Sunday, October 22, 2017

Prickly discussion on the 'Right of Return' for Palestinians

Haaretz has been carrying an interesting exchange on the Palestinian 'right of return' for refugees. The radical leftist Uri Avnery breezily ignores the rights of Jewish refugees in the discussion. While a rebuttal letter in response mentions Jewish refugees, the author makes the mistake of demanding an equal right of return for Jewish refugees to Arab lands.

Avnery writes:

I think there is a vast difference between principle and implementation. The principle cannot be denied. It belongs to the individual refugee. It is anchored in international law. It is sacred. Any future peace agreement will have to include a section affirming that Israel in principle accepts the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants. No Palestinian leader would be able to sign a deal that doesn't include this clause. I can picture the scene: After agreement is reached on this clause at the peace summit, the chairman will take a deep breath and say, "And now, my friend, let’s move on to the real problem. How are we going to resolve the refugee problem in practice?"

Read article in full

Uri Avnery meeting Yasser Arafat.

The following response to Uri Avnery from Joseph Grinblat appeared in Haaretz: 

I agree that it is not a problem for Israel to accept the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. But not for the reason Mr. Avnery gives.  The word “return” is very clear; it means going back to where one has been before. So it can apply only to the people who left Palestine, not to their descendants who were born in another country.

 There are less than 100,000 survivors from the 700,000 Arabs who left Palestine and became refugees, and they should be allowed to come back to Israel if they wish to, and if they are ready to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors, as is stated in the UN 1949 declaration about Palestine refugees, which mentions only the refugees but not their descendants: “Palestine refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

This applied to Jewish refugees as well as to Arab refugees from the war in Palestine.
 The six million descendants should have been integrated in the countries where they were born. They are not refugees from Palestine, because they have never been there. There is no other example in history where descendants of refugees are still considered to be refugees, three generations later.

 Joseph Grinblat, Retired Director, Migration Studies Section, 
United Nations Secretariat 
Forest Hills, NY

My comment: Uri Avnery is wrong to assume that a 'right of return' is a sacrosanct principle of international law. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has never applied to Palestinian refugees. A 'right of return' was added at the last minute and was intended to underscore the rights of hostage populations to leave their countries. Besides, the Palestinian refugees were never citizens of Israel.

The Arab states rejected UN res 194, which also called for compensation and resettlement, while Israel did take back around 50,000 refugees in the 50s and paid some compensation.
The Arab states have violated international law by refusing to resettle their own refugees, and refusing to compensate Jewish refugees.

Besides, Avnery is wrong to say that the Arab refugees were 'ethnically cleansed'. They fled a war zone. The Jews, on the other hand, were banished from areas which fell to the Jordanians and Egyptians. The question remains - whether anything should be owed to a  population who violated international principles by waging a war of aggression.

 Grinblat is right that the definition of refugee should only apply to the actual refugees and not their descendants, but is wrong to even to entertain the idea of return for 100,000. 

Israel has no obligation to allow Arab refugees to return 70 years after they left.
The existence of an equal number of Jewish refugees for whom return to Arab countries is dangerous should put paid to this notion, once and for all.

The point he should be making is that an irrevocable exchange of refugees took place. Neither set should be allowed to return.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Jewish refugee organisations gear up with concerts, films

 Virtuoso oudist, vocalist and percussionist Yinon Muallem is flying in to London from Turkey for a 2 December concert, Funky Dervish. (Photo: Ozgur Olcer)

Organisations representing Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, in conjunction with Israeli embassies around the world, are gearing up to mark the fourth annual Memorial Day for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran with an array of exciting events. 

The official date in the calendar, as approved by the Israeli Knesset  in June 2010, is 30 November, but memorial events are being held all week-long and even during an entire month.

In London, the centrepiece is a concert at JW3 on Saturday (Motsei Shabbat) 2 December at 8pm. Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, is teaming up with the Jewish Music Institute, the Israeli Embassy and the cultural centre JW3 to hold what promises to be an exhilarating musical experience with Yinon Muallem and his backing group. Born to Iraqi-Jewish parents in Israel, Muallem is an exciting Vocalist, oudist and percussionist musician and composer whose work fuses eastern styles and influences. He is flying in from Turkey especially for the occasion. Tickets here.

Harif is also arranging the London screening of the documentary Night of Fools, which tells the little-known story of how Algerian Jews played a key role in the US liberation of North Africa in 1942. The film will be screened for the first time on 28 November at JW3 and will be followed by a Q&A with the director, Rami Kimchi. Tickets here.

Harif is also partnering in the screening of Remember Baghdad on 3 December at 5pm at the Phoenix cinema in Muswell Hill.

In Geneva on 30 November, the Swiss friends of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries are putting on Operation Mural, the secret operation masterminded by David Littman to evacuate over 500 Moroccan children to Israel. The film will be followed by a Q&A with Littman's widow, the historian Bat Ye'or.

In California, JIMENA has arranged a series of screenings, concerts and talks.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Jerusalem art show focuses on Jewish uprooting

In a corner of the former Bezeq building in Jerusalem, converted into a pop-up art gallery, you will find a fascinating exhibition called 'Homelands'. The exhibition is one of the first to explore the destruction of the Jewish communities of the Islamic world through the eyes of Israeli artists.

Camille Fox's society wedding at the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt

Lenore Mizrachi Cohen's grandfather is garlanded by Arabic calligraphy

Homelands is one of the 26 exhibitions of the Jerusalem Biennale, a showcase of Israeli contemporary art whose theme this year is 'Watershed'. It brings together  14 Israeli artists who for the first time explore themes thrown up by their families' experience of uprooting from Arab and Muslim lands.

Like a  prism breaking beams of  light into a spectrum, 'Homelands presents reflections of the Jews of Islamic lands,' write the curator Meirav Balas and producer Lenore Mizrachi Cohen .' This exhibition examines the moment of individual departure....the uniform narrative splits into  the 'now' that is made of countless experiences, like the number of those uprooted.'

The themes range from nostalgia to violent rupture. For Neta Elkayam, who still sings at concerts in her native Morocco,   the move to Israel is barely an uprooting.  Her Moroccan city skyline  resembles that of Jerusalem, as if the transition from the land of her birth to her new country were a gentle continuum. For Tal Gartenberg, the past is represented by a collection of colourful Moroccan tiles. Florence Nasar's video is of lovingly stuffed vineleaves.

Babette Marciano contrasts the traditional dress of her grandfather's generation and  his French daughter or granddaughter  in her new country in 'Alps,' while Camille Fox's portrait of an Alexandrian society wedding exudes the confidence of a sophisticated and prosperous Jewish community perfectly in tune with modernity.

Two sheets of paper, 'Turning' and 'Irreversible' by Lenore Mizrachi Cohen, hang from the ceiling, the one showing  her grandfather in a traditional fez, garlanded by a frame of Arabic  calligraphy. On the other side is a modern-day grandfather. Another work shows a marrying couple, then and now. The impression is that the departure is irreversible, but that life's drama (with its celebrations) goes on regardless - the protagonists just look different.

Shay Abadi's banner showing Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president who expelled thousands of Jews from Egypt, together with his father and uncle, is perhaps the most poignant work in the exhibition. It seems to be saying that his family, too, belongs to the Egyptian national narrative which so brutally drove them out.

Lida Sharet Massad's work 'Gorasht', Farsi for 'Let it go', seems to tipify the reaction of so many Jews to their uprooting. 'Don't dwell on the past, with all the losses it represents. Look to the future.

The Jerusalem Biennale is on at several locations in the city until 16 November. Entrance 45 shekels. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Algiers, 1942: US wanted to avoid provoking Arabs

To Robert Satloff's essay in Mosaic comes a response from Michael Doran. Satloff had argued that the US has minimised the liberation of North Africa beginning with Operation Torch in 1942 out of misplaced fear of association with Jews. Such fear was to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy engagement. Doran argues that US diplomats had other reasons for being antisemitic. As descendants of Protestant missionaries, they viewed  Zionism as a threat. 

During Operation Torch, as Satloff so admirably demonstrates, Eisenhower and his associates feared that, if they drew too close to the North African Jews, the Arabs would revolt, tying down forces that were badly needed elsewhere. By the 1950s, this idea had grown into a more general principle. If the foreign-policy elite in the 1950s was certain of one thing about the Middle East, it was that a close association of the United States with Israel and the Jews would provoke the Arabs, driving them into the arms of the Soviet Union. A primary strategic goal of the Eisenhower presidency, therefore, was to prove to the Arabs that America was not in Israel’s pocket.

 But when and how did Eisenhower and the others acquire this oversized fear of association with Jews? Satloff suggests that it was “a gift” from the Vichy authorities in North Africa, who transferred their homegrown theory of Arab-Jewish relations to men like (the diplomatic troubleshooter) Robert Murphy. In my own view, it would be more plausible to conclude that the Americans were receptive to the Vichy perspective because they had already, independently, developed a fear of association with Jews. Old-fashioned anti-Semitism certainly played a role. While at the Casablanca Conference of the Allies in 1943, President Roosevelt demonstrated a breezy indifference to the persecution of North African Jews.
General Eisenhower

 In a conversation with General Charles Noguès, the French resident-general in Morocco, Roosevelt offered his advice about how best to respond to the post-Torch plea of Algerian Jews that their French voting rights be restored. “The answer to that,” said the president according to the contemporaneous notes of his aide, “is very simple: namely, that there just weren’t going to be any elections, so the Jews need not worry about the privilege of voting.” He further instructed Noguès to adjust the numbers of local Jews in professions like law and medicine so as to align their proportion with the percentage of Jews in the total population. This approach, he explained to Noguès, would prevent local Muslims from advancing “the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore toward the Jews in Germany,” where they had been disproportionately represented in the educated professions.

 Roosevelt’s views were colored by anti-Semitism, but his stated goal was to avoid provoking the Arabs—among whom, as he rightly or wrongly presumed (wrongly, insists Satloff), resentment toward Jews was deep and abiding. This view of the Arabs came to the Americans not primarily from the Vichy authorities but from elsewhere. It came from their own experts on the Middle East.

 Many of those experts were Protestant missionaries, or had been schooled by missionaries. Ever since the mid-19th century, these missionaries claimed, they and their predecessors had sacrificed in order to develop friendships with Arab Muslims, thereby burnishing the image of the United States in the Middle East. Now, however, official American support for Zionism was angering the Arabs, many of whom had consequently begun to view the missionaries as emissaries of a hostile power. To the missionaries, Zionism was thus responsible both for destroying the missionary project and for damaging the national interest—two indistinguishable values in their minds.

Read article in full

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Mind the gap...

Point of No Return will be taking a short break. Normal service will be resumed later in the week....

Saturday, October 14, 2017

New head of UNESCO is of Moroccan-Jewish descent

A day after the US and Israel announced their departure from UNESCO in protest at its anti-Israel bias, the body elected a Jewish woman of Moroccan descent to be its next head. Audrey Azoulay is the daughter of Andre Azoulay, the adviser to the king of Morocco. Both he and his wife Katia Brami are from Essouira (Mogador) but their three daughters were born in France. 

Audrey Azoulay: grew up in a very leftwing environment

The Times of Israel reports:

 France’s Audrey Azoulay, chosen Friday to lead UNESCO, said following her election she believed member states must “get involved” in the organization and “not leave it,” a day after the US and Israel announced their plans to withdraw. Stressing that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was going through difficult times, Azoulay said, “In a time of crisis, we need to be more involved than ever, seek to strengthen it, and not leave it.”

 Azoulay reiterated that the “first thing she would endeavor” if confirmed by the General Conference in November, would be to “restore the credibility” of the organization and the confidence of member states. Azoulay was named to head the UN’s embattled cultural agency on Friday, beating her Qatari rival after a politically charged contest clouded by Gulf tensions and accusations of anti-Israel bias. Azoulay, 49, came from behind after six rounds of voting to defeat Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari, also a former culture minister, after he failed to pick up support from other Gulf states which are part of a Saudi-led coalition blockading Qatar. The vote was 30 to 28.

 The campaign to succeed UNESCO’s outgoing chief Irina Bokova was overshadowed by Washington’s announcement Thursday that it planned to withdraw from the Paris-based body after years of tensions over decisions seen as critical of Israel.

Read article in full 

  Who is Audrey Azoulay?

 The youngest of three sisters, Azoulay rose from obscurity to become minister of culture in the Hollande socialist government in 2016. Azoulay has stated that she "grew up in a very left-wing environment" "politicised on the Israel-Palestine conflict". Her views on Israel are unknown, although she was said to have experienced for the first time classic French antisemitism at ENA, the elite school which produces France's political establishment. She spent eight years as director of the Centre International du Cinema.

At Sciences Po she met her husband François-Xavier Labarraque. They have two children.

 Both her parents are from Essaouira and retained Moroccan nationality. Azoulay has only French nationality but made visits to Morocco as a child. She does not speak Arabic. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Egypt's Jews support official UNESCO candidate

Voting for the new head of UNESCO takes place on Monday in Paris. The Egyptian candidate, Moushira Khattab, is a front-runner and has the support of the tiny Jewish community of Egypt, led by Magda Haroun. But Khattab's candidacy has been attacked by rights groups, who claim she has been sometimes 'complicit' in the government's human rights violations. Report in The Times of Israel (with thanks: Boruch):

The head of Egypt’s minuscule Jewish community has voiced support for the country’s UNESCO candidate, as the cultural body prepared to vote for a new leader Monday amid intense Israeli lobbying to thwart perceived anti-Israel bias. A statement from Egypt Jewish community head Magda Haroun said that Moushira Khattab has shown an impressive and “genuine commitment to our cause to protect Egypt’s Jewish heritage.”

Moushira Khattab 

A US-educated longtime diplomat, Khattab is believed to be among the front-runners for the UNESCO top post, to replace Irina Bukova. Voting is due to start on Monday in Paris.

Khattab has also served as chairwoman of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood and was one of the main architects of legislation prohibiting the marriage of underage girls and female genital circumcision.In expressing her support for Khattab, Haroun cited a 1990s campaign for women’s rights when Khattab served as a top aide to the country’s first lady at the time, Suzanne Mubarak.

 Khattab’s candidacy has been opposed by a number of Egyptian human rights groups, with a top Egyptian rights lawyer saying the country’s candidate for UNESCO’s top job is not qualified for the post because of her silence and “sometimes complicity” in the government’s repressive policies.

  Read article in full 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Jewish-Muslim links become a hot topic outside Morcco

Aomar Boum made his name by researching Muslim-Jewish relations in his native Morocco, where there remain fewer Jews than in his adopted home of Los Angeles. Now the topic is becoming hot, and he is working on books exploring the issue of displacement and the Holocaust in North Africa. Interview in the Daily Bruin (with thanks: Michelle):

"The formula is to at least allow a future generation to at least respect diversity and difference is training and education, from the bottom up," Boum said.

Aomar Boum, associate professor of anthropology

Boum added he thinks his partnerships with individuals in his home country and with researchers at UCLA are a model for teaching and fostering student initiative and involvement.
Boum said his research on the Moroccan Jewish community examines a history not widely discussed outside Morocco for centuries, and at the same time looks at how the group views itself in the present.

There are approximately 4,000 people who identify as Moroccan Jews living in Morocco today, compared with almost 10,000 Moroccan Jews in Los Angeles, Boum said.
He added he thinks the recent termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program highlighted the dual presence minorities feel between their current places of residence and their ancestral heritage.

"The hyphenated identity is a question always being debated, especially with all the debates about (immigration) now," he added.

Boum is collaborating with a young Moroccan artist to develop a comic book that tells a story of a young Jewish boy who fled Berlin during World War II and was taken in by a Muslim and Jewish family in Casablanca, Morocco, until the end of the war.

The book will address the situation of refugees around the world, including individuals displaced in Myanmar, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, Boum said.

Sarah Abrevaya Stein, a history professor, who is co-editing a book with Boum titled "The Holocaust and North Africa," said their work focuses on topics that are often not covered in a single department.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Kuwait donors fund aid for Yemen Jews

Food aid being delivered to Jews in Sana'a

Volunteers of the Yemen-based charity Mona Relief delivered food packages to poor Jewish families in Sanaa this week thanks to Kuwaiti donations, the Jerusalem Post reports. Since the outbreak of the civil war, the stipends the Jews received in their Sanaa compound dried up and the remaining Jews are struggling to make ends meet. The article puts the number of Jews in Yemen at 86, but there are probably half that number. Last year, the Jewish Agency airlifted the last group of Yemeni Jews who wished to move to Israel. (With thanks: Lily)

It is the fourth time the organization has provided aid to the tiny Jewish community that remains in Yemen, as part of the NGO’s wider humanitarian relief projects. The donations began in 2016 when a journalist alerted Mona Relief founder and CEO Fatik al-Rodaini about the poor conditions in which the Jewish community was living. Rodaini visited the families in December 2016, and met with their leader, Yehia Yousef. Several days later Rodaini reached out to the community with food packages, blankets and hygiene kits funded by the NGO’s online fund-raising campaign.

“That was the beginning of our initiative to the Jewish minority in Sanaa,” Rodaini told The Jerusalem Post. “I promised to help them monthly with food aid and medicine to Jewish members who are sick with chronic diseases. However, I couldn’t fulfill my commitments toward them due to the lack of resources. But I tried to help them annually.”

Rodaini has managed more than annual aid; the last two times, however, were made possible with the aid of anonymous Kuwaiti donors.

Asked about the unusual circumstances of Kuwaitis donating to Jews, Rodaini said that not only had the donors accepted to help the cause when he had asked, they subsequently offered unsolicited donations to the community.

“We are talking about humanity and not about their religion,” said Rodaini, adding that the NGO delivers supplies to 86 Jews in Yemen, making up some 20 families.

Read article in full

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Algiers, 1942: 'the Jews will have to wait'

Operation Torch marked the American invasion of North Africa in 1942, and the first stage in the defeat of the Vichy regime in Algeria. But this significant event merits little mention in the history books and the role of the Jewish resistance gets even less attention. The immediate failure to restore Jewish rights would put down a  marker for America's future Middle Eastern policy, claims Robert Satloff in Mosaic (with thanks: Imre)

Until Torch, the misfortune facing the Jews in lands under fascist domination was, for the Roosevelt administration, a faraway problem, distressful to contemplate but distant from the battle front. Torch changed that equation. For the first time during the war, Torch’s success put American troops in direct control of territory in which Jews faced government-ordained and -implemented persecution and possible death.
This reality made “the Jewish question” a pressing issue. Moreover, thanks to one remarkable but little-recognized fact, it became an immediate issue as well.
In the early morning hours of November 8, 1942, as U.S. and British forces waited anxiously on troop ships spread across the North African coast, 377 young men, led by a twenty-year-old medical student named José Aboulker, had fanned out across Algeria’s capital city of Algiers to execute a daring mission that would help determine the fate of Torch.Aboulker and other resistance leaders had established clandestine contact with the Americans, who promised to supply them with machine guns, grenades, and other weapons. Those promises had gone unfulfilled; but the conspirators were undeterred. Armed only with knives, pistols, and antiquated 19th-century rifles, they aimed at nothing less than to take over the city, arrest the local Vichy generals, admirals, and prefects in their beds, cut communications with the outside world, and immobilize thousands of French soldiers in their barracks.

Astonishingly, through gumption, guile, and guts, these ragtag volunteers succeeded. By 2:00 a.m. on the morning of the invasion, Algeria’s capital was theirs. No less astonishingly, they then proceeded to hold it for an additional five critical hours, making it far easier for Allied troops to enter Algiers than had proved the case in the landing zones of Casablanca and Oran.
If mainstream histories of Torch mention this episode at all, they describe it briefly as but one in a line of heroic tales of French partisans. The official U.S. army account of American military engagement in North Africa, for example, records that “Algiers came under control of the irregulars of the French resistance at the time the landings began.”
Read article in full

On 28 November Harif is putting on a London screening of Rami Kimchi's 'Night of Fools', a documentary about the Jewish role in facilitating the American wartime landing in Algiers. Details here.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Were Egypt’s Jews expelled? Bonan rebuts Bisawe

Israel Bonan 's plans to leave Egypt were disrupted when he became  one of 400 Jews jailed for up to three years after the 1967 war. Haaretz has published his long rebuttal to an earlier piece by Eyal Sagui Bisawe  which argued that Egyptian Jews were not singled out for expulsion: their exit was not as dramatic nor as  systematic as they claim, but a result of decolonisation targeting all minorities. (Bisawe’s claim that Jews from Arab countries exaggerated their persecution to gain legitimacy with Ashkenazi Jews is commonly heard on the left.) Bonan argues that Jews were targeted over and above other minorities and for their religion, not nationality (with thanks: Pablo, Eliyahu, Imre and Lily):

Israel Bonan and his family, Alexandria, 1950s

"We can imagine rows of hooded soldiers gathering Egyptian Jews in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and giving them two options: convert to Islam or be expelled. Or even not giving them the choice but expelling them all. But such an event simply never occurred." 

Putting aside the vulgar and unworthy lack of empathy, the ridicule and venom, what is the definition of the word expulsion? A common definition would be: “The process of forcing someone to leave a place, especially a country.”

A process usually entails more than one step to accomplish a purpose.

So, what was the process used to expel the Jews and other minorities from Egypt? These steps spanned many years, promoted by successive governments all marching to the same tune: "Egypt for the Egyptians". 

The process follows the same template of Nazi Germany, and of all forms of fascism. Loss of citizenship rights and protection, loss of jobs in the private and public sectors, no prospect for future employment, dispossession of assets, death, and expatriation/expulsion. 

In 1929 Egypt enacted a nationality law that stripped the great majority of Egyptian Jews, who’d lived in Egypt for centuries, of their nationality and their citizenship rights and protection. This law forced the Jews of Egypt to outright seek such protection from foreign governments by proving plausible lineage to those countries, or to remain stateless.

In case Mr. Bizawe misses the significance of that law, it implied that the majority of the Jews were not to be considered Egyptians, because of their religion.

In 1947 Egypt enacted the Company Law, which mandated Egyptian citizenship for 90% of employees and 70% of management in any private or public company. The Company Law, in one fell swoop, denied most Jews, as well as Armenians, Greeks, and other ethnic minorities, of their livelihood.

This one-two punch is a true example of economic ethnic cleansing; first you declare they are non-Egyptians, and then you restrict work in the public and private sectors to Egyptians only. After that, Jews quickly learned they would never find a job. 

Once again, in case Mr. Bizawe misses the significance of that law: Greeks and Armenians were targeted for their nationality, but Jews for their religion.

In 1954 Egypt enacted the Nationalization Law, stripping Jews and even well-to-do Egyptians of their businesses, and nationalizing their assets. 

With the rise of Arab nationalism and the onset of the UN partition debate over Palestine, the political environment in Egypt grew progressively more hostile toward the Jewish community. Mr. Bizawe ignores the significance of the final incarceration and expulsion of Jewish adult males in 1967.

Did the Mizrahi Jews "leave of their own volition"? My sister left Egypt first, to be betrothed; my brother followed a year later, after he finished his engineering studies; and I had one month left before I could earn my own engineering degree and, together with my elderly parents, join my siblings. 

What is "of our own volition?” History is about cause and effect: the laws and measures taken left us with no option but to leave. 

Read article in full

Sunday, October 08, 2017

New Sephardi Museum planned for Netanya

The Sefarad Museum: Sefardi and Oriental Jewry Heritage Center, in Netanya, Israel, is scheduled to break ground in 2018, to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary, according to Canadian Jewish News. Note that this project will be devoted to the Jews of Spain, and should not be confused with the Museum of Jews from Arab Countries, which is projected to be built in Jerusalem. (With thanks: Imre)

Artist's impression of the Netanya Museum

It promises to be the most significant museum of its kind, illuminating over 2,000 years of Sephardi and Oriental Jewry’s intellectual and cultural contributions to Judaism. The 5,000-square-meter facility, set on four floors, has been spearheaded by the Netanya Academic College and the municipality of Netanya, with support from Israel’s Ministry of Culture and Sport, as well as Jewish donors from around the world.

 Integrating traditional display techniques with interactive technologies, including virtual reality displays and interactive touch screens, the museum’s highlights will include a Ladino music centre, a state-of-the-art research library, a gallery on Christopher Columbus and Sephardi Jewish maritime achievements in the Middle Ages, exhibits on Maimonides and Judah Halevy, and a history of Spanish Jewry.

 It’s slated to open in about three years.

Read article in full

Friday, October 06, 2017

Egyptian diplomats make Yom Kippur visit in Paris

Two Egyptian embassy officials paid a courtesy call to a community of Egyptian Jews in Paris on Yom Kippur. The visit seems to herald a better era in relations.

“The Egypt which no longer wished to know us has not quite forgotten us,” declared Yves Fedida of the Nebi Daniel Aasociation. The visit recalled that of General Neguib to the Cairo community in 1952.

Deputy Chief of Mission Hesham el Mekwad and First Secretary Mohamed Kandil called on the Oratoire Nebi Daniel on the holiest day of the Jewish year. In his report of the event, Mr Fedida praised the Egyptian government for taking steps to preserve Egypt's Jewish heritage.

They have pledged to protect three cemeteries in Alexandria from intruders and vandals and are undertaking a survey of graves. The Egyptian government will finance the repairs to the Nebi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria to the tune of 5 million euros. In Cairo the Drop of Milk charitable association has been revived to catalogue registers and restore Cairo cemeteries. The Association also aims to establish an exhibition space and cultural centre.

Egyptian Jews are still waiting for the government to follow through on its promise to permit them to obtain copies of communal records.

The Nebi Daniel Association is keeping up the pressure by urging people to sign the petition here.

Tunisian police arrest Jew on Kippur eve

Hundreds of Jews demonstrated as Yom Kippur ended for the release of Tsion Haddad, in police custody. Story in Actualite juive ( with thanks: Michelle)

Hundreds of Jews demonstrate for the release of Tsion Haddad.

  Haddad, 70, was stopped by police for having illegally-acquired meat in his car on the eve of Yom Kippur.  The meat, they alleged, was unfit for human consumption. As soon as the festival was over, hundreds of Jews still wearing their skull caps demanded the intervention of the prime minister and the minister of the interior. A similar incident has not occurred for 20 years. To-date it is assumed that Haddad has still not been released.

 Some 1,000 Jews live on the island of Djerba, one of the most ancient of Jewish communities.

Read article in full (French)

Thursday, October 05, 2017

US senator urges government not to send back archive

Senator Charles Schumer has called upon US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to return the Iraqi-Jewish archive, as mandated by an agreement signed between the provisional government in Iraq in 2003 and the US National Archives and Records Administration which shipped the archive to the US for restoration. To return the collection to its Jewish owners would require a new agreement, according to the Times of Israel (with thanks: Lily):

Schumer is among a group of US lawmakers who have joined Jewish groups in lobbying to keep the archive in a location accessible to Iraqi Jews and their descendants, who today live outside Iraq after being driven out amid intense persecution. Iraq and proponents of returning the archive say it can serve as an educational tool for Iraqis about the history of Jews there and that it is part of the country’s patrimony. “It’s disheartening that parchments of a Torah scroll and prayer books were discovered in such poor condition inside a flooded Baghdad Intelligence Center. After the United States preserved this ancient collection, it makes no sense to return the items to the Iraqi government, where they will no longer be accessible to the Jewish community,” Schumer said Tuesday in a statement released along with the letter.

Children's Haggadah from 1902

 Earlier this month, Rodriguez (State Department spokesman Pablo) said the United States “will urge the Iraqi government to take the proper steps necessary to preserve the archive, and to make it available to members of the public to enjoy.” Major Jewish groups have remained largely silent on the issue following the announcement of the 2018 return date. The Zionist Organization of America released a statement last month urging the State Department not to send back the archive, and Israeli lawmaker Anat Berko told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pressure the US to not send back the artifacts. The archive is set to be exhibited at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from October 15 to January 15.

  Read article in full

Have you signed the petition yet?

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Only 24 Jews remain in Turkish capital

The ancient Turkish community dates back to biblical times but today its 24 members struggle to make a minyan on Yom Kippur. Article in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily)

“The Jews of Ankara are so far and few between that I can fit them all around my dining room table,” says Israel's ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na’eh, as he surveys the congregants for Yom Kippur services in the nearly empty synagogue.

Located in Ulus, the tumbling old quarter of Turkey’s capital, the synagogue dates back to the 19th century and was radically refurbished by an Italian architect in 1906. Na’eh is surrounded by a sea of little carpets that are laid out on the synagogue benches, which remain unoccupied throughout the holy day.

In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proclaimed Ankara the capital of the newly founded Turkish republic, but the history of the city — and that of its Jewish community — date back much further.

A minyan (prayer quorum) is a struggle at the Ankara Synagogue, Turkey. (Esti Judah/Davide Lerner)

The Jewish community of Ankara can be traced back to the biblical period. The Byzantine-era Jews, known as Romaniots, inhabited central Anatolia well before a wave of thousands of Sephardi Jews came to the region following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The community peaked at about 5,000 members in the 1930s, according to researcher Enver Arcak, who has produced a new documentary, “Hermana,” (“Sister” in Spanish) on the history of the local Jews.

Ankara’s Jewish community now numbers a mere 24 people, and that includes the Jewish members of the diplomatic corps and UN officials posted in the city. Just a few of the 24 turned up promptly for the start of Saturday morning’s Yom Kippur service, which was led by a rabbi sent from Istanbul. It took several hours and many desperate phone calls to gather a minyan, the minimum of 10 male Jews required to start the prayers.

“When I was a child the whole neighborhood of Samanpazari of Ulus was bustling with Jewish life,” bemoans Can Ozgun, president of the local Jewish community. “The synagogue was open every day,” adds Moshe, one of the community elders.

“Now I only open it once or twice a year,” Ozgun says, fidgeting with the keys to the synagogue. The rest of the year Ozgun is rarely available, declining requests to open the synagogue for curious passersby.

In his documentary, Arcak tries to identify the key turning points in the Jewish depopulation of Ankara and the region. “Thousands of Jews, as well as Greeks and Armenians, were forced to leave Turkey in 1942 after the issuing of the so-called levy on wealth and extraordinary profits,” he says. “The tax was deliberately tailored to transfer their riches to ethnic Turks by requesting sums from the minorities that they were unable to pay.”

Against the backdrop of an economic slump following World War II, another wave of Turkish Jews left for the newly founded State of Israel, Arcak explains. While Turkey’s neutrality during WWII helped save the Turkish community from the fate of European Jewry, Turkey did not prove immune to the postwar economic downturn that crippled much of Europe. Like many other Europeans, Ankara’s Jews packed their bags to search for better economic fortunes overseas, heading to North America and Israel; others settled closer to home, in Istanbul and Izmir.

Prayer led from the pulpit of Ankara Synagogue, Ankara, Turkey. Esther Judah

By the 1960s and '70s, the Jews of Ankara numbered 500 to 600 people. “We would sit in the right-hand corner [of the synagogue] squeezed together,” recalls Ozgun’s wife, Vicky. “That’s where the young people would sit, and our mothers would sit on the central balcony over there,” she continues, pointing to the empty, dusty women’s balcony above. Broken neon lights flicker above the terrace. On the ornate ceiling, with cracked, peeling paint, a chandelier dangles above us, half its bulbs burned out.

Moshe was born across the street from the synagogue in 1948 and is a proud speaker of Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish dialect. “We are the last generation to keep the language alive,” he says. Moshe and his wife grew up in the Jewish quarter of the old city, which lies below the Roman citadel. “We moved away from Ulus in 1956 toward Kizilay, the modern central quarter of the city, where there was running water and electricity; we then moved upward toward Ayranci, the city’s hilly residential area,” he recalls.

Moshe now lives in a modern high-rise apartment block a far cry from the abandoned houses in front of the synagogue, in the heart of what is now the slums of Ulus. “With the jobs [available] in Istanbul, people moved on,” he says, especially as they became less involved in civil service and government institutions in the capital. Most Jews are in trade and found better work opportunities on the Bosphorus, he adds.

With the exception of some 1,400 Jews who live in Izmir, Istanbul is home to almost all of Turkey’s 17,000 Jews. But there, too, the community has been shrinking. As many as 500 Jews have left for Israel since the July 2016 failed coup that ushered in another era of political and economic instability in Turkey. Of those who have remained, thousands have obtained Spanish and Portuguese citizenship, based on laws passed in both countries offering citizenship to descendants of Jews exiled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.

As Yom Kippur draws to a close, Viktoria, one of the elderly women of the community, slumps down in her chair next to me. “It breaks my heart that he married a Muslim,” she laments while flicking through her phone showing me pictures of her son’s wedding, where he is pictured standing next to a pretty Turkish woman in a décolleté dress.

The last wedding in Ankara’s synagogue was held in 2008; the one before that, 16 years earlier. With the closing prayers of Yom Kippur, Viktoria slips her phone back in her purse, and the muezzin's call from the local mosque echoes through the broken window. Before long, Viktoria grabs her phone again, this time to film the pinnacle of the Yom Kippur prayers, the ne’ila, and send the clip to her son.

When it comes to religious observance, the community is very relaxed, with members using their phones in the synagogue. Indeed, the Jews of Istanbul make fun of the president of the Ankara community, Ozgun, who is a wholesale supplier of non-kosher meat.

Before the closing prayers and the symbolic shutting of the front door, the women fuss over Can and Vicky’s daughter, a tall woman in her early 20s, with long brown hair. “You have to go to Israel to find yourself a husband darling,” one of the women tells her. “Hedi, hedi,” they add for good measure — the Turkish word for “c’mon.”

Intermarriage has played as important a role in the disappearance of the local community as migration has.

“We can’t remember the last person to have used the mikveh,” says Hannah, one of Ankara’s elderly Jews, referring to the ritual bath where a woman immerses herself before her wedding. “It must be somewhere around here,” she adds. “I assume it’s under some rubble around the synagogue. When I was married we used the hamam,” she chuckles, referring to the Turkish bath.

The last rabbi of Ankara’s community immigrated to Israel in the 1980s. In the wake of a coup in 1980, the community sent half of its Torah scrolls to Israel for safekeeping, but they have gone missing, say local Jews. In the run-up to the military takeover that year, which included violent clashes between left-wing and right-wing factions in universities and public places, many Jews and other Turks left for good.

At the end of the Yom Kippur service the Torah scrolls are taken to a back room, more of a former janitor’s cubby hole for safekeeping, “in case they are stolen or if there is a fire,” says Meir, a younger member of the community, who clings to the scrolls tightly.

Ozgun, holder of the key and president of the tiny community, ushers the few remaining Jews out the door and flicks the lights off. “Will see you next year, Inshallah,” Vicky waves as she watches her husband lock the gates of the centuries-old synagogue. Before she bids her final goodbye she turns and adds, “that is, if we are still here next year.”

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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Iraqis may be softening towards Israel

Here is more evidence that Iraqis are becoming less hostile to Israel. Palestinian involvement in bombings and support for Saddam Hussein, Kurdish sympathy for Israel and the Iranian threat, are all factors. Report in al-Monitor:
Waving the Kurdish and Israeli flags (Ala al-Marjani/Reuters)
BAGHDAD — Some Iraqis are calling for closer relations with Israel, feeling a common bond of past persecution and a desire for peace and stability. Many people might find two factors cited in this change quite surprising: Iraqis' guilt, and some resentment of Palestinians.

"There is a dramatic shift that has changed [Iraqi] public opinion [toward Israel] as a result of the Palestinians' involvement in supporting the [late Iraqi] dictator Saddam Hussein and thus getting involved in terrorist operations," writer and political analyst Ali Mared al-Asadi told Al-Monitor recently by phone.
"Most Shiites in Iraq have a sense of guilt because they did not support the peaceful Jewish community with whom they lived for hundreds of years in peace and harmony in one homeland, but who were persecuted and displaced during the monarchy [1958-1963] and the Baathist regime [1968-2003] eras.”

Much of the fanaticism and hostility toward Israel appears to have declined in central and southern Baghdad, where the majority of people are Shiite.
On Sept. 9, Asadi wrote, “It is not in the interest of Shiites to antagonize Israel. Shiites and Jews ought to reach understandings based on common humanitarian grounds that guarantee peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.”

Asadi told Al-Monitor by phone, “If we put the influence of Iran and the remnants of the Baathist culture aside, Iraq would have no excuse to keep officially antagonizing Israel, especially since the majority of the Arab states, [even] the Palestinian state itself, hold relations with Tel Aviv.” Asadi apparently was referring to Arab states having contacts or other ties with Tel Aviv, because most Arab states do not formally recognize Israel..

Monday, October 02, 2017

If the archive must be returned, let it go to Kurdistan

 Harold Rhode was in Baghdad when waterlogged Jewish documents and books were discovered in the basement of the secret police headquarters in 2003. In this interview with the JCPA's Lenny Ben-David, he pays tribute to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi leader who first drew Rhode's attention to the trove. If the collection has to go back to Iraq, Rhode says that it should go to Kurdistan, where the population is sympathetic to Israel. (With thanks: Imre)

 Harold Rhode being interviewed by Lenny Ben-David of the JCPA. Click here to see video.

Harold Rhode: Here’s the problem. According to international law, you cannot steal the patrimony of another country that you take over. So the Americans, the State Department decided you can’t allow this material, it has to go back to Iraq. But the question really is, and periodically it comes up. Now, the Iraqi government – because it is still basically anti-Israeli – the Iraqi government cannot be seen to allow this to be coming to a place like Israel, because then all their Arab brothers are going to get upset with them and they will be shamed and Middle East shame is more important than anything. Shame is what other people say about you and they lose honor, so they can’t agree to us. So how do you solve this problem? Well about five years or so ago, the Iraqi government graciously agreed to let the material stay in the United States for about five years, if I’m correct, and they had exhibits all over the place in the United States. And the material in the meantime remained in the American archives. Now we’re getting to the end of that five-year period…what do we do? Well, the American government wants to return it to the rightful owners by international law which they have decided, since they signed an agreement with an American, that it belongs to Iraq. Well no, it didn’t belong to Iraq! It is the heritage patrimony of the Jewish community; it is their materials, their documents. Who and where are these people? About ninety percent of them today are here in Israel. That’s who it belongs to!

Lenny Ben-David: So it’s going to go to the Iraqis and they’re going to put it in another basement? Can that move be stopped?

Harold Rhode: Well, here are some possibilities. First of all, from a legal point of view, the American government took from Iraq millions and millions of documents about the Baathist leadership in Iraq. Now that is the patrimony and heritage of the Iraqi people. America has no intention of giving this material back, but the Jewish material, well who cares about the Jews? And they want to give this back, why don’t they want to, since they took the all of this material, shouldn’t they be responsible for giving it all back? Well, no one wants to handle that issue. That could create an international problem, and God forbid that should happen. Now, here are the solutions that we could come up with. The Iraqi government could, if it wanted and if the State Department wanted, keep the material in the United States under the guise of going through additional exhibitions, here, there, or God knows where.

Lenny Ben-David: And I assume there are Jewish communities in the United States that would be happy to host such exhibit.

Harold Rhode: Not a question of a doubt. It’s been all over the United States so far, since there were twenty-seven hundred items, they chose 27 items. That’s one possibility. If it has to go back to Iraq, the Kurds in northern Iraq who, on September 25th, which is a few days from now, are going to have a referendum for independence. The Kurds in northern Iraq love Israel; they would be very happy, I’m sure, to have this material. If it has to go back to Iraq, send it Kurdistan.

Lenny Ben-David: I would also add that they have got very good relations with the Jews who still live in Kurdistan.

Harold Rhode: Yes, there are not that many, but there are. This is the patrimony of the Jews who lived in Iraq – that’s who it belongs to. We know that Saddam stole it. We have a witness of someone who saw it being stolen from the last functioning Jewish synagogue. That’s who it belongs to. That’s where it should be returned to. And hopefully, in the future, it possibly could end up in the only museum in the world which is dedicated to the history of the Jews of Iraq or the Jews of Babylonia – the ancient title of what is Iraq – and that is in Or Yehuda, that museum being outside of Tel Aviv.

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Sunday, October 01, 2017

Menasce synagogue is added to Egypt's heritage list

 The Egyptian government's decision, announced in Al-Ahram online, to classify the Menasce synagogue as 'national heritage' is welcome. It means that it will be obligated to preserve and protect the building at its expense, ending the sort of wrangles that we have seen recently over who should pay for repairs to the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, for instance. (With thanks: Boruch)

Antiquities officials have decided to add the Menasce Synagogue in Alexandria to the national heritage list of Islamic, Coptic and Jewish monuments.

According to Mohammed Metwali, general director of antiquities in Alexandria, the synagogue was built by philanthropist Baron Yacoub de Menasce in 1860.
The decision by the Supreme Council of Antiquities’ board of directors comes after inspection and investigation of the synagogue’s architectural and archaeological conditions.

Mohamed Abdel-Latif, a deputy minister of antiquities and head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities Department within the ministry, told Ahram Online that the decision came within the framework of the ministry’s keenness to add all Egyptian monuments to the country’s heritage list, regardless of era or religious affiliation.

“All the monuments, whether ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Coptic, Islamic, on Egyptian land are the country’s properties and unique heritage,” he said.
Abdel-Latif explained that the registration of the synagogue, which is located in El-Manshia Square, will make it an official historical site under the antiquities protection law, law no. 117 of 1983, and under its amendments in law no. 3 of 2010.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

'El Nora Alila' is sung as Yom Kippur ends

Yom Kippur the most solemn of Jewish festivals, begins tonight. Here's a spirited rendition by the Mediterranean Andalusian Orchestra of the piyut which closes the Yom Kippur service, El Nora Alila. 
Wishing all those who are fasting Gmar Hatima Tova.

From Wikipedia:  

Refrain: El nora alila, El nora alila,
Ha-m'tzi lanu m'chilah, bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah.
M'tei mis'par k'ru'im, l'cha ayin nos'im,
u-m'sal'dim b'chila, bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah.
Shof'chim l'cha naf'sham, m'cheh pish'am ve-chach'sham,
ve-ham'tzi'em m'chila, bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah.
Heyeh lahem l'sit'ra, ve-hatzilem mi-m'era,
ve-chot'mem l'hod u-l'gila, bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah.
Chon otam ve-rachem, ve-chol lochetz ve-lochem,
Oseh ba-hem p'lila, bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah.
Z'chor tzid'kat avihem, ve-chadesh et y'meihem,
k'kedem u-t'chila, bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah.
K'ra na sh'nat ratzon, ve-hashev sh'ar ha-tzon,
l'oholiva v'ohola, bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah.
Tiz'ku l'shanim rabot, ha-banim ve-ha-avot,
b'ditza u-v'tzohola, bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah.
Micha'el sar yis'rael, eliyahu ve-gav'ri'el,
Bas'ru na ha-g'ulah, bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah.

Refrain: God of awe, God of might, God of awe, God of might,
Grant us pardon in this hour, As Thy gates are closed this night.
We who few have been from yore, Raise our eyes to heaven's height,
Trembling, fearful in our prayer, As Thy gates are closed this night.
Pouring out our soul we pray That the sentence Thou will write
Shall be one of pardoned sin, As Thy gates are closed this night.
God, our refuge strong and sure, Rescue us from dreadful plight;
Seal our destiny for joy, As Thy gates are closed this night.
Grant us favor, show us grace; But of all who wrest the right
And oppress, be Thou the judge, As Thy gates are closed this night.
Generations of our sires Strong in faith walked in Thy light.
As of old, renew our days, As Thy gates are closed this night.
Gather Judah's scattered flock Unto Zion's rebuilt site.
Bless this year with grace divine, As Thy are closed this night.
May we all, both old and young, Look for gladness and delight
In the many years to come, As Thy gates are closed this night.
Michael, Prince of Israel, Gabriel, Thy angels bright,
With Elijah, come, redeem, As Thy gates are closed this night.

Traditional Moroccan 'Kol Nidre', the prayer which begins Yom Kippur (with thanks: Sylvia)

Leila Mourad sings 'El Nora Alila'

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Return archive to Israel, says MK Berko

An Israeli parliamentarian has called for the Iraqi-Jewish archives to be sent to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center at Or Yehuda, Israel.

MK Anat Berko: her parents escaped Iraq
Knesset member  Dr. Anat Berko  sent a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, demanding that the Iraqi-Jewish archives not be returned to Iraq.

The move comes after the US State Department had confirmed that the Iraqi-Jewish archives would go back to Iraq about a year from now.  In 2003, the National Archives and Records administration had signed an agreement with the CPA, then Iraq's government, promising that the waterlogged trove, seized from Jewish individuals and institutions and found in the basement of the Iraqi secret police headquarters, would go back to Iraq after restoration.

In her letter, MK Berko, who is playing an active part campaigning for Jewish refugees from Arab countries,  describes how her parents had to escape from Iraq as refugees, after they were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship and left destitute. She asks Netanyahu to put pressure on the American authorities to revoke their promise to return the Archives to Iraq.

 She demands that the archives be returned where they belong, to the Babylonian Museum in Israel. A copy of the letter was also sent to the Ministry of Education and to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Have you signed the petition yet? 

Berko to Greenblatt: give us compensation 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Djerba Jews face uncertain future

In this lavishly-illustrated piece, JTA takes a realistic look at the Jewish community of Djerba, one of the few surviving bastions of Jewish life in the Arab world. Antisemitism is a threat, but the tipping point comes when a Jew cannot find a partner or make a living. (In other news, the announcement that Tunisian women are legally allowed to marry non-Muslims (without them needing to convert to Islam) is a major positive development for minority rights). (With thanks: Imre, Lily)

A Lag Ba'Omer pilgrim at the al-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba (Photo: Reuters/Anis Mili)

Belonging to one of the Arab world’s few active Jewish congregations, their patience reflects a determination to preserve their ancient tradition in a tight-knit community of 1,000. Many members feel duty-bound to remain on the island even though they can envisage no future here for their children.

“Everybody’s thought about leaving, myself included,” says Ben Zion Dee’ie, a 30-year-old yeshiva teacher who walked four miles to the El Ghriba Synagogue from his parents’ home in Hara Kebira, where nearly all Djerba Jews live. “The economy’s bad, the currency’s plummeting, tourism’s suffering because of terrorism and jobs are scarce and not well paying. It’s not perfect.”

But leaving “would be very difficult,” adds Dee’ie, who comes each year with other congregants to make sure El Ghriba has a minyan. “It feels wrong to leave where my ancestors lived for so many years.”

Nonetheless, various factors, including state-tolerated violence against Jews following Israel’s victory over its neighbors in the 1967 Six-Day War, have gradually almost emptied Tunisia of the 110,000 Jews who lived here before 1970. A few dozen families left following the 2011 revolution that briefly installed an Islamist and anti-Israel party in power.

That bout of instability was the latest chapter in the story that led to the near-total disappearance of centuries-long Jewish life from the Arab world amid hostility and poverty.

Jews on Djerba have also experienced these problems, not least in the explosion that al-Qaida terrorists set off outside the El Ghriba Synagogue in 2002 in which 20 people died, including 14 German tourists.

The explosion occurred three weeks before the Jewish holiday of Lag b’Omer, when hundreds of tourists, including some from Israel, gather at the El Ghriba for a pilgrimage that is particularly popular among Jews of Tunisian descent.

“It’s the only time of the year that we can count on having a minyan,” Dee’ie said at the synagogue, where the sounds of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah blended with the Muslim call to prayer and the chiming of church bells.(...)

“It’s a very good thing the police are here, they protect us, just like they protect you in Israel,” Dee’ie, who studied at a religious seminary in Israel in 2007. He returned to Hara Kebira but moved away last year to Zarzis, where his wife was born and he teaches a classroom of 15 children from that city’s Jewish community of 130 members.(...)

But in Tunisia, expressions of anti-Semitism, often featuring anti-Israel vitriol, continue to occur, reminding the country’s remaining 1,700 Jews “that the Arab, he is very easy to incite,” Dee’ie said.

A recent example came when Tunisia joined several other countries in banning the film “Wonder Woman,” apparently because its lead character is portrayed by the Israeli film star Gal Gadot. The Jewish-French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who is not Israeli, was greeted during a 2014 visit to Tunisia by dozens of Islamists carrying signs calling on “Levy the Zionist” to leave.

The invitation to a Tunisian festival in July of the Jewish comedian Michel Boujenah provoked protests in Tunisia that local anti-racism activists said were anti-Semitic. Tunisia has several pending bills, introduced by Islamist and secular nationalists, proposing a blanket boycott on Israel and a ban on any Israelis from entering the country.

Notwithstanding, Tunisia’s government is showcasing its Jewish heritage sites, including Djerba, whose ancient synagogue is on Tunis’ list this year for locales put forth for recognition as world heritage sites by the United Nations. The government has made several statements about the positive role of its Jewish citizens, invested considerable resources in renovating sites of worship and is considering allocating two seats in parliament for representatives of the Jewish community.

But in parallel, authorities in Tunisia are “quietly confiscating” Jewish antiques, including a 15th-century Torah scroll whose whereabouts the government is refusing to disclose, according to an expose published last month by the French news site Dreuz.

The effects of anti-Semitism in Tunisia may be “unpleasant at times, but they are not a threat to the survival of this community,” said Dee’ie, who was ready to immigrate to Israel last year with his wife because they could not find an affordable apartment to their liking in Zarzis.

“Practical things matter: Whether Jews can find a Jewish partner, make a living and live a comfortable life,” he added. “I grew up here, but I don’t know if this is the place where my children will grow up.”

Read article in full

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Testimonies of last Iraqi Jews to be filmed

A new project to capture urgently on film the testimonies of Iraqi Jews recorded in the book Iraq's Last Jews has been launched in the US: the Iraqi Jewish Voices Project aims to counter the Eurocentrism of modern Jewish history. Report in the Times of Israel (with thanks: Lily):

NEW YORK — Although Oded Halahmy left Iraq in 1951, Iraq has never left him.
“Every aspect of my life has been influenced by my first home, the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’ I remember from my childhood. Palm and pomegranate trees dance in the wind,” said Halahmy, 79. “I can visualize the narrow alleyways, the houses built of ancient stones with beautifully sculpted doors, circular windows of exquisitely colored glass. My memories of Iraq are real and alive, and my attachment to Iraq is very strong. My Baghdad is the most beautiful place on earth, the Garden of Eden.”
Halahmy was 13 when he, his parents, his siblings as well as hundreds of other relatives left for Israel. Now, as his generation ages, first-person stories like Halahmy’s are slipping into the shadows of history.

“These are the very last years to capture firsthand accounts of Jewish life in Iraq. There will be no witnesses left and so there is an urgency to get the stories. It’s a last grasp. Mizrahi Jews account for half the world’s Jewry, yet their stories remain virtually untold,” said Tamar Morad, a writer and editor living in Israel.
That’s where The Iraqi Jewish Voices Project, IJVP, comes in. Using black and white portraits, interviews, and scanned historical documents, the multi-media project records the stories of the last Jews of Iraq and what it was like for them to immigrate to Israel, France, the United States and beyond.

Oded Halahmy for the Iraqi Jewish Voices Project. (Liam Sharp)
The project aims to shift the meta-narrative of world Jewry in the 20th Century, which has almost always revolved around the history of European Jewry. The bold initiative might just be the thread that stitches the Jews of the Mideast’s past to the future.

Morad, who grew up in Boston, is of Ashkenazi descent. Her husband’s family came from Iraq. In no time she realized the more she asked her father-in-law, as well as her husband’s 105-year-old grandfather, about what life was like in Iraq before they left, the more she wanted to know.

She found others wanted to share their stories as well. “You see the eagerness of people to tell their stories. It’s the first time some of them have told their stories in full,” Morad said. “It’s time the world should know it. To progress we need to be educated about the past.”

Morad co-manages the project with Henry Green, executive director of the NGO Sephardi Voices, and professor of Judaic and Religious Studies at the University of Miami.

Morad is basing the project on the book, “Iraq’s Last Jews: Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon” — an oral history collection co-edited by Morad with Dennis and Robert Shasha — and plans to revisit and expand on some of the people and places featured in it.

The Iraqi Jewish Voices Project comes under the auspices of the nonprofit Sephardi Voices (SV), which aims to collect thousands of interviews of Jews who lived in Arab and Muslim lands. It wants to do for the Jews of Arab lands what the Shoah Foundation did for Holocaust survivors in collecting and preserving their testimony about life before, during and after World War II, Green said.

Read article in full

Monday, September 25, 2017

Israel is only state to support Kurdish independence

 Kurds wave an Israeli flag at a pro-independence demonstration in Erbil (Photo: Ivor Pricket, New York Times)

Today, Iraqi Kurds vote in a non-binding referendum on whether the region should declare independence from Iraq. Saladin, who employed Maimonides as his physician, would have been proud, declares David Halbfinger in Haaretz. To-date, Israel is the only state to have come out in support of independence, in recognition of Kurdish help to evacuate Jews from Iraq and a military alliance that goes back to the 1960s. (With thanks: Lily)

In the modern era, Kurdish Jews departed en masse for Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948, leaving Kurdish civil society so bereft that some recall its leaders still lamenting the Jewish exodus decades later.

Ties between the two have only grown warmer and more vital since the 1960s, as Israel and the Kurds — both minorities in an inhospitable region and ever in need of international allies — have repeatedly come to each other’s aid. The Kurds have long patterned their lobbying efforts in Washington on those of Israel’s supporters.

And while Kurdish leaders have not publicly embraced Israel in the run-up to the referendum, for fear of antagonizing the Arab world, the Israeli flag can routinely be seen at Kurdish rallies in Erbil and across Europe.

The Kurds in turn have friends and supporters all across Israel, including some 200,000 Kurdish Jews. But 83-year-old Tzuri Sagi, a retired brigadier general, has more reason than most Israelis to root for Kurdish independence.
“I became a patriotic Kurd,” says Mr. Sagi, now 83 and a retired brigadier general, who worked as an Israeli military adviser to Kurdish fighters.

In the winter of 1966, Mr. Sagi’s commanders sent him on a secret mission, via Israel’s then-ally, Iran, to aid Mullah Mustafa Barzani and his pesh merga rebels in Iraqi Kurdistan. Six Iraqi army brigades were standing by to overwhelm the Kurds when the snow melted. Mr. Sagi, a lieutenant colonel, drew up defenses for Barzani’s lightly armed fighters. When those collapsed, Mr. Sagi advised the Kurds to allow the best of the Iraqi brigades to break out — right into an ambush.

The 5,000-man Iraqi brigade was wiped out, and the battle, on Mount Handrin, became a landmark in Kurdish history. Mr. Sagi recalls Iraqi officers driving up in two jeeps waving white flags.

“They said to the Kurds, ‘What do you want?’” he recalled.

Over the years, Israeli doctors set up a field hospital for the Kurds, its soldiers trained the pesh merga fighters and the Mossad helped arm them.

After Israel’s defeat of its Arab neighbors in 1967 and the Baathist coup in Iraq a year later, Iraq became inhospitable to its dwindling Jewish population. Then it was the Barzanis’ turn to help.

After nine Jews were hanged in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in 1969, Iraqi Jews were desperate to flee. The Kurds helped some 1,000 of them escape, over land to Iran and then by plane to Israel.

“They were going on donkeys, through the mountains,” said Ofra Bengio, a pre-eminent historian of the Kurds and professor emerita at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center.

One of the escapees was Zamir Shemtov, 63, now a dentist in Herzliya, who was a teenager in 1970 when his parents and extended family made their first attempt to flee Iraq. Arrested and locked up for a month, they tried again, but this time they were blackmailed, robbed, caught by the army and sent back to Baghdad, where his father was brutally interrogated, Mr. Shemtov said. Released two months later, they tried to get out a third time. This time, a Kurdish taxi driver ushered them to a safe meeting point where a young uniformed Kurdish fighter loaded them in his jeep and ferried them across the border into Iran.

Mr. Shemtov said that near the end of the drive, his father offered the fighter his gold watch in gratitude.

“The young man answered, ‘I am Masoud Barzani, son of Mullah Barzani, and if Mullah would hear that I took a watch, he would hang me!’” Mr. Shemtov recalled. “‘Instead, all I ask as thanks is that you remember us well in the future.’”

Read article in full

Joe Shemtob's escape from Baghdad 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Shmuel Moreh, guardian of Iraq's Jewish memory, dies

Iraqi Jews in Israel and abroad are mourning the death, on the second day of the Jewish New Year, of Professor Shmuel Moreh, 85, emeritus professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Lyn Julius writes in The Times of Israel:

Born Sami Muallem in 1932 in Baghdad's upmarket district of Bataween, Professor Moreh was a well-respected academic (as chairman of the Association of Academics from Iraq in Israel, he presided over the publication of countless books), who excelled in his command of the Arabic language.

Immigrating to Israel with his family in 1951, he received his B.A. and M.A. from The Hebrew University in Arabic literature and Islamic Studies and his Ph.D. in modern Arabic poetry (SOAS,London University) in 1965. He was a poet and a prolific author of over 20 publications in English, Hebrew and Arabic. His memoirs were serialised in the online Arabic medium Elaph in 2009 -10 and awakened huge interest among Iraqis in their lost Jewish community. The series was later published in Arabic as Baghdad Mon Amour.

At the same time as he served as a bridge between Israelis and Arabs, Professor Moreh made sure not to sugarcoat the persecutions suffered by Iraq's Jews. Moreh was a survivor of the Farhud pogrom, in which at least 179 Jews were killed, and wrote vividly of his experiences. In 2010 he published in English, with Zvi Yehuda, a ground-breaking collection of essays about the Farhud, and was in the forefront of the campaign to have the pogrom recognised as a Holocaust event.

Among his lesser-known talents was boxing, a skill he refined at his primary school when confronted with taunting and bullying from the other boys. The tensions in the lead-up to the Farhud led him, aged eight, into fights with Faisal, the son of the pro-Nazi prime minister of Iraq, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. When the boy threatened to knock his eye out with a stick, Shmuel punched Faisal and the boy went running to their Christian headmistress.

He was a proud Israeli, and yet confessed to not feeling entirely at home until he received the Israel Prize for Middle Eastern Studies in 1999.

In his latter years he was an advocate for the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and devoted his energies to using his contacts to call for the preservation of Iraq's Jewish cultural heritage, deploring, for instance, the transformation of Ezekiel's shrine into a mosque.

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Crossposted at Spero News

Profile in the Manchester Jewish Telegraph by Doreen Wachmann