Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The curious case of the Moroccan Marranos

 Professor Paul Fenton addressing a London audience this week. (Top right) Ruth Finkel, a descendant of Sol Hachuel, the beautiful Jewess who was beheaded for refusing to renounce her faith for Islam in 1834, poses with her portrait. (Photos: Michelle Huberman)

Marranos  - nominal converts who continued to practise Judaism in secret -  are not confined to Catholic Spain. You will find Judaeo-Muslim marranos in Morocco, too. Professor Paul Fenton explained this extraordinary phenomenon in a Harif talk in London this week. Report by Lyn Julius:

If you ever go to a football match in Morocco where a team from the old imperial capital Fez are playing, the chances are you will hear the opposing team’s fans shout: ‘al-yahud!’ ( Jews!)

Now, it’s not unusual for the London team Tottenham Hotspur, with a Jewish fan base, to call themselves, not without pride, the ‘Yid army’. Ajax of Amsterdam, a city once known as the Jerusalem of Holland for its many Jewish residents, are still taunted as a Jewish team. But the Fez football team ? A city in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, where Jews are almost extinct? 

Fez conceals a secret not apparent to its many visitors: it is home to a mysterious population of Moroccan marranos.

Conventional wisdom has it that marranos - a pejorative term to describe converted Jews who continued to practise their religion in private – are a phenomenon exclusive to medieval Catholic Spain. In fact, there were Judaeo-Muslim marranos in Morocco: hundreds of thousands of their descendants still live in a limbo world, identifying neither as Jews nor accepted as fully-fledged Muslims.

Conventional wisdom also has it that fundamentalism in Islam is a ‘passing phase’. According to Sorbonne professor Paul Fenton, however, the fundamentalist rule of the Almohades, originating in southern Morocco, lasted over a century – from 1130 to 1269. Hardly a flash in the pan.

The Almohades conquered Fez, Marrakesh and finally Cordoba in southern Spain, burning Jewish books and destroying synagogues in their wake. Christianity died out altogether, and to all intents and purposes, Morocco became judenrein as Jews converted en masse to Islam rather than be put to death for apostasy. But some Jews literally went underground – living in caves – in order to keep practising their religion.

The most famous Jewish 'convert' to Islam was Maimonides himself. A realist and rationalist, he consoled distraught Jewish converts that they were doing the right thing with the doctrine that human life is to take precedence over law in 610 cases out of 613.

This was in direct contradiction to Muslim theology, which held that death for one’s religion was the supreme value.

Maimonides fled the Almohad invasion of his native Cordoba for Morocco, but was forced to leave for Eretz Israel and Egypt when he was denounced for reverting to Judaism. Maimonides eventually became private physician to the Viceroy of Ayyubid Egypt. Professor Fenton believes that it was less a sign that Jews could attain the very highest office under Muslim rule. Rather, the community at large were hostages to these Jews’ good behaviour: Jews could be trusted not to poison or  betray their masters. Otherwise, they risked unleashing a massacre of their co-religionists.

Many Jews fled Spain for Morocco because there they would be unknown, less easy to persecute and not subject to close supervision. Nevertheless, an Inquisition operated there.

Even Jewish converts suffered various disabilities and vexations: they were only allowed to practise certain trades, could not marry off their daughters to ‘real’ Muslims, had to wear the special headgear and black garments reserved for Jews, with absurdly long sleeves  and worn ‘off the shoulder’. This custom persisted into the 20th century.

The Merinids, who succeeded the Almohades, allowed secret Jews to practise openly once again. However, a fair proportion of converts remained Muslim and moved out of the Jewish quarter, or Mellah, for the Medina. A number became successful businessmen with access to the kissaria, or covered market, selling silks and fine fabrics. But their business rivals, the Sharifians, who claimed descent from Muhammad, accused the crypto-Jews (also known as beldiyyin ) of pretending to practise Islam. In 1468, they forbade ‘Jews and dogs’ from accessing the precincts of the Shurafa mosque, built to house the body of their ancestor Idris. They had the beldiyyin expelled from the kissaria. The struggle between the Sharifians and the beldiyyin, whose shops and clothing had to carry distinguishing markings, would last until the 19th century.

With every famine, more Jews would convert to Islam in order to qualify for sedaka, the corn reserves held by the religious authority, or Wakf. Gradually, Fez, in the centre of the country and most vulnerable to drought, was emptied of Jews. As late as 1912, when 12, 000 Jews were left homeless as a result of the Fez massacre, still more Jews in fear of their lives converted to Islam.

The beldiyyin retained business contacts with the Jews of the Mellah and ‘subterranean’ religious links. Thus they would call on a mohel or rabbi to perform a circumcision. A Bildi bride would receive a perforated piece of wood to encourage her to prepare kosher meat in the traditional style.

There could be 100, 000 beldiyyin still living in Morocco today, whose facial features, surnames (Zicri, Choukroun, Benzaken, Al-Banani, Miyara, etc), accents and dialects betray their Jewish origins. The community survived largely intact because they married among themselves (monogamously). Many are prominent in law or Moroccan intellectual life today. Unlike the Mashadi Jews of Persia or the Chala converts of Bukhara, who remained in or next to their Jewish quarters, cases of beldiyyin reverting to Judaism are rare.

But local consciousness of a Jewish past is never very far beneath the surface. Just go and see the Fez team play a football match.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Don't sacrifice heritage for peace

A shrine bulldozed in Iraq

 Letting despots and ideologues control artefacts and sites treasured by other religions,  as a gesture of goodwill, does not work. Maybe it's time the civilised world changed its policy, argues Josh Gelertner in National Review:

It’s been a good autumn for human artifacts in the civilized world. It’s been a very bad autumn for human artifacts in the uncivilized world. (Oh what a fall was there . . .) As the New York Times reports, the Islamic State, and friends, “are deliberately wrecking shrines, statues, mosques, tombs and churches — anything they regard as idolatry.” Shrines, etc., which range in age from very old to ancient.

In the Near East, ancient history is thick on the ground. But wanton destruction of ancient history hasn’t been confined to Iraq or Syria. In 2001, two 2,500-year-old monumental Buddhas in Afghanistan were blown to bits by the Taliban. Last year, a 3,000-year-old Philistine harbor was bulldozed by Hamas to expand a training ground for its al-Qassam terror brigade. As of last year, according to the U.K. Independent, “Islam’s most holy relics are being demolished in Mecca,” in order to transform the “dusty desert pilgrimage town into a gleaming metropolis of skyscrapers.” This a theme in the wild wild east, and not a new one.

When the Arab Legion occupied Jerusalem in 1948, the Great Hurva Synagogue was mined and destroyed, along with 57 other Jewish shrines and libraries. An ancient Jewish cemetery was ransacked, paved over, and turned into a parking lot; its grave-markers were used by Palestinians to build latrines. Civilized people were shocked this summer when they heard that mosques in Gaza were being used to store munitions. It may have been shocking, but it had precedent.
The Parthenon — the greatest ruin on Athens’s Acropolis — was ruined quite recently (in Greek terms). When the Ottomans captured Athens in the 15th century, the intact, 2,000-year old Parthenon was turned into a mosque. The mosque doubled as a munitions depot. During a war with the Venetian Empire, the Parthenon-Mosque-arsenal caught fire and exploded.

The practice of one religion usurping another’s holy places isn’t new. The Parthenon also did service as a church, and the Hagia Sofia mosque-museum, such as it is, was once the greatest church in Christendom. The Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque are built on the ruins of the Jewish Temple, the holiest site in Judaism. The second holiest site in Judaism, the Cave of the Patriarchs, is marked with a stone basilica built by ancient Israel in the time of Jesus. Now it’s a mosque too. Jews are banned from conducting religious activities at the Cave and the Temple Mount, although they’re both in Israel. As a gesture of goodwill to the Muslim world, Israel handed control of both to Jordan’s Waqf religious authority.

Needless to say, no goodwill has been forthcoming. Recent Muslim construction on, and inside of, the Temple Mount has destroyed structures that are older than Islam. When Israel dared include its Cave of the Patriarchs on a list of its heritage sites, there was international outrage – the incensed U.N. described the Cave as “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories.” Evidently the U.N.’s gaze has not fallen on Saudi Arabia, which (according to Washington’s Gulf Institute) has used the last 20 years to demolish 95 percent of Mecca’s thousand-year-old buildings. For the powers-that-be in the Near East’s theocratic tyrannies, history — their own, and other people’s — is a bargaining chip, and nothing more. But to the civilized world, these chunks of history — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and pagan –are immensely valuable.

Israel lets despots defile its most cherished treasures because it’s willing to pay a very high price for peace. Since no peace is forthcoming, it might be time for a policy change. Since no peace is forthcoming in Islamic State territory either, it might be time for some new policy there as well. As the Nazis started to lose the war and withdraw to Germany, we did what we could to keep them from destroying Europe’s art. Maybe we can contain the Islamic State, but the territory we contain them on will have its history erased along with its people. We ought to save the people, and remember that there’s more history there than anywhere else.

Read article in full 

UNESCO has got the Jewish message

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Muslims care for Kolkata synagogues

From its peak of 3, 000, the Jewish community of Kolkata in India is down to just 20, mostly as a result of a policy of Indian nationalisation. Yael Silliman is compiling a digital archive of the city's Jewish landmarks.  The Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata had more affinity with the Muslims than the Hindus: today Muslims are the caretakers of Kolkata's three remaining synagogues. Article in Al-Jazeera (with thanks: Tom Gross)

One of Kolkata's three synagogues. It takes a week to clean, say the Muslim caretakers [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

According to Professor Amlan Dasgupta from Jadavpur University, the realities of daily life are very different from the politics being played out, especially in Kolkata, which has always welcomed immigrants.

The city, he said, "is a product of the resulting multiethnicity and multiculturalism".

"Communal coexistence has been common across India and hence we don't think of it as important. Yet, there is also a problem in becoming conscious about it," Dasgupta told Al Jazeera. His students collaborated in the creation of the digital archive.

According to Silliman, the Jews and Muslims have a common history because of their roots in the Middle East.

"In Kolkata, Jewish families hired Muslim cooks because they ate only halal meat. Hindu families would not want to work in Jewish homes because of the meat being cooked. Our music, food habits are also very similar and people tend to forget that the Arab world is the seat of the Jewish community. Even the early immigrants looked like present-day Arabs, before they began to reflect a Judeo-British identity," she said.

It is no wonder then that the Jewish Girls' School's students are mostly Muslim.
According to Silliman, the area around the Jewish Girls' School, in its original location on Pollock Street, was where the affluent Jews once lived.
Today, the only remnant of a Jewish heritage in the school is the "Star of David" on the school uniforms, and having holidays on three Jewish festival days.

The Jews in Kolkata came from Baghdad about 220 years ago, and established themselves as successful businessmen. They were also major exporters of opium.
The Beth El synagogue was built in 1856 on Pollock Street to meet the needs of, at the time, a rapidly expanding community. Its construction was funded by two of the wealthiest men in the community - Ezekiel Judah and David Joseph Ezra.

In the 1940s, Kolkata's Jews began to leave because of the violence preceding the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. Fearing the loss of their businesses as India began to nationalise its banks after independence, they emigrated to western countries in large numbers. Today, there are just about 20 Jews left in Kolkata - the oldest resident died last month at the age of 97.

Read article in full

Friday, October 17, 2014

Beirut synagogue purely 'symbolic'

In August this year, it was announced that the restored Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut was set to re-open. No matter how hard Charlie Zarur, an expatriate Lebanese Jew,  tries to spin Maghen Avraham as a reminder of religious coexistence, rumours of a Jewish renaissance in Lebanon seem wildly over-optimistic. Adam Rasmi writes in Foreign Affairs:

The Beirut synagogue undergoing restoration: 'symbolic' (Photo: Reuters)

It was in 2008 that Isaac Arazi, the leader of Lebanon’s Jewish Community Council, first initiated a project to restore the synagogue. The Lebanese Jewish diaspora -- including the Safras, a prominent banking family -- led the fundraising drive. Non-Jewish Lebanese also made contributions. Solidere SAL, a real estate firm set up by the Hariris, a Sunni family prominently involved in politics, pledged $150,000, an amount it also offered to other religious groups restoring places of worship in the area. In total, the restoration cost between $4 million and $5 million.

Crucially, all of Lebanon’s major political parties offered rhetorical support to the reconstruction efforts. Even Hezbollah, the Shiite party-cum-militia, which has fought a series of skirmishes and wars with Israel since the 1980s, has said it welcomes Lebanese Jews. As Ghassan Moukheiber, a member of parliament with the March 8 coalition, explained, “The synagogue underlines the distinction that must be made between Judaism and Zionism.”

Maghen Abraham’s restoration comes at a time when Lebanon has seen an uptick in sectarian tensions that have worried people from all sects. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an  extremist group that denies the legitimacy of present-day borders separating states in the region and is opposed to all forms of religious pluralism, has recently made inroads into Lebanon, the Arab world’s most diverse country. In August, ISIS overran the northeastern Sunni border town of Arsal; in response, the Lebanese army attacked the area in order to push out the group. Thirty-five officers were kidnapped in the ensuing clashes, and ISIS has since beheaded two.

The reopening of Maghen Abraham is thus a much-needed reminder of religious coexistence. The symbolism transcends the precarious status of Lebanon’s small Jewish population. “When you have Daesh [ISIS] cutting off heads, Lebanon is fixing synagogues. . . . This is not something to be understated,” said Moukheiber. Charly Zarur, the grandson of Miriam and Elias, echoed his views. He said the reopening of the synagogue is above all about reviving the spirit of brotherhood among Lebanon’s Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Although the Jewish community is a long-standing part of Lebanon’s history -- Judaism is one of 18 sects officially recognized in the national constitution -- it has been missing from the collective consciousness in recent decades. Indeed, given that most of the Lebanese population was born after 1975, few Lebanese Christians or Muslims today even have memories of coexistence with Jews. Some Lebanese have argued that the opening of the synagogue might widen their understanding of the country’s pluralism. “It will remind everyone, including legislators, that when dealing with various communities living in Lebanon, there are not only Christians and Muslims . . . but Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others,” said Moukheiber.

But Zarur also cautioned that, contrary to the claims made by Arazi, it’s unrealistic to expect the opening of the synagogue to inspire a revival of the Jewish community to its former strength: “If at some point Israel and Lebanon establish relations, it is possible. But not until then.” Although there are four other synagogues scattered across Lebanon -- in Bhamdoun, Deir al Qamar, Sidon, and Tripoli -- all are derelict or have been closed for decades. There is little prospect that any will open anytime soon. Moreover, those in Lebanon’s existing Jewish community have become accustomed to keeping a low profile, often concealing their names and religion in order to avoid ostracism or hostility.

The Lebanese government has also rarely made it a priority to reach out to Lebanese Jews. Nabil de Freige, the member of parliament elected to the one seat earmarked for “minorities” -- which includes six Christian sects and the Jewish community -- conceded in a 2011 interview that he was unable to locate a single Lebanese Jewish representative. The community is afforded similar rights as other citizens but in official records is referred to as the Ta’ifiya al Israiliya -- the Israeli community. The term predates the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and is a holdover from the French mandate period. Hoping to make clear the distinction between Lebanese Jews and Israelis, then Minister of Interior Ziyad Baroud proposed a draft law in 2009 to affirm their rights and distinguish them from the “subjects of an occupying entity.” The proposal never became law.

The Jewish community does have an official mukhtar -- a traditional village  leader appointed by the community -- but even he is not a member of the Jewish faith. The last Jewish mukhtar left Lebanon in 1978, and a Muslim by the name of Bassem al-Hout now holds the post. Hout, who inherited the job from his father, grew up among Lebanese Jews and handles the legal aspects of births, marriages, and deaths for what remains of the community. He declined to comment on specific individuals, upholding their privacy and decision to maintain a low profile.

Legal administration aside, there must be a functioning synagogue or gathering place for a Jewish presence to endure. The physical condition of Maghen Abraham may be nearly restored after decades of disrepair, but there are no rabbis available to officiate services in the country. (The last chief rabbi, Yakoub Chreim, left Lebanon in 1978.)

Moreover, members of the community -- like all other Lebanese -- who wish to enter the synagogue will face onerous security measures. The residence of Saad Hariri, head of the March 14–affiliated Future Movement and son of slain former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, is adjacent to Maghen Abraham. Armed officers and steel barricades surround the entry points to the site; only those who possess special permits are allowed to pass.

Yet Lebanese Jews still emphasize that Lebanon is a place of relative tolerance. About 2,000 Lebanese Jewish émigrés and their descendants enter and exit the country yearly, and they recall fond memories of life in Beirut. As Zarur pointed out, despite the administrative issues and political sensitivities related to addressing the needs of Lebanon’s tiny Jewish population, Lebanese Jews have coexisted with Muslims and Christians for centuries. In the case of his family -- and like many Levantine Jews -- the lands that now make up the states of Lebanon and Syria long ago offered them safe haven after the Spanish Inquisition expelled all Jews from that country in 1492.

What is more, Zarur added, if countries such as Spain can offer a path to citizenship for the descendants of Jews expelled over 500 years ago, then there is still hope that Lebanon might similarly open its arms in the future. “Maybe a generation is all it will take for us to return,” he joked. But until then, the restoration of Maghen Abraham, no matter when it finally reopens, will have to suffice as a symbolic gesture.

Read article in full

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Iraq lost the Jews, not the reverse

 In this Huffington Post  interview with Usman Butt, a reporter for the Community Channel (see video clip) Emile Cohen gives an interesting perspective to the story of the Jews of Iraq. However, he tends to downplay Iraqi antisemitism, perhaps because he personally was spared the worst of it. See my comment below. (With thanks: Janet)

Emile Cohen interviewed by Usman Butt

"The Jews were important constituents of Iraq, they participated in every facet of Iraqi society. At the end, the Jews of Iraq did not lose Iraq, Iraq is still with them- in their hearts. But Iraq lost the Jews and I think they are suffering from it now." Smiling at me from across his dining table, Emile Cohen serves the most important reason for understanding the Jewish Iraqi experience. Last summer's Gaza war and the ongoing situation with ISIS in Iraq/Syria- means we are in a period of profound regional transformation, some of which, threatens the existence of minorities in the Middle East.

One minority has already been largely eliminated form the Arab World and that is the Jewish minority. The expulsion/pressured removal of Jews from Arab lands took places during the last great regional transformation, which was in the 1950's and 60's during the European decolonization. Places like Iraq had been home to a Jewish community for over 2, 600 years, "Most of the prophets, Jewish prophets, were buried in Iraq. There are more prophets in Iraq than Israel, Iraq is more of a holy land, if you like, than Israel." Emile proudly told me.

But mingled with his pride, was a sense of great loss and sadness. Born in 1943, Emile attended a mixed Jewish, Christian and Muslim primary school and didn't feel different from the other boys. Only upon entering a Jewish secondary school did he begin to identify more with his Jewishness. Jews were classed as 'People of the Book' by Islam, but under Ottoman rule were made to pay a special protection tax to the Ottoman authorities. The special tax applied to all non-Muslims subjects and exempted them from military service, which was theoretically compulsory for all Muslim men.

Many Jews from Arab countries told me about the discriminatory laws in the Arab world, which rendered them Second-Class citizens and many tied it into a universal narrative about Jewish suffering, not too different from the European Jewish experience. However, Emile strongly disagreed with this assertion and while he acknowledges discrimination did exist, he found the comparison with the Jewish experience in Europe quite perverse. "We do not compare that (what happened to us) with what happened in Europe. Nowhere near. Not just the Holocaust, but even the pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) that took place in Russia, Poland and all these places. They cannot be compared."

In 1941, Baghdad saw an outbreak of anti-Jewish feeling and it led to an anti-Semitic riot and many Jewish businesses were destroyed. Some people called this incident an Iraqi pogrom or even the Arab version of the Kristallnacht, Emile asserted that it was a 'kind of pogrom', but nothing comparable to the pogroms of Europe. He cited that while many people died, it was not on the scale of Europe and that it was a result of a break-down in-law and order, no government and the British authority, who ruled Iraq, lack of interest in preventing rioters. Interestingly, he traces back the rise of anti-Semitic tensions to the late 1930's and not to historical 'ancient hatred' that characterized European anti-Semitism.

"We had a problem with pan-Arab nationalism, because they could not differentiate a Jew from a Zionist (A glib explanation: Jews were not the only victims, eg Kurds, Assyrian Christians - ed) ." But unlike in Europe, no Holocaust took place in Arab lands, "The people of Iraq were not like that." Emile went on to describe what Jewish life was like in Iraq, the food, the language and especially the music. Many of Iraq's great musicians were Jewish, but nobody knew that they were Jewish and nobody really cared. Emile was officially de-naturalized from Iraq, while living and studying in England in the 1960's. Iraq came under Ba'athist rule and the antagonism towards Israel, saw many Arab countries turning against their Jewish communities. In the end, they were forced to leave or were physically expelled and they took with them 2, 600 years worth of culture and tradition.

Read article in full

My comment: Emile is correct that antisemitism in the Muslim world was not on the scale of what Jews experienced in Europe, but that does not mean that Arabs/Muslims were more tolerant. When they did strike, pogroms were every bit as lethal. The Farhud was not 'a kind of pogrom' - it was a pogrom, and more Jews died on 1st and 2nd June 1941 in Baghdad than during Kristallnacht. Emile tends to minimise anti-Jewish hostility in Iraq, but admits he himself experienced state-sanctioned discrimination, having been stripped of his nationality while a student in England. He never lived through the period of Ba'athist terror at the end of the 1960s.

Iraq-born Jews attend Kurdish meet

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

No news on Sana'a Jews after Houthis invade

 Elderly Yemeni Jew (photo: Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters)

The streets are plastered with signs that read: 'Death to the Jews!" but there is no word as to the fate of the  70-odd Jews living in a guarded compound in Sana'a. Despite pronouncements by their leader  that they would never leave Yemen, the arrival in the capital of the Jews' erstwhile persecutors, the Shi'a Houthis, is a clear signal that staying on in Yemen is not a option. Let's hope that the last Jews have joined the mass exodus.

Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—Ongoing violations by Houthi rebels currently in control of much of Sana’a have prompted a mass exodus from the capital, with many civilians traveling abroad or to other cities during Eid Al-Adha, sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The recent takeover of most state buildings and the reported looting of hundreds of homes by Houthi insurgents have prompted civilians to leave the capital for fear of further violations, with the Sana’a International Airport becoming packed with travelers, a local source speaking on the condition of anonymity told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Shi’ite group has also stormed homes belonging to journalists, including that of the editor-in-chief of the Al-Qadiya newspaper and the former general manager of the Yemen TV channel, Abdul Ghani Al-Shmeiri, the source maintained.

The Houthis have taken almost full control of government facilities in the capital, including the airport, central bank and the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense. The group’s militias, known as People’s Committees, are carrying out patrols across the streets of the capital, in the absence of official police forces.
Meanwhile, the streets of Sana’a are full of signs that read: “Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory to Islam.”

The group took control of the capital amid sporadic violence in late September, following a month of protests by thousands of its members, who built and occupied protest camps across Sana’a to demand the resignation of the government and the restoration of fuel subsidies, recently cut as part of an economic reform package.

Read article in full

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ringworm rears its ugly head - again

Richard Silverstein, who runs an anti-Zionist site, has been having a field day today recycling the allegations that Israel exposed in the 1950s children with ringworm to life-threatening radiation. The allegations were  contained in a film made by two Sephardi Jews in 2004 but resurface from time to time. Not only does Silverstein charge that Israel killed 'tens of thousands' of 'inferior', scalp-infested Jewish children from North Africa as well as Palestinians, but he lumps both groups together as  'Arab', thus irritating  a number of Mizrahi commenters . The massive doses were administered by the shadowy Doctor Sheba in a campaign sinisterly reminiscent of Nazi eugenics. 

Silverstein prefaces his post with this cautionary note:

" There are a number of readers who are either confused or reading this post sloppily, including the headline.  To clarify: there is a link to a Jonathan Cook piece at the end of this post which notes that the State of Israel irradiated both Arab Jewish and Palestinian children for ringworm.  Hence the title of this post which uses the inclusive term, “Arab,” by which I include both Jewish and Palestinian children.

There are also those who claim that radiation was a standard treatment for ringworm inside and outside Israel in the 1950s.  This too misconstrues the argument put forward in the film and here.  While radiation may’ve been considered suitable for ringworm in that era, no one killed children with radiation outside of Israel.  The dosage set by Dr. Sheba was far too high and the X-ray machines he used were outmoded and hence the dosage administered could not be calibrated accurately or administered suitably."

Read post in full

Commenter Fred rides to the rescue: 

So what really happened? The answer is that X-ray treatments were given to Sephardic youths, which long range problems were not known by the State at the time.

The lethal dose (L.D. 50/30) death-rate of X-rays for humans is 250 – 300 rads, which means that if the children were given 500 to 600 times the maximum dose, 50% of the children would have died within 30 days. At 35,000 times the maximum yearly dose, the doctor, technicians and all the children would have been dead before the end of the month. This 6,000 figure is completely bogus or the maximum dose is bogus.

According to the medical literature 500 to 600 rem (or 1,000 times max dose) will sterilize you (and kill 35% of the victims after 30 days). That means there could not have been the next generation, and certainly this woman would never have had any children.

Also, in 1951 there were at most 20,000 Moroccan Jews in Israel. Yet in this poorly researched and obviously anti-Jewish documentary it states that 100,000 Sephardic children, of which Moroccans were the majority, were exposed to X-rays. Demographically speaking this could not have happened. Someone is guilty of an anachronism.

Ascribing present statistics to past events is one of the many mistakes or purposeful lies in this documentary.

Remember, back in the 50s radiation from x-ray machines was considered harmless. Shoe stores in America even had X-ray machines used for shoe-fitting that were a common sight in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It wasn’t until 1969 that the .5 rad maximum yearly exposure was determined
The dose given, in actual fact, was about 130 rads which at that time was considered safe. The medical world in the 50s, even outside Israel, was as yet unaware of the future damage involved in these radiation treatments; the connection between such treatments and cancer and other illnesses was discovered only years later. Xray treatment of the scalp for ringworm in the early 50s was considered by everyone to be safe. It was only years later that medical researchers in the US during the 1970s found an increased incidence of thyroid cancer among people who had been treated early in life with X rays for such conditions as acne, ringworm, and tonsillitis.

To allege that Dr. Sheba knew about the dangers 20 years before anyone else is absurd.

A debunking of the ringworm scandal myth

Monday, October 13, 2014

When Granny had dinner with the Mufti

 The Grand Mufti at his meeting with Adolph Hitler in November 1941

Rachel Wahba's Singapore-born grandma thought all educated people were progressive - until  friends invited her to have dinner with the pro-Nazi Grand Mufti. Interesting vignette in the Times of Israel:

Granny didn’t understand. Coming from a modernized country how could she comprehend her new reality?

The family knew their place. She didn’t.
“Of course I talked back, I wasn’t scared,” and that was her problem, at home and outside the home.

She made friends, non-Jewish friends, “outside the family.” It was unheard of in the deeply insulated and fearful Jewish community of Baghdad in the 1930’s.
She wanted to socialize with “modern” people, intellectuals who spoke English and had interesting parties.

She met a young non-Jewish Syrian couple, a doctor and his wife, who were enchanted by her. “They loved me so much, they were Muslim and they loved me so much, ‘you are not like the other Jews, we like you,’” they told her.
She felt embraced by this couple and their eclectic group of Muslim and Christian friends.

Granny loved it all and defied the family. She refused to give up her freedom.
“They, (the Jews) were like mice, I didn’t understand,” Granny said; until the dinner party where the guest of honor was none other than Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

She sat in stunned silence as he spun his diatribe against the Jews of Palestine, Jews of Iraq, and the Jews of the world. She sat there quietly “like a mouse,” as a fear she had never felt before drowned out his words.

She never imagined “educated people” sitting around a dinner table listening to his plan to ethnically cleanse Jews out of the Middle East. She felt the hate and heard the silence of her friends.

I asked her what on earth was she thinking, how did she manage to sit at a table with the infamous Jew hater, the Grand Mufti? The man who went to Germany to meet and discuss the Final Solution in Arab lands as well as Europe, with his idol, Adolph Hitler.

“I didn’t know,” she said. “I thought it was only the hooligans on the streets who wanted to hurt us. Not these people, they were educated.”
“I was naïve,” she said.

Ra'anan Levy: refugee art?

Ra'anan Levy is an Israeli artist born in 1954 into a Syrian-Jewish family which left Damascus in several waves. His grandfather was editor-in-chief of a Syrian newspaper.

Can his family's exodus explain his art? We get no clues from Levy himself - a taciturn type.

The French journalist Veronique Chemla, however,  sees a clear thread running through his naturalistic paintings. They suggest hurried departures, empty spaces, locked windows, uninhabited and abandoned apartments. Then there is the bizarre presence of water: puddles and running taps. Does water suggest life? Time's inexorable passing?

Here is Veronique Chemla's review of an exhibition of Levy's work at the Musee Maillol in Paris in 2013. (French)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Boy almost kidnapped on Djerba

 Shimon Ohayon MK: antisemitism more serious

A Jewish boy narrowly escaped a kidnap attempt in broad daylight on the island of Djerba, a sign that antisemitic incidents were becoming bolder and more serious. Arutz Sheva reports:

A report Sunday said that Muslims had attempted to kidnap a Jewish child on the island of Djerba, in Tunisia. The report said that three Muslim thugs had attempted to kidnap the 12-year-old Jewish child in the center of the Jewish neighborhood on the island last Wednesday, on the eve of the holiday of Sukkot.

The youth managed to get away. He confirmed the story, telling community members that an elderly man who arrived in the neighborhood by taxi had ordered him to get into the vehicle. He refused to do so, and two large Muslim men approached him, apparently with the intent to grab him. The youth started screaming and yelling, and the Muslims pulled away in their vehicle.

Officials of the community filed a police complaint over the matter, and an investigation was opened. Police reportedly told family and community members that they were investigating lines of motive, beyond just anti-Semitism.

About 1,000 Jews live on Djerba, which in the past was home to a large and thriving Jewish community. Commenting on the manner, MK Shimon Ohayon, whose family hails from the community, told the NRG news site that recent incidents of anti-Semitism were becoming bolder and more serious, “to the extent that they are willing to kidnap a child in broad daylight.”

Read article in full 

Djerba jewellers go on strike

Another Jew stabbed on Djerba

Jews pray for Moroccan royals

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish community of Casablanca demonstrated its loyalty to the Moroccan crown by saying prayers for the late Moroccan kings, Mohammed V and Hassan ll, as well as for the present monarch and his family. (With thanks Michelle)

According to Le Matin du Sahara, the prayers were said at the Beth El synagogue in Casablanca. The Jewish community president, Serge Berdugo and the Casablanca community head, Boris Toledano, welcomed a procession of dignitaries into the synagogue, led by the governor of Casablanca, Karim Kassi Lahlou.

Serge Berdugo intoned the prayers and the service was conducted by the Rabbi Hazout.

"The ceremony took place in an atmosphere of contemplation and piety", the newspaper reported.

Read article in full (French)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Al-Ahram carries 'Jews of Egypt' piece

Magda Haroun, the last community leader, will not be returning communal registers to exiled Jews from Egypt, according to this very interesting feature article on the last Jews of Egypt by Dina Darwich in Al-Ahram Hebdo (French). Otherwise, Darwich  pulls no punches:  Jews, even those who converted to other religions, were oppressed in Egypt simply for being Jews, or of Jewish origin, in a society that cannot conceive of equal rights for minority religions. Some of these abuse victims have already told their stories in Amir Ramses's controversial film, Jews of Egypt. (With thanks: Yves)

Magda is one of nine Egyptian Jews still alive. This community has experienced its heyday in the early twentieth century. According to the census conducted in 1947- one year before the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli conflict broke out there were 64,165 Jews in Egypt. This community has contributed to the development of modern Egypt. It is thanks to the great Jewish families as Mosseiri, Quatawi, Rolo and Sawarès that  the first Egyptian banks (Egyptian Land Bank, Egyptian National Bank, Egyptian Commercial Bank)  emerged. This community  left a significant footprint in areas such as fashion, design, etc. We must not forget that the Jews were a fundamental pillar of the film industry and have contributed to the prosperity of cultural life in Egypt in the early twentieth century.  

However, between 1949 and 1951, about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews left Egypt, according to a study entitled "The Jews in Modern Egypt from 1914 to 1951)," performed by Gordon Kraemer (sic - Gudrun Kramer - ed), a political scientist at the University of Berlin which states that the animosity towards Jews was not a general trend. The proof is that the Egyptian press  tried in the 1940s to distinguish between Jews and Zionists and not fall into the trap of considering all Jews as Zionists.
Juifs egyptiens3
Amir Ramses, director of The Jews of Egypt, wanted to present the model of coexistence that existed in Egypt in the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. The director says that the human stories that inspired his work have really moved him. 

"These people have really struggled to be able to stay in their homeland," suggests Ramses, who suffered during the presentation of his film security pressures that threatened to prohibit its distribution. "Magda, the daughter of lawyer and activist leftist Chehata Haroun, had leukemia, and doctors had advised her to go to France for treatment. However, Egyptian authorities announced that if Haroun wanted to save the life of his daughter by a move abroad, he would risk of being stripped of his Egyptian citizenship and not be able to return. All the Jews who left Egypt after the tripartite aggression in 1956 were stripped of their Egyptian nationality. And whatever the reason for their departure, they no longer had the right to return to Egypt. Chehata Haroun refused to leave and his daughter died because of her illness, "suggests Amir, who was also very touched by the case of Gerard de Botton who left Egypt when he was 10 years old and lived his entire life dreaming of returning to his country. 

 When he went to Alexandria for the first time in 2006, he recognised the city through its smell, but everything had changed. "The old city has remained etched in his memory. He left the Egypt that he loved so much and carried in his heart, "said Ramses.  

An opinion shared by Albert Arie, 85, who ran into big trouble for travelling abroad. "I converted to Islam after my release from prison and I'm married to a Muslim. However, the Egyptian authorities enacted a law that every citizen of the Jewish faith before 15 May 1947 had to retain his (original) religion. One thing that is against  law and religion. They then played this card to annoy me and prevent me from going abroad to visit the rest of my family. It was a headache because I had to ask permission to leave, every time. What's more, I've waited a long time to get a passport, "suggests Arie, a businessman whose family lives abroad and is composed of people of different faiths.

Juifs egyptiens4
The Arie family who lived in Egypt in the 1930s.
Intolerance towards Jews: In a society bubbling over with unrest the margin of tolerance has continued to shrink, and media discourse has mixed politics and religion. Being Jewish was not an easy thing.

  "Chehata Haroun and Youssef Darwich" were the first in Egypt to form anti-Zionist associations in 1947. Some did not even dare to speak of their faith in order to be left in peace.  

"We have been deprived of learning our religion in schools. All I know about my religion are stories and comments I collected from my mother and my grandmother, "says Magda Haroun. And that's not all. The Jewish community was also  deprived of the right to celebrate its festivals and happy occasions, fearing that someone would come and attack it. 

  "This year, the Jewish New Year coincides with September 25. The synagogue in Adli will open its doors so that no one will go there to pray, "said Magda, remembering the funeral of her grandfather, whose coffin  came out of the synagogue and was driven through the city centre.
Ester, another Jew, confirms that Kosher foods are no longer available. "Before, there were ovens to make Matza, bread without yeast, which we eat on Passover.  The last bakery preparing this bread at Mit Ghamr in Daqahliya governorate, closed its doors because of the reduced number of Jews, "suggests Ester, adding that the last  bar mitzvah she attended, the ceremony for children who have reached the age of puberty, was 60 years ago.
Other Jews were victims of real abuse. This is the case of L., age 90, from a large and wealthy Jewish family (she will not give her  full name). She lived in a villa in an exclusive area. The porter and his son who were guarding her house forced her to withdraw a large sum of money to buy for them an apartment in Cairo and a cottage for the holidays. The old lady had to comply because she knew no others. "Despite the threats I received from this band of vermin, I insisted she did not return to live with them. She now lives peacefully , "says Magda Haroun.

Juifs egyptiens5
Magda Haroun could be the last leader of the Egyptian Jewish community. (Photo: Adel Anis)

 And that's not all.
 Even the converts were not spared: Even the Jews who   tried to form a family and converted to Islam or Christianity to survive were sometimes victims of their Jewish origins. The star Basma, whose grandfather was the leftist activist Youssef Darwish, was attacked by a journalist. "She did not hesitate to humiliate Basma because of  her origins, saying that when you have a Jewish grandfather, you must hide. The glorious past of my father and his struggle for the rights of Egyptian workers did not change things, "says Basma's mother, Nawla Darwish, a famous feminist who keeps close ties with her Jewish brother who lives in Switzerland and cousins ​​of the same faith who live in the United States. 

Albert Arie agrees. "In 1968, a co-worker filed a lawsuit against my wife, because she was having problems with him. He exploited the fact that she is married to a Jew to pressure her. Fortunately, my wife won the case "recalls Arie.
A pluralistic Egypt: But who benefits from a one-dimensional, monochromatic Egypt ? asks Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher and head of records of religion and freedom of belief at the Egyptian Initiative for private rights.  

"In our Eastern societies, peoples and the State consider it their responsibility to protect the religious identity of citizens, unaware that the relationship between the individual and God is private and concerns only the person himself . This explains why society gets confused when other religious ideas arise. We do not understand that the Other, who does not share the same faith, has the same rights. Thus, he is forbidden to practise rituals, to found religious institutions, to express a set of opinions  etc. The issue is more serious for the Jews, since politics come into play", says Ibrahim.

However, some believe that Egypt is not to blame for what it did to the Jews, because at the time, it was a matter of national security. 

  "Nasser took some tough measures against them, but the political conditions demanded it. We must not forget that some Jews living in Egypt were spies. Although the 1952 Revolution had shown at the beginning of good intentions towards Jews, Mohamad Naguib visited the rabbi of the community. Young Egyptian Jews blew up the American media offices to sow discord between Egypt and the West. This was the famous Lavon Affair, "says political analyst Ahmed Yehia, a professor of political sociology at the University of Suez. 

Even nationalization  was justified, especially since the Jews had a great influence on the Egyptian economy. "It is something that takes place all over the world. During World War II, the United States imprisoned Japanese Americans. "
But what matters is people's lives. This is why the Jews of Egypt were silent for a long time. Today it is the end of a long story. Magda Haroun tries to make it more cheerful. She tries to erase the satanic image of the Jew in the Egyptian street, and is trying to integrate more into society. 
" Last Ramadan, we prepared a feast for the synagogue in Adli Street to share iftar with minorities in Egypt: Bedouin, Amazigh, Coptic, etc.," says Magda Haroun, who is under heavy pressure from abroad to return the records of Jewish families and all documents relating to the heritage of the Jews from Egypt in exchange for financial help to benefit the community. "But I refuse to do that because the registers and writings are part of Egyptian heritage. I will store them at the Library of Alexandria as testimony. This will demonstrate that Jews have lived on this earth, "says Haroun.

 Read article in full (French)

 Yves Fedida of the Nebi Daniel Association left the following (as yet unpublished) comment:

 Who owns the house and its contents? To those who through their efforts and sacrifices have built the community - and their descendants, or to those who are the last to  close the door and extinguish the light? 

 We applaud the work of Ms Haroun, who like all the presidents of Jewish communities worldwide provides assistance and care for the elderly or incapacitated. This is also the case for Mr. Gaon in Alexandria.

 We believe that management by Ms Haroun of community assets will be beyond reproach, unlike in the past. However is it up to her alone to decide the future, under the pretext that she will turn off the light?  

 It is understandable that community assets are under Wakf control, or under the responsibility of the Department of Antiquities; the Torah could even be falsely characterized as Ancient Egyptian heritage, but by what right has Ms Haroun, like Mr. Gaon, control over my civil and religious status - exclusively the domain of the rabbis - as well as the marital and religious status of my parents and grandparents, who lived, like the 170, 000 other Jewish names in 19th and 20th century in Egypt which appear in community registers

 They had to leave Egypt, compelled to do so because of their identity;  justice would be to make these (registers) become their identity, even in the form of a photocopy. Can we talk about pushing for a single photocopy, just as Catholic or Protestant records were freely copied? Did you say 'discrimination'?

  Associations of Egyptian Jews around the world are eager to revive, without recrimination, the memory of their parents in Egypt, where they experienced tolerance and generosity. That is in the interests of Egypt.

If community registers are left to rot in the archives of the Library of Alexandria without a copy being sent abroad,  the memory of our community will not be maintained in a sustainable way. Far from turning out the light on our community, Ms Haroun, like Mr. Gaon, will seal the stone on its grave.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Meet the Etrog Man from Yemen

 Meet Etrog Man - the 72-year old Yemenite Jew who has made a speciality out of marketing the magical properties of this lemon-like 'vegetable', in great demand for the Jewish festival of Succot. Uzi-Eli was suckled by a she-goat in Yemen. When the goat was killed to provide meat for his family, then fleeing for Aden and Israel in 1949, Uzi-Eli never got over his loss. Wonderful article by Judy Maltz in Haaretz.

Uzi-Eli, the Etrog Man (photo: Emil Salman)

They call him the Etrog Man – and for good reason.

Uzi-Eli, as he is otherwise known, is the founder and owner of a one-of-a-kind shop in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market that sells all things etrog, the citron fruit used in religious rituals during the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

The etrog is not eaten during Sukkot, but rather, it serves as one of the four plant species shaken to fulfill the mitzvah associated with this holiday. According to Jewish legend, it’s meant to symbolize the heart, and in its bumpy-skinned, lemon-like raw form, it makes an appearance once a year, just before the start of this holiday. But in the bottles, canisters and jars that line the shelves of Uzi-Eli’s tiny shop, it’s a star all year around.

Among the assortment of derivative products here, there’s a spray made from etrog peel that’s meant to cure acne, age spots, mouth sores, baldness and even stuttering in young children. There’s a cream made from crushed etrog seeds and coconut oil that supposedly smooths out wrinkles. There’s a soap made from etrog essence that Uzi-Eli claims is effective in combating dandruff and general itchiness. There’s an ointment made from etrog extract, mint, ginger and cayenne pepper he vows will cure sinus problems, hemorrhoids and chronic pain. There’s an etrog drink sold in frozen packages that supposedly works wonders on morning sickness in pregnant woman (“If a woman drinks this during her pregnancy, the baby will also come out smelling as fragrant as the fruit,” he assures a prospective buyer.)

There’s a special version of the popular Yemenite spice hilbe with a bit of etrog extract mixed in that prevents the body, as Uzi-Eli explains, from giving off the strong odor usually associated with this condiment. And finally, there are the shop’s specialty smoothies made from etrog and khat – a plant Yemenites traditionally chew that is known for its stimulating effect – as well as a delicious etrog liqueur.

In the days leading up to Sukkot, Uzi-Eli’s shop is packed. Not only with the usual curiosity seekers interested in sampling his natural remedies, but also, shoppers in the market for an etrog to go with their three-branch lulav (palm frond,) so that they can fulfill the special mitzvah of Sukkot. In order to be considered kosher for the purpose of performing this mitzvah, the etrog must in most cases have an intact pitam, a small extension at the top of the fruit. But those with a damaged pitams are also in demand, says Uzi-Eli, for use as decorations in the hut-like sukkahs where many Jews traditionally eat their meals during the seven-day holiday that starts at sundown on Wednesday.

A robust and jovial 72-year-old with a mop of white curls under his yarmulke, Uzi-Eli and his potions are an unmistakable attraction in the market. Barely has one group of young sight-seers exited the premises when another enters (he gets anywhere from five to 20 groups a day, most of them on organized tours of Jerusalem’s storied marketplace.) In broken English, he regales them with tales of his childhood in Yemen. He tells them about his two grandfathers, who happened to be brothers and were both natural healers. He tells them about how one of them concocted a potion to dry up Uzi-Eli’s mother’s milk when, as a toddler, he refused to wean himself from her breast. He tells them about the goat who replaced his mother as his main provider of food, showing how he would get it to push its leg up in air so that he could crawl under its body. He tells them about how that goat was killed so that the family would have dried meat to eat on their long journey to the port city of Aden, where they eventually boarded a plane to Israel in 1949, and how he never overcame that loss. Then he proceeds to squirt the anti-acne etrog spray on the face of one of his visitors who’s agreed to serve as a guinea pig. Another gets a squirt of it in the mouth, and yet another gets Uzi-Eli’s finger, with a dab of the special sinus ointment on it, inserted straight up his nose.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Palm leaves for an Iraqi succah

Succot,  the festival of Tabernacles is upon us once more. At the Babylonian Heritage Museum near Tel Aviv, they've built a traditional Iraqi succah, using date palm leaves. Very elegant and atmospheric. (And do I detect some real dates hanging off the roof?)

If you are celebrating Succot, Point of No Return wishes you Moadim Le-simha.

Previous posts about Succot

Yemenite Jews were first in Silwan

 The village of Kfar HaShiloah was established on a bare Jerusalem hillside in the 1880s

The fact that Jews have been moving into the 'Arab' village of Silwan, overlooking the old city of Jerusalem on its south side, has attracted media attention lately, much of it implying Jews are interlopers. But few reports have bothered to delve into the history of the area.

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Jewish and Arab residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan disagree on whether the neighborhood is historically Jewish or Arab. They disagree about whether Israeli Jews should be living there. They even disagree on what to call one of the main streets in the neighborhood, a predominantly Arab area just outside the walls of the Old City.

The approximately 50,000 Arab residents of Silwan call it Wadi Hilweh Street, after one of the neighborhood’s districts. The 700 or so Jewish residents call it Maalot Ir David Street, or “Ascent to the City of David Street,” after the adjacent archaeological site containing remains of King David’s Jerusalem.

The dispute over the street name is emblematic of tensions that have existed here since Jews first began acquiring property in the neighborhood more than 20 years ago. But they rose significantly last week after about 200 Jews moved into 25 apartments in Silwan in the middle of the night.

Read article in full:

In fact Silwan (Kfar Hashiloah) was established for destitute Yemenite Jews in 1881. At first they were (ironically) supported by Christians, according to this 2008 article by Tamar Wisemon in the Jerusalem Post. Jews lived there continuously until the late 1930s, when the British mandate authorities urged them to evacuate their homes  since they could no longer protect the Jewish inhabitants from Arab attack:

In 1881, the Jews of Yemen heard that Jews had begun to return to Jerusalem and took this as a sign of the imminent arrival of the messiah. Their sages had interpreted the biblical verse "Let me climb the palm" (Song of Songs 7:9) as an allusion to the year of redemption, because the numerical value of the Hebrew word "the palm" - 642 - corresponded to the Hebrew year 5642 (1881/82). A few hundred of the poorest members of the community left Sana'a and several nearby villages. After an arduous journey by way of India, Iraq and Egypt to Jaffa, traveling by donkey, foot and boat, depleting all of their savings on the way, they arrived at Jerusalem.

"Although immigration from Yemen to Palestine continued almost without interruption until 1914, with 10 percent of the Yemenite Jews arriving during this period, these "foreign" Jews with their unfamiliar customs were met with distrust by both the established Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities of the Old Yishuv. After some miserable years within the protective walls of the Old City, destitute and scorned by their Ashkenazi neighbors, the Yemenites decided to establish their own community and began moving out to the hills facing the City of David, where they lived in caves, easy prey for attacks.

"Ironically, it was only when the Christian community began to focus its charitable work on this destitute group, that the Jewish establishment came to the support of their brethren. Philanthropists purchased land in the Silwan valley and built the small village of Kfar Hashiloah, popularly known as Kfar Hatemanim (the Yemenite village), in 1884. While the village attracted those who wished to return to the isolated, rural lifestyle they had lived in Yemen, the residents were still vulnerable to attack from nearby Arab villages and many preferred the safety of living close to the established Jewish community."

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Decline and fall of Syrian Jewry

 Useful history of the Jewish community of Syria from its Biblical origins to the present day at the Aish website. Syrian Jewry's most notable contributions were the Aleppo Codex and their unique tradition of liturgical singing. (With thanks: Michelle)
Elders of the Syrian community, late 19th century

Syria boasts one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities and one of the world’s richest and most storied Jewish cultures. Syria has a history that dates back to Biblical times, and its Jews have survived the countless empires that have conquered it. That once thriving community has been reduced to some 50 members (probably fewer than 20 - ed) that face rampant civil war, repressive government measures, and limited economic opportunities.

Syrian Jewry’s illustrious past began thousands of years ago during the time of Ezra the Scribe, who was tasked with appointing judges in Syria by the Persian king Xerxes. Jews gained significant privileges under the Greeks and Romans, and sent lavish offerings to the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish sages held Syria and its Jewish population in such high regard that they applied the same land laws to Syria as to Israel: as it says in the Mishnah, “He who buys land in Syria is as one who buys in the outskirts of Jerusalem” (Hallah, 4:11).

The main center in ancient Jewish Syria was Damascus, now the capital of the Syrian Arab Republic and quite possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Damascus is referenced in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Talmud and Dead Sea Scrolls, as Dammesek. King David campaigned against the Arameans there, and the city was later conquered by the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. As in the rest of Syria, Jews fared particularly well. Damascus became a major economic hub in the Levant. According to the sage Resh Lakish, the city could be one of the “gateways of the Garden of Eden” (Er. 19a).

As the Roman Empire transformed into the Christian Byzantine Empire, it found itself constantly at war with the Persians over the possession of Syria. Eventually, Persia conquered Syria and Israel with the help of Jewish supporters who had resented the exorbitant privileges Christians enjoyed under Byzantine rule.
In 635, Syria fell under the control of the Arabs, who had recently united under the banner of Islam. The Muslim Umayyad empire chose Damascus as its capital and the city prospered once again. Many Jews held high positions during the early years of the Muslim empire including Manasseh ibn Ibrahim al-Qazzāz who was in charge of finances during the Shi’ite Fatimid era of the late 10th century C.E. Damascus became a center of Talmudic study, establishing an academy that had close ties with its counterparts in the land of Israel.

Aleppo CodexAleppo Codex (Deut)" by Shlomo ben Buya'a – http://www.aleppocodex.org Photograph by Ardon Bar Hama. (C) 2007 The Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Institute.
The second major Jewish center in Syria was Aleppo. Jewish activity there dates back to the 4th century C.E. with the building of the Kanisat Mutakal, the oldest Jewish structure in Aleppo. As Aleppo became the center of Jewish learning in Syria, several notable figures including Saadiah Gaon and R. Joseph b. Aknin (the Rambam’s disciple) made their way there from Israel to see the Aleppo community’s erudition and first-hand. They could not have been disappointed for the Jewish scholars of Aleppo were responsible for producing one of Judaism’s single most important documents and Syrian Jewry’s single greatest achievement: the Aleppo Codex.

 The Codex is the most authoritative and accurate of the Masoretic Texts which form the basis for the modern Hebrew text of the Bible. The manuscript was safeguarded in the basement of the Central Synagogue of Aleppo for many centuries until the anti-Semitic riots of 1947 when more than half of the Codex was destroyed. What remains of it now lies in Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book along with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Syrian Jews, particularly those in Aleppo, also gained acclaim as musical innovators, developing a unique liturgical tradition known as maqam or melodic pattern. The style developed in Aleppo now serves as the foundation of contemporary religious music for the Mizrahi community in Israel.

Read article in full

Monday, October 06, 2014

Forget the past, says Arab refugee's son

 With thanks: Janet, Michelle

It's been billed "The best speech an Israeli diplomat ever gave."

Whatever its merits, what makes this 30-minute speech unusual is the giver: A Christian Arab-Israeli from Jaffa. George Deek is an Israeli diplomat posted in the prickly, if not downright hostile environment of Norway. Thankfully, the country still retains pockets of sympathy for Israel, such as the organisation MIFF, which hosted Deek's talk.

Deek's father was a Palestinian refugee in 1948 and his family are scattered all over the Arab world and the West. They responded to calls to flee Israel because of Arab warnings that the Jews would perpetrate a new Deir Yassin massacre. Deek sets his personal story in its context - the creation of millions of refugees as a result of 20th century conflicts. He is careful to mention the 850, 000 Jews forced out of Arab lands, most of whom were resettled in Israel.

Deek's speech is a call for Palestinian refugees to stop harping on about past grievances and rebuild their lives. He asks for a humanitarian solution to their plight rather than the solution favoured by Arab states who have forged out of the misery of Palestinian refugees a political weapon against Israel.

Deek's father was one of very few Arab-Israelis allowed to return from exile in Lebanon to his home town of Jaffa. He was even allowed his old job back at the Rutenberg Electric Company, the precursor to the Israel Electric Corporation. Let's hope that Israel's enemies do not misinterpret Deek's story as the vindication of every Palestinian refugee's 'right of return' to Israel proper.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A Yom Kippur apology for our silence

 With thanks: Michelle
 Adon Ha-Selihot, a traditional piyut asking for forgiveness, played by the New Andalusian orchestra of Israel

Just 24 hours since the end of Yom Kippur,when it is customary to ask for forgiveness from God and from your fellow man, it's perhaps not too late to share with Point of No Return readers the  timely thoughts of Janet D, who left Iraq in the 1970s.

 " It's time to share with you my heartfelt thoughts on this day of Yom Kippur: In the name of my generation I would like to apologize to the older generation of the Babylonian Jewish community for many things, to our dear ones who were massacred during the "Farhud", and those who did not survive the attacks, hangings and prisons in Iraq like my classmate ( the 16- year- old Joyce Qashqush, her family, and those who survived but were left with trauma and scars for the rest of their lives,

"I want to say Sorry for not having done enough to tell their story and their suffering, and the robbery of their rights and human dignity and for not even teaching about them to our children at schools in Israel,

"Sorry for our silence for decades and for conniving in Israel's silence

"Sorry that the names of our victims are still not included in the collective memory of the State of Israel,

"Sorry for having to abandon the synagogues and Torah scrolls, the manuscripts and shrines of Tzaddikim and the prophet Ezekiel's tomb at al-Kifl and other holy sites and objects that continue to remind us of the terrible ethnic cleansing that our ancient loyal community suffered in Iraq.

"I wish for all of us - both in Israel and abroad – spiritual insights, purity and relief for our souls on this day of Yom Kippur."

How a Baghdadi Jew transformed Shanghai

 There is no monument to Sir Victor Sassoon, the Baghdadi Jew who changed the face of Shanghai in the 1930s. But he left his mark in several landmark buildings, including the Peace Hotel, whose Art Deco splendour has been revived. Fascinating article by Taras Grescoe in the New York Times (with thanks Dan and Lisa):
The Peace (Cathay) Hotel as it was in the 1930s, and as it is today (Photo: Hsinhua agency/Qilai Shen)

Until recently, the name Sassoon — or, more exactly, Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon, the third baronet of Bombay — had been all but effaced from the streets of Shanghai. The scion of a Baghdadi Jewish family, educated at Harrow and Cambridge, Sassoon shifted the headquarters of a family empire built on opium and cotton from Bombay to Shanghai, initiating the real estate boom that would make it into the Paris of the Far East.

The 1929 opening of the Cathay Hotel (its name was changed to the Peace in the mid-50s), heralded as the most luxurious hostelry east of the Suez Canal, proclaimed his commitment to China. (He even made the 11th-floor penthouse, just below the hotel’s sharply pitched pyramidal roof, his downtown pied-à-terre.) Within a decade, Sassoon had utterly transformed the skyline of Shanghai, working with architects and developers to build the first true skyscrapers in the Eastern Hemisphere, in the process creating a real estate empire that would regularly see him counted among the world’s half-dozen richest men. Within two decades, the red flag of the People’s Republic was hoisted over the Cathay, which would for many years serve as a guesthouse for visiting Soviet bloc dignitaries.

Yet, over the course of the years, Sassoon’s buildings, apparently too solid to demolish, continued to stand, so many mysterious Art Deco and Streamline Moderne megaliths in a cityscape growing ever grimier with coal dust. As Shanghai once again takes its place as one of Asia’s fastest-growing metropolises, and supertall, 100-plus-story towers define its new skyline, there are signs that the city is beginning to value, and even treasure, its prewar architectural heritage. Sir Victor would have appreciated the irony: The landmarks of Shanghai’s semicolonial past, vestiges of a once-reviled foreign occupation, have lately become some of its most coveted addresses.

Read article in full