerusalem is an exception. The truth is that Jews have been consistently driven out of their homes by violence, intimidation, or persecution, whether in Palestine or Arab countries. Today these are almost all judenrein. 

 The thorny issue of property rights demands a comprehensive solution for refugees created on both sides of the conflict. As part of an eventual peace settlement, the fairest solution might be for an international fund to be established to compensate refugees on both sides – Jewish and Arab. Until that day comes, context is all. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Discussions on property restitution are asymmetrical

The Sheikh Jarrah  controversy - where Arab tenants have refused to pay rent to Jewish owners claiming restitution of the property they live in - has spotlighted a larger  issue: legal discussions regarding restitution of properties lost in the course of the conflict tend to arise only on the side where Israel has the power, argues Jonathan Spyer in the Jerusalem Post:

Jewish pilgrims  in 1927on their way to visit the tomb of Simon the Just in Sheikh Jarrah

For Palestinians and their supporters, the Sheikh Jarrah issue has become emblematic of what they regard as the built-in injustice of arrangements put in place by Israel following the 1948 and 1967 wars.

 The Legal and Administrative Matters Law, passed in 1970, allows for Israeli property owners who owned properties that in 1948 were transferred to Jordanian control to claim them back from the Israeli administrator-general. 

Property abandoned by Palestinian Arabs in the 1948 war was transferred in its entirety to the Custodian of Absentee Property, in line with the Absentee Property Law of 1950. An amendment to the law allows Arab-Israeli citizens and residents of east Jerusalem to claim monetary compensation for properties transferred to the Custodian, on the basis of the properties’ value on November 29, 1947. 

But no legal path for the restitution of properties exists. Backers of the Jewish efforts to reclaim property in eastern Jerusalem, meanwhile, maintain that they are following existing legal means in an attempt to right an injustice – namely, the refusal of the protected tenants to pay rent, as required by law. 

They further assert that this process is being undertaken without reference to any other situation or larger political context. 

 These legal niceties aside, there is a harsher, less diplomatic reality which is the reason that many Israelis may feel few pangs of conscience with regard to events in Sheikh Jarrah.

 Legal discussions regarding restitution of properties lost in the course of the long conflict between Jews and Arabs tend to arise only on the side where Israel has the power. 

 Where Arab participant countries in the 1948 war had and have jurisdiction, the matter of any claims to properties lost in the 1948 war by Jews expelled from these areas is regarded as closed. With regard to properties lost by Jews to Arab states, the law is the familiar one of greater force. The states in question, all dictatorships, are not interested in discussing the rights and wrongs of the issue. They have the capacity to enforce this preference. Hence no such discussions take place. 

 During the period of 1948-67, for example, when Jordan ruled east Jerusalem and the West Bank, no legal avenue for recompense was available to Jews who had lost property as a result of their expulsion by Jordanian forces. 

The combined value of lost Jewish-owned properties in the Arab world and Iran, according to an Israeli investigation carried out in 2019, may amount to $150 billion. But these properties, many of them owned by Jews expelled from Arab participant countries in the 1948 war such as Iraq, remain beyond the reach of their legal owners. No path for compensation is available. 

An Iraqi Jew seeking to petition, for example, the current government in Baghdad for compensation for loss of property incurred during the expulsion of Iraq’s Jews in 1951 would rapidly discover the futility of any such effort. For anyone with knowledge of the Middle East, the very idea of such an attempt indeed sounds absurd. 

 From this point of view, the apparent imbalance thus reflects a larger balance. Where Israel is in control, the matter is subject to discussion, and necessarily imperfect but existing legal process. The tenants at Shimon Hatzadik, for example, may find it unfair or unjust that they are required to pay rent to the property’s owners. But should they prove willing to do so, their residence rights will be protected by law.

 There is no reflection of this on the other side, where the automatic assumption of the absolute justice of the Arab Muslim position translates into a similarly automatic dismissal of any legal process for individuals associated with the enemy camp. This is the harsh, usually unstated accounting of ethno-religious conflict.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Don't apply US identity politics to the Middle East

A US Congressman's attempt to brand Israeli Jews caught up in the current conflict with Hamas as 'white' is lambasted by Liel Leibowitz writing in Tablet. At the end of the day, American identity politics cannot be applied to the Middle East: it is about one group's wish to murder another. 

US Congressman Jamaal Bowman

 Now, this might be confusing to you, especially if you’ve been following the news over the past day. If so, you would have heard about Soumya Santosh, a 32-year-old Indian woman who, in order to provide for her 9-year-old boy, found work in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, caring for an 80-year-old woman. The pair were ducking for cover when their home was directly hit by one of Hamas’s rockets. Santosh’s brown body was torn apart by a projectile hurled by a terrorist organization and aimed at innocent civilians, none of whom, by the way, have any use for silly and preening identity politics.

 Or maybe you know about 19-year-old Yehuda Guetta—his family hails from Libya, a country located, of all places, in Africa. Yehuda was shot and killed earlier this week by a Palestinian-American named Muntasir Shalabi, who was motivated, according to his neighbors, by equal parts Jew hatred and heavy gambling debts. 

 In general, I am loathe to deny Americans the right to play their national sports, which these days apparently include mau-mauing “white people”—though I will say that it seems creepy to use skin color as the primary way to identify human beings, like 19th century “race scientists” did. But since Congressman Bowman is being joined by a host of other elected officials including Rashida Tlaib in trying to chauvinistically transpose their own American psychodrama onto a foreign region, this is now starting to get terrifyingly dangerous—and I don't mean for Israel, but for Jews living here in the United States, including those in Congressman Bowman’s own district.

 So let’s be clear as day: Israel isn’t America, Jews aren’t white, and Palestinians aren’t “Black and brown people.” Judaism is an identity that predates “race,” just as it predates America, and the sin of slavery, and the idea of nations and the Christian and Muslim faiths.

 Reckless, ignorant racializing, precisely of the kind that Bowman is practicing these days, has a trickle-down effect. In a statement last month, the Congressman and his fellow progressives released a statement declaring themselves shocked, shocked! by the anti-Jewish violence in their own districts. Sir, the call is coming from inside your house. 

 Moreover, if people like Congressman Bowman can’t see how being openly denigrated by powerful people—like, say, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives—makes members of a minority group feel vulnerable and targeted, then I really have no idea what progressive politics are even pretending to be about anymore. 

 Of course, Bowman is free to ignore Jewish history and all the suffering of real people in the present, and to fantasize about skin-based affinities while fundamentalist terrorists lob thousands of rockets at people who are family members, both figuratively and literally speaking, of his own constituents. But how about the other side of what’s happening in Israel? 

In the last 48 hours, thousands of Israeli Arab citizens, whose skin color is exactly the same as that of their neighbors, and who enjoy the highest standard of living in the region as well as every right to practice their religion freely and attend great universities, launched a wave of pogroms against their Jewish neighbors. They attacked and defaced synagogues in Lod—just like in Bowman’s district in Riverdale. They also beat up children in the street, bombed buses, dragged drivers from their cars, and smashed shop windows, targeting the Jewish regional minority. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Western press misrepresents Jerusalem property dispute

Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem

This week the UK newspaper The Guardian published an editorial claiming that 'Israel had plans to evict hundreds of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.' This kind of misrepresentation is par for the course in the western media, where due process in Israeli courts has become a pretext to twist the facts and demonise Israel.

Furthermore, the editorial states: "Under Israeli law, Jews who can prove a title from before the 1948 war can claim back properties in the city. This cannot be justified when no similar law exists for the Palestinians who lost their homes. "

The issue of lost property ownership is a lot more complex than meets the eye. This issue demands a comprehensive solution for refugees created on both sides of the conflict - Jewish as well as Arab. Meanwhile Arab Israelis internally displaced by the conflict have been able to obtain compensation.

 Hundreds of thousands of Jews, scapegoated as Zionists in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya , Yemen, etc, and evicted from their homes have never had compensation or restitution for millions of dollars worth of lost property and assets. 

No Jews have been able to recover land and property lost in the West Bank to the Jordanian occupation in 1948. The property came under the control of the Jordanian Custodian of Absentee Property.  Jordan frequently leased or sold Jewish-owned land to Jordanian citizens. The Israeli government has not wanted to open this particular can of worms.

 Jerusalem is the only place in the Middle East where Jews are now in a position to claim restitution. But the rights of the existing Arab tenants remain protected under Israeli law as long as they have been paying rent, which  in the Sheikh Jarrah case they have not.

This long-running property dispute is simply a pretext for Hamas, acting as a proxy for Iran, to stoke a major crisis.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Muslim Iranian friend describes executed Jew as a patriot

Sunday 9 May marked the 42nd anniversary of the execution of Iranian businessman and Jewish community leader Habib Elghanian by the Islamic Republic. Journalist Karmel Melamed, who has tirelessly raised the issue of the persecution of Iran's Jews, had this article published by IranWire:

Habib Elghanian, executed by the Iranian regime in 1979

 Both Elghanian’s vast contributions to the Iranian Jewish community and his 20-minute show trial for espionage in 1979 have been widely reported since then. But less well known are the significant contributions Elghanian made to wider Iranian society. 

 Many of those who worked closely with him in the business realm or philanthropy were either executed by the regime, or have long since passed away. Recently, however, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Nasser Oliaei, an Iranian Muslim businessman and former MP, about his long-time friendship with Elghanian. Oliaei is now in his late 80s and lives in Newport Beach, California. 

He worked alongside Elghanian in Iran’s National Chamber of Commerce before the fall of the Shah. Whether it was through encouraging international trade, giving to charitable causes or supporting his thousands of Iranian employees, Oliaei describes Elghanian as nothing short of a remarkable Iranian patriot.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Egyptian press takes down interview with Jewish leader

An interview with Yves Fedida of the Nebi Daniel Association has been taken down from the website of the Egyptian medium Akhbar el Yom after just two days. Mr Fedida criticised the few Jews still in Egypt for not supporting international efforts to preserve international heritage. He accused the Egyptian government of excluding Jews from the official re-opening of the restored Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue and for not permitting access to Jewish records. It seems that the Egyptian authorities are not quite ready to listen. Here is the original:

No Jews were invited to the  official re-opening of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in 2020.

How do you see Egyptian policy towards its neighbours and Israel?

Our wish is obviously that peace should reign in the whole region and among all peoples. We are sad to see that the peace signed over 41 years ago is still a cold peace, far from the warmth normally present in the genes of both peoples. Still, al hamdoulilah it is peace.

- How do you see the measures taken by President Sisi to approve the coexistence between people of religion in Egypt?

I would not be so bold as to comment on the measures taken by President Sisi; but it seems normal to me that people of different religions should coexist peacefully, whatever the country. The opposite is shocking. Therefore any step in this direction can only be applauded.

 Did you see any change in Egypt during your visit? How do you see Egypt now?

Egypt is constantly changing due to its large demographics. Although much remains to be done, much infrastructure work has been done or is being done, some truly pharaonic, to face the future. I was impressed by the increased level of education, knowledge, and the entrepreneurial thirst of the youth. But Egypt is also eternal in its beauty and in its unique people. Hospitality, kindness, empathy, respect for others and this capacity for humor and self-mocking at all times, are always found in these very endearing people. This will always make me proudly say: ana Masri! even though it hasn't been my country for a long time. Egypt is a great power playing a moderating role at the regional level. Unfortunately, year after year, there are still so many wildly anti-Semitic books at the Cairo International Book Fair. It is not with this kind of low-level propaganda that you create harmony or understanding. We are only stirring up unnecessary hatred.

 How did you reach out to Jews in Egypt during the time of President Sisi?

We suggested supporting their interest in safeguarding heritage as long as there was total transparency for the establishment of an organization that would include French, English and American Jewish institutions as well as Egyptian Jews in these countries. They wanted  nothing to do with this  organization, nor transparency. Unfortunately they are only a handful and find themselves quite alone. On the contrary, instead of  working together, they took measures outside legal norms, without taking  advice from rabbis, and deprived us of the community registers and archives so essential to our co-religionists in their daily lives. We still continue to work with the community of Alexandria for the maintenance of the three cemeteries as we have done in the past for the dedication of the Eliahou Hanabi synagogue.

 After your visit to Egypt and the opening of the Eliahou Hanabi Temple after the renovation,  do you see progress?

Since 2009 we have drawn the attention of the Ministries of Culture and Antiquities (at the time headed respectively by Mr. Farouk Hosni  and M. Zahi. Hawass) on the need to restore the Alexandria synagogue, one of the oldest of the city's monuments,  frequently restored and rebuilt in the past. The last reconstruction dates back to 1853. A study was launched in 2010 with the help of specialist engineers from Cairo University. This study was to lead to the restoration and the first scaffolding was put in place in 2011. Unfortunately the Morsi government froze everything.

We reiterated the urgency of a restoration to Mr. El Anany, then the new Minister of Antiquities. With the collapse of the roof this became obvious. The same scaffolding was still in place seven years later, but this time extraordinary and meticulous work was undertaken. We are of course grateful to the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people for preserving this building for what it symbolizes.

The official inauguration in January 2020 saddened us because no Egyptian Jew or association from abroad and no rabbi had been invited. There was no one wearing a Yarmulka (Ta'eya). We wondered if it would have been natural to open a mosque without prayer, and wearing shoes?

Fortunately, with the help of the embassy in Paris and Washington, we had obtained permission to bring in a group  to say dedicational prayers in the synagogue and memorial prayers in cemeteries. This took place in mid-February. The security was perfect and I'm embarrassed to admit that we caused them a lot of trouble because everyone who came was welad el balad, they were at home and wanted to be independent. 

 What are your demands of the Egyptian state? 

 We have been asking the Egyptian state for 17 years to allow us a copy - and only a copy - of our community archives and our identity records, essential to the practice of our religion and without  any financial significance. We want the copies to be  kept with the  Chief Rabbinate of France, as these documents were previously with the Chief Rabbinates of Alexandria and Cairo. I hope they will listen to us. In any case, they should never have left the community offices in  Alexandria and Cairo. Why are the Jewish records alone  inaccessible? Are the Greek, Armenian, Catholic and  Protestant records treated in the same way? No! -

Is the Jewish community of Egyptian origin in France in touch with the diplomatic mission in Paris? 

 We have always maintained cordial and respectful relations with the diplomatic mission in Paris. The mission listens to us and understands our request but nothing can be decided unless Cairo chooses to do so. It helped us a lot with our February trip. 

 Did you ever live in Alexandria? How come?

 I was born in Alexandria as were my parents, grandmother and great-grandparents. I lived there up to the age of 15 in Sporting and I went to St Marc College, then to Ennasr Boys School. It was a blessed era in a wonderful and warm city. I was at home, in my country, in my house, surrounded by my family and  friends, until the stupidity of men dictated otherwise. I find it hard to recognise my city now - But I'm sure that it too finds it hard to recognise me!

What is your message to  Egyptian Jews around the world after your visit?

I would like them  to know that there was more than 2,300 years of Jewish history in this country, so  rich and ancient. This should give us hope for us to be able to live again in symbiosis. Iwould like them to be proud of this community heritage left by our parents. May they help protect it, while acting as a bridge between our two cultures. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Rabbi Hamra, who facilitated Jewish departures from Syria, dies

The worldwide Syrian Jewish community is mourning the passing of Rabbi Avraham Hamra, the last chief rabbi of Damascus, who has died in Israel at the age of 78. Few announcements of his death have mentioned, however,  the seminal role Rabbi Hamra played to coordinate the funding of Jewish departures from Syria during the 1980s and 90s, when the community was held hostage by the Assad regime. He was instrumental in arranging the smuggling out of Syria of the Damascus Keter, a priceless and beautifully preserved medieval manuscript, in a black shopping bag.

Rabbi Abraham Hamra

 Rabbi Hamra served as the last chief rabbi of Damascus, from 1976 to 1994, when he immigrated to Israel.

 In addition to serving as leader of the Syrian community in Israel, based in Holon, Rav Hamra frequently visited the Syrian community in the New York area.

His daughter Mrs. Aliza Azan, and three of her children, were tragically killed in a fire on Chanukah 2017.
A son of Rabbi Hamra is a prominent hazan in the  Har Halebanon community in Brooklyn.

When he was in Syria in the 1990s, Rabbi Hamra worked quietly with the Canadian fundraiser  Judy Feld Carr for the release of Syrian Jews in prison and for ill Jews to be allowed to leave. This involved his negotiating  with the secret police the price of Jewish departures.  Keeping meticulous accounts, he oversaw  money sent from the Feld Fund and funnelled grant aid from the American Jewish Committee to Jewish schools, teachers and those in need.    

According to the Ransomed of God by Harold Troper, Judy Feld Carr asked Rabbi Hamra to help her get a priceless Jewish manuscript of the Torah, the Damascus Keter, out of the basement of a Syrian synagogue. She arranged for a western visitor to Syria to call on Rabbi Hamra. He handed over a small leather-bound book in a cardboard sleeve to the visitor. The visitor put the package in an innocuous-looking black plastic shopping bag and smuggled it out of the country.

A deal was reached for Syria's remaining 3,000 Jews to be permitted to leave. By the end of 1993, Rabbi Hamra himself applied for an exit visa, ostensibly to visit family in New York.

Before his departure for Israel, Rabbi Hamra asked Judy's permission to take the Keter of Damascus to Israel, where it is now in the National Library in Jerusalem.


Sunday, May 09, 2021

Hamas uses violence to politicise Jerusalem property dispute

Point of No Return has been following attempts by Jews to reclaim land and property in Jerusalem from which they were driven in the 1930s and 1940s. Now a  property dispute in Sheikh Jarrah, east Jerusalem has been politicised by Hamas to stoke  rioting and violence;  international bodies and members of the US Congress have rushed to condemn Israel.   BICOM has a good summary of the current situation:

The battle over legal ownership of several buildings in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood has been ongoing for the last 15 years in Israeli courts. 

 Earlier this year, the Jerusalem District Court upheld an October 2020 Jerusalem Magistrate Court decision that ruled the ownership of land belonged to the Jewish group Nahalat Shimon Co and ordered 25 Palestinians from four families to vacate properties they are living in by 2 May 2021.

 Following this decision, the residents appealed to the Supreme Court, who gave both sides until 6 May to reach a compromise. They failed to do so, and the Supreme Court will make a ruling on 10 May. According to the Supreme Court, the land in question in Sheikh Jarrah, adjacent to the tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik, was “owned by Chief Rabbi (Hacham Bashi) Avraham Ashkenazi and Chief Rabbi Meir Orbach until the War of Independence [1948], after they purchased it in 1875 from its Arab owners”.

 Subsequently, two Jewish organisations, Va’ad Eidat HaSfaradim and Va’ad HaKlali L’Knesset Yisrael, worked to register the land with British Mandatory government in 1946. After the 1948 War, Palestinian families who were refugees and lost their homes inside Israel were resettled in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood by UNRWA and the Jordanian government. 

 Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli forces captured the area and the state confiscated the homes under Israel’s Absentee Property Law. The properties were subsequently registered with Israeli authorities under the two Jewish organisations in 1973. In 2003, the land was sold to the pro-settlement group Nahalat Shimon 

 In 2020, the Magistrate Court noted, “Throughout all of the deliberations, the defendants claimed through their counsel that they were not tenants but rather held the property rights …  apparently, as they realised that they had not convinced the Court that they were the owners of the property, the defendants claimed for the first time that they are tenants who should not be removed from their homes.”

Friday, May 07, 2021

How were Tunisian Jews impacted by WWII?

Tunisia was the only country to come under direct Nazi control during WWII, over the six months from November 1942 to May 1943. Up to 5,000 young Jewish men were marched off the forced labour camps; the yellow star was imposed on Jews in the south of the country. But the situation could have been much worse. Here is a summary of a series of talks given by historian Claude Nataf for Akadem:

Paul Ghez, a Jewish hero

The Vichy Resident-General, Admiral Estéva, was not an antisemite. He was a practising Christian who took advice from Bishop Gounod of Carthage,  no antisemite either. Estéva managed to delay by one month the implementation of the Statut des Juifs, which was applied on 31 October 1940 in Morocco. (Unlike Morocco, however, even converts to Islam in Tunisia were considered Jews.) The anti-Jewish laws drove Jews  - especially those of French nationality - out of the civil service, the professions and public service, banks, insurance and property management. Jews could not pursue debtors. Quotas came into force in secondary schools.  Jewish youth movements were banned and Jews could not join the Scouts, for instance. 

The Vichy authorities abrogated a 1923 law allowing Jews to request French citizenship. Estéva drew criticism from Vichy officials when he insisted it not be retroactive. He was even accused of being a traitor. He managed to allow Jewish doctors to continue to treat the population, and obtained an exemption for 123 defence lawyers - almost all of whom were army veterans.

However, mindful of the economic clout they exercised, the Vichy regime largely exempted the 3,000 Italian Jews (Grana) in Tunisia from these strictures. Strangely enough, Italy itself would attempt to mitigate the persecution of the Grana once the Nazis had occupied Tunisia.

The new Bey of Tunisia, Moncef, declared that Jews and Muslims alike were his children, but the majority of Jews, on the eve of the Nazi occupation, were marginalised and impoverished.

The Nazi commanding the occupation was Walter Rauff, inventor of the mobile gas van which was used to murder 100,000 Jews in eastern Europe. The Ensatzgruppen  he headed in Greece had plans to liquidate the Jews of Egypt and Palestine. But Rauff did not have many SS troops, two thirds of the occupying forces in Tunisia were Italian and only one unit was German, most of the first-rate fighters having been diverted to Hitler's Russian campaign.

Rauff gave the Jewish community 24 hours to recruit 3,000 Jews for forced labour. But only 150 volunteeers turned up. Rauff took over the Great Synagogue in Tuns and his men wrecked Sifrei Torah.

Enter one of the heroes of the Jewish community, Paul Ghez. Ghez was a lawyer who would serve as head of the  Committee for the Recruitment of Jewish Labour. He had distinguished himself in WWI and had won the Croix de Guerre after volunteering for the French army in WWII. " At this  point I have a single aim," he declared.  "I will stand erect and not project the spectacle of a trembling Jew."

Wearing his officer's uniform throughout the war, he protested that the Germans had no right to humiliate the Jews. If they wanted to shoot 10 of the community's leaders, he would be the first to die. Rauff backed down and took 100 Jews as hostages instead. His men rounded up 2,000 men on 9 December. Between 9 and 18 December, another 3,700 were recruited from the provinces. It was the Jewish community's job to feed and clothe the inmates from taxes raised by the community itself.

The question remains: why did the Germans insist on recruiting effete Jews to do forced labour when there was a much better-qualified workforce amongst unemployed Italians? The answer must have been that the persecution and extermination of the Jews was a key war aim.

Some of the camps were run by Italians. When Rauff made it known that he wanted to shoot Jews, the Italian commander of one camp turned a blind eye to escapees. When German soldiers looted from Jewish homes and raped their women, the Jewish community protested. Ghez remonstrated with the Germans. 'Rape is against military honour', he said.

The Germans requisitioned radios from the Jews, bicycles, pianos, crockery, cameras. They demanded jewellery. Rauff threatened to shoot his Jewish hostages. Then came extortion - Rauff demanded 20 million Francs in one day. Estéva was asked to intervene. He arranged for the money to be lent to the Jewish community. The story is told that in March 1943, Rauff took three hostages on the island of Djerba and demanded 100 kg of gold. When the rabbi toured the island in his car on that Shabbat collecing the gold, the Jews of Djerba knew something was seriously amiss. .He collected 50 kg, but the Nazis never returned for the rest.

By the end of the occupation, 17 Jews had been deported to concentration camps in Europe, some 42 Jews were victims of acts of sadism and shootings.  Right-wing French were antisemites, but the Catholic church was basically not. The lower class Italians laughed at the Jews' plight, while some Italian consulates protected Jews. The Bey of Tunisia was philosemitic but powerless;  Muslim leaders acted responsibly. Some aristocrats hid Jews. But nationalists were anti-Jewish; Arabs did help identify Jews in the round-up and rejoiced to see Jews humiliated. In one terrible case, a Muslim denounced the Chemla brothers and their father; these were deported and beheaded in Germany. Many Arabs were influenced by Nazi propaganda and widespread use of the Yellow Star might have provoked Muslims to act against Jews.

It took two months for the Allies to repeal the racial laws but the rift between the Jews and the French would not heal. The Jews could never trust the French again. Some Jews moved closer to Arabs, some became more pro-Zionist and some became anti-nationalist. The Jews of Tunisia  had received a terrible shock - a shock from which they would not recover.

Based on historian Claude Nataf's Akadem lectures (French) 1 -6, December 2020.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

How Sarah witnessed the Farhud in Baghdad

 It is 80 years since the outbreak of the Farhud massacre shocked Iraqi Jews to the core. Sarah was an 11-year-old nanny from Kurdistan living in Baghdad who witnessed the Farhud.  Dorota Molin tells her story in Times of Israel:

Sarah, who was 11 during the Farhud

“My paternal uncle lived in Baghdad. He didn’t have children, so he asked my father to ‘adopt’ one of his. I was the eldest one and my father loved me very much, he said ‘pick any one except for Sarah.’ 

But my uncle still asked for me. My father couldn’t refuse him, that would harm his honour in our community. 

So aged 11, I left my family and went down to Baghdad to stay with my uncle. I was living with him and his wife but in the end, I got bored. I told them I wanted to work.

 They took me to a house where I took care of a child, a baby. Afterwards I was brought to care for an elderly Jewish woman.

 Three or four months later, the Farhud broke out, they started killing people. Earlier, they had already began beating Jews in the streets and robbing them. 

Eventually, the Farhud broke out, on the Eve of the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost). They went out and started killing people. They would break into houses at night to rob and kill. They discussed this at the house of my mistress.

 ‘A certain man has been killed, what shall we do?’ But they couldn’t do anything, so they just hid in the house. In Baghdad, there were also Muslims who loved the Jews. 

Such Muslims would help their Jewish neighbours by writing on their neighbours’ doors ‘this house is Muslim‘. If a house had this sign, the rioters wouldn’t touch it. But if a house didn’t have such a sign, they would break in and kill those who were inside. 

They would bang on the door with rifles, the door opened, they entered and killed whoever was inside. This went on from the night until the next day, two in the afternoon. So to protect us from this, our Muslim neighbours put a sign on my mistress’ house.

 I watched them painted this sign on our door but I didn’t understand what was going on, I was just a little child. The next day in the afternoon, my mistress told me ‘go, get us some bread.’ In Arabic, they call it sammun. 

Here in Israel, they call them lakhmanyot. ‘Bring us three bread rolls so that we can eat.’ I didn’t understand what was going on so I went to the bakery, bought some rolls and started walking back.

 Then I saw two men on the street, one was saying to the other ‘See this girl? Kill her, she’s a Jewess.’ ‘No way, today Jews don’t go out to roam about in the streets.’

 ‘I tell you, she is a Jew. Kill her.’ 

 ‘No, she can’t be, Jews dress fashionably, they are modern. This one is a poor child, not a wealthy Jew!’

 But the other says ‘kill her!’

 ‘I will not kill her.’

 In the meantime, I tried to stay calm. By the grace of God, I didn’t run away, walking slowly, as if unintimidated by them. In the end, they went their way and I made it back to my mistress’ house, shaking from head to foot.

 I told her about this incident and she exclaimed ‘oh, you are yellow! Drink some sweet water!’ She gave me water with sugar and I drank. 

 The next day, they started killing again. First, they roamed the streets and killed any Jews they could find. 

But at noon, they even started breaking into houses using rifles and killing people indoors. I went up to the roof to watch what was happening in the streets. I was little, I didn’t understand it. There in Iraq, the houses had flat roofs you could sit on, so I sat there. I saw some people carrying bundles with clothes—possessions they had stolen from Jewish homes.

 They would come with cars, loot Jewish homes and fill their vehicles with the stolen possessions, taking even the furniture. Then one man approached one of those who were carrying the bundles saying ‘give these things to me or I’ll kill you.‘ 

The other replied ‘I won’t give them to you. These houses are full, go get some for yourself.‘ 

Then someone called from inside our house. ‘Come down from the roof!’ But I said ‘No, I want to see.’

 So I stayed, watching the men outside argue. ‘Why would you kill me?’ one of them said. ‘Go, get some possessions for yourself.’ 

But—what shall we do—the other man did kill him, in front of my very eyes. He killed him and took the stolen possessions from him.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

The Lebanese Jew who now serves in the IDF

Major K  and his family were among the last Lebanese Jews  to leave for Israel. Today he works in Israeli intelligence monitoring the activities of Hezbollah and other threats from a country he grew up in. Yoav Limor interviewed him for Aish: 

Major K works for Unit 8200 in Israeli intelligence

If K. has one dream, it's to go back to Beirut. To walk around the neighborhood he grew up in, to meet his old neighbors and friends. 

To sit in restaurants, to go for vacations in the north like he did when he was a kid. "I'll be the first to go to Lebanon once it's possible," he says. Sergeant Major K. is known in Unit 8200, Israel’s Central Collection Unit of the Intelligence Corps, as "The Lebanese".

 He came to Israel from Lebanon with his family, among the last Jews who lived there, and was drafted into the IDF and made a career in Unit 8200 focusing on his former home – Lebanon and the fight against Hezbollah, who took over the country he grew up in. 

 He's 39 years old, married with two girls aged 8 and 3. His perfect Hebrew can be misleading: when he came to Israel, aged 12, he didn't speak a word. 

Everything he learned he learned by himself. Word after word, sentence after sentence. His mother tongue is Arabic, and just like any educated Lebanese, he also speaks French and English. He studied in a Christian school, and most of his friends were Christian.

 "Most of the Jews left before us. Most of them after the Six Day War, and then after the Yom Kippur War. Those who stayed, dispersed after the civil war began in 1975, many moved to France or Canada, because they knew how to speak French, and also to Brazil." 

 His parents lived in Beirut. "They were convinced that in a few months the war will end, but like all the Jews who remained in the city, they decided to go up a bit north, to a more remote mountainous area. 

They were sure they would return when the fighting subsided, but it didn't, and we stayed there." His father was a successful salesman and his mother a housewife. He remembers a normal and happy childhood of a regular family: two parents with four kids, K. and his three sisters.

 In retrospect, he can say that during those times there was considerable persecution of Jews, even though his family never felt it. "I don't remember being scared to say I'm Jewish.

 Our neighbors knew we were Jews. My father came from a religious home, and we would celebrate the major holidays – Passover, Rosh Hashanah."

 I was never ashamed or scared to say I was Jewish. They would get matzah for Passover from Syria, where there was still a large Jewish community, with a chief rabbi, kosher slaughter and bakeries. "In Lebanon all that disappeared years earlier, but we learned to get by. We lived among Christians, but we upheld our Jewish lives. Father prayed at home. On Yom Kippur the neighbor would come over before the fast ended to warm up our food, and the neighbors would move our car so we didn't desecrate the holiday." 

 Q: Weren't you scared? 

 "I was a Lebanese Jew. I was accepted like they accept a Lebanese Christian. I studied in a Christian school that was somewhat religious, and anyone who needed to know – they knew I was Jewish and didn't attend religious lessons. I didn't go around screaming that, but I was never ashamed or scared to say I was Jewish." They avoided going to the Shiite areas of Beirut. 

"We lived in a Christian area, which was protected. The moment you ventured a bit south, you were exposed. My father didn't like going to these areas. He was connected to military people who would give him passage, but he was very careful." 

 He remembers many vacations during his childhood in Lebanon: In the snowy mountains, and on the beach during summers. Long vacations that sometimes lasted the whole summer. In the 1980s the family would get in their car, drive south to the border, pass through Rosh Hanikra, and when the vacation ended go back home. 

During holidays they would come to Israel, to visit his mother's family. Today it sounds like science fiction, but in the 1980s they would get in their car, drive south to the border, pass through Rosh Hanikra, and when the vacation ended go back home. 

"I remember holidays, the hotel in Nahariya. We would usually come for Rosh Hashanah, because it coincided with the vacation in Lebanon." His father was the only one then who spoke Hebrew. The rest of the family spoke with their relatives in Arabic. At the end of the 1980s the visits became less frequent due to the security situation, and the family slowly began to think more about leaving Lebanon and moving to Israel. "My father was Zionist, and he wanted to live again in a warm and embracing Jewish Zionist community." 

 At the end of 1993, they made the decision and K.'s family prepared for the move. As opposed to Syrian Jews, who had to escape without any belongings, Lebanese Jews left in an orderly fashion. K.'s family told their neighbors they were leaving for America, packed their house, including the furniture, called the movers and put their possessions on a ship that sailed to Cyprus, where they were greeted by Jewish Agency officials. After a few days waiting, in December 1993, they flew to Israel.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Will Sarah Halimi St pave the way to true justice?

Sarah Halimi will have a Paris street named after her. But a street name is a poor substitute for justice: Dr Halimi's murderer is to walk free after the French Court of Appeal acted that he was acting under the influence of drugs. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Some 20,000 protested at the travesty of justice that would allow Sarah Halimi's killer to go free (Photo: Geoffroy Van der Hassselt/ AFP via Getty images)

Paris will soon inaugurate in its historic Jewish quarter a street named for Sarah Halimi, Mayor Anne Hidalgo said amid protests over authorities’ handling of the killing. 

Hidalgo made the announcement on Sunday following a rally by about 20,000 people, mostly Jews, who demonstrated against the April 14 ruling by France’s highest court on the 2017 slaying. “We need to honor Sarah Halimi’s memory. And that’s what we’ll do,” 

Hidalgo said in a statement, France3 reported Tuesday. “There will be a Sarah Halimi Street. It will be a way of achieving justice for her.” The street will be in the 4th District, also known as the Marais, which before the Holocaust was the heart of Jewish life in Paris.

Ronnie Dellal, a Jewish refugee from an Arab country now living in London, wrote this letter of protest (With thanks: Lisette):

  J’ Accuse: Open letter to the French President M Emmanuel Macron:

I am writing to you and invoking the famous words of Mr Emile Zola when he addressed a century old anti-Semitic travesty that blighted the name of a previous French Republic under M. Félix Faure: 

 “Would you allow me . . . . to draw the attention of your rightful glory and to tell you that your star, so happy until now, is threatened by the most shameful and most ineffaceable of blemishes? 

 Over a century ago, the Dreyfus affair marred France's reputation in the free world and ultimately gave rise to the most disturbing events and heinous crimes.

 France is now facing the same challenges, with the outrageous handling of Dr Sarah Halimi’s murder. France and its reputation is, today, at a crossroads. The path it takes will depend on whether good men and women will stand up, defend and honour the ideals of the French Republic (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) or not. Yet, M Le Président, you have in your power, as your predecessor had, to stop the above travesty from taking place and right a wrong before it raises its ugly head again. 

 The cornerstone of the French revolution and the Republic's ideals is that all French citizens should be able to live in freedom, treated equally and enjoy the same rights and responsibilities regardless of colour, background, religion and beliefs. 

 Yet there is a small, but sizeable, minority which feels that the above ideals do not apply to them. They are unable to live in freedom and forever need to have special security in their communal buildings; places of worship and even their shops. All the while their children are attending schools behind high fences and security guards. With the travesty of Dr Sarah Halimi's murder, they have now been denied equality under the law, due process and their individual right to live freely and without fear. Ultimately, if not already, they will no longer feel that they have equal rights as the rest of their French brothers and sisters.

 M. Le Président, you have it in your power, if not your responsibility, to address an injustice before it becomes forever rooted in French culture. You have the power to say, not only, 'no' to anti-Semitism but more importantly, 'never again'. 

 How you will act now will show how far France have moved on from the Dreyfus affair and how your presidency might contrast with that of M. Félix Faure, your predecessor.

 Respectfully yours 

 Ronnie Dallal 

Monday, May 03, 2021

Meron tragedy is greeted with outpouring of hate

The Lag b’Omer tragedy at Mount Meron in Israel, which led to at least 44 deaths and injuries to many more, has been greeted with an outpouring of hatred on social media.  Despite the Abraham Accords and multiple initiatives to improve Arab-Jewish relations, there is still a long way to go. Report by Jenni Frazer in The Jewish Chronicle:

The narrow passageway where the stampede occurred (Photo: TOI)

 According to investigative journalist David Collier, a report of the deaths by Al-Jazeera had garnered 30,000 responses, and that “10,000 — 33 per cent — were either laughing at or loving the fact [that] innocent Jews have died. The most ‘liked’ comments were the most vicious”. 

 “It isn’t about a few sickos celebrating the awful tragedy in Israel. It is the scale of it,” he wrote on Twitter. 

 Another report of the incident on a site called New Press featured the line: “A number of Israeli settlers were killed and wounded due to a bridge collapse in Galilee, north occupied Palestine”. 

 This received reactions such as “Even the bridge wants them dead” from someone called ‘Levantine Pali’, while a poster known as Ms.Andry responded with a picture of someone yawning and the comment “Drinks on me, y’all!” 

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Fashion world mourns passing of Alber Elbaz, 59

One of the fashion industry's leading designers, Alber Elbaz, has died of COVID-19. Elbaz was born in Casablanca and immigrated with his family to Holon in Israel when he was eight months old. Aged seven he was already sketching dresses. His mother encouraged him and sent him off to New York to become a professional designer with $800 in his pocket. 

Albert Elbaz: ebullient

The fashion world reeled with shock and grief to learn that Alber Elbaz, the designer best known for his spectacular rejuvenation of Lanvin from 2001 to 2015, had died at a Paris hospital. He was 59. 

 His death on Saturday, due to COVID-19, was confirmed by Compagnie Financière Richemont, his joint venture partner in AZ Factory, his latest fashion venture. 

 He was among the leading fashion figures who have died of COVID-19, who include Kenzo Takada and Sergio Rossi. 

 An ebullient character prized for his couture-like craft, Elbaz took a five-year hiatus after being ousted from Lanvin and just launched AZ Factory, hinged on solutions-driven fashions, entertainment and tech.

 While his name was not on the label, the start-up was steeped in Elbaz’s personality, humor, and his inimitable flair for soigné fashions. 

 “I have lost not only a colleague but a beloved friend,” Richemont founder and chairman Johann Rupert said in a statement, expressing his shock and sadness at Elbaz’s sudden passing. “

Alber had a richly deserved reputation as one of the industry’s brightest and most beloved figures. I was always taken by his intelligence, sensitivity, generosity and unbridled creativity,” Rupert said.

 “He was a man of exceptional warmth and talent, and his singular vision, sense of beauty and empathy leave an indelible impression.