Friday, May 26, 2017

Iraqi lawyer Hamadani demands justice for Jews

Every so often a voice may be heard in the Arab world arguing that their state cannot be democratic unless the rights of all minorities are respected. The latest such voice belongs to Ammar al-Hamadani, an Iraq lawyer. He is calling for justice for  Iraqi Jews, who were stripped of their citizenship and denied compensation for their property.  In spite of receiving death threats, Hamadani is determined to speak out. Rachel Avraham reports  in Israel Hayom (with thanks: Michelle, Lily):

When people think of Iraq, they think of a country plagued by war, on the verge of ‎collapsing. They think of a failed state that ethnically cleanses minorities and blows up holy sites as well ‎as ancient archaeological treasures. Most Iraqi Jews see nothing but a bleak picture when they look ‎at Iraq today. However, within this war-torn country, there is a Muslim voice of hope, calling out ‎for his country to become a true democratic state and to give Iraqi Jews the justice that they ‎deserve. He does this under the threat of death but remains determined to speak out for all of the ‎minorities in his country, including the Jews.
Ammar al-Hamadani, a Muslim Iraqi lawyer, is working to ensure that Iraqi Jews ‎receive the compensation they deserve in a new democratic Iraq after they were expelled from ‎the country following Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Referring to the expulsion of Iraq's Jews and ‎the seizure of their property as "unconstitutional and inhumane," he stated with sadness that the ‎laws that prompted the Iraqi Jewish community into exile remain in force today "despite the ‎political change that took place in Iraq in 2003 and the enactment of a new Iraqi constitution in ‎‎2005 in which we had some hope for change for Iraqi Jews in a democratic, federal and multi‎cultural Iraq."‎
Al-Hamadani emphasized that it is unlawful to strip any Iraqi of their citizenship for any reason and ‎it is the right of "any Iraqi who has lost his citizenship for either political, racist or sectarian reasons ‎to request the restoration of citizenship." However, al-Hamadani noted that while the Iraqi ‎Constitution permitted the restoration of Iraqi citizenship for those who lost it for the above ‎reasons, Iraqi Jews were excluded: "Iraqi Jews remain deprived of justice under the new Iraq in ‎such a crude violation of the constitution." ‎

 Iraqi Jews escaping to Israel on Operation Michaelberg in 1947

"What is most puzzling is the very constitution that speaks of the freedom of belief and religious ‎practice of Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Sabian Mandaeans does not address the Jews of Iraq ‎as a basic religion," al-Hamadani proclaimed. He noted that in theory, the Iraqi Jewish community ‎has the right to bring their case for restoring their rights before the Administrative Court in Iraq, ‎which is linked to the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council -- technically independent of the ‎executive authority and the government. However, he asserted that in reality, the Administrative ‎Court is politicized, works to defend the actions of the Iraqi government and thus won't give them ‎the justice that they deserve.

"Any lawyer who tries to defend the Jews of Iraq before these two ‎government-controlled courts is being threatened with blackmail and intimidation because your ‎opponent is the judge himself, so that the lawyer cannot take the liberty to defend his clients and ‎therefore, issues remain floating in the court because lawyers fear to follow up,"‎ he explained.
‎"Based on all the above, I am hereby demanding that the case of Iraqi Jews' rights become a ‎universal matter that is adopted by international courts and organizations," al-Hamadani stressed. ‎‎"This should secure an international stance in the face of the Iraqi government, which could force it ‎into providing justice to the honorable Iraqi Jewish sect and to restore all their rights just like all ‎sects of the Iraqi people. Also, I would like to confirm my willingness to provide all kinds of ‎support in defense of the rights of my Jewish brothers. And allow me to note here, I am doing all ‎this pro-bono and out of commitment to my national duties towards my country."‎
In response to al-Hamadani's call for Iraqi Jews to receive the compensation that they deserve, ‎Aryeh Shemesh, the leader of the Babylonian Jewish community in Israel, praised him: "We have ‎to praise this person who dared to talk clearly and to tell the truth. This is a major ‎thing. I just hope that more people will get the same idea to help us fight to get compensated."‎
Levana Zamir, the head of the Central Organization of Jews from Arab and Islamic countries, ‎added: "Sometimes very important things begin with just normal people, simple people, a lawyer ‎like him. Then another can do the same and then the others. It can lead to all of the Arab countries ‎recognizing their mistakes. But he is not the first. In Egypt 10 years ago, Amin al-Mahdi, an ‎Egyptian journalist, wrote a book titled 'The Other Opinion.' He said exactly the same thing. The ‎book was translated into Hebrew.

Read article in full 

Profile of Rachel Avraham

Thursday, May 25, 2017

BBC Bowen still misleads about Jewish refugees

Over at the BBC, its longstanding Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen has been broadcasting 'Our Man in the Middle East', a series of mini-programmes, most of which so far reflect his personal view of the 'Israeli-Palestinian' conflict.

Jerusalem-based Jeremy Bowen has long been criticised by supporters of Israel for his bias in favour of the Palestinians.  In the light of persistent complaints that he never mentions Jewish refugees in his reports,  I was interested to hear if  this segment, Crossing the Divide,  was going to be any different.

At 5.22 into the programme, Bowen says he has learned about North African, Iraqi and Yemeni Jews by 'eating their food' in his visits to Mahane Yehuda market. But food is all he seems to have learned about, for we hear nothing about the circumstances in which these Jews 'emigrated' to Israel.

At 6.20 Bowen again mentions 'Mizrahi' Jews, but it is only in the context of the 'ethnic divide': 'brown-skinned Mizrahim excluded by pale-faced Ashkenazim ...who created the state and behaved as if they owned it.' I would challenge Bowen to identify these pale-skinned creatures.

Referring to Ein Kerem, where Bowen made his home, he launches into the familiar narrative that it was a Palestinian village inexplicably emptied of its Arab residents. (He omits to mention that the Israelis were defending themselves in an Arab-instigated war. There is the obligatory mention of the de-contextualised 'Deir Yassin massacre', but no attempt to mention any of the numerous massacres of Jews by Arabs ). Israel passed laws seizing abandoned (Arab) property, we are told. 

At 8.10 we learn that hundreds of thousands of Jews 'from North Africa' were absorbed by Israel. 'They no longer wanted or were permitted to live in Arab countries,' according to Bowen.

So yes, Bowen does mention Jews from Arab countries, but nowhere does he use the word 'refugee'; he does not refer to Jewish property seized, nor does he mention the vindictive pogroms or state-sanctioned persecution which caused most to flee. That would confuse the simplistic 'good guys-bad guys' narrative that the BBC has been feeding its listeners for years.

In contrast to the forceful language used about the Palestinian nakba, Bowen uses obfuscation and euphemism. We can expect that the average listener will not come away any the wiser about Jewish refugees.

 'Our Man in the Middle East' may be heard online for about one month after its first broadcast.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What's wrong with Jews being a minority? Everything

 It was during a debate on the morality of BDS at UCLA pitting professors Saree Makdisi against Judea Pearl(whose son Daniel was murdered in Pakistan),  that  professor Makdisi revealed the hidden BDS agenda when he let slip these words: 'What's wrong with Jews being a minority in Israel?' Rebuttal from Moroccan-born David Suissa in the Jewish Journal. (With thanks: Sarah)

Judea Pearl

Professor Makdisi (right) based many of his arguments on universal values such as fairness, equality, justice, and so on. Focusing on those values helped him finesse the Achilles Heel of the BDS movement– the fact that they don’t recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Promoting the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel, for example, means the effective end of the Jewish state, what a panelist on the Pearl side called “national suicide.”

Makdisi took that word — suicide — and ran with it, almost ridiculing it as an example of needless hysterics from the Zionist side. You could see where he was going. What kind of just society would treat the arrival of Palestinians as a national suicide? Sure, there may be a great number of Palestinians who want to return to Israel, but what’s wrong with Arabs and Jews living side by side, in full equality, in the same state and under the same government? 
Then, he got carried away and blurted out these words:

“What’s wrong with Jews being a minority?”
There was a gasp among some pro-Israel members of the audience. Pearl himself made a grimace, and commented that minorities are not treated very well in the Middle East. 

I have a feeling Makdisi regretted his words as soon as he said them.

Why? Because he’s no fool. He’s a knowledgeable professor, and he surely knows what’s wrong with Jews being a minority in a country of the Middle East.
He knows that, for centuries, Jews in Arab and Muslim countries were treated as second-class citizens, or Dhimmis. He knows that many of those Jews were persecuted and expelled after the birth of Israel in 1948.

He knows that there are 50 Muslim countries in the world, but only one Jewish state.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

50 years on, bitter-sweet memories from Arab countries

 Tonight is the start of Yom Yerushalayim, the day that recalls the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. This year marks 50 years since the momentous counter-attack by the Israeli army which ended with the words, broadcast across the nation: 'Jerusalem is in our hands.' But conditions became very difficult for  Jews still in Arab countries. Eta Kushner interviewed several for the site (with thanks: Malca)

 This year Jerusalem celebrates its 50th anniversary since re-unification

Tania Shichtman is from Lebanon, the country that lies just north of Israel. Her family lived in Beirut, though outside the Jewish quarter. “It was a beautiful city and a beautiful life,” she says, “until the war.” The Jews knew that if Israel won, they would be saved, and if not, they were in great danger. Tania was a teenager at the time and remembers sitting by the radio day and night worrying. It was not only their Moslem neighbors whom they had to worry about. “The Lebanese Christian neighbors hated us almost as much as the Moslems. We understood that our lives depended on the success of Israel, and we were petrified. If Israel lost, angry mobs would come to our house. It was pretty frightening. The first three days, before the true facts came out, it was very scary. That was the first time I realized the importance of having Israel.” Tania describes the tremendous relief when the war ended with Israel victorious: “It was like going back to life. I can remember those days like they were yesterday.”

After the Six Day War, Tania’s family realized that they could no longer stay in Lebanon. Until the war, they had lived together and were friends, but after the war, attitudes changed. “It wasn’t our country. We were not wanted.” There was a lot of resentment that Israel had won. “We didn’t have a very hard time but it was emotionally wrenching,” explains Tania. She had grown up thinking she was part of the country, and “all of the sudden you are a stranger.” They left Lebanon in 1970 and went to Panama, where her brothers had already settled. There she met her American husband who was working for the Defense Department. The new couple were not particularly religious and moved to Aberdeen, Maryland, where her husband Mel got a job. “My husband, my son, and I began to return to Judaism together, but then our son took off, and we had to play catch-up,” says Tania.

Their son Max felt drawn to Judaism even as a very young boy. The Shichtmans realized that they had to move to a Jewish area for his sake. But it was not enough for Max. By the time he was bar mitzva, he decided to wear a kippa and expressed a desire to attend Beth Tfiloh school. Tania and Mel were happy with this and encouraged him, because they wanted to get closer to their roots as well. Eventually Max became a rabbi and now lives in New York.

Jonathan Attar was a teenager living in Iran. He recalls the first days of the war when the only news they heard was the Arab propaganda declaring their victories. All the Jews were crying, and fast days were proclaimed. The Moslem population, meanwhile, was rejoicing in the streets, shouting “Death to Israel! Death to America” and giving out candies.

Even for a few weeks after the war, the synagogues were closed because the Jews were afraid the Moslems would come and try to kill them. Fortunately, no one was hurt. A few weeks later, everything was back to normal, and they resumed the relationship they had with their Moslem neighbors as it was before the war.

Margalit Tiede was only nine years old and living with her family in Moshav Yish’i, a small agricultural village comprised of Yemenite immigrants. While growing up, Margalit lived a very sheltered and somewhat secluded life. There was no real transportation, and they rarely left the yishuv to go further than nearby Beit Shemesh by horse and wagon.

Before the war, moshav members made a trip to Beit Shemesh to stock up on dried goods and necessities for the “shelters” (actually, just trenches they had dug themselves). Families were instructed to prepare food and water ahead of time. Twice a day, Margalit’s father, who was a paramedic in the reserves, and her brother would leave the shelter and milk the cows while “hoping that nothing would happen.” The chickens also had to be cared for. “Life doesn’t stop on the farm, so we had to keep doing these things during the war,” says Margalit.
The moshavniks usually went to Beit Shemesh every Tuesday and Thursday to sell their produce. During the war, however, they had to wait for a cease-fire in order to travel. Whenever they heard a siren, day or night, they all had to run to the trenches. When it seemed quiet, her mother would quickly run home and cook them food. On some of the days, they heard the sirens constantly and saw the airplanes flying overhead, never knowing whether they were friend or foe. Most of the men were in the army or in the reserves. The remaining men patrolled the moshav.

“We could hear explosions and knew when something was happening, but no one told us what was going on for many days.” She doesn’t think people were afraid. As children, they used to run out and play when there were no sirens. Also, they did receive news of the Israeli successes, although not every day.

“I remember that after Jerusalem was liberated someone came to our village with a loudspeaker and announced, ‘Yerushalayim beyadeinu.’” Everyone ran out of their trenches onto the streets of the moshav, shouting to each other, “Yerushalayaim beyadeinu” and dancing in the street.

Gila Davis was 12 years old and living in Cairo with her well-to-do family. The Six Day War was when she realized that it was a big deal to be a Jew living in a Moslem land. Before the war, they had friendly Arab neighbors, and “everything was fine.” As the war drums began beating, the Jews felt something ominous in the air. Those wealthy enough, sent money out of the country for safekeeping.
The day the war started, a fast day was proclaimed in the community. As soon as the fighting began, Gila’s father and all Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 60 were arrested. They were taken to a type of concentration camp three hours away, in the desert, where conditions were terrible. In the beginning, while the war was going on, the men suffered terrible torture, and for nine months there was no communication at all. No one knew the men’s fate. Gila’s family feared their father was dead.
The day before the police took Gila’s father away, her mother had gone into the hospital for emergency surgery. When they came to arrest him the next afternoon, her father gave Gila the keys to his business. ”Take care of your siblings and don’t let anyone in,” he told her.

“I was in a trance. I didn’t know what was going on.” Gila says. There was no parent in the house as her mother was still in the hospital. Gila heard a commotion and went to the balcony overlooking the building’s courtyard. She saw masses of Arabs rallying against the Jews and promising to kill them. A young man, the son of their Italian Jewish neighbor, was being dragged away by the police. His young wife, with a new baby in one arm, was holding on to him with her other, pleading, “Please don’t take him away!” The policeman threw the woman to the ground. Gila started crying, believing they would never see their father again. Then all her siblings joined in with her tears.

The Italian neighbors, an elderly couple, came into the apartment and arranged for the children to go to their grandparents’ apartment in a different neighborhood, not in the Jewish area. (At the end of the war, when Nasser resigned and the truth came out, the Moslem neighbors there wanted to kill them all. Only their grandparents’ Christian landlord managed save them.)

Before the war, Gila had lived a very sheltered life, and her father was quite overprotective. The children didn’t go anywhere other than the expensive French school they attended and straight home. Her mother never left the house, and when her father was gone it was especially hard for her. “My mother didn’t even know how to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread. My father did all the outside things,” she recalls.

As previously sheltered as she was, when the war ended and they were still at her grandparents’ house, Gila decided to run away to find her mother. She wanted to go home. Conditions in the grandparents’ apartment were difficult, and they were always hungry. She had never been allowed out alone but figured out that her mother must be in the only hospital in Cairo that allowed Jews; it was run by nuns. She managed to find her mother, who asked upon seeing her, “They took him away, didn’t they?” Her mother immediately left the hospital, against medical advice, so that she could bring all of the children back home with her.

When the war broke out, all the Jewish businesses were forced to close. Her father was accused of being a spy. “Later on,” says Gila, “My mother was forced to sell my father’s business for next to nothing. We had no source of income. No one was allowed to work, and money became very scarce. We had to sell all the furniture in order to buy food.” Their relationship with their neighbors also changed. Things were never the same, and Jews felt the great animosity and resentment of their non-Jewish neighbors, especially the Moslems.

After a year of writing letters pleading for help, they were able to get some aid from the Red Cross, which met them quietly in the shul. But Gila remembers that “we were always hungry.” For two years, until they were able to leave Egypt, her mother fasted every Monday and Thursday.

Nine months after the men had been arrested, the families learned the fate of their loved ones and were allowed to visit the men in the camps. Each month they had to register the names of those who would be visiting, and only two family members were officially allowed to go for a monthly visit. Somehow, her mother managed to scrape together enough money for the crowded, hot, three-hour taxi trip through the desert. Usually the guards allowed the children to visit, too, although it was against the law.

It was two years before her father was allowed out of the camp. HIAS whisked him away straight to France. About six months later, HIAS aided the rest of the family to reach France as well. After a seven-day boat ride to Marseille and a train ride to Paris, the family was finally reunited. “The first words my mother said to my father when she saw him were, ‘Is there food? Is there food? The kids are starving.’”

Read article in full

Monday, May 22, 2017

Spy Shula Cohen dies, aged 100

Shulamit (Shula) Cohen-Kishik, who was an Israeli spy working as an undercover agent in Lebanon, has passed away at the age of 100. She was sharp until her last days, says her son, diplomat Yitzhak Levanon. Report in Ynet News.

Cohen, who was laid to rest on Sunday, is survived by her seven children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Cohen's story could have easily served as an inspiration for a Hollywood movie. (It inspired a Lebanese movie - ed)

Shulamit Cohen-Kishik (Photo: Guy Esel)

Shulamit Cohen-Kishik (Photo: Guy Esel)

Born in 1917 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she was raised by Zionist parents who immigrated to Israel when she was but a child, before the State of Israel was established.

At the young age of 16, she married Joseph Kishik, a wealthy Jewish-Lebanese businessman from Beirut, who took her back with him to Lebanon. By the time she was 24, Cohen had given birth to five children.

Cohen quickly became a prominent and active member of her community, and even managed to establish ties with senior Lebanese officials.

At the eve of the 1948 War of Independence, Cohen felt an obligation to help the budding country and—believing she could make a difference—managed with great effort to contact Israeli intelligence sources, becoming a Mossad secret agent code named "The Pearl."

Read article in full

'Prioritize Jewish property rights on West Bank'

The Israeli government is considering a proposal to allow Arab building on state land in Area C of the West Bank, an area under full Israel security control. But the rights of Jewish property owners in Area B, an area under joint Israeli-Palestinian control, are being ignored, this Arutz Sheva report claims:

A view of the West Bank at Itamar

Leor Zeberg, a real estate expert in Judea and Samaria, called for the government to allow the Jewish residents to build on their own land before allowing the PA to build new Arab communities on state land.

According to Zeberg, there are thousands of acres of land which belong to Jews and which the Jews have been banned from building on since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

"In Judea and Samaria there are thousands of dunams which were purchased by Jews, some before the establishment of the State of Israel and some which were [purchased] in the 1980s and afterwards," Zeberg said. "From the moment the Oslo Accords were signed, Jewish owners were denied the possibility of building on these lands, and the property rights of the Jewish owners have been damaged and their ownership rights cannot be actualized."

"There are investors from Herzliya who, because of their Zionist [ethos], bought land in northern Samaria a few decades ago, which years later were declared part of Area B [off limits to Jews]. When their grandchildren tried to realize [their ownership rights], they were denied."

He called for a change in policy toward Jewish landowners in Judea and Samaria. "In addition to the damage to landowners in Area B. "Jews who want to purchase land in Area C are also facing difficulties and bureaucracy . It is important that in the discussions which arise, a solution be found to the property rights of the Jews in Area B, before they take care of Arab construction in Area C."

Read article in full

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Call to safeguard heritage of dying Jews of Egypt

Mina Thabet is a human rights lawyer in Egypt who has served time in jail for his  defence of minority rights in Egypt. Here in Mada Masr he uses the example of the beleaguered Jewish community to explain how hate speech and lack of state protection puts minorities at risk. Jewish heritage must be preserved, he insists. (With thanks: Raphael)

 The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria (photo: Marcivist)

A small number of Jewish families stayed in Egypt, among them leftist activist Chehata Haroun and his family. According to Haroun’s daughter, Magda, when her father tried to fly her older sister to Paris for treatment, Egyptian authorities agreed only to give him an exit visa with no return, so he left his daughter to die and never left the country [13]. When he died in 2001, his family had to bring a French rabbi to perform the ritual prayer for him, because they did not have a Jewish rabbi in Egypt.

The same happened with the death of Nadia.

Nadia died in March 2014, and I had the honor to attend her funeral. Egyptian state officials did not attend, although they typically attend funerals of Al-Azhar sheikhs or bishops from the Coptic Church. Nadia left her older sister Magda alone to carry the burden of the Jewish community in Egypt.

Early this month, it was the first anniversary of Nadia’s death, and Magda went to her older sister’s grave along with her current Christian husband and her Muslim daughters to perform their rites. She found that a group of youth had desecrated her sister’s grave. They also insulted her and insulted Judaism [14]. I can’t imagine how Magda felt about that. It’s very hard for anyone to see his beloved ones insulted in life and death, just because they had a different religion.

Despite the fact that we have the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, they have been left vulnerable to desecration and vandalism. Cemeteries are not the only neglected part of Jewish legacy in Egypt. According to Magda, there are about 12 Jewish synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria left without maintenance. The majority were closed because there is no one left to pray there.

Furthermore, there are registers belonging to the Jewish community in Egypt, which are part of history that need to be digitalized and safeguarded. The original written Torah also needs to be restored and kept in a museum, along with other parts of the heritage of this dying community.

Magda told me once about her deepest fear — that after she is gone, what remains of Egypt’s Jewish heritage will be lost. I remember Magda’s speech at her sister’s funeral. She just looked in my eye and said, “It’s your history, Mina.” Then she turned to one of her friends and said, “It’s your history, Mohamed.”
About six decades of propaganda and hate speech finally led to the end of this country’s Jewish community. The same hate speech led to the forced evictions of the Baha’i from Sohag in 2009 [15]. The same hate speech led to the brutal murder of four Shia men in June 2013 [16]. The same hate speech led to a swell of sectarian violence against Christians, with dozens of churches burned down, and dozens more Christian homes and stores looted since 2011.

Hate speech and lack of equal protection under the law inside the community creates a hostile environment for minorities, where violence could be justified. Since 2011, at least 40 incidents of sectarian violence occurred in Egypt [17]. Most of these incidents followed hate speech, which incited the perpetrators to commit the attacks. Since 2011, sectarian violence took the lives of at least 100 Egyptians, where the absence of accountability and lack of protection for vulnerable groups had become a common feature [18].

We should learn from our mistakes. We should start preserving our Jewish heritage and restore synagogues. We should face hate speech and discrimination. We should stop sectarian violence and bring its perpetrators to justice.

Read article in full 

Egypt registers Jewish artefacts (Al-Monitor)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Egypt's Jews converted in order to survive

This is an interesting article in History Today by an Egyptian academic, Haythem Bastawy. He claims that there are a lot more Jews in Egypt than people think. However, none of these converts still practise Judaism in secret or wish to be identified as Jews: it is a stigma. In his  bizarre account of the genesis of the Jewish state project, the Jews' insistence on defending themselves is to blame for worsening relations with Christians and Muslims. (Israel is also supposedly to blame for the rise in anti-Jewish hatred against Mizrahim. ) However, Bastawy's main point is correct: It is a mark of Muslim intolerance  that Jews (particularly celebrities like Leila Mourad) converted to Islam (The actors Basma Darwish and Karim Kassim have Jewish ancestry). * The few Jews in Egypt today are all married to Muslims or Christians. The actor Omar Sharif is an example of a Christian who converted to Islam. (With thanks: Geoffrey, Paula)

 The actress Basma  is the grand-daughter of Jewish communist convert Youssef Darwish

Whenever Egypt is mentioned today in conversation, it is often with an assumed Islamic identity in mind. A minority of Christian Copts sometimes creeps into the discussion later on as an afterthought. This assumption is often accompanied by the rather unconscious or indirect presumption that there are few Jews in Egypt today, if any. This is not true.

It is easy to understand however why this is the mainstream account. The Second Exodus from Egypt occurred in 1956, under Colonel Nasser's orders, stripping all Jews of their Egyptian citizenship and expelling them from Egypt. The vast majority of Egyptian Jews fled to one of three destinations of refuge: Israel, Mediterranean Europe (mainly France and Italy) and the Americas (primarily Argentina (huh? - ed). This was, however, neither the beginning of trouble for Egyptian Jews in modern times, nor its end.

Although the strong rise in anti-Jewish sentiment was slow and steady since the 19th century in concurrence with the circulation of Theodor Herzl's project for a Jewish state, the tide started to turn from the 1920s onwards. Jewish settlers in the Holy Land multiplied in numbers as they increasingly faced persecution in Europe, particularly in Germany, Italy (Italy? ed) and Russia. Zionist militias were formed from newly arrived Jews to guard and perform militant operations in Palestine, which only served to worsen the atmosphere and increase animosity between Jews, Christians and Muslims in Palestine. The press in neighbouring colonially oppressed countries steered public opinion against Jews and Jewish settlements, perceiving them as an intruding threat of another form of colonialism. There were also calls for fraternal solidarity between Muslims against a 'Jewish' other. The Jewish state project was ironically providing a refuge to European Jews at the expense of their native North African and Eastern Mediterranean Jewish counterparts. Hate-induced incidents were on the rise in Egypt at the time and the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 was just the justification Egyptian authorities had been looking for to officially persecute Jews as potential spies and sponsored 'terrorists'.

This is where many Jews started to remove themselves from the record in order to survive a tsunami of persecution. This came through conversion, at least in principle. For celebrities, whose careers were threatened by public hostility, public conversion was their tool to get accepted. One of the most notable and recorded cases is that of the singer, Leila Mourad, who converted to Islam in 1947. Some Jews sought the protection of Muslim spouses to help them blend in.
Some decided to just pass under a Muslim name, as in the case of the Alexandrian cinema pioneer, Togo Mizrahi, who changed his name to Ahmed Al Meshriqi, while others chose specifically neutral names for themselves and their children to avoid notice by the authorities. By the time the official order for the expulsion of the Jews was issued in 1956, many Jews (but not the majority) had converted, at least in principle, and/or intermarried with Muslims, and were not affected directly by the Second Exodus.

Adapting for survival was not new to Egyptian Jews, nor is it new for Egyptians in general. Youssef/Joseph, the keeper of the granaries, went by a non-Hebrew name when he got to public office. Furthermore, and in the case of Egyptians as a whole, when Alexander the Great invaded Egypt, the Egyptians decided to marry ancient Egyptian and Greek gods, creating the hybrid religion and culture of Hellenistic Egypt. And when the Arabs invaded Egypt in the seventh century, the majority of Egyptians had to convert, at least in name, but kept many of their ancient rituals and traditions alive. Spring Day or Sham El Nessim, for instance, is a current national holiday and dates back to the days of the pharaohs.

There is little mention anywhere of the descendants of Egyptian Jews who converted. The 2014 count of Jews in Cairo, and perhaps all of Egypt, was 40 elderly females out of an Egyptian population that surpassed 80 million.
Parents and grandparents do not disclose much of their heritage to their children and grandchildren for fear of bringing upon them the old plague of persecution.

The older generations are not to blame for this conscious act of forgetting history and heritage: warning signs against remembering often make themselves felt. The slightest link or encounter with Judaism or Israel often led to the severest repercussions upon a person and their family, no matter what faith they practised. Waguih Ghali, a Coptic Christian from Cairo who fled Egypt in fear of arrest by the military coup regime after coming under suspicion of being a communist, is one such example. While living in London, he worked as a journalist for the Guardian and agreed to report briefly from Israel. When his passport expired, the Egyptian government refused to renew his passport because of his association with Israel. He lived the rest of his life in depressive nostalgia, publishing his only novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, in 1964 and committing suicide five years afterwards.
Omar Sharif was born Michel Demitri Shalhoub

Omar Sharif is another example of the Egyptian regime's intolerance. He was born in Alexandria as Michel Demitri Shalhoub to a Christian family, which traced its roots back to Lebanon. He converted to Islam in his youth, at least in principle, in order to be allowed to legally marry his lover and fellow actress, Faten Hamama. He left for Europe a few years later, however, in a form of self-exile after becoming disenchanted with the new military regime and his marriage consequently broke down. In 1968, the authorities turned him from hero to enemy of the state because of his Funny Girl 'onscreen romance' with Barbara Streisand, a Jew. Unlike Ghali, Sharif did not commit suicide, but took to gambling and heavy drinking like some of Ghali's characters in Beer in the Snooker Club, arguably until the end of his life.

The third generation of the Jews who had to go through such transformations and conversions are not always aware of their heritages. Some families never talk about it, some retell only part of their stories, some mention it secretly or in passing, but none are allowed to completely relive their heritages or properly learn them. It is a process of oblivion as a tool for survival. Oblivion or death.

The post-monarchy pan-Arabist military regime of Egypt broadcasts a monolithically Islamic image of Egypt, synonymous with a false 'Arab' identity. The military junta denies the older, richer, multifarious, multi-layered history of Egypt, but ironically does not see any contradiction in doing so while selling Egyptian antiquity in tourism tickets. Sadly, this contradictory denial of pre-Islamic history is something the Egyptian military shares with the Saudi Arabian state, albeit not on the same extreme level. Indeed the Coptic Christian minority faces a lot of threats and challenges. In recent months, whole families have been displaced from Northern Sinai by armed militias and churches have been targeted in terrorist attacks in Alexandria and Tanta. This is a terrible state for a country of such diverse history and demography.

Read article in full

 *Nada Kamel, director of Salata Baladi, had a Jewish mother called Mary Rosenthal.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Egyptian Jews visit Golan memorials to Eli Cohen

With thanks: Levana

Fifty-two years to the day (on 18 May 1965), the Israeli spy Eli Cohen was hanged in Marjeh Square, Damascus, Syria.

He was only 40, and had left an anguished wife, Nadia, and three children back in Israel while he fulfilled his mission, penetrating the highest echelons of the Syrian regime. His body was never returned to his family and his exact place of burial is unknown.

The intelligence that Cohen gathered in Syria between 1962-65 was probably the single most important factor in bringing about Israel's victory during the Six Day War. For instance, he collected intelligence on the Syrian fortifications there.

Feigning sympathy for the soldiers exposed to the sun, Cohen had trees planted at every position. The trees were used as targeting markers by the Israeli military during the war and enabled Israel to capture the Golan Heights in two days with relative ease.
The Association of Jews from Egypt dedicated the first day of their Congress last week to a tour of the Golan Heights in memory of the Egyptian-born spy of Aleppan origin who came to Israel in 1956. Delegates followed the Eli Cohen Route. There are seven monuments dedicated to him on the Golan Heights. The Heights were then in Syria and following the Six Day War were annexed by Israel. 

Here and here are two 30-second videos of the Golan Heights tour.

Egyptian Jews resettled refugees from Nazi Germany 

More about Eli Cohen

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Morocco: the bittersweet lingering of times past

There has been a recent effort to revive Jewish life in Morocco, but Sarah Levi, writing in the Jerusalem Post, can't help thinking that all that remain are relics of the past. (With thanks: Lily)

Contrary to the assumption that the Jews of Morocco are all of Sephardi origin, Moroccan Jewry, much like Morocco itself, has a varied and layered past. Starting from the destruction of the Second Temple, exiled Jews sought refuge in Morocco, where they lived among – and possibly intermarried with – the indigenous Berbers. A second wave of Jews came to Morocco around 200 CE, primarily from Greece. Jewish merchants set up shop and communities along the coast in cities such as Casablanca, Rabat and Essaouria.

The next wave occurred during the seventh century during the Islamic invasion, shortly after the death of Muhammad in 622. It wasn’t until nearly a thousand years later that the exiled Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s began pouring into the country.

From that point on, the traditions and practices of all four waves of these Jews meshed not only with each other but with the land they inhabited. Their artisanship, architecture, cuisine and style of dress are noticeably indicative of Moroccan culture.

Warding off the evil eye is something that was picked up and has been adopted into the culture; this is not unique to Jews but is found among many of those who inhabit the kingdom. In addition, people pay homage to their tzadikim in the form of “hilulas” or prayer festivals that take place annually in cemeteries all over Morocco. Thousands of Moroccan Jews, mostly from Israel but also from Canada, France and Morocco come on the anniversary of their tzadik’s death and joyfully pay their respects through lively meals, prayer and psalm readings near their graves.

While European Jews were typically found in shtetls and praying at a shul, Moroccan Jews lived in the mellah and prayed at their local sla’ats. To be clear, mellahs were not a means to exile the Jews and they were not considered ghettos; on the contrary, they were to safeguard the Jews during times of instability.

These mellahs (literally salt marshes) were established shortly after the Sephardi Jews arrived in Morocco, and can be found in all four royal cities as well as cities like Sale, Essaouira and Meknes.

Jews of Morocco have historically enjoyed a relatively quiet and prosperous coexistence with their Muslim neighbors.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that they were always considered second-class citizens within the kingdom.

Their overall safety and quality of life were often not affected by this lower status and many will recall friendly, almost family-like, relationships between one another.

Sla't Alazama in Marrakesh (photo: Sarah Levi)
At its peak, there were over 250,000 Jews in Morocco, but following the establishment of the State of Israel, those numbers dropped dramatically to around 3,000. A majority of those remaining resided in the seaside city of Casablanca; around 1,000 Jews still live there today. Casablanca holds the largest Jewish community in the Arab world and has the only Jewish museum in the Arab world. Guests can glimpse historical Moroccan Jewry – including clothing, old photographs, ritual paraphernalia and even a small synagogue on display. The only thing missing is a gift shop.

The city also boasts more than 30 synagogues, a handful of kosher restaurants, Jewish schools, community centers and a Jewish cemetery outside the no-longer-inhabited mellah.

The rest of what remains of Jewish life in Morocco is scattered throughout the country, mainly tucked away in the somewhat deserted mellahs in the cities. The remains of this dwindling community are a bittersweet lingering of times past.

However, as the Jewish population shrinks in Morocco, there has been a recent effort in reviving these places throughout the country, as an increasing number of organized tours of mostly Diaspora and Israeli Jews, as well as Moroccan Jews taking a family roots trip are coming to visit and learn.

One of these places is the Sla’at Alazama in Marrakesh. Hidden behind an unassuming blue door in the mellah is the oldest active synagogue in the city.

Upon entering, an impressive blue and white courtyard leads guests into the decorative sanctuary that is a popular spot for tour groups and bar mitzvas.

To keep up with this surge of tourism, artisans and merchants inside the medinas are ready to offer Jewish tourists an array of Moroccan Judaica, both old and new. In the bustling medina of Fez, one can purchase hanukkiot, mezuza cases, old Torah scrolls, dishes with intricately painted stars of David and even old dowry chests for young Sephardi brides. (“Free shipping! We take cash, euro, dirham, whatever you want”). Also in Fez’s medina, tourists can take a peek at Maimonides’s former dwelling place, which also serves as a cafe, adjacent to the famous water clock.

Visiting Jewish sites in Morocco, like the dozens of synagogues and cemeteries scattered throughout major cities and outskirts can evoke mixed emotions.

On the one hand, it is amazing to see relics of our shared past intact and open to the public. On the other hand, they are just that, relics from the past.

Despite all of this, the Moroccan Jewish community is convinced that a revival is coming and Jews of Moroccan descent will in fact return to the land of their ancestors and bring life to these relics.

Read article in full

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tunisia seeks UNESCO protection for Djerba

 Pilgrims light candles at the Al-Ghriba synagogue (Photo: Fethi Belaid). With thanks: Boruch

In spite of security concerns,  this year's  Lag Ba'Omer pilgrimage to the Al-Ghriba synagogue on Djerba went off without a hitch. Some 3,000 visitors are thought to have attended. Now, according to the Daily Mail,  Tunisia is seeking UNESCO protection for the site - a paradox, in view of the UN body's attempts to declare the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Judaism's most holy site, a Muslim place of worship. 

Tunisia plans to seek UNESCO World Heritage status for the island of Djerba, site of Africa's oldest synagogue and an annual Jewish pilgrimage, its culture minister said on Sunday.

Speaking on the last day of the pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, Mohamed Zine El-Abidine said the island was important for its "cultural and religious uniqueness".

He said the application to add Djerba to the World Heritage List would highlight the rich religious heritage of the island, which is home to centuries-old mosques, churches and synagogues.

He did not give a specific time frame for the application.

A French Jewish woman carries a carton of eggs with her family's wishes written on them at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba on May 14, 2017

A French Jewish woman carries a carton of eggs with her family's wishes written on them at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba on May 14, 2017 (Photo: AFP)

The cultural agency of the United Nations already lists eight sites in the North African country, including the old cities of Tunis and Sousse and the city of Carthage, once the capital of the Mediterranean-wide Phoenician empire.
Some 3,000 pilgrims attended this year's Jewish pilgrimage to the island, which ended Sunday under tight security following a string of jihadist attacks in Tunisia.

"There has been a real increase compared to the past two years," Tourism Minister Selma Elloumi said.

"It is an important sign for the start of the tourist season," she added.
The number of pilgrims visiting the synagogue has fallen sharply since a suicide bombing claimed by Al-Qaeda struck Ghriba just before the 2002 pilgrimage, killing 21 people.

Read article in full 

AFP Report (French) (With thank: Boruch)

Monday, May 15, 2017

When will Arab states apologise?

No one can ignore the Palestinian refugee problem. Yet no one speaks of the predicament of the larger number of Jews expelled from the Arab states in the wake of Israel’s establishment. Edy Cohen has this article in BESA Center Perspectives for Nakba Day (with thanks: Imre):

Having failed to abort the newly established Jewish state by force of arms, these states took revenge on their own Jewish communities, some of which had lived in those lands way before their Arab/Muslim conquest in the seventh century CE.

Yemenite Jews walking to Aden in 1949

About 900,000 Jews of Arab countries were forced to leave their homes, and their properties were summarily expropriated. In some of those countries, primarily Egypt and Iraq, that stolen property is estimated today in the hundreds of billions of dollars. This includes many buildings and hundreds of beautiful synagogues, enterprises, and private assets that were confiscated solely because their owners happened to be Jews.

Those Jews were expelled and/or forced to flee their homelands in fear of their lives. They were subjected to persecution and numerous pogroms, though they had in no way harmed their Arab compatriots – unlike the Palestinian refugees, who fled in the wake of a war of annihilation that their leaders and the Arab regimes had waged.

As part of the recent Arab League summit in Jordan, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was revived. It offers Israel normalization with the Arab and Muslim states in return for a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Not surprisingly, the statement issued by the summit demands concessions only of Israel. If, however, Jerusalem decides to enter peace talks on the basis of this plan, it must demand an explicit apology from the Arab states that expelled their Jewish citizens in the course of the conflict. Israel must further insist that these Jews be compensated for the loss of their earthly properties and for the suffering attending their expulsion.

Over the course of history, countless peoples have afflicted the Jewish people. Some have apologized, and some have even tried to atone for their misdeeds. For example, the Portuguese and the Spanish have apologized for their persecution of Jews, and now offer passports to all Jews whose families were expelled from those countries, as far back as the Expulsion of 1492. The Germans, who annihilated one-third of the Jewish people, have apologized, signed a reparations agreement with the state of Israel, and compensated numerous Holocaust survivors.

In contrast, the Arab states are not only unwilling to pay compensation to those Jews they expelled, but refuse to acknowledge this atrocity in the first place. The time has come for these states and their leaders to own up to their misdeeds, apologize for this injustice, and compensate those whose property they stole.
Israel can help to redress an historical injustice if it makes it unequivocally clear that it will not sign an agreement on ending the conflict with the Palestinians and/or the Arab states until the issue of the Jewish refugees and their plundered property in the Arab countries is resolved.

As the state of the Jewish people, Israel has a supreme moral duty, along with a right anchored in international law, to demand that the Arab states compensate their past Jewish citizens for the assets and lands that were illegally and unjustifiably wrested from them.

Unfortunately, Israeli governments have thus far ignored this issue altogether. One can only hope that the current and future governments will come to their senses as soon as possible, since no solution for the Palestinian refugee problem is possible so long as justice is not served for the Jewish refugees from the Arab states.

Read article in full

At long last, Egypt may agree to records access

Egyptian Jews are hopeful that they could be on the verge of a breakthrough: the Egyptian government has in principle recognised the right of Egyptian Jews to have access to their communal records.
From Left to right: Samy Ibrahim (Drop of Milk), Roger Bilboul (Nebi Daniel Association), Yves Fedida (Nebi Daniel Association), Helmy Al-Namnam (Minister of Culture), Andrew Baker (American Jewish Committee), Nevine Amin (Drop of Milk), Magda Haroun (Jewish Community of Cairo and Drop of Milk), Thomas Goldberger (US Embassy, Cairo), Ruth Anne Stevens-Klitz (US Embassy, Cairo)

At a meeting on 2 May 2017 with a delegation representing the American Jewish Committee (AJC),  the Jewish Community in Cairo and the Nebi Daniel Association, Culture Minister Helmy Al-Namnam said that he would have no objection to a scanned copy of the registers being deposited with the Chief Rabbinate of France in the Consistoire de France once their cataloguing is complete in six to seven months. (The expertise to read  the various languages and scripts and issue certificates with the appropriate stamp of religious authority can only be found outside Egypt.)

The Minister indicated, however, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Egypt would have to give its agreement. This Ministry would be responsible for organising the transfer of the copies.

Representations to the Minister of Foreign Affairs are being made. If it materialises,  this development would represent a breakthrough for the Nebi Daniel Association. Since its founding 14 years ago,  this body has been stymied in its campaign for unfettered access to the registers recording the life cycle of Jews in Egypt since 1830. Records of births, circumcisions, coming-of-age, marriages, divorces, civil status and deaths as well as rabbinical rulings are a key to the religious identity of Jews from Egypt and their descendants scattered around the world. In Alexandria alone, more than 60,000 pages of well-organised data are not only essential for issuing religious certification but are also a treasure trove of genealogical and historical data. All such records have recently been taken from the Community offices in Cairo and Alexandria by the National Library and Archives of Egypt.

Among other heartening developments following the Nebi Daniel mission to Egypt is the revival by the leader of the tiny local Jewish community, Magda Haroun, of the 'Drop of Milk' charity. This charity, which includes several non-Jewish members, has expanded its remit to include the preservation of Egypt's Jewish heritage after the last Jew dies.

The mission, led by Rabbi Andrew Baker of the AJC, has announced a number of other promising developments resulting from their meetings with Egyptian officials at the end of April and beginning of May. The Nebi Daniel Association is funding a survey of the Torah scrolls in the Cairo synagogues.  Rabbi Armand Benhamron, an expert scribe who accompanied the delegation, examined all the scrolls in Cairo under the supervision of members of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, with the purpose of determining their continued religious suitability.

The delegation paid a visit to the Bassatine cemetery in Cairo, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world. Work is finally progressing to secure the cemetery by building a wall enclosure to prevent squatters from encroaching into its perimeter and to prevent garbage from being dumped. There are plans  to clean the cemetery, build alleyways and erect a memorial wall.

 In the main Adly synagogue, the basement will be renovated for developing a social history display with religious artefacts. This follows recommendations from an AJC-sponsored visit in 2008 by the then vice-director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The Drop of Milk member in charge of the project will be sponsored to visit and learn from similar efforts in Europe and the USA.

Other projects include a cultural centre in one of the synagogues, the cataloguing of books in the various synagogue libraries with the help of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo and the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris. With the support of the American Research Center in Egypt, a detailed survey of the remaining synagogues in Cairo will be made. The Diarna organization is planning to visit Egypt this year to make a full photographic record of Jewish sites.

The first sign of a more positive approach by the Egyptian government towards preserving Egypt's Jewish heritage was the allocation in January by the Ministry of Antiquities of emergency funds to repair the partially-collapsed roof of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria. The Nebi Daniel Association delegates visited the synagogue, the largest in the Middle East, and confirm that the repairs are due to start soon. The building will still need some overall and extensive restoration and the Nebi Daniel Association will fund a needs assessment study as the basis for raising the funds to undertake the restoration. In the meantime, an application to have the synagogue listed as part of the World Monument Fund has been submitted.

A survey by the Ministry of Antiquities of the three Jewish cemeteries in Alexandria is identifying mausoleums to add to their list of protected antiquities. This will afford the cemeteries additional overall protection.  

More about Nebi Daniel

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Christians are leaving - and not coming back

It's not often that the oppression and flight of Christian minorities from the Middle East is mentioned in the same breath as the flight of the Jews. This article by Maria Abi-Habib in the Wall Street Journal looks at the sorry fate of Christians in Iraq and Egypt. (with thanks: Eliyahu)

Bombed church in Tanta, Egypt

Today, more Arab Christians live outside the Middle East than in the region. Some 20 million live abroad, compared with 15 million Arab Christians who remain in the Mideast, according to a report last year by a trio of Christian charities and the University of East London.

In 1971, Egyptian Coptic Christians had two churches in the U.S. Today there are 252 Coptic churches, according to Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. Mr. Tadros estimates that some one million Copts have fled Egypt since the 1950s, many to the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia.

Mr. Trump has indicated he would welcome more Christian refugees from the Middle East. His initial efforts to overhaul immigration policies have been blocked by the courts amid criticism his executive orders would discriminate on the basis of religion.

 The Arab Christian diaspora in the U.S. has already emerged as powerful in politics and business. Dina Powell, Mr. Trump’s influential deputy national security adviser, is of Egyptian Coptic origin. With the near-depletion of the Christian population in the Middle East and the recent flight of the Kurdish minority Yazidis from Islamic State, followed just a few decades after the flight of its Jews, many fear for the region’s future—not only because of the rise of radicalism but the loss of talent needed for sputtering economies.

 Killed in the Palm Sunday attack at the church in Tanta was Mina Abdo, an engineer who left Egypt over a decade ago with his family, in part to allow his wife Yvonne to pursue her profession of gynecology. Christian Egyptians have had a hard time getting work in her field since the 1970s when a fraudulent police report emerged accusing the sect of plotting to outnumber Muslims by performing abortions on unsuspecting Muslim women, or secretly slipping them birth control. The document has been likened to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabrication used to discriminate against Europe’s Jews a century ago.

 The family returned to Tanta after celebrating Holy Week for years in their adopted home of Kuwait City. In Egypt, they could sit under a steeple, which their church in Kuwait lacks because official churches are banned there. Mr. Abdo and his son, Kerollos, 11, took the front pews in Mar Girgis, which had a good view of the altar, where many of the family had been baptized and married.

When the suicide bomber detonated his vest that morning, the explosion mangled the same front pews, killing Mr. Abdo instantly. His body shielded his son, Kerollos, who survived but suffered shrapnel wounds to his face and right leg.

Two days after the attack, at a nearby hospital, Mrs. Abdo and her 14-year-old daughter, Miriam, tended to Kerollos. Mother and daughter wore the sweaters Mr. Abdo packed for their trip back home. Miriam wore her father’s crucifix, his wedding ring and hospital identity tag hanging off the thick gold chain—possessions the hospital put in a plastic zip-lock bag when Mr. Abdo was pronounced dead on arrival. His remains would stay in Egypt.

When asked whether she’d return, Mrs. Abdo hesitated. “I love Egypt. I love my memories here. But I’m scared now,” she said. “We will come back for visits, we must. My husband is buried here.”

Read article in full

Friday, May 12, 2017

Why Mizrahi Israel unnerves US Jews

In his exploration of why American Jews are indifferent or even hostile to Israel, Daniel Gordis says they are unnerved by both the Judaism of the Mizrahim, and their unabashed nationalism. A must-read in Mosaic:

Although they do not say so, perhaps because they are unaware of it or because the mere mention of it would fail the test of political correctness, American Jews are also unnerved by a subtle but noticeable shift in the kind of Judaism that is increasingly on display in Israel’s public square. This Judaism is not only “Orthodox” (itself a term not especially applicable to Israeli Judaism) but also increasingly Mizraḥi rather than Ashkenazi in its tone.

American Jews are also unnerved by a subtle but noticeable shift in the kind of Judaism that is increasingly on display in Israel’s public square: the Judaism of the Mizraḥim.
What does this mean? Eurocentric though much of the Zionist narrative has been, at least half of Israel’s Jews hail from regions in which the European Enlightenment (haskalah) did not take root, where Western theological tropes never became the currency of religious discourse, and where Jews never openly rebelled against their tradition. One paradoxical result is that, for these Jews, religion is for the most part a more relaxed and “natural” part of life. Many Mizraḥim comfortably call themselves Orthodox, attend Shabbat services in the synagogue, and then drive to the beach—behavior that can strike observant Ashkenazi Jews as utterly inconsistent or blatantly sacrilegious.

Daniel Gordis

No less discordant is a second paradox: even among Mizraḥim who are not meticulously observant, devout faith is common. Most assert without hesitation that God revealed the Torah at Sinai, and more than half believe in a divine system of reward and punishment. The classic struggles with these principles so common among religious Ashkenazi Jews, accustomed to controversies over modern Bible criticism and, ever since the Holocaust, over the problem of the suffering of the righteous, hardly affect the passionately held faith of Mizraḥim.

Beyond the issue of faith is also the instinctive Jewish nationalism of the Mizraḥi world, a product both of historical experience at the hands of Arab and Muslim overlords and of the Mizraḥi reading of the lessons taught by the Bible and the Jewish prayer book. As the scholar Meir Buzaglo has noted, Mizraḥim express their preferential loyalty to the Jewish people with none of the defensive self-consciousness that often characterizes discussions of this issue in modern Ashkenazi circles.

 On average, today’s Mizrahim also vote much more to the right than do other Israelis. Being mainly the grandchildren of Jews who fled or were forced out of North Africa and other places around the Arab and Muslim Middle East, they harbor unabashedly negative images of their former societies and tend to vote for candidates and parties that speak passionately about the primacy of the Jewish people and that harbor no illusions about Israel’s enemies.

All of this is bound to make liberal American Jews nervous—as one of them, Paul Cowan, foresaw in the late 1980s as Mizraḥim seemed on the verge of becoming a majority in Israel:
[W]hat is [the Mizraḥi] vision of the Israel they will soon control? Do they have different ideas about democracy, about justice, from those we usually associate with Ashkenazi Israel? . . . [On a visit in] 1979, I realized that these questions were crucial to an understanding of Israel’s future, but they are seldom discussed in the American Jewish press. It’s one of the reasons we [Americans] debate the Israel that exists in our head—not the one that exists in the world.
As American Jews slowly discover the Israel that actually does “exist in the world,” their internal calculus of emotions is likely to grow correspondingly more fraught.

Read article in full

Thursday, May 11, 2017

'Egypt must close the file on stolen Jewish assets'

An Egyptian internet site, Dot.Msr, has uploaded a video recorded by the Egyptian-Israeli friendship Association* in which Dr Edy Cohen calls for the settling of Jewish property claims in Egypt. 

Bar-Ilan University researcher Edy Cohen said on Sunday that Jewish property in Egypt had been stolen by Egyptian governments.
In a video by the Egyptian-Israeli Association, Cohen said he hoped that peace between Egypt and Israel would not only be between governments, but also between the two peoples. "But before that, the Egyptian government should close the file of Jewish property in Egypt, "he said.
Cohen said Jewish property had been stolen and looted by Egyptian governments throughout history. "The Egyptian government today must close this file and pay compensation to Jews whose property has been proven to have been stolen from Egyptian governments," Cohen said.

This is not the first time that Dot.Msr has quoted Dr Cohen on the issue of restitution of Jewish assets in Egypt. Dr Cohen has also been outspoken on the Al-Jazeera TV channel, calling for the restitution of Jewish property in Syria. An activist on behalf of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Dr Cohen has also rubbished the Iraqi claim for compensation of the bombing by Israel of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, stating that Iraq owed millions to its Jews in terms of stolen assets.

*This is an Association of Egyptians in Israel, not to be confused with the Association  of Egyptian Jewish immigrants to Israel (HITAHDOUT OLEI MISRAYIM BE-ISRAEL).

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Welcome to the 'state of Morocco' in Israel...

 Israel has never been a western state, and it is only in the eyes of its Europhile cultural elite that the state's increasing Middle Eastern-ness is concerning and unacceptable. Thoughtful piece by Seth Frantzman on his blog, Terra Incognita (with thanks: Michelle):

 The Revivo music project: why should there be no Moroccan culture in a country with so many Moroccans?

Twenty- three percent of Israelis in 2009 said they would consider leaving the country if Iran obtained a nuclear bomb, in a survey by the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. Two years later only 11% said they would consider leaving. Self-defined left-wing Israelis were more concerned. Most Israelis said they thought Iran would get a bomb and most of them would stay.

What the survey tells us is there is a minority of Israelis who are prepared to leave the country; many already have children who live abroad. These Israelis tend to be more left-leaning, self-identify as having “Western values” and are concerned about the country becoming less Western. They are wealthier and their European origins give them access to a foreign passport. This last issue is important when it comes to identity.

Almost three quarters of Israelis have their origins either in pre-state Palestine or in the Middle East and Africa. This includes the quarter of Israelis who are Arab. A minority of Israelis have origins in Europe. Yet the European minority still feels like a cultural majority. During this year’s Independence Day torch lighting ceremony, an Israeli journalist complained that there was too much “Mizrahi” (eastern) music and that the ceremony had “established the State of Morocco” in Israel.

Why did he think there should be no Moroccan culture in a country with so many Moroccans?

In 1946 there were only 543,000 Jews in Palestine. Between 1954 and 1964, according to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, around 250,000 Jews came to Israel from Morocco. You’d think the musical impact of that community, almost a third of the country’s population at the time, would be immediate and that by 2017 European-origin Israelis would no longer be whining about it. But they still are whining, because for some of them Israel cannot have diversity, it cannot have Ethiopian culture, or Russian culture, or Moroccan or Iranian or even Arabic culture. These Israelis have waged a jihad against everything non-Western since 1948, and they have lost.

To those Israelis who dreamed of Israel being a “villa in the jungle,” a kind of Denmark in the Middle East, or a kind of Rhodesia, everything that was non-European was “primitive.” Journalist Ari Shavit asked fellow writer Amos Elon if Israel had this “primitiveness” in a 2004 interview and Elon agreed; the “primitiveness” comes from the Arab countries, he said. What he meant was Jews from those countries.

This colonial mentality of a subset of Israeli society cannot accept that Israel is not a Western country, that it has major influences from non-European peoples and cultures. It is a hybrid civilization, with Western currents in it but a foundation that is rooted in the Middle East. Jewish civilization has always had that hybridity. Since the time of the Hasmoneans fighting the Greeks and the war with Rome, or the expulsion from Spain at the hands of Catholic Europeans, Jewish history has been East struggling with the West.

Some Jewish thinkers cannot accept this. Richard Cohen in his 2014 book Israel: Is it Good for the Jews predicted what would happen when Israel’s “fighting intellectual, rifle in one hand and a volume of Kierkegaard in the other,” became a minority and “Jews from Islamic lands” became the majority. Cohen didn’t realize Israel was never a country of “Jews holding Kierkegaard in one hand.” This was a myth invented among American Jews about Israel, in order to convince themselves Israel was like a miniature version of the Upper West Side in New York, only with tanks and a flag.

Why the fear of “Jews from Islamic lands,” who are presented as barbarians by Israel’s European-rooted writers and their fellow travelers abroad? The same “Western values” that welcome Syrian refugees in Europe despise Syrian Jews in Israel? The same people who value the diversity Moroccan immigrants bring to Paris despise Moroccan Jews in Israel.

Because Israel’s Europhile cultural minority is rooted in a different time, the era of Rhodesia and the Old South, when non-Europeans were still openly called primitives. They cannot accept that Israel is not a Western state and that the revolution of Zionism has overthrown Europeanism in “their” Levant. They cannot accept the hybrid culture of Israel. This is why they imagine that only when Israelis are not “welcomed” in Europe will Israelis end the occupation of the West Bank.

But the majority of Israelis today don’t care about being welcomed in Europe and don’t seek European approval. They don’t see themselves as primitives begging for acceptance in the halls of Paris or Berlin. They are proud of their society, and they don’t think that they need to beg acceptance from the grandchildren of Nazis.

Read article in full

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Egyptian Jews resettled refugees from Nazi Germany

A three-day congress on the Jews of Egypt closes with the commemoration of an unusual project, 82 years ago : a group of wealthy Egyptian Jews financed the resettlement of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the Israeli moshav of Kfar Yedidia.

A Memorial Plaque will be unveiled in memory of the Jews of Alexandria who enabled refugees from Nazi Germany to be resettled at Moshav Kfar Yedidia.

Today, Tuesday 9 May 2017, a memorial plaque will be unveiled at Moshav Kfar Yedidia  in the beautiful Valley of Emek Hefer in Israel.  The plaque will recall a remarkable event in April 1935, when Jews of Alexandria bought land here to resettle Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

The land comprised 2,500 acres in central Israel, ten kilometres north/east of the coastal town Netanya. It was purchased for 13,000 Egyptian pounds ( then equal to 13,000 pounds Sterling) in order to absorb the Jewish refugees.

 Photo taken on the day in 1935 that Moshav Yedidia, financed by Jews from Alexandria, was inaugurated.

The moshav 'Yedidia' was named by the Jews from Alexandria after Philo the Alexandrian – whose Hebrew name  was Yedidia. Philo was a well-known Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria during the first century AD.

'We are thrilled,' says Levana Zamir, President of the Association of Jews from Egypt in Israel, 'that just 82 years ago, on 8 April 1935, the moshav was established on the site where this memorial is being inaugurated.'

The Alexandrian Jewish leaders who feature in the memorial photograph were M. and Mme Aghion, Edwin Gohar and Joseph Adda. Their names are engraved on the plaque together with those of the then leaders of the Yishuv,  Dr. Arthur Rupin and Dr. Georges Landauer.

 The inauguration closes a three-day World Congress of Egyptian Jews  held from 7- 9 May at Ramat Hagolan, Tiberias and Kfar Yedidia. The theme of the Congress, which attracted Jews from all over the world, is "50 years since the Six Day War, and its repercussions on the Jews of Egypt".

Among the academic speakers at this World Congress, chaired by Levana Zamir, were Dr. Esty Webman (Tel Aviv University) speaking about "The implications of the Six Day War on growing antisemitism in Egypt and the Arab world"; Dr. Edy Cohen (Bar-Ilan University) on the topic "Radio Berlin in Arabic - The influence of Nazi propaganda and the SS Officers in Egypt on Gamal Abdel Nasser's attitude toward the Jews"; Dr. Dario Miccoli (Venice University Ca Foscari) on " From Cairo to Jerusalem: Israeli writers of Egyptian origin".

  Dr. Michele Baussant (The French National Institute of Scientific Research in Jerusalem) presented her research on "The Memories of Egyptian Jews in Israel from their country of birth, compared to the memories of those who settled in France"; and Ronit Marco from Haifa University, spoke about the digital archives project on the Jews of Egypt she is now creating alongside the Joe and Racheline Barda Chair for the Jews of Egypt Studies.

 During this World Congress the participants told their own tragic 'Exodus from Egypt' stories, which have been recorded on video.

How a Jewish women's union in Port Said welcomed German-Jewish refugees (With thanks: Desire) 

Monday, May 08, 2017

Film accurately describes the Tunisian-Jewish story

While many films about Jews from Arab countries are wistful excursions into nostalgia, this documentary, which was shown on the French channel TV5 Monde recently, is an exception. If you understand French, I do recommend 'Tunisie, une Memoire juive' by Fatma Cherif. (with thanks: Ralph)

 The Jewish landmarks of Tunis - the splendid modernist synagogues, for example - still exist, a reminder of a once-thriving community of over 100,000, reduced to fewer than 2,000, mainly on the island of Djerba. The film does not shy away from discussing the dhimmi culture of submission resulting in the execution of Batto Sfez, an innocent Jew accused of blaspheming against Islam in 1857.

  When Tunisia became a French protectorate, its capital Tunis was a flourishing Jewish city in the early part of the 20th century. The Alliance Israelite Universelle equipped Jewish boys and girls with knowledge and skills to cope with modernity. The Nazi occupation of Tunisia in 1942 marked a terrible period for 2,000 Jews, dragooned into forced labour camps. Jewish doctors gathered X-rays to gain the maximum number of dispensations.

Then came the first wave of Jews departing for Israel. With independence in 1956, hopes that the Jews would replace the departing French were soon dashed. Jews were systematically marginalised, as Arabs were promoted in their place.

Sophie Bessis, whose grandfather Andre was a minister in the Bourguiba government, says that no government representative attended his funeral. She explains that Jews were never made to feel an organic part of the Tunisian nation. Even if they were nominally equal, they would always be considered outsiders.

They were at first identified with the French colonials, and the 1961 Bizerte crisis, resulting in the French withdrawing from their naval base, left the Jewish community without protection. "They were pushed towards the exit, and no Arab intellectuals tried to help them push back," she says.

The furious Arab reaction to the Six Day War resulted, for the first time, in an anti-Jewish pogrom - windows of Jewish shops were smashed and the Great Synagogue of Tunis damaged. In spite of reassurances by President Bourguiba, the remaining Jews had had enough - they were now considered to represent Israel in an Arab country. They left overnight, leaving everything.

 Lucette Valensi touches on the difficulties of adapting to exile in France. Her dreams were about Tunisia. When she exited at her metro station, she expected to step out into the relaxed sunshine of the Place de la Casbah. Instead, she was greeted with the darkness of a Paris winter. Another interviewee describes the scene in the 1960s when two ships crossed outside Tunis, one bearing departing Jews, while the other bore a load of incoming Jews who had failed to adjust to life in France.'You're mad,' each load gesticulated to one another.

 All in all, the film pulls no punches and gives an accurate representation of the story of Tunisian Jews. It can be criticised, however, for giving the impression that Jews arrived in the country after Islam. The final scene dwells on the Djerba pilgrimage without stating that this last bastion of the Jewish community goes back 2,000 years.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Yemenite babies may have been 'sold', TV film alleges

In the early years of the state around one in eight Yemenite babies, many of them sick, disappeared and it is alleged that some were 'sold' to US families for adoption by WIZO, the  US Women's Zionist Organisation,  a new TV documentary alleges. There was a three-month window to allow parents to reclaim their children, however and this article does testify to the mayhem prevailing at the time, in which no adequate records were kept. Neglect, yes - but was there a state-sponsored conspiracy? No outright proof exists. (With thanks: Lily)

Last December, the Israel State Archives released more than 200,000 previously classified documents pertaining to this decades-long affair that has come to symbolize the grievances of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin) against the establishment. They include testimonies of parents who searched in vain for their missing children and their graves for decades; of hospital nurses who witnessed children being given away without permission; and of children sent off for adoption who later tried to reconnect with their biological parents. However, the documents provided no outright proof of an organized and institutionalized abduction campaign.

The newly declassified papers also include minutes from the hearings of the commission of inquiry established in 1995. Like the two previous commissions that investigated the affair (the most recent being by Justice Moshe Shalgi in 1988), this one also found that most of the Yemenite children who disappeared had died of illness. While the fate of several dozen children is still unknown, the most recent commission of inquiry determined that none of the children had been kidnapped.

The new documentary challenges these findings. A key testimony is provided by Ami Hovav, who worked as an investigator on two of the three commissions of inquiry. In an interview with Rina Matzliach, the Channel 2 correspondent who made the film, Hovav addresses the role of machers, or middlemen, in the disappearance of several children. As part of his duties on the commissions, Hovav had been asked to investigate reports, published as early as 1967, that Yemenite children had been abducted and sold to wealthy Jews abroad for $5,000 a head.

Interviewed in the film, Hovav relays that many of the Yemenite babies and toddlers were put in child-care centers run by the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), one of the largest Jewish women’s organizations in the world.

“There was a rule at the time that if the parents didn’t show up within three months to reclaim their children, the kids would be sent off for adoption,” he states. “So there were these machers who would come and get $5,000 for each child that was adopted.”

But it would be wrong, he says, to describe such transactions as sales: “This was a commission they took, just like real estate agents. This was their job.”

Rare photos of Yemenite Jews in Sana'a taken by the German-Jewish adventurer Herman Burchardt in 1901. Full article in Haaretz here.

The film provides never-before-seen footage, shot by (the late campaigner Uzi) Meshulam’s followers, of the 1995 commission of inquiry hearings. At one point, Sonia Milstein, the head nurse at the Kibbutz Ein Shemer absorption center, recounts how Yemenite children were systematically separated from their parents and put in childcare centers. When asked to explain why no records of their whereabouts were ever kept, she responds: “That was the reality then. It was what it was.”

In more rare footage, a former doctor at a WIZO center in Safed tells her interrogators at the commission hearings she has no recollection of what happened to the Yemenite children housed at her facility. Commenting in the documentary, Drora Nachmani – the lawyer who interrogated the doctor and other witnesses – notes that this sudden loss of memory among WIZO staff members was not uncommon.

“Some of the WIZO witnesses didn’t want to come to the hearings, and we would have to chase after them,” she tells Matzliach. “Often, they would insist we come to them rather than they come to us, as if they were afraid of something. And sometimes they said one thing to one investigator and something else to another.”

According to Nachmani, the WIZO day-care centers “were often the last stop or the second-last stop in the whole chronology of events” surrounding the disappearance of the Yemenite children.

“They were a central junction in this whole story,” she states.

The documents recently declassified by the Israel State Archives were meant to stay under wraps for another 15 years. But in response to public pressure, the government decided to release them sooner.

Mizrahi activists had been urging the government to open the state archives for several years, arguing that the various commissions of inquiry whitewashed the affair. A driving force behind the campaign has been an organization called Amram.

Interviewed in the film, founding member Shlomi Hatuka notes that out of more than 5,800 Yemenite babies and toddlers known to have been alive during the first years of the state, 700 disappeared. “That is one out of eight children,” he tells Matzliach. “And if you take into account those parents who didn’t report their missing children, it’s probably closer to one out of seven, or one out of six.”

The irony, he notes, is that families were told their children were being moved from absorption centers to child-care centers for reasons of health and sanitation, but many became ill there, ending up in hospitals from which they never returned.

To illustrate the atmosphere of mayhem in those early days of the state, Hovav recounts a story he heard from Milstein, the head nurse, about what would happen when sick babies were taken to the hospital. “An ambulance driver would pick them up and the babies would be put in cardboard boxes that had been used to transport fruit, bananas or apples,” he relays. “And there would be five or six of these boxes in the back.”

Each carton, according to his account, had a little note attached to it bearing the child’s name, address and destination. “When it would get very hot,” he recounts, “the ambulance driver would open the window and a huge blast of wind would come in. What would happen then is that all those little notes would start flying in the air. They would stop the ambulance on the side of the road, but they had no idea after that which note belonged where.”

Asked to comment on the allegations raised against WIZO in the film, a spokeswoman issued the following statement: “The process by which children were admitted or left our facilities was handled exclusively by the certified state authorities, while WIZO’s role was restricted to caring for their health and welfare. The allegation that the organization played a central role in transferring the children to adoptive families is erroneous and is merely someone’s personal interpretation of events. The same is true about allegations raised by some of the interviewees in Rina Matzliach’s film.”

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