Friday, September 23, 2016

Israel to offer degrees in 'Jewish Arab' literature

Almog Behar
Two new bachelor’s degree programs in the culture of Jews in the Arab world will get underway at the start of the 2017-2018 academic year at Ben-Gurion University and Tel Aviv University, reports Haaretz. All well and good. However, the decision to call the programs 'Jewish Arab' rather than 'Mizrahi' smacks of a political agenda, in spite of assertions to
Shimon Adaf
the contrary. The danger is that leftist academics will hijack the government's campaign to raise awareness of Jews from Arab countries for their own ends (with thanks: Lily):

Among the subjects to be taught in the programs, the first of their kind, are Jewish literature written in Arab countries, literary Arabic and Judeo-Arabic (an Islamic-world counterpart to Yiddish in Europe). There will also be comparative literature studies looking at Jewish literature in Arab countries and Jewish literature in Europe.

“The idea for the program came up in a conversation in the car about three years ago,” recalled Hadas Shabat Nadir, a literature researcher at Ben-Gurion. “Dr. Hana Soker Schwager [of Ben-Gurion], [poet] Shimon Adaf and Dr. Haviva Yishay [of Ben-Gurion] were there, and over time the poet Almog Behar and Prof. Galili Shahar [of Tel Aviv] also joined. It started with our wondering why there were programs for the study of Yiddish and other similar programs, but no one was teaching Jewish Arab culture.”

The program became a reality after a request for funding to the Yad Hanadiv foundation, which represents the Rothschild family philanthropic trusts, got a positive response and after the committee responsible for the funding insisted that a full bachelor’s degree program be created.

Why 'Jewish Arab,' not 'Mizrahi'?

Although Jews from Arab countries are commonly referred to as “Mizrahim” in Hebrew, Shabat-Nadir explained the decision to call the subject of the program Jewish Arab culture and not Mizrahi studies:

“We wanted to present the entire story. We all were uncomfortable with the definition ‘Mizrahim,’ because when people use it, they forget an entire history, important people, accomplishments and writing over the generations. We wanted to link the Mizrahi concept to its history, to where it comes from. The concept of Mizrahim developed in Europe and ultimately those who sought Westernization called the Jews from Islamic countries Mizrahim. The field and the dialogue that we are talking about is Jewish Arab.”

Behar said, “In the coming year, we will build the syllabus and plan the three years of the degree studies and actually the first five years [of the program]. From our standpoint, as doctoral students in literature at the time, we very much felt the absence, including in the academic treatment, of Israeli Mizrahi literature and within Arabic literature. Jewish Arab literature didn’t have a presence and in particular, there was no link among all of the fields and aspects.”

At this point, there is five years of funding for the program. Although it will only start in a year, it is already clear that the departments at the two universities will collaborate and hold joint conferences and courses. At Tel Aviv University, the program is under the administration of the literature department and at Ben-Gurion University, it is part of the department of multidisciplinary studies.

Behar added, “There is attention in academe to the Golden Age [of Spanish Jewish history]. There is a certain presence in Jewish studies, but there was no link. In our view, it’s a field of one historical continuity and we want to give students the ability to see and understand this continuity – both secular and religious literature, historical and contemporary. Up to now the field was splintered and from now on we are going to teach [it] as a discipline, as one field, one [field of] linguistic continuity and knowledge.

Read article in full (subscription required)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Alexandria head greets Israel envoy

In what might be a first sign of normalisation,  the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, David Guvrin, made a rare visit this week to Alexandria, in the north of the country along with embassy staff, and met with the head of the Jewish 'community' Yosef Ben Gaon at the Nebi Daniel synagogue, according to this report in Ynet News. The Nebi Daniel synagogue is in desperate need of government funds for its renovation. A few months ago, the ceiling in the ladies' gallery partially collapsed.

Update: Israel National News reports the Israel ambassor as saying: " The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue needs to be restored. The Antiquities Authority are the ones  responsible, and in recent years, they have sent delegations to see what needs to be done. It was actually decided to restore the synagogue, but coming up with the necessary sum of money - two and a half million dollars - is a problem. The Jewish community in Alexandria is working to find the money necessary for the project."

Ynet News reports:  

Guvrin was sworn in less than a month ago and submitted his credentials to Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The focus of the visit lasted two days and there was a tour of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in the city  and the offices of the Jewish community. The synagogue in question is a magnificent 19th century building. The  Jewish community of Alexandria consisted  up to the 1930s of the 20th century of more than 20, 000 Jews.
The ambassador met with the head of the Jewish 'community', Yosef Ben Gaon, who told him that today are only 17 Jews in Alexandria (others say there are only five - ed) and the community tries its best to maintain the magnificent synagogue and assist community members in need. (...)"We are pleased that you are here," said Ben Gaon.
השגריר גוברין בבית הכנסת על שם אליהו הנביא באלכסנדריה ()

בית הכנסת העתיק ()
The ancient synagogue
A video released by the Israeli Embassy in Egypt showed the two conversing in Arabic. Gaon expressed the hope that the Egyptian government will help renovate the place.  

"We as the state of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, are very interested in this issue and are willing to participate and cooperate with the relevant bodies in this field," said Guvrin. Ben Gaon replied: "We are all brothers. We are all one. There is no one better than another. We do the same thing. God willing, all things work out."

Unpublicised film of Eli Cohen's hanging resurfaces

 Previously unpublicised footage of the hanging of Eli Cohen, Israel's famous spy has resurfaced on a Syrian rebel Facebook age. The spy's body, already stiffened by rigor mortis, is seen lowered into a coffin. Abraham Cohen, 71, Eli's brother, says that these images are not new and were filmed by a US press agency. Eli Cohen's widow Nadia has campaigned all her life to have her husband's body returned to Eli's family in Israel. (With thanks: Lily)

According to Israel Hayom, fifty-one years after Israeli Mossad agent Eli Cohen was captured, tortured and executed in Syria, a Facebook page affiliated with the Syrian opposition uploaded a video showing him on the gallows. The page, "Syrian art treasures" has published video footage that appears to have been taken on May 18, 1965, the day of the execution.

 The video shows Cohen's lifeless body hanging from the gallows, as the masses gather in a public square to bear witness to the execution. His body is shown wrapped in a cloth displaying Cohen's crimes in Arabic and brought down from the gallows to be laid in a coffin. The video shows Cohen's coffin then being lifted onto a military vehicle that later drives off to an unknown location.

 Claims were made that Cohen's body was buried under the central square in Damascus, now an urban area featuring buildings and roads. Cohen's exact place of burial remains unknown to this day.

More about Eli Cohen

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Iraqi 'Jew''s tale of woe does not ring true

 An article which first appeared in Ami magazine and was republished by Aish is circulating online. It tells  a story of horror,  torture and persecution of an Iraqi Jew by Saddam Hussein. However, there are reasons to doubt it is true.  See my comment below. Here is a sample (with thanks to all those who sent me this): 

Kurdish Jews in 1905
"Elisha told me that there were more Iraqi Jews left in the country than official statistics showed, in some cases because they had thought they were going to be able to leave and weren’t able to. Many were able to get papers as Christians, rather than Jews, though they kept in contact with the Jewish community. Official numbers showed only several hundred Jews in Iraq during the late twentieth century, but Elisha stated that he believed there were as many as 20,000 living under assumed identities as Christians and other ethnicities.

And while for most Iraqi Jews the end of their time in the country had come, for a small minority, like Elisha Cohen’s family, Iraq would remain their home.


Elisha’s family was, as were many Iraqis, both rooted in the country and cosmopolitan at the same time. Though both of his paternal grandparents were born in Iraq, they met in Germany in the 1920s, where many Iraqi Jews traveled to for business. His maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who had entered Iraq after the war, where he married Elisha’s maternal grandmother in Baghdad.

Elisha’s mother also traveled for a time to Europe, where she studied in France to be an ophthalmologist. “My experiences have left me with some difficulty in remembering our childhood,” Elisha writes. “I have vivid recollections of the last time I saw my brothers and sisters, however my memories of how we grew up together have since been disturbed.”

Elisha and his seven siblings grew up in a large house in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. He had three older brothers, a twin brother, then two younger sisters with a younger brother in between them. Only the two oldest brothers attended school; the rest of the children were taught at home, as Jews were not anymore allowed to attend Iraqi schools."

My  Comment:  The article gives a roughly true potted history of the Iraqi-Jewish community. However,  to claim that some 20, 000 hidden Jews lived in the Mosul area posing as Christians stretches credulity: 20, 000 would be a greater number than the entire 18, 000-strong Jewish community who lived in northern Iraq. Almost all were airlifted to Israel in 1950. If at all, one might have expected a handful of Elishas, but not 20, 000.

Secondly, for a harassed Jewish family to pose as Assyrian Christians, another persecuted Iraqi minority, would be like leaping from the frying pan into the fire. Why not just pose as Muslims?

The story of how Elisha's parents met in Germany does not ring true. Elisha inserts a Holocaust survivor into his family for sympathy, it seems. Why does he have trouble remembering his childhood?

Even if Elisha and his family had been subject to unimaginable torture under the Ba'ath regime, no Jew would have wanted to return to Iraq once he had left. As a Jew his destination of choice would have been Israel, not Australia, a favoured destination for Assyrian Christians. And having reached freedom, why does Elisha use the name Marvin, instead of 'coming out' as the Jew Elisha?

The story seems to be a fantasy fabricated by an Assyrian Christian who would have liked to be a Jew. It must have acquired legs when he realised there was an audience of gullible Jews willing to believe it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Israel Library buys Afghan geniza

A unique collection of Jewish and Muslim manuscripts dating from the 11th to 13th centuries C.E. from the region of modern-day Afghanistan was acquired by the National Library of Israel recently, Israel Hayom reports (with thanks: Lily)

Researchers believe it could prove unprecedented in what it can teach them about the lives of the communities along the Silk Road. 

The collection, known as the "Afghan Geniza," consists of some 250 documents from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, before the Mongol invasion began. Four years ago, the library purchased a smaller number of documents from the same collection, which was previously unknown to historical researchers. 

Scholars believe the treasures that lie in the pages of the latest acquisition will revolutionize knowledge of Jewish communities in that region in that era, as well as provide a rare glimpse into the Muslim cultures of Persia and pre-Mongol Afghanistan. According to the library, most of the documents were written by Jewish and Muslim merchants who lived prior to the destruction caused by the invading Mongol army under Genghis Khan between 1258 and 1260. 

The documents provide information about the day-to-day lives of the communities, social ties, and the Jewish economy of the region in that period. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Doyen of Sephardi culture Moise Rahmani dies

The death has been announced of Moise Rahmani, founder of the Institut Sepharade Europeen ( and publisher of the quarterly review Los Muestros.

Moise Rahmani suffered from failing health in his later years, and despite efforts to pass on the editorship of Los Muestros to his daughters, announced in December 2015 that he was ceasing publication owing to lack of resources.

Moise Rahmani's family background straddled several countries. He was an influential figure of tireless energy in the Sephardi and Jewish world and his prodigious output of books of Sephardi interest included L'exode oublie, an overview of the exodus of Jews from Arab countries. He published Los Muestros in Ladino, English and French for 20 years.

Rahmani was born in Cairo in 1944.   His paternal grandmother was from Rhodes. In 1956, at the age of 12, he and his family left Egypt for the Belgian Congo (now Zaire),  emigrating to Belgium after the Congo Crisis of 1960–1966.

His website remains as a lasting monument to his efforts to preserve Sephardi history, language and culture.

An Egyptian childhood cut short

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mind the gap!

Point of No Return will be taking a short break. See you early next week!

'Ethnic cleansing' is nothing new in West Bank

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drawn fire for asserting that the Palestinian leadership envisages a West Bank 'ethnically cleansed' of Jews.
 Time to re-visit the history of the area with this extract from the Harif blog, Clash of Cultures: the West thinks it has always been Arab land, but  Jews once owned thousands of dunams  in Judea and Samaria. 'Ethnic cleansing' is nothing new.

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.
The status quo represents an exchange far more favourable to Arabs than to Jews. According to economist Sidney Zabludoff, the Jewish refugees – 75 percent of whom resettled in Israel - lost assets worth twice as much as those abandoned by Palestinian refugees.
On the macro-level, the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries estimates that Jews living in Arab countries owned some 100,000 sq km of deeded property, equivalent to four or five times the size of Israel  itself. 
Many cities in the 'Arab' Middle East and North Africa had large Jewish populations. Baghdad was a quarter Jewish. Within a generation, the Jewish population of the Arab world will have been ‘cleansed’ out of existence.
Evidently, private ownership of property does not equate to sovereignty. But many people – the EU included - assume that areas inhabited in Jerusalem and the ‘West Bank’ by a majority of Arabs - regardless of whether they established that majority at the expense of Jews - should naturally come under Arab sovereignty. Organisations like J-Street and Yachad are willing to fight for Arab squatters’ rights; you would be hard-pressed to find any human rights group or NGO prepared to campaign for Jewish property rights.
The suggestion is never considered that the attacking parties in the 1967 war - Syria and Jordan - should be made to forfeit territory as the price for their aggression. No Arab state has been held to account for ‘ethnically cleansing’ their innocent Jewish citizens whom they branded, from1948 onwards, as ‘members of the minority of Palestine’. Instead, the Arab states have pocketed the spoils. It goes without saying that no Arab government has paid out any compensation for lost Jewish property. Israel is expected to make all the concessions.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

US student from Yemen : Only 50 Jews left

It is ten years since Manny Dahari moved to the United States as a student. He was separated from his family who remained in Yemen and worked for their rescue. He was not reunited with them for 10 years. On the anniversary of his departure, he posted this message on his Facebook page:

"Due to rise of antisemitism and the fact that Jews were not allowed to attend public schools, my parents sent me to study in the U.S.

Over the last ten years, the Jewish community of Yemen suffered greatly. They were living in constant fear; afraid to leave their homes or reveal their identity because they would get attacked or be killed. As a result, I couldn't go back home and didn't see my family for almost ten years.

In 2007 an entire Jewish community was expelled from their town, Sa'adah. The Jews were given 24 hours, to either, convert to Islam, leave their homes or be killed.

In 2008, a rabbi in our community was shot to death in front of his house, simply because he was Jewish.

In 2009 many Jewish homes, including my cousin's, were attacked with grenades.

In 2011, my sister's father in-law was stabbed to death in the supermarket for being a Jew.

Over the last ten years, three Jewish girls, including my cousin, were kidnapped and forced to marry Muslim men.

With no protection from the government or the local authority, Jews, including my family, had no choice but to leave everything behind and flee for their lives. Many of them settled in Israel and some were taken as refugees by the U.S. and the U.K.

Today, less than 50 Jews are still living in Yemen."

Monday, September 12, 2016

Why the Afghan community is now defunct

Sara Beth Koplik has  published  a book on the history of Jews in Afghanistan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (especially from 1839 to 1952). This  once flourishing community  is now defunct. It struggled to recover from successive calamities (Mongol invasion, forced conversion of Jews to Islam in Mashad). interview by Nathan Weinstock in Information Juive: 

Sara Beth Koplik

Afghan Jews frequently had to face difficult times and  as a religious minority, they became the target of persecution.
This minority was distinguished by unusual family structure patterns, resulting from trade requirements with very remote areas: while men undertook long journeys, women remained at home (particularly in Herat and Kabul).

An accumulation of events in early 1930 led  to the gradual disappearance of the Jewish community. The influx of large numbers of refugees, including from Bukhara - a consequence of the quasi-Stalinist policy of genocide - prompted the Afghan government to impose on the local Jewish population discriminatory laws forbidding them to engage in commerce or travel outside major urban centers. Hence their  brutal impoverishment, aggravated by an economic policy focused on development projects based on a monopoly system favouring the majority Pashtun.

Zevulum Simantov, the last Jew of Afghanistan, saying his prayers (Photo: Reuters)

  Furthermore, the agreements concluded by Kabul with the Third Reich, under the leadership of 'Abd al-Majid Khan Zabuli, would allow Nazi Germany to exert some influence on certain aspects of Afghan policy, especially in the economic field.
After the Second World War, the Afghan economy collapsed and the region fell prey to starvation. The establishment of the State of Israel  was lived by the Jewish community as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and most of its members left when they were finally allowed to emigrate.


The numerical strength of the community  increased due to the flight of Jews of Mashhad after their  (1839) forced mass conversion. In 1856, the whole Jewish community of Herat was forced to join the Persian army in its march to Mashhad, where its members  remained imprisoned for several years. Many of them died as a result of prison conditions.

At the end of the nineteenth century, they were exposed to a series of pogroms, including the massacre of eleven rabbis in Maimana. The early years of the twentieth century ushered in a best time for the community, but it was hit by new problems  from the early 1930s, forcing all Jews residing in the north to live either in Kabul either in Herat.

Bukharan refugees were locked in an old caravanserai and forbidden to engage in any work. The community was overwhelmed by the many restrictions of all kinds imposed upon it, which eventually triggered a refugee crisis: the Jews fled from Afghanistan to India, including Peshawar and Mumbai.

Read article in full (French) 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The truth about Morocco: fear made Jews leave

Penina Elbaz is now a successful psychologist in Montreal. As a child in Safi, a southern town in Morocco, she was exposed to bullying and persecution. But some Moroccan Jews choose to live in denial: the rich think they bought their security. Read her passionate plea about Jews displaced from Arab lands:
Penina Elbaz: many examples of Moroccan antisemitism

"It is about time we showed the world the kind of persecution which Jews in Morocco suffered. Because  some rich people wanted to play at being ambassadors for Morocco and talk about their good life, they failed to report, or denied,  the persecutions endured by the majority, especially those who had to live in Muslim areas. Our lives were put at risk every day.

 I have so many examples: My elderly aunt was pushed against the wall by Muslims and they broke her shoulder. My 14-year- old cousin was pushed against the wall with a knife to her throat. When the Zionist operatives came  to the homes of very poor people, I would follow them to see them off when they left for Israel. They lived in dignity, poverty and fear. They were humble but  noble. The only possessions they had and took with them were fragments of  Torah scrolls in rusty old tins. It was extremely moving; those Zionists were delegated by the Messiah. They saved thousands of lives.

In Morocco anti-Jewish sentiment and their local nationalism were rampant. They wanted the public jobs held by Jewish people, Jewish houses and businesses. They succeeded by inflicting fear and persecution. Jewish people, rich or poor,  loved Morocco. They cherished the land, the culture, and their ancestors from this land and their Saints buried in Morocco. They would never want to talk about the persecutions out of pride, for fear that  people would judge them.  The will to continue to live with no fear made them leave; however, they did take with them the culture and  values. They still have feasts celebrating the Saints,  the henna parties; the kaftans are still cherished.

When I told some Jewish Moroccans my story of being held hostage in a Moroccan jail, I was told that it would not have happened to them because they had private means of transport and protection. This ignorance and denial are outrageous. It does not allow people to tell their life experiences of trauma in Morocco. Among the people held hostages with me were people of all types,  from very poor to very rich. When Muslim fanatics decide to cause harm, they do not need to check to which social class we belong.

Thank God for Israel.  Jews from Arab countries found a country where they could  live with full citizenship rights. It is not because of the creation of the State of Israel that we were persecuted in Arab countries, we were persecuted because of  increasing Muslim nationalism. It was just a pretext to kick us out of our homeland, Morocco. "

Friday, September 09, 2016

Prosecutor: No future for French Jews

Lawyer Charles Baccouche is a North African Jew in the forefront of the fight against French antisemitism. He does not hold out much hope for the future of the community and plans eventually to move to Israel. Interview in The Times of Israel (With thanks: Lily) 

Founded by retired Paris-area police commissioner Sammy Ghozlan, the BNVCA has worked for more than 15 years to combat French anti-Semitism and boycotts against Israel. These include the physical acts of aggression against rabbis, children, synagogues and Jewish schools which began escalating in 2000.

In 2014, for instance, the Jewish community reported 851 anti-Semitic incidents, of which 241 were violent attacks, up from 423 and 105, respectively. Although Ghozlan has retired to Netanya, he frequently returns and is in constant touch with his team, including his right hand man, Baccouche.

It is Baccouche who represents the BNVCA on behalf of French Jewry in legal proceedings. His adversaries are not only the terrorists set on taking Jewish lives but also France’s most notorious and most vocal anti-Semites. These include Dieudonne, Alain Soral, Jean Marie Le Pen and Zeon aka Fernandez, whom he pursues in court four or five times a year.

“Court is very slow and they delay it repeatedly,” he says. “The most important thing is to submit complaints to the French government.”

Over the past three years, in fact, he has submitted an estimated 400 complaints about anti-Semitic acts, a process he has continued since 2009 — “each time there is an anti-Semitic act,” says Baccouche, who resides near the Eiffel Tower.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Israel schools to mark Jewish Refugee Day on 30 November

Israel's schools will hold a memorial day this year to commemorate the departure and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries and Iran, the Education Ministry has announced. (This is one of the recommendations of the Biton Report.) The Jerusalem Post reports (with thanks: Lily):

(Left: Erez Biton. Right: minister Naphtali Bennett)

On November 30 schools and kindergartens throughout the country will mark the day with memorial ceremonies, reading books, singing songs and holding discussions on the immigrant absorption experience.

The ministry thus aims to implement one of the July recommendations of the Biton Committee, which was tasked with empowering Eastern Jewish cultural studies within the general education curriculum.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett launched the committee some five months ago, and appointed as its head Erez Biton, the first poet of Mizrahi descent to win the Israel Prize in Literature (2015).

Biton was tasked with strengthening the identity of the Mizrahi Jewish community – including immigrants from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia and Libya – within the education system.

“From today the children of Israel will learn the story of the Egoz ship [which sank in 1961 during its 13th voyage bringing Jews from Morocco to make aliya, with the loss of 46 lives, including 44 immigrants] and the story of the incredible Zionist journey of Mizrahi Jews,” Bennett said.

“The day of departure and expulsion is a milestone in completing the whole story of the glorious heritage of Jews from Arab countries,” he said.

As part of the commemoration, students will meet with “perpetuators of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish heritage,” past immigrants from countries such as Morocco, Iraq, Iran and Algeria, who will recount their personal stories of expulsion from their homes. The students will also learn of their Mizrahi culture and heritage, as well as their immigration and absorption experiences.

Read article in full

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Egypt registers Jewish artefacts 'to preserve them'

Egypt has begun registering Jewish antiquities 'in an attempt to protect them from theft and neglect' — an important step forward in preserving history, says Al-Monitor. Cynics would say that Egypt is merely making an inventory of movable artefacts which the tiny Jewish community has unilaterally handed over to the Egyptian state. As for immovable property, the article registers the criticism levelled at the government for not making good on promises to renovate the country’s synagogues, which it sees as part of Egypt's heritage in general.
The library at Adly St synagogue, Cairo: handed over to the Egyptian state

Jewish antiquities have always been part of Egypt’s cultural heritage, and government officials have said they are also part of the world’s heritage and the property of all mankind, not only Egypt. And so, Saeed Helmy, the head of the Islamic and Coptic Monuments Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, is calling on countries around the world to financially support Egypt in restoring and preserving the antiquities.

Helmy, who is in charge of the Jewish monuments in Egypt, told Al-Monitor in mid-August that the country has been unable to finance such projects because of its financial state. Egypt’s economy has suffered since the January 25 Revolution in 2011, and tourism has been decimated.

“I know very well that the Egyptian monuments — including the Jewish antiquities — capture the attention of people all around the world. Therefore, I’d like to make it clear that Egypt pays considerable attention to its monuments whether they are Islamic, Coptic or Christian, and that is what I asserted during my meeting with the [US] cultural attache at the US Embassy [in Egypt] on Aug. 2. However, we need the support of the countries that are interested in cultural heritage in order to protect these great antiquities.”

The Jews built 11 synagogues in Egypt — 10 in Cairo and one in Alexandria — which contain thousands of manuscripts that document their community in the country, along with birth and marriage records of Egyptian Jews.

Many synagogues in the heart of Cairo were frequently visited tourist attractions, especially Ben Ezra, Ashkenazi and Sha'ar Hashamayim. Ben Ezra in Old Cairo is one of the oldest synagogues in Egypt and houses thousands of ancient Jewish books. Old Cairo is also where the first mosque in Egypt, Amr ibn al-As Mosque, was built in 642, and is home to a number of Coptic churches, most notably the so-called Hanging Church.

The Ashkenazi Synagogue in Ataba, built in 1887, is in need of complete maintenance in addition to renovation work of its floors and walls.

Despite their small number, members of the Jewish community in Egypt  (actually, the  Cairo community - ed)— which is down to six individuals — have always cared for and attended to the Jewish antiquities in Egypt.

On March 26, Magda Haroun, the president of Egypt's Jewish community, said in an interview with the privately owned Al-Youm Al-Sabeh newspaper that she had received several promises from Egyptian officials who are responsible for documenting and repairing buildings of Jewish origin, but none of these promises were actually fulfilled.

Therefore, Haroun said, she called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to help preserve this cultural heritage, especially after water leaked through the walls of some synagogues.

“I don’t want to place on him [Sisi] a burden greater than what he can bear. He is a true human being who bears a great responsibility. Yet I had to look for a higher authority to preserve this great heritage,” Haroun said.

Sisi indeed may have responded to Haroun’s message, as the Ministry of Antiquities announced June 11 that it was forming a special committee to take stock of Jewish antiquities in synagogues and register them in the ministry’s records. This was the first time that the Ministry of Antiquities has offered to register the artifacts, after many years of neglect.

Ahmad Abd al-Majid Hammad, a member of the committee assigned to register the artifacts, said 60 pieces have been registered to date at the Moussa al-Dar'I synagogue, which was built in 1925. The antiquities included 32 boxes containing Torah scrolls, in addition to a few curtains that display drawings, decorations and the Star of David. Moreover, the antiquities included a metal frame and wooden artifacts.

Helmy, who heads the registration committee, told Al-Monitor that the ministry looks equally at Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities. Helmy said he does not allow any discrimination against any of these monuments, and that he often reminds antiquities students of this.

“The best proof that the Ministry of Antiquities cares about the Jewish heritage is that we have finished [in 2010] repairing the Maimonides synagogue in Jamaliyyah Street in midtown Cairo at a total cost of 8.5 million Egyptian pounds [roughly $950,000]. We have restored the synagogue’s entrances, floors and all the antiquities inside it. For the first time, the synagogue has been placed on the list of tourist attractions in Egypt,” he said.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Tunisia passes stealth expropriation law

A new Tunisian law permitting the state to expropriate property 'for the public good' is expected to impact on absent Jewish owners and their heirs.

Pierre-Olivier Aribaud
A French property lawyer based in Sousse contends that the law was 'sneaked' through parliament at the height of summer in order to attract minimum attention. It is usual for a French version of the text to appear alongside  the Arabic, but on this occasion, Pierre-Olivier Aribaud writes in his Times of Israel blog, the law, passed on 11 July 2016, was published only in Arabic.

Aribaud argues that  such a law would be justified where a crumbling property presented a physical risk. If the expropriated property were to be re-sold to a developer - that would be a different matter.

Sousse seafront
The law stipulates that the owner be notified at the address of the property concerned. In 80 percent of cases, the owner has not lived at the address for years, and is likely to have been born between 1910 and 1930. He is either dead or very old. The chances of his heirs receiving notice of the expropriation are minimal. If they now live in France, they cannot rely on the French authorities for support. Aribaud urges Jews to exert pressure for change on the French government and parliament.

Unlike Iraq, Egypt and Libya, Tunisia did not nationalise Jewish property. But abandoned homes have often been taken over by squatters or fallen into the hands of greedy developers abetted by crooked lawyers who falsify deeds. There is often no way to recover property and assets except by going to law - a tortuous and seemingly interminable process.

Aribaud has represented hundreds of clients: some  are Italians and Maltese who left their property when they departed Tunisia. But his regular blogs in the Times of Israel suggest that Tunisian Jews form an important slice of his clientele.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Israel to grant research prize on Jews from Arab lands

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel announced on Sunday the launching of an annual NIS 150,000 prize for research into the history of Jews in Arab lands and Iran. The Jerusalem Post reports (with thanks: Lily): 

Gila Gamliel: half Yemenite, half-Libyan

Gamliel, whose father is from Yemen and whose mother was born in Libya, said the prize will contribute to promoting the history of the Jews in Arab lands that has for too long been pushed to the side of the Zionist conversation.

“The story of the Jewish people is massive and has many layers, and the entire Israeli public should be exposed to it,” she said. “Preserving our heritage is our national expertise and the secret of our survival as a people.”

Gamliel thanked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being responsive and understanding that “it is our responsibility to foster an understanding of our complete national heritage – the story of the East [Sephardi Jewry], and the story of the West [Ashkenazi Jewry].”

Netanyahu said providing support for researching the history of the Jews of the Arab countries and Iran is an important step, and one needed to “fill in the gaps.” He said the decision has “important implications” both for Israeli society and academia.

The prize will be bestowed annually on November 30, the day which – under a 2014 law – will be marked each year as the national day of commemoration for the 850,000 Jewish refugees displaced from Iran and Arab countries in the 20th century.

This day was selected because it immediately follows November 29, when the UN adopted the partition plan in 1947 and many Jews in Arab countries felt the need to flee their home countries.

In addition, Gamliel’s ministry will allocate an additional NIS 100,000 for 150 medals to be bestowed on people and organizations who have contributed to furthering an understanding of the heritage of Jews from the Arab countries and Iran, and who have worked to ensure that their rights to compensation as refugees will be recognized.

Read article in full

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The banker who saved Iraqi Jews from salted herring

 Yehuda Assia and 'fairy-tale princess' Jeanette on their wedding day.

Yehuda Assia, an Iraqi-born banker who at the Swiss-Israel Trade bank helped raise funds for the Mossad in its early days, has died at 99. Assia forged a career in Asia, the United States, Switzerland and Israel, helping to finance the new country’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. He took a great interest in Iraqi-Jewish refugees arriving in the maabarot in the 1950s. Thanks to his intervention, Iraqi Jews were recruited as cooks so as to spare the refugees from having to eat 'Ashkenazi' salted herring for breakfast. Obituary in Haaretz by Ofer Aderet (with thanks: Imre).

At 32, Assia immigrated to Israel in 1949 after studying economics and banking in the United States. Within two weeks he was an owner of a metal factory.

His life in Israel was interrupted in 1950 when the authorities called on him to go on a special mission to Switzerland, where Israel was establishing the Swiss-Israel Trade bank. Assia would set up and manage it.

But there was a backstory. The bank was also set up to aid the transfer of funds to finance Mossad operations. Thus was renewed Assia’s contact with Shiloah, his former Hebrew teacher in Baghdad.

Assia’s contact with the Mossad was close. At the end of the ‘50s he was urgently summoned to Jerusalem by the minister of trade and industry at the time, Pinchas Sapir.

Sapir asked him: “Assia, the country is on the verge of running out of sugar. We have to buy a huge stock of it, paying $2 million in cash. Can you put together such a sum immediately?”

As Assia was doing the paperwork, he was requested to establish a credit line for a further $2 million to finance the purchase of equipment for Mekorot, the company building Israel’s water pipeline. Assia later approached Golda Meir, the foreign minister at the time, asking if she needed funds as well.

Her answer: “I heard there was some Baghdadi magician here pulling money out of his sleeves.”

While in Geneva he married Jeanette, whom he described as “a fairy-tale Thai princess.” The two had met at a Bangkok club. Jeanette, who had an English father and a Thai mother, was a nurse by training and owned a jewellery store.

For years they had carried on a long-distance relationship and married after Jeanette converted to Judaism. Their son David was born in 1951, “an Iraqi-Thai blend that we loved so much that we thought it would be a sin not to create another one.”

Prime Minister Moshe Sharett visited the family in Geneva in 1955. In his diary he wrote: “We had lunch with the Assia family – the young Babylonian Jew who lives here with his Siamese wife and their three beautiful children.”

In 1956 he established a branch of the bank in Israel, calling it the Foreign Trade Bank. This later merged to form the First International Bank of Israel. Assia described this as “the first penetration of the closed banking club since the state was established.” Three years later he also established the Arab-Israel Bank.

His involvement in undercover operations continued as he collected donations for Israel. His most serious job was a request by the Defense Ministry’s director general at the time, Shimon Peres. The task: to raise funds that would help build the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

A year later, he was approached by Finance Minister Levi Eshkol, who was looking for investors in a new oil pipeline from Eilat to Ashdod. Assia became the deputy chief executive of the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company. The company operated for a decade before it closed upon the signing of a new agreement between Israel and Iran.

In 1963 Assia returned to Israel. He continued working in banking and lived in the affluent town of Savyon, spending some of the time in Switzerland with his wife. When she died in 1990 he moved to Israel permanently, living in Tel Aviv.

Assia also engaged in philanthropy. During his first years in Israel he helped integrate Iraqi immigrants and visited the tent camps where they lived. Once he visited a camp in Pardes Hannah and heard people shouting in the kitchen. He entered the room and saw immigrants arguing with a man from the Jewish Agency who was serving them breakfast.

“To my amazement, things became so heated that one of the immigrants threw a tray of food in the face of the person handing out the food,” he wrote. It turned out that the immigrant had accused the man of giving them rotten fish “in an attempt to poison them. He claimed that the man had sold the good fish and pocketed the money.”

It turned out the “rotten fish” was “perfectly normal salted herring, suitable for consumption but unknown to the Jew from Iraq,” Assia wrote. So he had a talk with Israel’s chief for immigrant absorption.

“I‘ve lived in Japan, I’ve done business in Thailand, I’ve lived and studied in the United States, and I now have a few Ashkenazi partners, yet to this day I can’t put something like that in my mouth,” he wrote. “How do you expect Iraqi Jews to eat herring for breakfast?”

The solution was found by making some of the Iraqi immigrants cooks. Assia was then chosen to head Israel’s association of Iraqi Jews. He later became the president of a fund he established for the advancement and education of Iraqi Jews in Israel.

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Friday, September 02, 2016

Moroccan exhibits vaunt delusional diversity

An exhibition of photographs of Jewish life from the city mellahs to the Atlas mountains,  set to open in Belgium on 4 September 2016, will mark European Day of Culture. The day will be dedicated to the 'Jews in the lands of Islam'.

The Jewish Museum in Brussels will feature more than 100 photos of the Jews of Morocco taken by Aron Zede Schulmann. Visitors will be able to watch  Ya Hessra Douk Li Yam , a documentary made by  Moroccan Jewish community leader Serge Berdugo, and Mark Berdugo. Professor Joseph Chetrit will come from Haïfa to give two lectures. There will be workshops on Andalusian perfumes and Arab and Hebrew calligraphy. 

In May 2014, the Jewish Museum in Brussels was the scene of a terrorist attack. Four people died. 

 The exhibition follows another major initiative to promote Moroccan 'tolerance and diversity', the touring exhibition Morocco and Europe: six centuries through the eyes of one another.

The exhibition has been on tour since 2010 and focuses on six centuries of exchange between Morocco and Europe. It aims to foster dialogue and strengthen links across the Mediterranean.  

However, critics charge that it is 'islamically-correct', and conceals or plays down historical facts in order to project an illusion of cultural diversity. The journalist Veronique Chemla accuses the exhibition of promoting 'a biased and partial vision', full of 'hollow generalities' and projecting a false sense of security concerning the topic of modern Moroccan immigration into Europe, in spite of incidents of terrorism perpetrated by North Africans on European soil.

The diversity vaunted by the exhibition is belied by the fact that a community of almost 300, 000 Jews has been reduced to less than 4,000.

 While references to Judaism and Jews abound in the exhibition - an oil lamp for Hanukkah,  lithographs of Isaac Bitton, boxer (1778-1838) and Dr. Moses Edrei (1774-1842) , Kabbalist and professor of modern and Oriental languages, an aquatint representing a Moroccan Jew selling ribbons, mirrors and scissors in the streets of London (early nineteenth century), and a watercolour of a young Jewish woman from Tangier - the role of Jews in forging ties with Europe is curiously downplayed.

Sponsors include the Brussels municipality, the Institute for Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies, the Moroccan bank Chaabi du Maroc, Royal Air Maroc, the historian Elie Barnavi, Simone Susskind, André Azoulay, advisor to kings  Hassan II et Mohammed VI,  and president of the Anna Lindh foundation for intercultural dialogue .

Moroccan Jews protest for 'occupied' W. Sahara

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Palestinian Christian saw Mideast Jews as 'dirty'

Mosaic is running a fascinating piece by Menahem Milson, a Hebrew University professor of Arabic studies. Milson became friendly with a number of Palestinian intellectuals after Israel's 1967 victory in order to sound out their views on prospects for peace. He recently dug up the notes he took of his meetings with them. His exchange with Raja al-Issa, a Palestinian Arab Catholic, betraying total contempt for Middle Eastern Jews, caught my eye.

In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Menahem Milson recorded his conversations with a number of Jerusalem Arab intellectuals

After a while, we met again, this time in the Safiyeh family home. Meanwhile Raja had traveled around Israel visiting various cities and towns, and he said that what he saw had impressed him. Israel was very different from how he had imagined it. He added:
I believe there are some Israelis we could get along with. I can divide Israelis into three kinds. The good ones are people like you, Menahem: educated native-born Israelis. You resemble us in many ways, and we can get along with you easily. The second kind are less similar to us, but they are nice people, too: those who have come from America and Western Europe. They are liberal, civilized, and educated, and we can get along with them as well. But the third kind is the worst: the Middle Eastern Jews, especially those from North Africa. They are dirtier than our peasants.
He continued: “Yes, there are people among you we could get along with. I think the best solution is to have a joint country and manage it together, like Lebanon. Would that be acceptable to you, Menahem?”

He had spoken in his usual jocular tone, and was obviously speaking as a friend: “With you and those like you we can get along. You are like us.” It was meant as a compliment, and I had to respond politely. But at the same time he was expressing views that were abhorrent to me. I needed to respond immediately, and I chose an earnest reply over a friendly one. Though I wondered how he could present Lebanon as an example of different ethnic and religious groups living in peace, while ignoring the perpetual instability of the regime there and apparently forgetting the civil war of 1958, I had more important reasons to oppose his suggestion. Not only did the idea of turning Israel into another Lebanon negate its reason for being, it was also contrary to my perception of what any state was meant to be: a framework for a national community.

I said: “I cannot accept your proposal. I am fond of you, you know that. But you regard the Middle Eastern Jews as dirtier than your peasants, and I do not share your view of either the Mizraḥi Jews or the Arab peasants. We Jews are one people, we are responsible for each other and wish to build one society. We must develop our society, and you must develop yours. If you see your peasants as uneducated and uncivilized, you have much work to do in your own society.”

Read article in full

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Mizrahi era dawns in Israeli theatre

Two Israeli actors of Iraqi origin have founded a multicultural repertory theatre dedicated to staging the heritage and forgotten stories of Jews from Arab lands.  The project is called 'Shahar' (Dawn).

Actor  Uri Gabriel and actor and playwright Gilit Yitzhaki were inspired to start their project following the success of 'Eliyahu's Daughters' (Habanot shel Abba), a play about two generations of an Iraqi-Jewish family which survived the Farhud pogrom, escaped from Iraq and came to Israel. The play, which was written by Yitzhaki,  has been playing to packed houses up and down the country.

 Introducing the Shahar project in a Facebook video clip, Uri Gabrieli  says:" this is the dawn of a new day!״ He and Gilit Yizhaki have set up a  website (English version available - click top right) to attract funding.

Backers purchase tickets from the website for a play to be staged in February. The aim is to collect the 120, 000 shekels needed to finance Shahar's first production. If the target is not met, contributors will receive a refund.

The next production, The Rebel from Tetran, will be based on Salim Fattal's memoir In the alleys of Baghdad. Shahar will also run workshops, discussions and social activities.

Lessons of exile for a refugee from Iraq

How does a Jewish refugee from Iraq cope - not just with physical displacement, but cultural exile? The question is stylishly answered by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash in her witty and exhilarating memoir, The Strangers we became. Lyn Julius reviews the book in the Jerusalem Post:

Cynthia Kaplan Shamash was just nine when she was taken alone into a room by the Iraqi secret police and accused of spying: her interrogators dismembered the doll she was clutching to see if it had a bugging device inside it.

Cynthia still has the doll, a lasting reminder of the antisemitism her Jewish family had endured in the 1970s. They  made a failed attempt to escape, followed by five weeks of detention. Cynthia, her three siblings and parents eventually leave Iraq with a passport, but their home is sequestered and their possessions stolen. The day of permanent departure arrives,  the children incongruously dressed in their smartest clothes.

'The Strangers we became: lessons in exile from one of Iraq's last Jews'   is Cynthia's charming coming-of-age memoir: she moved from Iraq to Turkey, then Israel, settling in Holland,  one of few countries then to offer Iraqi Jews asylum. Cynthia moves to the US to pursue her dentistry studies. Five countries in 12 years.

On leaving Iraq, she captures beautifully her first sighting of the sea, the welcome ringing of 'phones - Jews were not allowed telephones in Iraq - but also the estrangement of exile in the West.  Perhaps because they hoped their father stood a better chance of finding a job, the family choose not to join their raucous relatives in Israel and resettle in Holland instead. 

The small number of Jewish refugees from Iraq  are housed in a dour Amsterdam apartment block with Surinamese immigrants for neighbours. Mastering Dutch is difficult. Cynthia's Jewish school is no less alien and the pupils cliquey and spoilt. Her attempt to  to gain popularity by taking up horse-riding literally barely gets off the ground.

Cynthia's father is 24 years older than her mother - and sensing the couple's unhappiness, the family's well-meaning social worker sends him away from the family home despite his fragile health. But the separation kills him. Even for unhappy couples, Iraqi custom dictates 'till death us do part'. After her husband's death the widow will not remarry.   

The refugees must navigate between different worlds: uninhibited liberalism and conservatism,  Dutch rationalism and Iraqi superstition. Whereas a Dutch person might offer a visitor a cup of coffee, an Iraqi hostess will cook a whole meal for them. There are later challenges - such as how a girl from a sheltered background might handle boyfriends.

Aged 12, like a character from a Bronte novel, Cynthia is sent to live with an ultra-orthodox family in London's Stamford Hill. The experience is not the disaster one might have expected. The religious, if austere, atmosphere gives Cynthia the structure which has been lacking in her life.  

She returns to Holland determined to do well academically -  somewhat more devout than when she left, yet with the confidence to face the world.

This is a vivid, witty, exhilarating and at times disarmingly frank, read. Some things are best expressed in Judeo-Arabic, which Cynthia obligingly translates for us. These are the lessons of exile: strive to do well,  make your family proud, be optimistic, resilient, and don't look back.

Read article in full 

Another review






Monday, August 29, 2016

Ex-minister 'Fuad' Ben-Eliezer dies at 80

Iraq-born Benjamin (Fuad)  Ben-Eliezer, ex-defence minister, general and veteran politician, has died aged 80. He was the first  Israeli minister to meet Yasser Arafat in 1994, and had a clubbable relationship with President Mubarak of Egypt. In his later years his reputation was tarnished by allegations of corruption. The Times of Israel reports:

Known as “Fuad” to friends, family and among the public, Ben-Eliezer was born in Basra, southern Iraq, in 1936.

At age 12, with the founding of the State of Israel, Ben-Eliezer was forced to flee Iraq alone. Traveling by foot with a group of Jews, he headed toward Tehran. He described the journey in detail in 2011 on the Uvda TV program, saying he was beaten repeatedly along the way and rescued from a swamp without his shoes.

In Tehran, his mother had told him, there was an aunt who owed the family a favor. For eight months, he recalled, his mother had quizzed him on his ability to speak his family name and the aunt’s address in Farsi. Upon arrival, he made his way to her palatial home, repeated the proper words, and saw the door slammed in his face.

Then-presidential candidate Reuven Rivlin seen with former presidential candidate and then-MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in the Knesset during presidential elections, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Then-presidential candidate Reuven Rivlin, right, seen with former presidential candidate and then-MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in the Knesset during presidential elections, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Sobbing uncontrollably on the way back to the temporary refugee camp in Tehran, he said the tears suddenly dried up and a realization set in: “That’s when I realized it was over. You will live alone. You are alone. Iran hardened me,” he said. “My emotions cannot be penetrated and harmed without me allowing it to be so.”

In Israel, Ben-Eliezer, who spoke the Queen’s English and accentless Arabic and Hebrew, was drafted to the Golani Brigade in 1954. He fought in the Sinai during the Suez War in 1956 and commanded the Sayeret Shaked recon unit during the Six Day War. Afterwards, serving under then-GOC Southern Command Ariel Sharon, he led many of the cross-border counterstrikes against terrorists operating from within Jordan.

In early 1968, Ben-Eliezer set out with 12 men, on two helicopters, toward Petra, the ancient Nabatean palace in Jordan, which Israeli military intelligence claimed was being used as a base for Fatah terrorists. As the lead helicopter landed, the gunmen opened fire, wounding Ben-Eliezer and the military correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, who described the event in an article for Ynet.

Bleeding from a bullet wound to the ankle, he directed the second chopper to safer ground and radioed Sharon, saying, “There is a pretty big enemy force there. I can continue the mission but it’s borderline…your call.” He did not mention that he [and Ben-Yishai] had been wounded in the initial approach.
Later, in the mid-seventies, he was one of the first Israelis to travel covertly to Lebanon and establish ties with the Christian Phalange forces there.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

How Shai Tsabari stepped into musical paradise

Shai Tsabari performs 'Lecha Dodi' in Krakow in 2014
Brought up in Bat Yam, Shai Tsabari is a well-known Israeli musician of Yemenite origin who has just performed in the US.  He is at the centre of an exciting Israeli musical trend to blend traditional liturgical poetry with modern rock, jazz and Middle Eastern influences. Interview in The Tablet:

Bat Yam has its miseries, but Tsabari’s childhood hardships weren’t financial. “We lived there for the community,” he said. “In synagogue, my dad would sit next to his friends from the cheder [religious school] in Sana’a. Community was very important to him, because immigrating was so difficult. I grew up feeling that there was us—the community—and outside there was big, Western Israel. ‘Be careful of them, they’re wolves, they’ll gobble you up!’”

It was a deeply musical home, though Tsabari did not realize it at the time. His father is a cantor and a mori, the honorific Yemenite Jews give to those who teach young boys how to read from the Torah (Yemenite Jews traditionally don’t celebrate Bar Mitzvahs as the children participate fully in services years before they hit 13). “He taught me a lot about Yemenite prayer, about the Yemenite reading of the Torah,” Tsabari said. “It’s a very precise sort of reading; you can’t make one mistake—of melody or pronunciation—because everyone is an expert.”

Tsabari’s paternal grandmother was a singer, but not in the typical sense: She was a mourner for the community. “She would lament the dead. It’s a freestyle art with its own internal logic,” Tsabari said. “You console the bereaved until he cries, so that he will get out of his state of shock.” She would also sing at births, Henna (engagement) parties and weddings. “It’s a very different sort of singing. In Arabic, not in Hebrew. She would take a darbuka or a platter, drum on it with her ring finger or a spoon, find her groove and make up words. She sang songs about me, how much she loved me, how happy my parents were when I was born. Or about the bravery of Moshe Dayan and how we won the Six-Day War!” he said. “She was the best singer I’ve ever heard. She was complete freedom.”

Shai Tsabari: This is a text from a 1,000-year-old prayer book, the Saadia Gaon Siddur. Most contemporary Hebrew-speakers have trouble understanding the words, but there’s something about their rhythm which is almost like rap and made me want to set them to music. A-WA, who are really successful in the United States, sing on this track. We performed in Krakow together. It was their first time outside of Israel, and they asked me for tips ahead of the show. Today they could teach me.

After completing his military service at 21, Tsabari began attending classes at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music north of Tel Aviv. Only then did he realize how organically musical his childhood was. But he also realized that the Israeli music scene of the mid-’90s had little room for his style. His grandmother’s singing, it turned out, was completely unrelated to Western musical scales he was learning. In class, he was given modern lyrics to compose a melody to. He sang it as he would verses from the Torah, complete with the traditional Yemenite phrasing. “That’s your safe space,” the teacher told him. “Leave it.” Tsabari felt that that space was his calling. He left the music school instead.

Tsabari spent his 20s struggling with the desire to make music. He worked as a cook and a magazine editor, always flirting with music on the side. Crucially, he worked as an assistant to Nitzan Zeira, head of the music label Nana Disc. Zeira published albums by some of Israel’s top recording artists, while Tsabari knew exactly how much milk they took with their coffee. In 2007, Berry Sakharof, the closest thing to rock royalty that Israel has, was looking for someone to do back-up vocals for a project he was working on with the musician Rea Mochiach. Called Adumey Hasefatot, or Red Lips, it was an evening of poetry by Solomon ibn Gabirol, set to music by Sakharof and Mochiach. Zeira recommended Tsabari, who showed up for a week of rehearsals.

“That week changed my life,” Tsabari told me. “It was like opening a door and stepping into paradise. I was working with world class musicians on real Jewish avant-garde.” The trend of rock musicians using piyutim – classic Jewish liturgical poetry – whether as raw material or inspiration was at its height by that point. Red Lips took the trend to the next level, fusing rock, jazz and a thousand flavors of Middle Eastern music into the mix for what was to become a landmark concert tour and album.

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