Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Baroness alludes to Jews of Iraq in minorities debate

It is not often that the UK House of Lords is made aware of the tragic plight of the Jews of Iraq, but in a debate on religious minorities in Iraq on 11 January, Baroness Ruth Deech managed to devote a few minutes to their history while appealing for the British government to take a proactive approach to the protection of minorities.

 Baroness Deech in the UK House of Lords

"Sometimes it is difficult for us here in this tolerant country to understand the role played by religion elsewhere. In the area under debate today, it is not just a question of choice of belief; religion equates with identity. Indeed, one reason why so many countries in the Middle East are in turmoil is that the nation states there, sometimes created by western colonialists 100 years ago, do not coincide with religious boundaries.

Those new states have bundled together people who identify with their communities across boundaries rather than in their own neighbourhoods. To be a religious minority is seen by the ruling class as if one was a foreigner at best and a traitor to the community at worst. It has become especially dangerous to be a minority since the rise of Daesh. Nor is this attitude confined to Muslims; we have seen the atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma by the majority. But in determining cash and protection allocation, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees does not include religious persecution as one of the vulnerability categories. It is time for religious persecution to be up front in UN relief work. Will the Government urge the UN bodies to confront this?

Religious tolerance has been on the decline in Iraq since the 1920s, in tandem with the rise of Arab nationalism and the growing Islamisation of Iraq’s society and state. A good example is the expulsion of the Jews in the 1950s. Today, it is the Yazidis, Palestinians and Christians under threat.

The Jews of Iraq had a history going back 2,000 years; now they are non-existent. A century ago, one-third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. We have heard much about the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in recent months. One aim of that important document was that,

“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the … rights … or the … political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

What followed was the persecution, killing and expulsion of Jews across the Middle East. Jews allegedly came to Iraq after the exile from Jerusalem in 586 BC. Babylon was a focus of Judaism for more than 1,000 years. A millennium later, Islam arrived there and persecution started. In the 1930s, Iraq followed the German lead in barring Jews from education and the professions. In imitation of the Nazis, there came a pogrom, or “Farhud”, in June 1941, during which an Iraqi mob burned Jewish property, looted houses and hundreds of Jews lost their lives. After the creation of Israel, things got even worse for the Iraqi Jews, regardless of their political affiliation.

Jews were dismissed from virtually all jobs, and to be suspected of being a Zionist was punishable by execution. At first, they were forbidden to emigrate; it later became government policy to get rid of them all. Nearly all the Jewish families left in the 1950s, and their property was forfeit. Saddam Hussein hanged nine Jews as supposed traitors in front of a crowd. The United States has guarded the significant archive of Jewish artefacts in Iraq, all that remains of the community, but is likely to return it to Iraq. Will the Government urge the US to continue to protect that archive?

This year, a new law by the Iraqi Government will target Palestinians living there. It will effectively abolish rights given to Palestinian refugees, causing them to be treated as foreigners rather than nationals, even if born in Iraq. The new law deprives Palestinians living in Iraq of their right to free education, healthcare and travel documents, and denies them work in state institutions. Most of that community has gone to other countries, such as Canada, Chile, Brazil and elsewhere in Europe, where they are better treated than they have been in their homelands. Will our Government press the Iraqi Government to reverse this law, number 76 of 2017, and condemn the treatment of Palestinians in Iraq?

One remedy for this grave situation lies with the British embassy. In Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, a human rights focus should be incorporated into embassy work and our diplomats should monitor freedom of religion. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has issued guidance on how to handle discrimination and suggests that countries that deny freedom should be asked to accept a visit from the UN rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. It is noted that the UK can support, from the aptly named Magna Carta fund, individuals and organisations working to achieve freedom of religion. Our diplomats can visit victims, attend trials and lobby ministries.

I fear that these excellent intentions may not achieve much, because at the apex of all international effort lies the UN Human Rights Council, a body now so perverted that it no longer makes sense to support it.

Read speech in full

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An Algerian Jewish fighter's story during WW2

Little over seventy-five years ago on 8 November 1942, the Allied forces launched Operation Torch in North Africa. The plan was to land in Morocco and Algeria and defeat the Vichy regimes in  both countries. The US asked for the help of local resistance fighters in Algiers. Little did they imagine that a small band of Jewish fighters under the leadership of Jose Albouker would take control of strategic points in the city in the space of 15 minutes. Maurice Ananou, son of Joseph Ananou, a 20-year-old resistance fighter, gave this witness statement (translated by PoNR) to MORIAL, the Association of Jews from Algeria, about his father's exploits. (With thanks to Jocelyne S)

A view of Algiers: resistance fighters took control of strategic points

My father Joseph Gilbert Ananou, born 19 December 1922 at Aumale (an Algerian departement) was one of the Jewish partisan irregulars who assisted the Anglo-US landing at Algiers on 8 November 1942.

He was part of Captain Pilafort's group. The captain fell at his side during the capture of the Main Post Office and Central Police HQ on Boulevard Baudin.

That night, they had met up at the home of the Aboulkers (Jose Aboulker led the resistance operation - ed) on rue Michelet.

He was almost shot by the mobile guards at the entrance to the Post office when an officer said, 'Frenchmen ought not to fire on other Frenchmen.' I don't know how many times my father repeated the long-awaited coded message 'Robert arrive.'

He said very little about his subsequent imprisonment in the south of Algeria. I know that he was asked during his internment to give away to some poor blighter in trouble the 'Croix de guerre' or medal he was due to receive. He agreed to do so: he had done what he had to do.

In a speech on the North African military operations General Murphy  had declared that the resistance fighters of Operation Torch had enabled the Allied landings on the beaches of Sidi Ferruch and thus had changed the course of world history!!!

Among the names mentioned by M. Gozlan (another witness) was my uncle, Joseph Bouchara and his brother Fernand. They were friends before they became in-laws with Sam Bendavid: his children were in my class with me in Algiers and left for Israel in 1962. So did Albert Azoulay who lived in my block and took me to the school on the rue Lazerges every morning together with his daughters. Raoul Cohen Addad later became financial comptroller and gave my father, among others,  a hard time after the war....

(An aside to Isidore Senego: If my father did not receive a citation it's  perhaps because he did not want the honour and another would have benefitted from it.)

Let's not forget that he was only 20. When asked, what did you do in your twenties, he would have said, the same as they did.

The 300 - 350 resistance fighters would have made up most of that age group. They all knew each other and had all been mates, they were part of the Algerian-Jewish community at the time.

I was a child, my father was a good story-teller, I liked history and he was part of history. He was my hero.

Nonetheless all of them were traumatised when their French nationality was not immediately restored to them. Long after the landings, they had ID cards which said 'Indigenous Jew.'

Then they joined the French army. My father was in a transport unit. For a time he was a driver for Marechal de Lattre de Tassigny. But he was let go because my father bit his nails and the marshal could not face being driven  by someone who was driving with one hand, putting his august personage's life at risk.

In 1943, he entered Tunis and always had fond memories of the Jews who invited him into their homes for Passover.

Then came the landing in Naples and my uncle fought at Monte Cassino where the battles were as awful as in the Belfort Gap, where he served as stretcher-bearer.

After Italy came the landings in Provence. My father was the driver to General de Monsabert. They ascended the valley of the Rhone to Dijon. He became aide-de camp to  General de Larminat. When the villages were liberated the (soldiers) were welcomed magnificently. It was then that he discovered France.

There were tough battles at Belfort and in the Alsace plain: many regiments perished.

He told the story of having his photo taken by the town photographer at Vesoul, who placed it in his window. His little brother happened to pass by, recognised him and thus they were reunited after two years of graft without news of one another.

They marched into Germany - Stuttgart. At Lake Constance he saw the greatest fireworks display on 8 May 1945. From Berchestgaden to Berlin, they went for a drive in Hitler's Mercedes, which consumed 50 litres of petrol every 100 kilometers. The high point of the trip was when the French army gathered all the Jews and provided them with a Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur meal in September 1945 at the Aubette de Strasbourg.

He ended the war having received an honorary officer rank in the French army.

For me, the 8 November was the road I followed every day to school.

Sidi Ferruch was an immense beach: you could take your car on it and park it by the sea and from time to time you had to dig it out of the sand. There was a shack made of planks with the most basic of toilets. There was also a promontory with a huge cuboid monument to the landings of the French troops in 1830 and beyond, a fish tank where you could eat fresh mussels.

Later, when our parents' situation improved, it became a small hotel-restaurant where we used to start the swimming season at Whitsun.

There is a good description of Operation Torch on Wikipedia and I have some good cassette tapes on the first historic Allied victory. Lately there was programme  on Operation Torch attributing to the Gaullists the reasons why the victory did not earn its rightful place in the history of the resistance. I visited the Shoah Memorial in Paris. The massacres of the Jews are well documented, as well as their acts of resistance.

I remember seeing a room recording the different phases of WW2 and if I remember rightly all the military operations, beginning with the victory in the East at El-Alamein which was meant to end the Afrikakorps' grip on north Africa. and in the West, the Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algeria.

The final battle was in Tunisia but I never saw  it commemorated  as the first Allied victory owing to the fact that the resistance fighters were not directly affiliated with Gaullism. I had hoped to find a trace of such an event - perhaps it was because few people died.

There were few Germans in Algeria and Morocco but there were Italians. In Tunisia, on the other hand, the Germans made their presence felt. They deported  Jews to concentration camps in Poland and Germany, in fact  their first victims were Jews from eastern Europe who had managed to escape their persecutions. I can understand why the Shoah Memorial Museum left out North Africa, in relation to the immeasurable disaster on continental Europe, but you can't not mention it.

One can draw parallels with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising a few months later, from January to Easter 1943. What do these acts of resistance have in common?  Both involved a majority of Jews fighting against Nazism. In one case, many perished. In the other, almost all survived. In the first case, it was a last stand of despair, in the second, it was a fight for hope, and what better symbol of hope than the United States of America.

"We are not fighting to save our lives. No one will come out alive from here. We want to save human dignity."                            Arie Wilner, Warsaw ghetto fighter

Monday, January 15, 2018

How Jewish fighters changed the course of WW2

This article in Haaretz by Beit Hatefutsot and Ushi Derman describing the little-known exploits of a small band of Jewish resistance fighters, who paved the way for the Allied landing in Algiers in 1942 (Operation Torch), is a welcome effort to restore a much-neglected episode to the historical record. These fighters have been compared to the resisters of the Warsaw Ghetto. Unlike them, however, the Algerian resistance had a strategic impact on the course of the war. (With thanks: Lily)
 Top: An Algerian Jewish couple, 19th century. Middle: Jose Aboulker, resistance leader. Bottom: US troops landing in Algiers harbour.

In 1940, following the German occupation during World War II, Algeria became a protectorate of the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis. The Vichy regime abolished the Crémieux Decree, depriving Algeria’s Jews of citizenship and launching a harsh anti-Jewish campaign. Soon all Jewish students were expelled from the universities and public schools.

In 1941, the Jews were about 2 percent of the population but over 37 percent of medical students, 24 percent of law students, 16 percent of science students and 10 percent of arts students. At that time masses of Jews were dismissed from their positions as doctors, jurists, teachers and officials. They were left to the rage of those Algerians and French settlers who sought revenge after decades of envy and hostility.

Young Jews led by José Aboulker decided to react. Aboulker was from a wealthy educated family; his father, Dr. Henri Aboulker, was a successful physician and surgeon and taught at the University of Algiers. His mother, Berthe Bénichou-Aboulker, was a celebrated poet and playwright, one of the first women in Algeria to publish her own literary work.

The young Aboulker would not accept Vichy France’s racism and discrimination against the Jews; he gathered relatives, students and friends and established a Jewish resistance group disguised as a sports club named Géo Gras. That was simply the name of a non-Jewish coach who knew nothing about the club’s real purposes.

At first the group focused on local tasks such as defending Jews from violence, buying weapons and distributing anti-government leaflets, all the while preparing for bigger operations. The group had to wait until November 8, 1942, to launch its bold operation.

The summer of 1942 was one of the lowest points in the Allies’ struggle against the Nazis. In early July, Gen. Erwin Rommel’s forces arrived at El Alamein on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, threatening to take Egypt including the Suez Canal. Later that month, the Battle of Stalingrad began, so Stalin demanded that the Allies open a new front in the west. The strategists’ eyes were on the southwest: Africa.

Operation Torch was the code name for the Allies’ landing on the shores of Morocco and Algeria, within the overall battle for North Africa. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the U.S. commander of the operation, knew there were officers in the Vichy army whose dislike for the Germans outdid their loyalty to the regime. The Americans needed help from within and found Aboulker and his men; the resistance fighters were to take key facilities in Algiers.

They set off in the night of November 8, 1942. José Aboulker and his friends only needed 15 minutes to take Algiers’ police headquarters and main radio station. They wore uniforms of the fascist movement and possessed fake warrants. For 18 hours they spread misinformation and fake orders over the radio, misleading the Vichy regime and letting the Allies land – Operation Torch was on. During the next 24 hours, an American force of some 2,000 soldiers took Algiers with little resistance.

The Americans, who feared that the Géo Gras underground would be the weakest link of the operation, were glad to be proved wrong. The successful operation had long-term implications; there were now two fronts against Rommel, paving the Allies’ entry into Italy.

Compared to other cases of Jewish heroism during World War II and the Holocaust, the story of Géo Gras is rarely mentioned in Israeli history lessons, memorial ceremonies or studies. The Warsaw Ghetto fighters, for example, were tremendously brave, but their efforts had no significant effect on the outcome of World War II. Yet the Algerian resistance heroes have been forgotten.

Read article in full

Sunday, January 14, 2018

How Linda Menuhin lost her father in Saddam's Baghdad

In this interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad (Holland's equivalent to the Guardian) the Israeli journalist Linda Menuhin tells Floris van Straaten how she tried to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of her father in 1970s Iraq. A personal tragedy was made into a film, Shadow in Baghdad. With thanks for his translation  to Nathan Weinstock.

Poster from the film 'Shadow in Baghdad', which tells Linda's story 
 It’s only at the very last moment that Linda Menuhin-Abdul-Aziz, who was 20 years old at that time, dared tell her father that she wanted to flee to Israel illegally with her younger brother. On the said day in 1970 the taxi was ready and parked in front of their house in Baghdad, in a street where an increasing number of Jews were leaving due to intensifying oppression. Menuhin remembers that he said: “I think it’s wrong to do so”. “That was the last time I saw him”. 
Although she has often told the tale since then, her voice still trembles again for a brief moment 47 years later and a brief silence sets on in the library of the Israeli embassy in The Hague where our conversation is taking place. 

That’s a moment that will always stick with Menuhin. Not only because these are her very last recollections concerning Baghdad where she was born but also because a few years later her father, a Jewish solicitor, did not make an appearance in the synagogue on the day of Yom Kippur in order to sing the psalms there as he was accustomed to do. Since then he disappeared without leaving any trace, having most probably been arrested and murdered by the police of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s strongman.
Sometime later, Linda – who had settled meanwhile in Israel in the company of her brother and later also of her mother and sister who were also fled Iraq – there was an article in The Jerusalem Post. It mentioned a certain number of Iraqi Jews who had been killed, among them her father, Jacob Abdul Aziz. Apparently her lawyer father was being legally consistent and just couldn’t bear the idea of violating the laws of his country by fleeing his homeland illegally. It  proved to be fatal as far as he was concerned. 
Although the news hit Linda and the rest of the family like a sledgehammer, somehow it sounded unreal. They just didn’t know how to deal with this information. “It was there and yet it wasn’t”, explains Menuhin: “According to the Jewish tradition you must have a grave in order to commemorate the deceased  and we didn’t have that. And therefore we didn’t pray for him”. 
No news was forthcoming from the Iraqi authorities. They did obtain a letter  by way of answer to a letter which they had sent to Jacob with a detour via an aunt in the USA. It bore the mention stamped on it: “Has left the country”. So had he left the country after all? Menuhin: "There wasn’t the slightest indication that he had done so but of course the authorities could claim whatever they wanted to. They were not required to give any explanation concerning my father’s disappearance”.  
For better or for worse Linda and her family resumed their life. Some of them succeeded better than others. Linda’s brother, who had proved full of talent at school, suffered from psychiatric problems and ended up having to undergo long-term treatment. Linda herself became a journalist at the Israeli State broadcasting company, specializing in the Middle East. 
In that way she still remained in touch with Iraq. But it was only in 1991 when Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel during the Kuwait crisis that her own memories about Iraq bubbled up in her mind. "Every day I had nightmares about Saddam Hussein. It triggered  a personal crisis. I hated the Arab language, which was the language of my daily work. I gave up my job.” 
 In 2003 too, when the Americans and the British invaded Iraq and chased Saddam out, she was continuously absorbed by the subject, although by that time she had no job. "Iraq was once more in my house all day long”, she says laughing. 
 Perhaps that thanks to Saddam’s downfall she might be able to find out more about her father’s fate. "Iraqis work in an orderly fashion and record everything, like the Nazis”, says Menuhin. "Perhaps I would be able to trace documents relating how he had been arrested and questioned. I just couldn’t accept the idea that he was only murdered because he was a Jew.”
A pogrom in 1941
About that time an Iraqi-Jewish acquaintance told me: “I’m going back to Iraq, why don’t you go with me?” Menuhin didn’t dare. Instead the idea occurred to her to produce a film about her father and the demise of the Jewish community in Baghdad. She started to collect testimonies - from a distance – from Iraqis who had fled, to London among other places. Also from Muslims. 
Almost nothing subsisted then from the once so flourishing Jewish community in Baghdad. "Even when I still was a child, it had already shrunk dramatically, compared to the past”, explains Menuhin. Under the British mandate, times were good for the Jews, but after the beginning of World War II antisemitism rapidly increased against the some 135.000 Jews. The dramatic watershed was the pogrom which occurred in 1941. In just two days, 180 Jews were killed. 
"Terrible things happened. Robberies and murders. Body parts of children were cut off in order to steal precious bracelets and other jewels.” This pogrom left a deep scar and radically modified the relationship between Jews and Non-Jews. "The Jews felt that their life was at stake. So the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948 also sparked off an exodus of Jewish refugees.”      

For those who stayed behind - among them Jacob Abdul Aziz’s family – the situation became much more difficult. According to a new law, anyone planning to leave for Israel had to leave all his assets in Iraq. "I was born in my grandfather’s house. He had also registered to leave. That house was also confiscated by the authorities. But we were allowed to keep on living there in exchange for paying a modest rent.” 

 If life still remained bearable for Jews to a certain extent up to 1967, after Israel’s victory over the Arabs during the Six-Day War their situation swiftly worsened. "The Arabs said that the Jews in the Arab states would have to pay a very heavy price for that. They were viewed as being a fifth column.” 
 "If we wanted to travel further than 80 kilometers from home we needed a special permit. We were only allowed to deduct small amounts from our bank accounts. Jews were not allowed to work for the public sector any more. Our Jewish sports club was closed. Jews were no longer allowed to be members of clubs. Universities were closed to Jews. After school hours, I sat at home and would busy myself knitting and sewing”, said Menuhin laughing. I took French lessons. We all tried to improve our linguistic skills”. 
Hung in Tahrir square  

At the beginning of 1969 matters hit rock bottom. A certain number of Jews were arrested - as far as is known without the slightest proof - for spying for Israel. On January 27th, they were hanged in Tahrir square, the great central square in Baghdad. “Some 25,000 Iraqis came to watch the scene and to celebrate. I knew one boy who was hanged, he was 17 years old. I cannot describe the anguish we all felt.”
A little later a family member of Menuhin was also arrested: an accountant. “They seized  him at home and returned him in a jute bag dead. Nor was he the only one. Some fifty Jews at least lost their lives in this manner or disappeared never to be seen again.”
More and more Jews secretly tried to flee to Israel. Being a lawyer, Jacob Abdul Aziz felt no inclination to do so, although his practice as a solicitor had dwindled when his Jewish clients left. Towards his wife and children, he acted as if everything could not fail to improve soon.   
"Many Arabs were convinced that Jews were sucking Iraq’s blood. At the university which now accepted Jews again, a booth was placed at the entrance in order to raise funds for Palestine. ‘Give a dinar, kill a Jew' was the slogan there. On such days being a Jew, you had better stay at home.”     

At this time, a friend offered her the chance to flee the following day. Her brother would be able to join her. “I was afraid to discuss the plan with my father beforehand”, she says. “I bought an abaya and my brother managed obtain an old jacket at the flea market”. In the small bus that brought us to the Kurdish areas we sat as unostentatiously as possible among Kurds. And that’s how we got to the town of Suleimaniya. In the evening we stepped into a jeep which rushed without lights through the cold, dark mountains - it was the end of December 1970. 

“The police is pursuing us”, their escorts told them. Menuhin said: “At a given moment we had to get off the vehicle ; it was pitch black. There stood a smuggler with his donkeys, waiting for us. We arrived at a stream after following a slippery track. “Iran is on the other side”, the smuggler told us."And indeed Menuhin and her brother managed to reach Israel via Teheran – at that time, Israel wasn’t yet considered the arch-enemy.
Shortly afterwards, Jacob Abdul Aziz was arrested and questioned: where were his children? But after some time he was released thanks to the help of some Muslim friends. He was re-arrested  some months later, this time for several months. In August 1971 his wife and younger daughter also fled, again without his consent. “My mother was afraid that otherwise she would never again see my brother or myself and therefore had no faith whatsoever that they might be permitted to leave the country, as my father hoped”. After that, the only contact that remained with him was through the post, via an American aunt. 
Shadow in Baghdad

She just “couldn’t manage” to produce a film about her father. Then she got in touch with the movie director Duki Dror, whose father had been arrested in Iraq during the fifties.   He saw something in the project, but somehow it didn’t work. Three years later an interview with the American-Iraqi TV network Alhurra speeded things up. She explained that she was still hoping to clarify the issue of her father’s death.
An Iraqi journalist came forward online. He was a Shi'ite who only knew about Jews in Baghdad from what he had heard from his grandma. He offered to try and trace Linda's father. The contacts with the journalist play an important role in the film. Menuhin only met the journalist once, not in Iraq but in the Jordanian city Amman. Due to security reasons he did not want to reveal his identity. 
But the journalist’s search did not yield any results:  her father was probably buried in a notorious complex where many prisoners ended up losing their lives.
 Shadow in Baghdad, the film about her search, hit the screen in 2013 and had a therapeutic effect on Menuhin. The production of the film and the contacts she established with many people willing to help her operated as a healing balm on her soul. After the film came out, that feeling intensified as a result of her discussions in the diaspora with other Iraqis who had fled their country. It was for a film screening that she was in Holland at the end of 2017. 
"Finally I became conscious that so many other people had been persecuted by the regime and had suffered under it, not only Jews, but also Muslims and Christians. For many years I had walled myself off from this reality. Many Iraqis who have seen the film understand that it also tells their story. We are like one big family whose members have all suffered under that wretched regime.” 
Does Linda Menuhin still want to return to Baghdad?  She laughs: “My mantra is that I only want to return to Baghdad as Israeli ambassador.”

Friday, January 12, 2018

How a pro-Nazi pogrom triggered the exodus from Iraq

Increasingly, the Farhud - the murderous pogrom which claimed the lives of 179 Jews in 1941 - is being recognised as a major trigger for the mass exodus of the Jews of Iraq. Writing in Haaretz Dor Saar-man generally does a good analysis of the anti-Jewish currents leading up to the pogrom but it is marred by inaccuracies. It is not true that Jews did not suffer prior antisemitism. In 1889, an anti-Jewish riot swept Baghdad. An anti-Jewish ruler, Daoud Pasha, incited anti-Jewish pogroms in the 19th century. (With thanks Yoram, Lily)

The attack on the city’s flourishing, peaceful Jewish community is usually referred to as the trigger for the Iraqi aliyah to Israel. But seldom is the question asked: How could such a pogrom have occurred in the first place in Iraq – a place where Jews had lived in peace for centuries, a country that did not seem to suffer anti-Semitic norms?

 Jews queuing up to register to leave Iraq at the Messouda Shemtob synagogue, Baghdad in 1950

An examination of the historical background reveals the Farhud’s causes: the opposing interests of the Iraqi government and the British Empire, Nazi Germany’s influence, internal Arab movements, and a struggle between groups of Iraqi intellectuals. The unfortunate Jews were caught in the middle.

Historian Nissim Kazzaz has researched Iraqi Jewry and managed to put the Farhud in its historical context. Until the 1920s there was no significant evidence of anti-Semitism in Iraq. (Not true, see intro above - ed) Old restrictions from the Ottoman era were abolished during the 20th century and the establishment of the British Mandate after World War I soon changed the Jews’ situation for the better.

Yet World War I had other outcomes as well. The Iraqi elite were introduced to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a forged text that was partly translated from the original Russian into Arabic. New movements were rising in that period in Iraq, some of which argued that as long as the Jews did not hold national inspirations, they were part of the Iraqi nation without obstacles.

But other movements, such as Al Istiklal, had a different opinion. Perceiving the Iraqi nationality as Arabic and Muslim, they would not include religious minorities such as the Jews. Formally, after Iraq received independence from Britain in 1932, the Jews were considered Iraqi citizens, but some voices always argued against their integration.

At the same time, the world was going through profound changes. Fascist leaders rising in Europe such as Hitler and Mussolini had supporters among the Iraqi elite who resented the British. Even after independence, the British still expected certain privileges, especially in the transfer of goods through Iraq, which the Iraqi nationalists would not yield. They insisted that Iraq should establish a close relationship with Germany instead of being exploited by Britain.

Meanwhile, Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and speeches were translated into Arabic, and German educators came to Iraq to spread radical anti-Semitic propaganda (in fact there were enough 'homegrown' educators, such as Sati al-Husri and Sami Shawkat - ed) . Iraqi newspapers went all the more pro-German, especially after 1939. They asserted, for example, that Iraqi Jews and the Zionists were one and the same, that world Jewry was scheming to ruin the glorious nation of Iraq, and that Jews must be banished from public life. (This happened before 1939 - ed)

With help from the Germans, the Al-Fatwa religious movement   was founded; it espoused the keeping to strict Islamic rules and practices by all citizens, and it was inspired by the Hitler Youth( I think the author is confusing the Futuwwa religious movement with the pro-Nazi paramilitary youth movement in Iraq of the same name - ed). At a certain point, all students and teachers were forced to join the movement – including the Jews. In 1939 the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, settled in Iraq (he was expelled from Palestine by the British - ed), lobbied for the Germans and spread hatred against the Jews.

The tension boiled over on April 1, 1941. Until that day Iraq did not assist the British, but it also did not assist Germany directly. Eventually, Prime Minister Rashid Ali decided it was time to switch allies (in fact al-Gaylani was anti-British since the 1920s and 30s). He launched a coup against the pro-British officials (there had been repeated failed coup attempts between 1939 and 41); he then announced that Iraq would no longer assist Britain with airplane fuel, and even sent military forces to British bases in Iraq. By the end of April, the British had attacked the Iraqi army, which was now backed up by Luftwaffe pilots.

In May, the British fought the German-Iraqi force and had help from groups like the the Irgun Jewish militia based in British Mandatory Palestine. In one operation in Iraq, Irgun chief David Raziel was killed by the Germans and his body was kept by the Iraqis until the early 1960s. Finally, with support from Indian forces, the British forced the Iraqis to surrender, and on May 30 the pro-German Iraqi officials escaped to Iran. Their successors signed the surrender documents.

From that point the Jews were in immediate danger. The surrender agreement stated that the British would enter Baghdad within two days. The Al-Fatwa religious movement saw a window of opportunity to incite the masses and blame the Jews for the military failure against the British. They marked the houses of the Jews in red and the next day, June 1, the mobs started rioting against the Jews – the first such riots ever in Iraq.

The rioters destroyed synagogues and murdered, raped and wounded people – the elderly and infants were not spared. The mob used all manner of weapons and also ran people over with vehicles. But some Jews were hid by their Muslim neighbors, who put themselves at great risk.

The massacre only ended when the British entered the city. The British actually knew about the pogrom a day earlier but did not try to prevent it; just like the local authorities, they preferred to let the masses vent their rage.

After the Farhud, the Iraqi authorities held an investigation, blamed nationalists, and even executed a few army officers involved in the incitement. Husseini, the mufti, was also mentioned in the investigation, and the German involvement was recognized over the years.

A monument in memory of the victims (actually, it was a mass grave - ed) was put up in Baghdad, but even so, the Farhud triggered the mass emigration of Iraq’s Jews. Between 1950 and 1952, Israel’s Operation Ezra and Nehemiah (1950-1952) brought some 120,000 people – 90 percent of Iraq’s Jews – to the young state.

Read article in full

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Petrol bombs thrown at Djerba synagogue

 Amichai Stein sent a Tweet showing damage to a synagogue on the island of Djerba

 Update: the Djerba Jewish community will not be driven out by the recent incidents, says Elie Trabelsi. His comments in DW must be taken in the context that the Trabelsi family have a vested interest in tourism to the island. (with thanks: Stan)

As protests spread across Tunisia for the third night running, two petrol bombs were hurled on Tuesday at the ancient synagogue of Al- Ghriba, according to JTA. The Jewish school on Djerba was also attacked, says a report in the Jerusalem Post. There were no casualties (with thanks: Lily):

The Jewish community of Djerba was targeted on Tuesday night, as violent anti-government protests raged elsewhere in the North African country, witnesses said.

Head of the local Jewish community, Perez Trabelsi, told Reuters that petrol bombs had been thrown at the Jewish school on the tourist resort island of Djerba, causing some damage but no injuries.

There were no protests in Djerba but locals said the assailants had exploited the fact that there was a reduced security presence as police were busy elsewhere combating anti-government protests around the country.

“Unknown people took the opportunity of the protests and threw Molotov cocktails into the lobby of a Jewish religious school in Djerba,” Trabelsi said.

Read article in full

 News 24 report

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Bahrain visit projects image of religious tolerance

The Times of Israel has the back story to the December 2017 multifaith visit to Israel of a delegation from Bahrain. The initiative has the blessing of the Bahraini royal family, and is one of many undertaken in recent years to project an image of religious tolerance. A cathedral is being built on the island, which has a US naval base. About 30 Jews still live there.

Members of the Bahrain delegation to Israel  

In a strikingly rare instance of a visit to Israel by representatives from an Arab country without diplomatic relations, a delegation of religious figures from the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain traveled to the Jewish state last month “to send a message of peace” from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

 “Our message is peaceful coexistence with no government involvement,” said Betsy Mathieson, president of the Bahrain-based nongovernmental organization “This is Bahrain,” who led the delegation.

The 24 participants — Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs — were invited to the country as guests of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a US-based Jewish human rights group. Representing the first publicly known delegation to visit Israel from the Persian Gulf kingdom, many saw the trip as a sign of potential warming ties between the two countries.

Read article in full 

Bahrain interfaithers snubbed after Israel visit

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Rich traditions unique to Syrian Jews

Ever heard of the family shawl worn at brit milah ceremonies? Or the tray with candles? Brooklyn’s Syrian and Sephardi Jews have certain unique traditions which have helped bind the communities together. Sarina Roffe in Community explains some of them (with thanks: American Sephardi Federation):

Sarina Roffe holding a family photo (Photo: from Sarina's Cookbook)

Women’s Shawl – A Brit Milah Tradition
A very small but incredibly significant family tradition among many Jewish families is the “family shawl,” handed down from generation to generation among women. I am a journalist and historian, known as an expert in Sephardic history, and I have never seen this particular tradition written about or even spoken of. It just is.
The family shawl is not for prayer, nor is it a simple head covering. The family shawl is fancy, carefully sewn with pure gold thread, often made with lace. It may have other ornamentation, embroidery or adornment, but the family shawl is not something you would wear at anything but a special occasion.
The family shawl in my father’s family has been handed down for at least 150 years. It was worn by my great-great grandmother when she carried my paternal grandfather Joseph Nissim Missry, a”h, for his brit in September, 1891.
The family shawl is worn only when the grandmother carries an eight-day-only newborn grandson for his brit milah, or in the case of a firstborn son, during the pidjon haben, when he is redeemed by the Cohen.
The family shawl is special. As you wear it, you feel the power from your female ancestors give strength to the moment of the brit milah. The mitzvah of carrying a child for his circumcision, his entry into the covenant of Avraham Avinu, is somehow magnified, as wearing the shawl draws on the generations before us in that magical moment.
The shawl from my father’s family has been fabric tested. The fabric and gold thread are dated to about 1850. One of my cousins keeps the shawl under lock and key. When a boy is born in our family, it is picked up for the brit, and returned within days, when it is secured for the next brit.

Seniyet Eliyahu Hanabi – Tradition at Brit Milahs
Some rituals in our community are deeply rooted. For example, at every brit milah, a two-level tray with candles is circulated. People light candles and donate to charity. Sometimes guests will take a penny for good mazal.
The tray is called Seniyet Eliyahu Hanabi - the tray of Eliyahu the Prophet. Eliyahu Hanabi is believed to be present at all brit milot.
This practice is based ona Midrashic tradition found in Megilat Taanit, which discusses Greek decrees over Jews when they ruled Eretz Israel. One decree forbids the brit milah.  Jews secretly announced the brit milah by grinding spices and lighting candles. The custom may date from the time of the Prophets. Other sources reveal that during the Spanish Inquisition and forced conversion of the Jews a tray of candles outside the home was a signal that there was a brit milah in that location.

Sending Gifts to the Bride - Swanee
In Syria, our community had a tradition of sending money to a bride, so she can prepare for her wedding night by visiting the mikvah. This tradition grew into sending gifts to the bride, gifts she could us to prepare for her wedding night. Called swanee, the tradition has grown, whereas the gifts are sent on fancy trays, with magnificent white flowers, and almonds covered in white candy.
The modern day swanee maintains the same tradition of sending gifts to the bride, such as a nightgown, perfumes, an evening purse, and jewelry. The gifts have become more and more elaborate. Today, it is widely accepted that gifts are also bought for the groom by the bride’s parents. The swanee, or collection, is sent to the home of the bride, where the gifts are displayed for friends and relatives, and it is an occasion for celebration. The celebration can be an afternoon tea, where coffee and desserts are served, or an evening party.  Often the swanee is combined with the American tradition of a bridal shower.  Today, it is expected that there be a table where the mother of the bride sends gifts to the groom as well, as a way to welcome him into the family.

Foods Reserved for Special Occasions
Our community has foods typically reserved for special occasions. Generally, shob el boz (made from cornstarch and sugar) or el maziye, a white drink made from almond juice, is served at engagement parties. Knafe, made from shredded phyllo dough and ricotta cheese, is served at brit milahs.

Passover – Fast of the Firstborn
In the tenth and final plague inflicted upon Egypt, Gd killed the firstborns in all of Egypt. But, as in all the plagues brought upon Egypt, the Children of Israel were spared. To express their gratitude, all firstborn males fast on the day before Passover (ErevPesah). The fathers of firstborn boys under the age of 13 fast in their stead.
The prevailing custom, however, is for the firstborn to exempt themselves from the obligation to fast by participating in a seudat mitzvah, a festive meal after morning prayers erev Pesah. In our community, firstborn women do not fast. I always remember the firstborn in our family having macaroons!

Passover – the Sack of Matzah
Sephardic families have special traditions after the afikomen is hidden. The Seder leader at a Moroccan Jewish Seder takes the Seder tray and walks around the table, singing a special prayer and passing the tray over the head of each person.
Syrian Jews place the matzah in a napkin or sack. This sack is passed around the table. Using the right hand, the sack is placed over the left shoulder. Each person says, “Mishaarotam” (carrying the possessions tied in bags on their shoulders as they left Egypt). The family then asks, “Minwen jaiyeh? (Where are you coming from?) He replies, “Mimetzrayim” (from Egypt). Then, “Lawen rayech? (Where are you going to?) He replies, “Liyerushalayim” (Jerusalem). And then, “Ishu zawatek? (What are you carrying?) And he replies, “Matzah.”
Visitors to our Passover Seders find this tradition fascinating!

Read article in full

Monday, January 08, 2018

Yemen Jews receive food parcels

 The war in Yemen is taking its toll on civilians, and the tiny Jewish community of Sana'a, which this Arutz Sheva article puts at 67, is no exception. An unnamed British charity is distributing food to them.

A Yemen local relief organization published documentation of food distribution to Jews in the closed section of the capital, Sana'a.

The difficult humanitarian situation has affected the tiny community, reportedly numbering 67 Jews from 17 families left in the capital.

The organization pictured them receiving sacks of flour, oil and other basic commodities which were reportedly funded by a British charity organization.

Read article in full 

Kuwait donors fund aid for Yemen Jews

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Egyptian sociologist lectures in Israel to cries of 'traitor'

Leading Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim was heckled by a group of pro-Palestinians as a traitor to their struggle at a lecture he gave in Israel. Yet his visit is a sign that Egyptian intellectuals may be warming to Israel: hitherto, the government has made all the running. (This is in contrast to Iraq, where the government shows no interest in making peace with Israel, but Iraqi intellectuals have been swept up in a wave of sympathy and nostalgia for their former Jewish community). Roger Hercz reports for the New Arab:

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: heckled as a traitor (Photo: Getty)

The 79-year old sociologist was received on Tuesday as a rock star in the packed auditorium at Tel Aviv University. Around 600 people turned up to hear him, but soon it transpired - not everyone was happy.

Ibrahim was in Israel to participate in a two-day academic conference about Egyptian society, with his topic of discussion titled: "Lesson from 100 years of changes in Egypt".

A long list of Israeli and other foreign academics participated in what was described as an international conference.

Ibrahim's participation was, however, a major blow to the anti-normalisation movement in the Arab world.

Not only was the Egyptian sociologist a known human rights activist and a strong proponent of a widening of civil society in his home country, Ibrahim, as opposed to most other activists, had also paid the ultimate price for his fight against oppression.

In the year 2000 ex-president Hosni Mubarak threw him in jail for, among other claims, "defaming Egypt's image abroad".

"Thank you for inviting me," he told his Israeli hosts. While strong in spirit, it was clearly a physically frail man who greeted the Israelis. He said his years in prison had ruined his health. He could hardly walk, even after five surgeries. And while laughing and smiling, his voice was weak.

Read article in full

Friday, January 05, 2018

Read the Mizrahi literature of loss and disorientation

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Ben Judah makes the important point that British Jews should read more literature by Israel's Mizrahi writers. Yes, they should, but the popularity of Oz and Grossman reflects the fact that, unlike Israel, the make-up of the British-Jewish community is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. Still, too few publishers are willing to invest in English translation of Hebrew works.

As a secular new year resolution, British Jews should stop ignoring Israel’s Mizrahi writers. Just ask yourself this question: how many British Jews, the same ones with stacks of Oz, Grossman and sometimes even Bialik at home, can name a single Mizrahi novelist or Mizrahi poet?

Erez Bitton (Photo: The Poetry Foundation)

This chronic neglect is not just the fault of Jews as readers, but of Jews as educators. This leaves half of Israeli Jews outside of our Jewish imagination. You would never work it out just reading Amos Oz but the family stories of most Israelis are not Ashkenazi-Yiddish epics like A Tale of Love And Darkness.
The exact percentage point is blurred by intermarriage but today just about half of Israeli Jews have Mizrahi roots. These are Israeli stories beginning in Baghdad and Rabat and not just Berlin and Warsaw.

If they really want to feel Israel, British Jews need to start reading more Erez Bitton. The blind poet from Lod, who won the prestigious Israel Prize in 2015, is the Algerian-born master who can take them into the Israel they need to understand. The Israel of the North African aliyah, disorientated and discriminated against in run-down development towns; families who were sprayed with DDT as they reached the promised land.

His poems, like that about Zohra El Fassia, who was “a singer at the court of Muhammad the Fifth in Rabat, Morocco,” can connect us to the other Mizrahi world, of loss.

“It was said that when she sang, soldiers drew knives, to push through the crowds, and touch the hem of her dress,” sighs Bitton. But now, he finds her, “In the poor section of Aktiot C, near the welfare office, the odour of leftover sardine-tins on a wobbly three-legged table, splendid kingly rugs stacked on a Jewish Agency Bed” — imagining herself talking to Muhammad the Fifth in the mirror.

His poems, full of Mizrahi disorientation, can connect British Jews to the feeling of my Baghdadi Jewish grandfather in 1947, that  this strange, socialist — “too Ashkenazi” —country was built for somebody else.

Read article in full

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Egyptian synagogues 'are not social clubs'

A US-based organisation of Jews from Egypt has urged the Egyptian government to intervene and prevent the tiny Jewish community of Egypt from holding cultural events in their remaining synagogues.

Will the Adly St synagogue in Cairo now become a social club?

 Desire Sakkal of the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt wrote to the Egyptian ambassador to the US to protest the announcement by Mrs Magda Haroun, the president of the Jewish community of Cairo.

"Since there are fewer than 10 Jews in Egypt, the events will have to be non-Jewish in nature. We protest this action", he wrote. "Our synagogues are houses of worship and must be used only for religious functions. They are not social clubs."

Reminding the Egyptian government that it has repeatedly stated that it is determined to protect its Jewish heritage, Mr Sakkal claims that Mrs Haroun does not have the authority to make changes. "It stands to reason that (synagogues) should be preserved only for their original purpose."

No regular services take place in any of Cairo's remaining synagogues, although the Maadi synagogue is occasionally used by members of the Israeli embassy.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

'Jews arrested' for vandalism amid street protests

 As Iranian protesters take to the streets, the Jewish community is keeping out of trouble, but the regime is thought to have arrested* Jews for reportedly vandalising synagogue artefacts.  The security that Jews in Iran generally have enjoyed up to now may quickly unravel.  

 Monument to Jews who died in the Iran-Iraq war (Photo: Iran Media)

The Tablet reports:

In a Persian-language voice note circulating on WhatsApp and obtained by Tablet, an Iranian Jew describes what happened: “They ripped two Torah scrolls to pieces. They ripped all the prayer books, and they broke all the lamps… They ripped two Torah scrolls, and not only did they rip them, they threw them into the toilet.” Israel’s Channel 10 aired blurry footage that purportedly depicts the damage in the synagogue.

On Tuesday, reports began circulating that several Jews had been arrested, though it is not known who they are or on what charges. Because of the precarious position of the Jewish community in Iran, fears of retaliation are running high, making it difficult to confirm these reports. (*Indeed some contacts have categorically denied the rumours - ed.)

What is clear is that the Iranian Jewish community in the diaspora is unnerved. Many suspect these incidents are related, but they are not sure how or why—and fear they’re about to be followed by still other disturbances.

A statement released earlier this week by Susan Azizzadeh, the president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in Los Angeles, and Robert Kahen, the president of the IAJF in New York, expressed a “deep concern” over the recent incidents. “In light of these clearly anti-Semitic incidents,” the statement read, “we call upon the authorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran to ensure the protection of all places of worship as well as all members of our community, and to bring the perpetrators of these criminal acts to justice.”

Read article in full 

Meanwhile, writing in the Jerusalem Post,  Anneka Hernroth-Rothstein manages to contact an Iranian Jew to gauge the community's situation at a time of protest (with thanks: Michelle):

"My friend tells me that they are safe, that the regime knows that Jews do not participate in these protests, that they never seek out conflict or trouble and wouldn’t be part of revolutions or uprisings against the ayatollah.

"To an outside observer, this may sound like cowardice or agreement, even, but knowing what the Jews of Iran have lived through under this regime it is an answer that makes sense; theirs the only method possible. What I learned about the Jewish community of Iran was that theirs was a freedom with strings attached, a somewhat secure life inside a gilded cage, where minorities are kept as proof of a tolerant society, but forced to comply with the oppressive lines and framework of an unpredictable regime. In certain ways, being a Jew in Iran means a more secure life than that of a non-Jewish Iranian, but that security is hinged on an agreement that everyone involved knows can be torn to shreds at any time."

Read article in full

 LA's Iranian Jewish community shocked by reports of vandalism (Jewish Journal)

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Protesters wreck Holocaust display in Tunis

Tunisians protested at the opening of a Holocaust exhibition at the National Library in Tunis, tearing down posters and chanting slogans such as "Free Palestine, out with the Zionists." This MEMRI clip demonstrates that there are forces in Tunisia running counter to its image as a moderate, democratic state which protects minority rights. (With thanks: Lily, Jonathan) 

Tunisian University Professor Habib Kazdaghli, the exhibition's organizer, said that the purpose of the exhibition was to "make our children love history" and that it had been organized months before U.S. President Trump's Jerusalem declaration. 

Hamida Bessaad, a National Library researcher, said with indignation that the organizer "wants our little children to get to know the history of the Jews and learn about their Holocaust," but that "the children of Palestine have been going through a Holocaust since 1948." 

Civil society activist Kawthar Chebbi called the Holocaust a "decades-old myth" and a lie, and political activist Omar Al-Majri said that the Holocaust had been "perpetrated by the Zionist movement in collaboration with the Nazis." This report appeared on Meem Magazine Online, an Arab Women's Magazine, on 15 December.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Point of No Return's Review of the Year 2017

Another year over and time for a review of the main events recorded by Point of No Return, one of the few blogs on the net to focus on news about Jews in and from Arab and Muslim countries.

First the good news: 2017 saw the routing of Da'esh (Islamic State) from Iraq and Syria. It was also the year when historian Georges Bensoussan was acquitted for alleged hate speech against Muslims.

 This year also marked a new readiness by the Egyptian authorities to preserve Egypt's Jewish heritage: $2.2 million were earmarked for the restoration of the Nebi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria. The al-Sisi government has also agreed to catalogue and repair Jewish manuscripts and Torah scrolls.

On the other hand, there is bad news regarding the Iraqi-Jewish archive, restored in the US: it is slated to return to Iraq in September 2018.

In the face of the menace of a nuclear Iran, relations between Israel and Arab regimes continued to warm up. Individual Kuwaitis and Saudis recorded their sympathies with the 'Zionist entity'. The government of Iraq is out of step with its intellectuals, who continue to express nostalgia for their lost Jewish community.

In Israel the release of thousands of documents by the  government on the festering issue of the 'Yemenite' babies who vanished in the 1950s has been an attempt to heal the wounds of the past;  the question of compensation to affected families has arisen.

Meanwhile,  the numbers of Jews in Muslim countries continue their inexorable decline: the community in Turkey maintained its downward trend. A Yemeni government minister called for the ethnic cleansing of the last 50 Jews of Yemen.

In 2017 we lost great singers such as Ahuva Ozeri and Meir Banai. The year saw the passing of Lebanese spy Shula Cohen and prominent Iraqi-Jewish journalists and scholars Menashe Somekh, Salim Fattal and Shmuel Moreh in Israel, as well as Sylvia (Haim) Kedourie in London.  

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, and Jews who still lived in Arab countries in 1967 have been remembering the terrible repercussions of the Arab defeat: riots, torture, imprisonment and hangings.

The year ended with unrest in Iran against the Ayatollahs' regime, promising long-awaited change for the people and minorities of Iran.

 Point of No Return reported on the increasing awareness of the Jewish Nakba in Israel and the diaspora: for the first time, the film Remember Baghdad gleaned mainstream media coverage of the plight of Iraqi Jews. This year also saw the publication of Uprooted, the 'book of the blog'.


Other end-of-year Reviews: