Monday, January 16, 2017

Rabbi Elie Abadie fired after dispute

Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has suffered a setback with the sacking this month of its president, Rabbi Elie Abadie, as head of the Safra synagogue after a row with its main benefactor, Lily Safra.  Rabbi Abadie, who escaped from Lebanon as a refugee,  has been rabbi at Manhattan's Edmond J. Safra synagogue for the past 14 years. The New York Post reports:

 Rabbi Elie Abadie: refugee from Lebanon

A holy war between the billionaire benefactor of an Upper East Side synagogue and the temple’s longtime rabbi has cost the clergyman his job.

The battle between the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation — chaired by its namesake’s 82-year-old widow, Lily Safra — and Rabbi Elie Abadie began brewing at the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue on East 63rd Street when Abadie’s contract expired eight years ago.

He continued to be paid $700,000 a year and allowed to live in a $3.5 million condominium rent-free, said the foundation.

Read article in full

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Antisemitism: the oldest Orientalism

In this must-read article in the Times of Israel, Dani Ishai Behan accuses Edward Said, the guru of 'post-colonialism', of failing to acknowledge that antisemitism is a variant of 'Orientalism', the title of his hugely influential eponymous book. Said cast Jews as 'Orientalists' themselves, whereas they have always been the victims of colonialism, both European and Muslim.

The late Edward Said cast Jews as Orientalists

Said focused primarily on the Arab-Islamic world, but he also included the rest of the Middle East and Asia (barring one notable exception) in its ambit. Although he briefly touched upon the “similarities” between Western Jew-hatred and Orientalism, he refrained from acknowledging antisemitism as a variant thereof. 

The reason why should be obvious to anyone familiar with his politics: recognizing Jews as a part of the Eastern ethnic/cultural fabric would have amounted to accepting our indigenous ties to Israel and, by extension, the validity of our claims to the land. Instead, he obnoxiously referred to Orientalism as “the Islamic branch of antisemitism”, thereby implicitly rejecting the indigeneity of Jews to Israel/Palestine and conceptualizing us as a European colonial imposition. In other words, he distorted a quintessential part of the problem that his book should have addressed, thereby making his book a narrow political tool rather than the honest academic endeavor that it is often considered to be. 

Western antisemitism has always been animated in large part by what we now recognize as Orientalism, of which a direct line can be drawn from antiquity straight to the death factories of Nazi Germany, and living on in the 21st century under the guise of “anti-Zionism”, which Said himself promoted.

(...)

This brings us to the Zionist movement – the return of the Jewish diaspora to its native land. Realizing that no amount of assimilation or social mobility would end their persecution, Herzl and his followers endeavored to turn what had previously been nothing more than a farfetched dream into a reality: we would be repatriated to our country of origin and rebuild everything that we had lost. As a result, waves of Jewish olim left the diaspora and returned home, purchasing and cultivating unused land in what was then a sparsely populated, disease ridden province of the Ottoman Empire. 

However, the Arab world, who had colonized the land of Israel centuries earlier and subjugated the remaining Jews under a system known as ‘dhimmitude’, violently resisted this movement. And as they came into contact with European colonial powers, they were exposed to European antisemitism as well. Whereas Arab Jew-hatred had hitherto been strictly theological, they began to absorb European Orientalist ideas about Jews (blood lust, backwardness, misanthropy, deceitfulness, conspiracy theories, etc), which still persist in Arab media and society. And in subsequent decades, these would be imported to the rest of the Muslim world, eventually making their way into the anti-Zionist movement we are now faced with.

How ironic that the world’s oldest victims of Western colonialism, a people that have suffered its effects longer than anyone else, are now being cast as “European colonizers” and “Orientalists” themselves. And by ironic, I really mean “disgusting, wretched, and heartless”. The rest of the world, rather than empathizing with our plight and addressing our needs as a people, has instead demanded of us the same thing that Westerners have been demanding of us for centuries: disappear.



Friday, January 13, 2017

Classic Jewish works first written in Arabic

Most people are unaware than major classic Jewish works of the Middle Ages were originally written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic using Hebrew characters).  Fascinating article on Chabad.org:

Although current relations between Jews and some Arabic-speaking countries are a bit strained, to say the least, it was not always so. In fact, there was a time when most Jews lived in Arabic-speaking countries, and thus many Jewish books were written in Arabic—or to be more precise, Judeo-Arabic, which was either the Jewish dialect of Arabic or classical Arabic written with Hebrew letters. Most of these works were later translated into Hebrew and other languages, becoming foundational Jewish classics—to the point that many people are unaware that these works were originally written in Arabic.
Here are seven such works:

1. Kitab al-Amanat wa’l-I’tiqadat (Emunot V’deiot—“The Book of Beliefs and Opinions”), by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon

Facsimile of first edition of Emunot V’deiot, with Hebrew translation by Judah ibn Tibbun, Constantinople, 1562.
Facsimile of first edition of Emunot V’deiot, with Hebrew translation by Judah ibn Tibbun, Constantinople, 1562.
Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (Saadiah ben Joseph Al-Fayyumi) was born in Egypt; served as gaon and head of the yeshivah in Sura, in present-day Iraq; and died in the year 942 C.E. He was one of the first rabbis to write extensively in Arabic, and is considered the originator of Judeo-Arabic literature. He is best known for his magnum opus Emunot V’deiot (“The Book of Beliefs and Opinions,” or its longer, more complete name, “The Book of the Articles of Faith and Doctrines of Dogma”), which he completed in the year 933 C.E. Rabbi Saadiah Gaon wrote this work after seeing the confusion and ignorance among many of the Jews about their own faith. It is the first systematic presentation and philosophic foundation of Jewish thought and dogma.
He also wrote works on many other topics, including Hebrew grammar, Jewish law, and polemics against the Karaites. Additionally, he wrote a translation of Scripture into Arabic, with a very valuable commentary. This masterpiece is called Tafsir.
See more on Rabbi Saadiah Gaon here.

2. Al Hidayah ila Faraid al-Qulub (Chovot HaLevavot—“Duties of the Heart”), by Rabbeinu Bachya

Title page of an early copy of “Duties of the Heart,” 1190.
Title page of an early copy of “Duties of the Heart,” 1190.
Not much is known about Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Paquda, other than that he lived in 11th-century Spain and served on the rabbinical court there. He is famous for his work Chovot HaLevavot, “Duties of the Heart” (or as it was originally entitled before being translated into Hebrew, “Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart”). Rabbi Bachya, or Rabbeinu Bachya, as he is more commonly known, writes that he wrote the book after observing that many Jews paid attention only to the outward observance of Jewish law, “the duties to be performed by the parts of the body,” without regard to the inner ideas and sentiments that should be embodied in this way of life, “the duties of the heart.” As such, Chovot HaLevavot deals with commandments based on the mind and emotions, such as thinking about the unity of G‑d, love of G‑d and trust in G‑d, but also hypocrisy and skepticism, humility and repentance.
Like the other works mentioned here, Chovot HaLevavot has become one of the foundational works of Jewish ethics and has been translated into many languages, including Hebrew, Latin, Judeo-Spanish, Italian and English.

3. Kitab al-Ḥujjah wal-Dalil fi Nuṣr al-Din al-Dhalil (The Kuzari—“A Defense of the Despised Faith”), by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi

Censored page from the first edition of The Kuzari, Fano, 1506 (in the possession of George Alexander Kohut, New York).
Censored page from the first edition of The Kuzari, Fano, 1506 (in the possession of George Alexander Kohut, New York).
Rabbi Yehudah Halevi was a 12th-century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher. Throughout his life, Rabbi Yehudah dreamed of settling in the Land of Israel. He coined the famous phrase “My heart is in the East, but I am in the farthest West.” Toward the end of his life he set out for the Holy Land. Legend has it that upon reaching Jerusalem and beholding the Temple Mount, he rolled on the ground in ecstasy and composed “Tzion Halo Tishali.” At that moment, an Arab horseman saw him and trampled him to death. “Tzion Halo Tishali” is sung to this day as part of the Kinnot elegies traditionally recited by Jews throughout the word on Tisha B’Av to mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Yehudah Halevi is best known for his masterful work The Kuzari, or as it is fully entitled, “The Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Most Despised Religion.” The Kuzari is structured as a dialogue between a rabbi and the king of Khazaria (a country located in present-day Russia and Ukraine), covering topics such as the fundamentals of Judaism, prophecy, the afterlife, the land of Israel, the Hebrew language, the benefits of communal prayer, the Sabbath, astrology, and determinism vs. free will. The Kuzari is a timeless classic and and is regarded as one of the most important polemical and apologetic works of Jewish thought.

See more on Rabbi Yehudah Halevi here.

Born in Cordoba, Spain, in the year 1135, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the RaMBaM—or Maimonides, as he is commonly referred to—was a philosopher, astronomer, and physician to the court of Sultan Saladin in Egypt, and is perhaps the most famous of the Jewish scholars listed here. Maimonides was a prolific writer, and at the age of 16 authored Millot HaHiggayon (“Treatise on Logical Terminology”), a study of various technical terms that were employed in logic and metaphysics. Although his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, in which he gathered and codified all of Talmudic law in an orderly and systematic fashion, was written in Hebrew, most of his other works were written in Judeo-Arabic.

5. Kitab al-Siraj (Peirush HaMishnayot—“Commentary on the Mishnah”), by Maimonides

Maimonides’s handwritten “Commentary on the Mishnah” (Yevamot, ch. 9) in Judeo-Arabic script. Includes notes by his son Abraham in the margin.
Maimonides’s handwritten “Commentary on the Mishnah” (Yevamot, ch. 9) in Judeo-Arabic script. Includes notes by his son Abraham in the margin.

At the age of 23,while fleeing with his family from the Almohads (a fundamentalist Muslim dynasty that took over Cordoba),Maimonides started his commentary on the Mishnah, a massive work written in Arabic and subsequently translated into Hebrew by the famous ibn Tibbon family. In it he not only explains each mishnah, but also includes important background information such as a record of the transmission of the Oral Law to the leaders of each generation and an articulation of the 13 fundamental beliefs of Judaism.

Read article in full

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mayor calls Jewish refugee campaign 'insulting'

Opposition to the campaign by minister Gila Gamliel to document the stories of 850,000 Jews expelled from Arab lands came from an unlikely quarter yesterday:the mayor of the Israeli town of Ness Ziona. That Yossi Shabo's family came to Israel 67 years ago because they were Zionists is not in question. More worrying, is that Shabo showed his ignorance of the 'push factors' his family suffered in their native Egypt. Yediot Aharonot reports: 


  Mayor Yossi Shabo clashed with Minister Gila Gamliel (photo: Mark Israel Sellem)

The Mayor of Ness Ziona, Yossi Shabo, today (Wednesday) came out against the flagship project of Minister Gila Gamliel to document the heritage of Jewish communities in Arab countries and Iran, claiming: "Arab countries did not expel us, we  came voluntarily."
 
Recently the Minister for Social Equality has been running a campaign on the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries. It aims to point out the injustice directed against the Jews in their home countries. But the mayor, a member of the Likud Central Committee who immigrated to Israel from Egypt 67 years ago, the issue is not yet settled. In a letter sent to Gamliel, protesting the campaign, he called it "insulting". According to him, it "implies that Jews from Arab countries wanted to live in exile in their own countries, and only expulsion brought them to immigrate to Israel. I strongly protest this distortion of history."
 
When his family emigrated to Israel, his father paid for them to travel to Europe and from there they arrived in Israel. 

"A little effort on your part would clarify that the State of Israel through its agents paid a lot of money to the leaders of the Arab countries to allow the immigration of Jews to Israel. The immigration of Moroccan Jews was only made possible thanks to the involvement of the Mossad and the Jewish Agency. In light of this, I ask whence came the theory of expulsion? "
 
Shabo ended his letter demanding:"in the name of my family and like all Jews from Arab lands, I challenge you to correct the mistake, stop the campaign and announce publicly that Jews in Arab countries left  out of Zionist motives and were not expelled."
 
The national plan for documenting the heritage of Jewish communities in the Arab countries and Iran has been approved by the government at a cost of 10 million shekels. The joint venture will be run by the Government Press Office, together with the Ministry for Social Equality led by Gamliel. They will collect  testimonies from the public. A memorial day to mark the departure and expulsion of Jews from the Arab lands and Iran has been commemorated in Israel since 2014.
 
The Ministry for Social Equality commented: " The Law for a Day to mark the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran was passed back in 2014, while the office  responsible for its implementation is the Ministry for Social Equality. But there is no contradiction that all who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries and Iran, between those who were driven out  and those who came to Israel from Zionism and by virtue of being  Jews. 

The lack of knowledge of the mayor of Ness Ziona about the many families who were expelled from Arab countries after the establishment of the state, only intensifies the need to fill in  the missing part of the story of the Jews from Arab countries and Iran and bring it to public attention. "
 
Levana Zamir, chairman of the umbrella organization of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, said in response: "we wonder how one man allows himself to make statements on behalf of 850,000 Jews from Arab countries, some of whom were expelled and some of whom fled for their lives. To speak these words comes only from serious ignorance of what really happened. The mayor's remarks are outrageous to hundreds of thousands of Israelis from Arab countries. How can he claim that  Oriental Jews were not expelled at all when I myself was banished ?" 
 
Zamir added: "with all due respect, I know  Ness Ziona elected the mayor and is proud of it, but  the story does not represent all Jews of Egypt, let alone a million Jews from Arab countries and Iran. I do not understand how he came out against minister Gamliel. She is the first minister in Israel's history who decided to enact the Memorial Day Law, and to take action to correct the ignorance regarding the story of the Mizrahi Jews. "

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sami Michael, a lifelong fighter against racism

 The publication of an anthology of essays by Sami Michael, the Baghdad-born writer, 90, is the occasion for this Haaretz tribute by his niece, Vered Lee. A communist, Michael criticised ' the discrimination, racism and inequality' in Israel, Lee writes - faithfully following the Haaretz 'discrimination' playbook - 'and depicted an affinity between Israel’s Arabs and Mizrahim, countering the Zionist narrative suggesting that Jews in Arab lands were subjected to unyielding hatred.' But it is hard to argue that Michael himself, whose books are taught in schools and whose brother-in-law was the executed spy Eli Cohen, has been anything less than a pillar of the Israeli establishment.

 Sami Michael: protests neglect in the ma'abarot (photo: Aya Efraim)


Sami Michael was born Camal Menashe, in Baghdad on Aug. 15, 1926, into a well-established Jewish family. His father, who worked as a broker between importers and merchants in the textile business, was an autodidact and bibliophile. The Jewish high school Camal attended was one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Baghdad; boys and girls studied together there in a modern secular atmosphere. At the age of 15, Camal joined the communist underground in Iraq, working against the regime and in support of democracy and human rights. He was in charge of Communist Party-affiliated groups at high schools, was active in poor Shi’ite neighborhoods and served on the editorial staff of underground journals. For a year he attended the American University in Baghdad and wrote for the local press.

In 1948, the state issued a warrant for his arrest, and he fled to Iran. Compelled to go underground and change his name, he purchased the ID of a dead man named Samir, later adopting the name in its shortened form after realizing that it had saved his life. He renewed his political activity in Iran, prompting Iraq to demand his extradition. He went underground again and a few months later arrived in Israel.

Initially Michael settled in Jaffa, but when the writer Emil Habibi offered him a position at the Haifa-based Communist Party newspaper Al-Itthihad, he moved to the northern city. He lived in the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas and published a regular column in Arabic under the pseudonym “Samir Mared” (“Samir the Rebel”), as well as short stories and articles in the party’s monthly journal Al Jadid.

Prof. Orit Bashkin, who teaches modern Middle East history at the University of Chicago, considers Michael’s early, socially conscious writing in Arabic, in her Hebrew-language article, “From Red Baghdad to Red Haifa.” Michael described the discrimination and neglect in the ma’abarot – the transit camps the Israeli government erected to house the influx of refugees in the state’s early years. He felt the pain of his relatives and acquaintances who were housed in the camps, and documented their social and political exclusion and the racism of the state authorities. Concurrently, he served as a roving reporter in Israel’s Arab villages, all of which were under the rule of the military government (which lasted from 1948 to 1966). In his articles he protested the absence of equal rights for Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

 Read article in full (Registration required)

Monday, January 09, 2017

Hanucah dancing draws Bahrain ire (updated)

Update (with thanks Lily): Bahraini youth from the Youth for Jerusalem chapter wearing cleaners' overalls went to the site where Jewish tourists danced with Arabs at Hanucah to scrub the-pavement outside. The underlying idea is the Shi'a prejudice that Jews are unclean and Muslims should not have contact with them. See MEMRI Video: Transcript here.

Extract:
A cleaner's coat reads '1948': 
“In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate We, the Bahrainis, will redeem Palestine and the Arabs, and even all Muslims”
“1948 Bahrainis participated in mass demonstrations and waged Jihad with their money and souls against the Partition Plan and the occupation of Palestine”
A cleaner’s coat reads '2002':
“2002 The establishment of the Permanent Parliamentary Committee for Supporting the Palestinian People in addition to the ongoing governmental support”
Voice over: "... Defending its just causes, first and foremost the Palestinian cause."
A cleaner’s coat reads '2009'
“2009 Mass Protests against the tyrannical Zionist aggression against Gaza
A cleaner scrubbing the floor’s coat is marked “2011”
Voice over: “As we told our brothers in Gaza, we will support them as much as we can. We will wipe away this stain on the shining history of our lands. We, the youth of Bahrain, will not forget our cause, and we will keep marching on this path until Palestine is regained - in its entirety!”
“#Bahrainis_against_normalization”
--------


With the possible exception of the king and his immediate entourage, it seems that few Bahrainis are prepared to  'normalise' relations with Israel, let alone see Bahrainis dancing with Jews as anything less than a provocation. Elder of Zion reports:




The backlash from the videos of Jewish Americans dancing in Bahrain keeps snowballing. A dozen "civil society" institutions have condemned it, saying: 

The visit of this delegation was provocative and the accompanying dances to the music of Talmudic songs called for the establishment of the temple on the ruins of Al-Aqsa Mosque, in front of historic Bab Al Bahrain [square], and before that in the house of a businessman with a number of traders..This provocation caused a deep psychological wound and is blatantly opposed to Arab and Islamic values ​​in support of our brothers the heroic Palestinian people against the arrogance of the Zionists and their obnoxious occupation of the land of Palestine violating all moral and human values.
The  Bahrain Council of Representatives sent out a series of Tweets denouncing the event.

"The House of Representatives expresses its rejection and condemnation of what was done with a number of traders and businessmen in the Kingdom of Bahrain from trying business and social  normalization  with the visiting US delegation. We stress the strong condemnation of the unacceptable behavior, which provoked and embarrassed the Bahraini street which supports the rights of the Palestinian people. The Hebrew dance and songs called for an alleged temple on the ruins of Al-Aqsa and they handed the [Bahrains] the Masonic logo.[This means a menorah - EoZ]
The Council reiterated Bahrain's position of rejecting all forms of normalization, communications and establishing relationships with the rapist Israeli entity, and that any move and act opposed to Bahraini law, and the principles of the Bahraini people."

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Context is key to Arab-Jewish relations

Important article by Gregg Roman in The Hill: the way to understand the Israeli Palestinian conflict is to restore the historical context of  Arab/Muslim colonisation and imperialism imposed on  indigenous peoples.

If one people violently conquered the territory of an indigenous people, forced them to declare allegiance to the conquering nation and creed at the point of a sword, foisted a culture, religion and language on the conquered people and treated those who refused as second-class citizens with far fewer rights, there would rightly be outcry, derision and, above all, condemnation.

If such actions are wrong and unconscionable in principle, it should not matter when they took place — whether it was a few decades or a number of centuries ago. Nevertheless, this principle is not accepted by the United Nations. In fact, it is turned on its head.


The Arab/Muslim conquerors imposed their language, culture and religion

Around 1,300 years ago, descendants and followers of the Prophet Mohammad from Arabia poured out of the Peninsular in an orgy of conquest, expansionism and colonization. They first annihilated ancient Jewish tribes in places like Yathrib (known today as Medina) and Khaybar before sweeping north, east and west, conquering what is today known as the Middle East, North Africa and even southern Europe.

Wherever Arab and Islamic rulers conquered, they imposed their culture, language and — most significantly — their religion.

At first, Arab settlers and conquerors did not want to intermingle with their indigenous vassals. They often lived in segregated quarters or created garrison towns from which they imposed their authority on native populations.

Over time, non-Arab converts to Islam were assimilated into Arab-Muslim society through tribal “clientage,” which Abd Al-Aziz Duri describes in The Historical Formation of the Arab Nation, as “help[ing] to promote both the spread of Arabic and the expansion of Arabisation,” while slavery became rampant and unfettered.

Slowly, but surely, the “Arab world” that we know today was artificially and aggressively imposed.

Ancient communities were destroyed, cultures suppressed and peoples were expelled. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were given the status of al-Dhimma, a people who were heavily oppressed and taxed under law, with few civil rights and constantly under threat of expulsion or annihilation in many parts of the region.

Even today, Arab elites refer to their origins in the Arabian Peninsula, and many villages and tribes across the Middle East keep lineage records to stress their origins far from where their families may have resided for generations.

In the Land of Israel, which was renamed Syria Palaestina after the Roman suppression and expulsion of the indigenous Jewish inhabitants in 135 CE, some Jewish communities remained on their lands and in their cities for hundreds of years. Even Arab writer Muqaddasi complained in 985 CE that “the Jews constitute the majority of Jerusalem's population.”


The Jews, the last people to hold sovereignty and independence in the land, were subsequently harassed and unequally treated by a series of Roman, Byzantine and Muslim conquerors, whether Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk or Ottoman.


Read article in full

Friday, January 06, 2017

Haaretz: Azaria is Mizrahi victim of establishment

Predictably perhaps, Ron Calilli of Haaretz sees the soldier Elor Azaria, convicted for shooting dead a Palestinian terrorist lying on the ground, as a Mizrahi victim of years of establishment incitement against the Arabs. There is no attempt to see Azaria's hatred of Arabs in the context of centuries of Jewish fear and mistrust in Arab countries.



Elor Azaria: Mizrahi son

Azaria is the child of the new Israeli right, one which looks Mizrahi and is characterized as devouring Arabs, while being subjected to years of incitement by politicians. He’s not the successful and enlightened child of upscale Rehavia or some kibbutz, one who voted for left-wing Meretz and galloped through the streets of Tel Aviv in that wondrous summer of social protests in 2011, enjoying a tailwind from mainstream media. He is the child of poorer neighborhoods, in this case one in Ramle, in which the blogger-rapper “The Shadow” and the extremist and racist La Familia group are more popular than that “transvestite,” Bibi.

Azaria is not a child who attended some elite school, one whose treatment by the courts we’re all too familiar with, a propos equitable treatment by law enforcement and the justice system, with one reminded of the problematic statement by former Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak (“This court is a family, one can’t bring in someone who isn’t part of it”).

Read article in full

Thursday, January 05, 2017

King to restore name to Marrakesh Mellah

The Jewish quarter in Marrakesh will have its original name restored on the orders of King Mohammed VI,  Arutz Sheva reports (with thanks Michelle) .


The king at the re- dedication of the Ettedgui synagogue in Casblanca


The Essalam neighborhood will be renamed El Mellah, and the original names of the streets and town squares also will be restored, according to reports.
 The order comes from the king following a request by the president of the Jewish community, according to the Moroccan State Press Agency.

 The Moroccan Interior Ministry made the announcement on Friday, saying the king made the decision in order to “safeguard the civilizational heritage of the Kingdom as well as the cultural heritage of all the components of Moroccan society.”

 Variations of the word “mellah” in Arabic and Hebrew mean “salt.” The Jewish neighborhood was surrounded by a high wall.

 Earlier last month, the king attended the rededication of the Ettedgui Synagogue in Casablanca, whose restoration was funded in part by a government grant.

Read article in full

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Tales from Baghdad: the governor, the rabbi and the baby



Sami Sourani is a historian of the Jews of Iraq living in Canada. When he was a child he used to listen to his grandfather's fireside stories. In the first of an occasional series, here is a story from the time when Babylon was under Persian rule.

"I heard this story from my late grandfather (the late Moshe Shalom Jiji). As I remember, after finishing supper during the very cold winter nights in Baghdad, the family used to sit around a charcoal stove in the living room. We used to burn in the stove some orange peels to fill the room with a nice aroma.

 At the same time, we also used to roast a few chestnuts. It was a nice family environment, but more importantly, we sat down near Grandpa to hear his stories.

 The following story that he told was when Babylon was a Persian colony. Persia used to appoint a governor whose main duty was to collect taxes and to execute the Shah's orders. One governor tried to increase taxes in a way that the taxpayers would blame themselves. To do so, the governor used to invite the Rabbi of the community to his court and ask him a question. If the Rabbi could prove that the governor was wrong, then there would be no increase in taxes. If not, then the governor had the justification to increase taxes as he wished.

 The question that the governor asked the Rabbi was,"Can a baby learn to talk without the help of his mother?" The Rabbi answered "NO". The governor suggested to the Rabbi that he keep a newborn Jewish infant in his palace. His mother would be allowed to breastfeed her/ him as needed. However, she would be watched to ensure she did not talk to her baby at all.

 The Rabbi took a walk in an area where a considerable number of Jewish families were living. While walking aimlessly, he heard the screams of a woman who was giving birth. He knocked on the door and he explained to the family about his mission and the orders of the governor. The family of this baby had no other choice but to agree.

The Rabbi, the mother and her infant went to the court of the governor. The mother agreed to the conditions imposed upon her. This process continued for at least three years. The mother, despite what she was told not to talk to her infant, tried sometimes to whisper in his ear,"Why did you come to this cruel world?" The governor, one day, decided to find what was going on. He called the Rabbi to his court and asked his servant to bring the baby. The governor questioned the baby," What is your name? What is your father's name ?" and other questions. The baby looked confused and did no know what to say.

 The governor ordered his servant to take the baby away. When the servant went to carry the baby, his lips were near the baby's ear. At this moment, the baby said in a loud voice,"Why did you come to this cruel world?" This sentence of seven words was enough proof that mothers help their babies to talk. It saved the Jews from higher taxes, for a while.


 The moral of the story is that the laws of nature cannot be bent, whether or not the orders come from a ruthless governor."

How Baghdad got its Jewish cemetery

Monday, January 02, 2017

In the ma'abara, but outside the big tent

A  Harif session took place in a tent outside the main building at Limmud (photo: Ashley Perry)

The Jewish refugee issue still needs to become a mainstream Jewish concern and make headway with the young, as Lyn Julius of Harif discovered when she held a session at Limmud conference in Birmingham last week. She blogs in The Times of Israel: 

It was standing room only when Aisha and Nadia, two Syrian refugees in hijabs, told their story to an earnest crowd of Limmudniks at the annual conference in Birmingham this week.

 Tuesday was Refugee Day at Limmud.  The almost 3, 000 attendees  were offered a rich diet of presentations that day. Every aspect of the Syrian refugee crisis was examined, while Limmudniks salved their liberal consciences with a focus on social action, the importance of interfaith relations and the dangers of islamophobia .

 In complete contrast, only four brave souls came to a session by Harif, which represents Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK.  The session on ‘How Jewish Refugees can help reframe the Israel debate’ vied for attention with 29 other presentations, including a session on Ladino music. Competition was just too stiff. 

The Harif presentation had been consigned to the lunch marquee erected outside the main building. Tomato soup had been splashed onto the floor. Our four stalwarts, surrounded by large empty vats and trestle tables strewn with crumbs, kept their coats on in the draft. 

Young Limmudniks drifted in and out looking for a last sandwich.They promptly left again, dashing our forlorn hopes that they might stay on to swell our paltry numbers and learn something about Jewish refugees.

 Whether by accident or by design, the marquee replicated the conditions that 650, 000 Jewish refugees experienced when they first arrived in Israel in the 1950s. These had been housed in transit camps or ma’abarot, makeshift tents or huts with no heating in winter and not enough food.

 While it would be unfair to blame the Limmud programmers for Harif’s poor showing – they did allow this and subsequent Harif sessions to take place and did their best to accommodate us  – it is nevertheless disappointing that so few Limmudniks turned up to hear about Jewish refugees.

 The Jewish refugees are patently  ‘outside the big tent’ of universalist Ashkenazi concerns. It is a safe bet that the 100-plus Limmudniks who flocked to hear Aisha and Nadia did not have a clue that 38, 000 Jews had also been displaced from Syria in the last fifty years.

Did they know that a larger number of Jews had been uprooted than Palestinian refugees? That almost a million Jewish refugees from the Arab world had been denied recognition and compensation? That their flight has crucial ramifications for peace and the struggle against Israel’s delegitimisation?

 Did they care?

 Jews seem always keen to burnish their universalist credentials, while remaining indifferent to the travails of their own people.

 This disappointing lack of awareness, especially among the young, presents a challenge to Harif. Although the audiences were bigger for its later sessions, few were under fifty years old.

 A visitor to Limmud from Israel, Ashley Perry, the architect of the Jewish refugee awareness campaign when he was adviser to the deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon,  took away this lesson:  Our challenge is to educate our own Jewish community on this issue – before we can hope to reach the outside world, ” he said.

Read article in full

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Year 2016 in Review


With the population of Jews in Arab countries closer than ever to extinction, this blog is fated to tell a story  of inexorable decline. The rescue of Jews from Yemen was, however, one of the good news stories of the year. The last 19 Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel from Yemen were airlifted in secrecy by the Jewish agency. Some 50 Jews remain in the wartorn country.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, the number of Jews in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon is estimated to be under 15. The only countries with a semblance of Jewish communal life are Morocco and Tunisia. Turkey saw a notable decline it Jewish population. They are threatened both by official government antisemitism and jihadist terrorism.

On the plus side, the Biton committee delivered its report to the Netanyahu government, with its recommendations for greater emphasis on Mizrahi history and heritage in Israeli schools. As Jewish organisations and the Israeli government commemorated the third Memorial Day for Jewish refugees on 30 November 2016, the issue seemed to have become such a hot topic that two female Mizrahi ministers were fighting over who should drive the campaign forward.

 Internationally, the year ended on a depressing note, as John Kerry, US Secretary of State, made his controversial speech which mentioned the Nakba of Palestinian refugees without mentioning Jewish refugees. The Obama administration seems to have gone backwards on this core issue. Who now remembers that in  2014, lead US envoy to the Middle East Martin Indyk gave reassurances to US Jewish leaders that compensation for Jewish refugees would be written into a peace treaty between Israel and theArabs?

We hope that the Jewish refugee issue will be back on the agenda when the next US administration takes over.

Wishing all Point of No Return readers a happy 2017!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Yemenite babies: Released data show negligence


Newly-released documents show that the authorities were guilty of gross negligence, but not state-sanctioned kidnappings in the saga of the disappeared  Yemenite children. The Times of Israel reports: 

As the Israeli public and media began perusing hundreds of thousands of newly released documents pertaining to the missing “Yemenite Children Affair,” early reports on the files from a 2001 government inquiry appeared to dispel notions of state-sponsored abductions of children during the early years of the state as has been alleged by many Yemenite families.

The declassified documents point to numerous cases of children being taken away from their families to receive medical treatment without parental approval, proper documentation, and identification procedures. Families subsequently lost all trace of their loved ones, with deaths going unreported and children being put up for adoption after authorities claimed their families had disappeared.

Read article in full


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Kerry fails to mention Jewish refugees

US Secretary of State John Kerry made a long-awaited speech yesterday about the outgoing US government's approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The speech enunciated six principles. On refugees, Kerry said: 

 The plight of many Palestinian refugees is heartbreaking, and all agree that their needs have to be addressed. "As part of a comprehensive resolution, they must be provided with compensation; their suffering must be acknowledged and there must be the need to have options and assistance in finding permanent homes. The international community can provide significant support and assistance. I know we are prepared to do that, including and raising money to help ensure the compensation and other needs of the refugees are met. And many have expressed willingness to contribute to that effort, particularly if it brings peace. But there is a general recognition that the solution must be consistent with two states for two peoples, and cannot affect the fundamental character of Israel."

 
John Kerry: speech

Read text in full 


David Harris , writing a letter to John Kerry in the Huffington Post , spotted that something was missing from Kerry's speech - 850,000 somethings, to be precise: 

"One of your six principles was resolution of the Palestinian refugee question. I waited for you to add in that section some reference to the Jewish refugee question, but, alas, there was none. Mr. Secretary, as you know, there were two, not one, refugee populations created by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they were of roughly equal size. Just because one has been kept alive by UNRWA and the absence of any mandate to resettle refugees (and, I’d add, their descendants in perpetuity), while the other has been dealt with by people who refused to be instrumentalized and chose to move on with their lives, the tragedy - and the claims - of both populations require attention."

Read letter in full

Alan Dershowitz also notes that  Kerry omitted any mention of Jewish refugees.




Wednesday, December 28, 2016

400,000 'Yemenite children' records accessible online

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurated an online database today that gives the public full access to some 400,000 pages of declassified documents that the state hopes will help bring closure to the decades-long controversy known as the “Yemenite Children Affair.”The Times of Israel reports (with thanks: Sylvia):

“Today we right a historic wrong,” Netanyahu said at a ceremony launching the database. “For close to 60 years people did not know the fate of their children, in a few minutes any person can access the pages containing all the information that the government of Israel has.” 

This is “a brave and important act,” said Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi, who was tasked by the prime minister with overseeing an investigation into the affair and who gave the go-ahead for the declassification of the documents.

Since the 1950s, over 1, 000 families — mostly immigrants from Yemen, but also dozens from the Balkans, North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries — have alleged their children were systematically kidnapped from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad.

Read article in full


Yemenite immigrants in a camp near Ein Shemer in 1950. (Pinn Hans/GPO)

What about Jewish-owned land beyond the Green line?

 Israel is reeling from the passing of the controversial resolution UNSC 2334 last week. The resolution which passed without the usual US veto,  'breaks new ground' by declaring all Israeli settlement on the land east of the 1967 Green line  'illegal'. Time to revisit the Clash of Cultures blog on this fraught subject. The reality on the ground is far more complex than the international community believes.

A Jewish 'settlement'

The idea that the territories beyond the Green Line should be Jew-free received a ringing endorsement from Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas just as US secretary of state John Kerry sat Israelis and Palestinians down to peace talks in Washington DC. Not a single Israeli would be allowed in a Palestinian state, Abbas announced.

Like the Palestinians, the EU assumes that the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are ‘Arab land.’   But nothing is ever that simple in the Middle East. Land ownership is a tangled web, although that''s a point not often made by the Israeli government. 


The Golan Heights are almost universally considered ''Syrian'' territory and yet the Jewish National Fund lays claim to 73.974 dunams in southern Syria. The earliest purchase was made in the 1880s. 


Similarly, land ownership in Jerusalem and the ''West Bank'' is far more complex than the EU thinks. The ''Jewish settlements'' north of Jerusalem, Atarot and Neve Yaakov, were evacuated in 1948. Mount Scopus - technically in ''Arab'' East Jerusalem - remained a Jewish enclave in Jordanian-controlled territory. 


It is also little known that hundreds of thousands of Arab squatters in ''Arab East Jerusalem'' live on land still owned by the Jewish National Fund. The JNF purchased hundreds of individual parcels of land in and around Jerusalem during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In 1948, on one of these parcels the UN built the Kalandia refugee camp. The Deheishe  refugee camp south of Bethlehem was also built on JNF land.


In the 1920s and 30s Iraqi and Iranian Jews queued up to buy parcels of JNF land; after the 1948 war, they  were cut off from their purchases when these came under Jordanian rule, as Gil Zohar explained in his 2007 Jerusalem Post piece.  In total 145. 976 dunams (I dunam = 1,000 sq. m) of Jewish land is said to have come under Jordanian control. (Jewish property claims against Arab countries by Michael Fischbach, p 85).


In Abu Dis, the site of the putative Palestinian parliament, some 598 dunams of land are actually Jewish-owned as even Palestinian organisations acknowledge
During the 1920s and 30s the ‘Agudat HaDayarim’ Jewish Cooperative Society was established in Jerusalem in order to create Jewish neighbourhoods outside  the Old City. The Society had over 210 members, from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds - including Persian, Iraqi and Yemenite Jews.  In 1928 the Aguda purchased 598 dunams of land on the city outskirts in Abu Dis  in order to build a ‘Garden Community’ (homes with agricultural plots). Although it acquired a legal title to the area, the Arab revolts of 1929 and 1936-9 prevented the Aguda from establishing the new community.  The War of Independence resulted in the Jewish-owned lands in Abu Dis coming under the control of the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property.
Another 16.684,421 dunams of Jewish land 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. 


Even before 1948, riots and massacres caused Jews of the centuries-old Yishuv to evacuate their homes in Hebron and parts of Jerusalem.


Before it fell to the Arab Legion in 1948, Jerusalem had a Jewish majority. The first refugees from eastern Jerusalem were Jews from the Shimon Hatzaddik quarter - the site of the tomb of Simon the High Priest. The Old City of Jerusalem became ''judenrein'' as thousands of Jews were expelled, leaving their property behind. The Old City was ransacked and some 58 synagogues were destroyed during the 19-year Jordanian occupation. Jews were banned from their holiest places.


There is a respectable body of  opinion which argues that most Israeli settlements are legal. Even if Israel were to agree that the Jewish settlements stigmatized by the EU are illegal under international law, the proportion of land ''built on Arab land'' in the West Bank represents a tiny fraction of the Jewish-owned land abandoned or seized as a matter of deliberate policy in Arab countries.
  
 The issue of Jewish settlements has to be seen in the context of the mass exchange of land and population between Jews and Arabs  across the entire region.

Read article in full

Monday, December 26, 2016

Iraqis warm to Jews at Hanucah

With thanks: Michelle and Kheder

Update: the US-backed Arabic channel Al Hurrah has an interview with kippa-wearing Steven Maman.  Maman draws parallels between the suffering of the Yazidis and the Jewish experience of persecution.



For the first time, an Iraqi newspaper has paid tribute to  Jewish philanthropist Steve Maman.

 Steve Maman and his family

Journalist Imran Hussein profiles Maman and his work to rescue Yazidis and Christians from Islamic State in Iraq.

However, Hussein describes Maman simply as a Montreal businessman with a wife and six chldren, making no reference to the fact that he is an observant Jew from Morocco. The mere mention of Maman is nevertheless a breakthrough, indicating that the Iraqi press is freeer than it has ever been in the past.

More about Steve Maman here.

In another example of Iraqis reaching out to Jews, the committee for the defence of religious and ethnic groups in Iraq  has extended its greetings to Iraqi Jews on the occasion of Hanucah. 
The logo of the Committee for the defence of religious and ethnic groups in Iraq.

Ala Mahdi sends congratulations and blessings. "Our brothers in humanity the Jews in particular loved us Iraqis wherever they were in the world. Merry Christmas free of all manifestations of mourning and sadness."

Bahrain hosts Hanucah-lighting ceremony

 

With  an extraordinary spectacle of Hasidim dancing with Arabs in traditional dress, the Bahraini monarchy hosted a Hanucah-lighting ceremony  for the second year running, the Times of Israel reports. The kingdom does have a synagogue, but it is never used by the 36 Jews still living there.

The small Muslim monarchy of Bahrain hosted a ceremony to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, and the resulting video of kaffiyeh-wearing sheikhs dancing with Orthodox Jews to Hasidic music has been going viral on Facebook.

On Saturday night, the kingdom, ruled by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, held a candle-lighting ceremony in which Jews, businesspeople and other Bahraini people took part. 

Bahrain, a group of islands in Persian gulf with a population of 1.4 million, is the only Arab gulf state that has a synagogue. The country had a Jewish population of some 1, 500 Jews in 1948. However, after the declaration of the State of Israel many left, and almost all those who remained followed suit after 1967’s Six Day War. Today there are less than 50 Jews in the country.

Read article in full

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Hanucah, Moroccan style



Tonight is the first night of the eight-day festival of Hanucah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. This year, unusually, it coincides with the festival of Christmas. Here is a rendition of Maoz Tzur, the traditional piyyut heard at this time. Rabbi David Kadoch sings Maoz Tsur to a Moroccan tune. Here are the lyrics in English translation:

  Maoz Tzur : Rock of Ages

O mighty stronghold of my salvation, to praise You is a delight.
Restore my House of Prayer and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering.
When You will have prepared the slaughter for the blaspheming foe,
Then I shall complete with a song of hymn the dedication of the Altar.

My soul had been sated with troubles, my strength has been consumed with grief. They had embittered my life with hardship, with the calf-like kingdom's bondage.
But with His great power He brought forth the treasured ones,
Pharaoh's army and all his offspring
Went down like a stone into the deep.

To the holy abode of His Word He brought me. But there, too, I had no rest And an oppressor came and exiled me.
For I had served aliens, And had drunk benumbing wine.
Scarcely had I departed At Babylon's end Zerubabel came.
At the end of seventy years I was saved.

 To sever the towering cypress sought the Aggagite, son of Hammedatha,
But it became [a snare and] a stumbling block to him and his arrogance was stilled.
The head of the Benjaminite You lifted and the enemy, his name You obliterated His numerous progeny - his possessions - on the gallows You hanged.

Greeks gathered against me then in Hasmonean days. They breached the walls of my towers and they defiled all the oils;
And from the one remnant of the flasks a miracle was wrought for the roses.
Men of insight - eight days established for song and jubilation
 Bare Your holy arm and hasten the End for salvation -

Avenge the vengeance of Your servants' blood from the wicked nation.
 For the triumph is too long delayed for us, and there is no end to days of evil, Repel the Red One in the nethermost shadow and establish for us the seven shepherds.

 Maoz Tzur translation courtesy of www.ou.org.

Wishing all readers Happy Hanucah, Merry Christmas, or simply...Happy Holidays! 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Who cares about the non-Muslims of Aleppo?

Represented by liberals such as Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN,  the West seems only worried about the beleaguered Sunni Muslims of Aleppo, (although Prince Charles seems to have belatedly cottoned on to the dismal plight of Middle Eastern Christians).  Excellent piece by Daniel Greenfield in Front Page exposing the hypocrisy and lies over Aleppo: 


250, 000 Christians lived in Aleppo before the Sunni-Shiite Islamic civil war began. Today their numbers have fallen to 40, 000.

There were no worldwide protests over this ethnic cleansing of Christians from Aleppo as there are over the fall of the Sunni Islamic state whose Jihadis are euphemistically described as rebels. There were no photos of crying Christian children blanketing every media outlet. But today you can hardly open a newspaper without seeing a teary Sunni Muslim kid allegedly being evacuated from Aleppo.

Given a chance, the weeping Sunni Muslims did to their Christian neighbors in Aleppo what they had done to them back during the Aleppo Massacre a hundred years ago when they were upset that the decline of Islamic Sharia power led to Christians gaining some civil rights. The Jewish population of Aleppo, which had once made up 5% of the city, had already been wiped out in the 1947 Muslim riots.

The last Jewish family was evacuated from Aleppo to escape the Sunni Jihadis two years ago.

The destruction of the Jewish and Christian communities of Aleppo happened without a fraction of the hysterical tumult over the defeat of the Sunni Jihadis and their fellow Muslim religious dependents.

"Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later,” Samantha Power declared at the United Nations.

Why doesn’t the ethnic cleansing of 210,000 Christians stain Power’s conscience? Or the church bombings by Islamists in Egypt, the stabbings of Jewish women in Israel and the Boko Haram genocide of Christians in Nigeria? True modern evil is the righteous conviction of liberals that only Muslim lives matter and that their Christian, Jewish and other non-Muslim victims somehow have it coming. (...)

The Jewish population of the Middle East now exists almost entirely in Israel, protected by guns wielded, as often as not, by the descendants of Jewish refugees from Islamic oppression in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. The Christian population, lacking an independent state of its own, continues to dwindle, dependent on the shaky goodwill of dictators like Mubarak or Assad who find them temporarily useful.

Read article in full

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Plain-speaking Bensoussan prosecuted for 'hate-speech'

First they came for the journalists. Now they are coming for the historians. Georges Bensoussan will appear before a tribunal next month accused of 'incitement to racial-hatred'.   To state politically-incorrect fact becomes 'hate speech' in France today. Thankfully, leading historians are rallying to Bensoussan's defence.

 Haaretz reports:

One of the world’s leading historians on the Jewish communities in Arab countries is being prosecuted in France for alleged hate speech against Muslims.

The Morocco-born French-Jewish scholar Georges Bensoussan, 64, is due to appear next month before a Paris criminal court over a complaint filed against him for incitement to racial hatred by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, the group recently announced on its website.

George Bensoussan: politically-incorrect to call out Muslim antisemitism
 
The complaint, which leading French scholars dismissed as attempt at “intimidation” in a statement Friday, was over remarks about anti-Semitism by Muslims that Bensoussan, author of a definitive 2012 work entitled “Jews in Arab Lands,” made last year during an interview aired by the France Culture radio station, the Collective said.

The Collective based its complaint on two remarks by Bensoussan.

“Today, we are witnessing a different people in the midst of the French nation, who are effecting a return on a certain number of democratic values to which we adhere,” read the first quote flagged.

The second quote cited read: “This visceral anti-Semitism proven by the Fondapol survey by Dominique Reynié last year cannot remain under a cover of silence.” Conducted in 2014 among 1, 580 French respondents, of whom one third were Muslim, the survey found that they were two times and even three times more anti-Jewish than French people as a whole.

Read article in full

Here is the background to the case, as featured on Point of No Return:

Georges Bensoussan, historian and editorial director at the Holocaust Memorial in Paris, is at the centre of a firestorm accusing him of 'incitement to racial hatred'.

A group of left-wing intellectuals, including the controversial academic Shlomo Sand,  lodged  a complaint against Bensoussan with MRAP, a French  anti-racist movement. Bensoussan may be called to face a tribunal.

During a TV discussion broadcast on 10 October 2015, Repliques, Bensoussan commented that France cannot hope to integrate its Maghrebi immigrants unless it recognised that these immigrants imbibe antisemitism 'with their mother's milk'.

Bensoussan, whose family comes from Morocco and who authored an 800-page volume on the uprooting of Jews from Arab countries Juifs en pays Arabes: le grand deracinement 1850 - 1975  in 2012 , claims that he was paraphrasing the words of a 'brave' Algerian sociologist, Smain Laachar." Everyone knows it but nobody will say it," Laachar had declared of Arab/Muslim antisemitism.

Laachar has since denied having said or written this 'ignominy'. He said it was outrageous for Bensoussan to have claimed that antisemitism was transmitted by blood.

Bensoussan has countered that Arab antisemitism was not transmitted biologically but culturally. He accused his critics of 'intellectual terrorism'.
 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Farhud is backdrop for new novel

The lives of two Jewish families, one from Hungary and the other from Iraq,  converge unexpectedly in London in the shadow of the Farhud pogrom in Iraq and the Nazi Holocaust. Interview by Keren David with the author of Nine love letters, Gerald Jacobs, in the Jewish Chronicle:


It is a slightly worrying thing, the task of reading a colleagues book and interviewing him about it, especially as in this case the colleague is Gerald Jacobs, literary editor of this newspaper since the late 1980s, who, as a result, knows as much about books, and Jewish books in particular,  as many a professor of literature.

Gerald’s latest book, out this week, is his first novel, and at first glance from the title — Nine Love Letters — and the cover, which features a girl in a 1940s style dress, sitting reading a letter, I wondered if he’d written a conventional romance. But the book, and the letters around which it is structured, offer a far wider exploration of love, with familial love as central to the story as the ardent missives exchanged between lovers.

The range of the novel is epic, taking in generations of Jewish families in Iraq and Hungary and their descendants in England, and he does not shy away from the horrors of the concentration camps, and the Farhud, Baghdad’s version of a pogrom, which brutally ended generations of Iraqi Jewish life in 1941. I was gripped by the story, and — even though our interview was imminent — found myself reading slowly, because I didn’t want the book to end.

The writing, too, stands out. It reminded me of a memoir or, at times, reportage, with its rush of anecdotes, telling the stories of family, friends and neighbours in a few packed pages, moving back and forward in time, with an omniscient third-person narrator. There was something about it that felt different from other novels covering similar ground.

Read article in full

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

'Syrian Jews can return and get their homes back'

A Druze Israeli, Mendi Safadi, former adviser to MK Ayub Kara, has declared that two Syrian opposition leaders have called on Jews to return to their homes and get their properties back. This JerusalemOnline News report by Rachel Avraham begs the question: how influential are these leaders after the fall of Aleppo to the Assad regime, and how many Jews would be seriously interested in returning to war-torn Syria? 


 Mendi Safadi (left) and MK Yehuda Glick (right) meet a Syrian opposition leader (Photo: Safadi Centre)

They also expressed their willingness to cooperate politically with Israel and to sign an agreement that will ensure regional stability. (...)

Fahd Al Masri, Chairman of the National Syrian Salvation Front, called upon Syrian Jews to return to their homes and regain their assets in a post-Assad Syria.  He also promised the Jews that they will receive compensation for all of the damaged Jewish property. He stressed that Syrian Jews are part of the landscape and history of Syria, emphasizing that they can be used as a bridge between Syria and Israel, noting that they should have rights like any other person in Syria.

Regarding Syrian Jews, he stated: “Syrian Jews were always like every other Syrian and post-Assad, the Jewish community can return to its glorious days. We want that you will return and to build together with us a new Syria. There cannot be a Syrian culture without the Jews that were part of this mosaic and any Jew that returns will get his home and assets back while lacking everything that had forced him to leave.”

“As someone who has been following the Syrian Revolution since its beginnings and has contacts with many Syrian Opposition groups, I was not surprised by the letters that I received recently,” Mendi Safadi told JerusalemOnline News. “The Syrian Opposition began to open channels with us since the first days of the Syrian Revolution.  Some wanted this but were afraid yet with the time got the courage to reach out. There are those like Kamal Labani that were against it initially who made contact with Israel and with the time exposed the truth about the country, thus invalidating all of the slogans they grew up with. They asked to get closer and today have turned into great supporters for the relationship with Israel. There are many other examples. What I hope is that the madness of the international community in Syria will stop and they will work to logically find a solution for Syria that will restore regional stability. Shelling civilian population centers and eradicating hundreds of women and children in Aleppo will not bring about a solution but will encourage more terrorism.”

Read article in full

Monday, December 19, 2016

Jews had to prove their loyalty to Turkey



The restored Edirne synagogue

 Following the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, the Ottoman sultan extended a warm welcome to Jews and permitted them to settle in his empire. But the honeymoon period was brief, and even Ataturk's secular Turkish Republic adopted a policy of Turkification of all minorities. Ferkan Sen paints a bleak picture in the Jerusalem Post:

In many parts of the empire, moreover, the Jews found positions, some quite high ones, in the imperial bureaucracy as well as private doctors to the sultan..

Sabbatai Zevi, born on August 1, 1626 in Izmir, declared that he was the messiah, basing his idea on some kabbalistic theories. Zevi, who was complained about to the sultan, Mehmed IV, by the Jews of Istanbul, was given the choice of death or conversion to Islam and chose the latter, with many of his followers also converting.

However, this was not a true conversion. Zevi and the Jewish minority who followed him continued to adhere to Judaism.* Today, there is still a significant Sabbatean-descendant population in Turkey.

Over time however, the Jews came to be regarded in a much poorer light, until in the last days of the Ottoman Empire they had become the targets of Muslims and Turkish hatred. The dialogue between Theodor Herzl and Sultan Abdul Hamid II (the sultan refused Herzl’s offer to pay down 150 million pounds sterling of the Ottoman debt in exchange for a charter allowing the Zionists to settle in Palestine) put the Jewish nation in the crosshairs, being blamed as for liquidating the Ottoman monarchy.

The secular Turkish nation state that emerged after the fall of the empire adopted the Turkification of all ethnic minorities as the primary state policy. The Greeks, Armenians and Jews, who were seen as “minority status” under the Lausanne peace treaty with the allies, were perceived at first as members of the Turkic community.

At a press conference held in Izmir in 1923 founder of the modern Turkish Republic Mistafa Kemal Ataturk said: “We have some loyal citizens who have combined their fate with the fate of the Turks who ruled them. Especially since the Jews proved their loyalty to this nation and their homeland, they have lived in prosperity and prosperity to this day, and will continue to live in prosperity and happiness.”

Yet, Ataturk, however, did not prevent the discriminatory policies later implemented by the republic. For example, the 1934 Thrace pogroms, a series of violent attacks against Jewish citizens of Turkey in June and July 1934, was condemned but not stopped by the government.

Jews were assaulted in Tekirda, Çanakkale, Kırklareli and Edirne, with many rapes, looting and and murders reported.

15, 000 Jews abandoned were forced to flee Turkey as a result. National writers such as Nihal Atsiz wrote anti-Jewish articles.

The Varlik Vergisi (“wealth tax”), which was declared on November 11, 1942, was ostensibly devised to raise funds against the eventuality of Nazi or Soviet invasion, but in actuality was intended to nationalize the Turkish economy by reducing the influence of minority populations on the country’s economy. It was imposed on all citizens, but inordinately higher rates were imposed on the country’s non-Muslim inhabitants. Those who suffered most severely were non-Muslims like the Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and others, though it was the Armenians who were most heavily taxed. The winds of nationalism blowing from Europe affects these policies against minorities. Following these events and the creation of the State of Israel, Jewish immigration from Turkey to Israel increased markedly.

The most important ideologies that influence Turkish politics are Islamism, Turkism and Kemalism, a secular ideology.

Read article in full 

*This is questionable. The followers of Zvi did not identify as Jews and their beliefs were in some cases quite the opposite of Judaism (-Ed)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Aramaic TV broadcasts Hebrew season's greetings


If you need a reminder that Iraq is a mosaic of different ethnicities and religions, watch this programme from the Arabic ABN TV Channel, broadcasting from the US. The Channel which is run by Aramaic-speaking Christians, asked all the different communities of Iraq now dispersed around the world - Armenians, Turkomans, Chaldeans, Mandaeans, Assyrians, Jews and others - to convey season's greetings to viewers in each of their languages.

At 31 minutes to 36 minutes you can hear a message in Hebrew from David Kheder Basson, who now lives in Israel. Basson also wished Jewish viewers a very Happy Hanucah, which this year coincides with Christmas. He followed it with a translation in Arabic.

Basson (pictured) reminded the programme's presenter that the Jews of Iraq did not speak Hebrew, but Judeo-Arabic. He ended his segment with a few words in that dialect. He told viewers that it is close to that spoken in Mosul.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Jewish writer shot dead in Turkey

The Turkish-Jewish community is concerned that antisemitism might be a motive for the murder of a well-known Jewish author in  Istanbul. The Times of Israel reports: (with thanks: Lily)

 Beki Ikala Erikli: gunned down outside her home

A Turkish Jewish writer was murdered at her Istanbul home Thursday by an unknown shooter, local media reported.

Beki İkala Erikli was shot at the entrance to her building in the Kabataş neighborhood of the city and her assailant fled on foot. She was struck by three bullets and paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene. 

Bystanders told the Hurriyet newspaper that they heard the gunshots and raced to where Erikli lay injured.

Police launched an investigation into her murder and were studying security camera footage to identify her shooter.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Albert Memmi : the colonizer not always to blame

Albert Memmi, who has turned  96, is a French-Jewish author of non-fiction and novels born in the Tunis Hara. At first a proponent of Tunisian independence, in his later years, he concluded that not every evil can be blamed on the colonizer. The colonized, too, must take responsibility for his actions. David B Green writes in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily):


His non-fiction works have titles like “The Colonizer and the Colonized” (1957, with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre), “Portrait of a Jew” (published in two parts, in 1962 and 1966), “Jews and Arabs” (1974) and “Racism” (1982). His unique identity – as Jew, as North African and as French intellectual -- gives him a unique point of view, which includes all the inherent contradictions one might expect from those multiple allegiances.

Memmi himself said the following about his writing in 1995: "All of my work has been in sum an inventory of my attachments; all of my work has been, it should be understood, a constant revolt against my attachments; all of my work, for certain, has been an attempt at...reconciliation between the different parts of myself."

With the dramatic changes that have taken place in the Arab and Muslim world, and in its relations with Europe and the West in recent years, Memmi moved to the right. Or at least, he began to place more blame for the dismal situation of the formerly colonized on them themselves, rather than attributing all of their problems to the imperial powers that once ruled them.

 “The Colonizer and the Colonized” made the argument that the institution of colonization does harm to both the perpetrator and the victim, and that its overthrow is necessary and inevitable. But Memmi’s 2006 follow-up work, “Decolonization and the Decolonized” laments all the things that didn’t happen, or that went wrong, when the colonial age came to its end.

The newly independent former colonies must take responsibility for the dire state that many of them are in, he wrote – and as an avowed secularist, he is convinced that religion is not the answer to their problems.

Read article in full (subscription required)