Thursday, December 18, 2014

What are Yiddish actors doing in Cairo?



A photograph bought on Ebay sheds light on a remarkable phenomenon: a Yiddish theatre group in Cairo in 1916. Yes, Cairo. David Mazower blogs on the Digital Yiddish Theater Project:

Who are these smartly-dressed young men and women? And why are they all wearing white ribbons? We can sense a certain earnestness and a strong sense of pride in their carefully posed ranks. But with no names, dates or inscription on the back on the photo, what can we learn from it?

The improvised banner, with new lettering fixed to the original cloth, reads: “4 yoriger yubileum yudish literarisher un dramatisher tsirkl” – the 4th Anniversary of the Jewish Literary and Dramatic Circle.

So what’s a group like this doing in Cairo?

Cairo’s large and well-integrated Jewish community was mainly Arabic and French speaking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But, just as in Constantinople and Baghdad, from at least the mid 19th century onwards there was also a constant presence of Ashkenazi Jews – workers, artisans, traders and professionals. Their main languages would have been Yiddish, Russian and Polish. (And of course many people in both groups would also have had some proficiency in Hebrew).

Cairo’s secular Jewish cultural products – its songs, theatre, literature and journals – were thus a complex hybrid of overlapping languages and subcultures, connected both to the popular culture of the Arab street but also to high society and the elites. Within this melting-pot, Yiddish culture also gained a foothold by the early 20th century.

In the Yiddish language, yudish (an alternative spelling of yidish) can mean both Jewish and Yiddish, and our Circle is in fact a Yiddish amateur dramatic society.  For more on its history, we can follow in the footsteps of one of the finest historians of modern Yiddish (and a pioneer of digital Yiddish scholarship), the late Leonard Prager. Omnivorously curious about global Yiddish culture, Prager wrote an article in 1992 titled “Yiddish Theatre in Cairo”, based on a small archive he found in the YIVO Institute in New York.

Prager tells us that Der yudisher literarisher un dramatisher tsirkl fun kayro (The Cairo Jewish Literary and Dramatic Circle, also known under its French name Le circle litteraire et dramatique du Caire ) was founded on 3 September 1912 by a group of amateur lovers of Yiddish culture.

His article includes a grainy image of the man sitting proudly in the front centre of our photograph, Joseph Weinstein, described as “an attorney with a deep attachment to Yiddish culture [who] founded the group and directed most of its performances…Odessa-born and formerly resident in Palestine, he was the key personality in the Ashkenazic community’s dramatic and radio activities.”

Prager also reveals that the Circle held a memorial meeting on 10 September 1916 to mark the recent passing of the revered classic Yiddish writers Y L Peretz (1852-1915) and Sholem Aleichem (1859 – 1916). We can therefore assume that our photograph was taken at this gathering, which would also explain the white memorial ribbons worn by all twelve men and seven women.

Cairo’s Yiddish theatre enthusiasts were part of a worldwide trend for Yiddish amateur dramatics. Similar groups sprang up from Shanghai and Baku to Montreal and Geneva, and right across the Yiddish-speaking heartlands of central and eastern Europe and the Americas. Inspired by the new art theatre repertoire of the Yiddish stage from Jacob Gordin onwards, they typically flourished from the 1900s to the 1930s. (...)


The Cairo Jewish Dramatic Circle lasted until at least 1948, when the war between Israel and its neighbours transformed the fortunes of the city’s Jewish community.  According to Leonard Prager, the Circle maintained an extensive archive of its meetings and performances at its club rooms in the  same building as the Ashkenazi Synagogue, but all these records were destroyed in a fire on 2 November 1945.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Instead of a Dreidel, try a Zarbout




One fixture of the festival of Hanucah, now being celebrated,  is the spinning top, also known as dreidel in Yiddish or sevivon in Hebrew. The dreidel, whose square sides are each inscribed with a letter, has replaced the spinning tops which were current in the Jewish communities of the Arab world.

Abraham Bar-Ishay remembers the zarbout or zarbouta of his childhood in Tunisia. In a post on the website Harissa he explains the rules of the game:

1- The object of the game is to keep your top spinning for as long as possible.

2- The forces that hold the top upright are so strong that one can move it from the floor to one's hand without it stopping turning. Simply move your index finger away and quickly slide your hand under the top at ground level. Spinning in the palm of your hand you can use it  to knock over your opponent's top, propel if off balance and, most importantly, become scratched as it falls. You can tell a champion player by his pristine top.

3- To start the game off, a player vigorously launches his top over  a pile formed by the tops of his opponents. If a top is hit by the sharp tip of the tossed top it could be seriously damaged.

4- One can  pass the spinning top from one hand to another. There are other stunts one can do with a balancing top spinning on its tip.


           WISHING all our READERS who are celebrating HANUCAH 
                                                   HAG SAMEAH!

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Iraqi Jews made Hong Kong

The Kadoories and Sassoons, Iraqi Jews, 'the cleverest Jews as far as business is concerned,' made Hong Kong. But they were not the only ones, according to this fascinating, in-depth feature in the South China Morning Post (with thanks: Michelle):

"We're so lucky to be in Hong Kong - it's a fantastic place for Jews. It always has been."

Judy Green, chairwoman of the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong, has lived here since she was 11 years old. We meet at the Jewish Cemetery, a green and peaceful spot in a hidden corner of Happy Valley, tucked behind a Buddhist temple and surrounded by a cluster of tower blocks. It's dotted with gravestones bearing with a mix of English and Hebrew script. The earliest recorded burial plot, belonging to a Leon Bin Baruel, dates from 1857. The most recent gravestone is dedicated to Mervyn Gatton, who died in February.

Hong Kong's Jewish population, currently estimated to be 5,000 strong, is thriving. "It's a close-knit and dynamic community," says Green. And it's a community that has deep roots, stretching right back to the earliest days of the colony.

The first Jews to set up home in Hong Kong were Iraqis who arrived in the 1840s. They were descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition (which lasted from the late 15th to early 19th centuries) who had worked their way east to Baghdad, where a sizeable community developed.

During the 19th century, Baghdadi adventurers travelled to India and set up trading operations in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. Later, as China gradually opened to international trade, they crossed the Indian Ocean and established outposts in Canton, Macau and Hong Kong.

Although there were only a handful of Jewish families in Hong Kong in the mid-19th century, they enjoyed enormous success and several became fabulously wealthy.

"The Iraqis are supposed to be the cleverest Jews as far as business is concerned, at least that's what my Iraqi friends tell me," says Green. "I think they had a lot of courage. They saw opportunities that other people either didn't see or weren't brave enough to pursue."

Jewish refugees from Shanghai at the Peninsula hotel, in 1946. 
The cemetery was created by the Sassoons, a family that was once dubbed "the Rothschilds of the East". They bought the parcel of land from local farmers. Green points out a plaque on the back wall that commemorates the opening of the burial ground, in 1855.

The family patriarch, David Sassoon, left Baghdad in 1832 and established himself in Bombay, modern-day Mumbai. He had seven sons whom he dispatched to outposts across the Orient, using his offspring to build a business empire.

"He had a son in practically every port," says Green. "As well as in Hong Kong, he had offices in Singapore, Burma, Canton, even as far as Japan and Indonesia."
The family started trading back and forth and invested in shipping, hotels and property, but its real fortune came from the less salubrious trade in opium. By the 1870s, the family was one of the leading importers to China of this incredibly lucrative commodity.

The Sassoons and their staff formed the core of the Jewish community in Hong Kong.

"Most of their employees were also Baghdadi Jews whom they sent over from Bombay," says Green. "They were deeply religious people and always made sure they had somewhere to worship - until they built a synagogue, it was usually just a room in one of their offices."

The Sassoons had fingers in pies across the breadth of Hong Kong society and helped to get the fledgling colony up and running. One of David's sons, Arthur, was on the provisional committee that founded the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in 1864. Another son, Frederick, was elected to the Legislative Council in 1884.

As Green continues her tour, we come across a small chapel and a tahara room, where bodies are ceremonially washed and prepared for burial. She explains that this building stands on ground that was leased in 1904, to expand the cemetery, with the assistance of Matthew Nathan - Hong Kong's only Jewish governor.

A Jewish New Year service conducted for the refugees at the hotel, in 1946. 
Nathan served as governor from 1904 to 1907. Born in London, he was a soldier and an engineer with a reputation as a competent and decisive administrator.
"He wanted to develop Kowloon, which was a muddy backwater in those days. My husband's grandfather remembers walking around in gumboots because it was a swamp. Nathan decided that for Kowloon to flourish it needed an access road, to link it to the hinterland of the New Territories. Many thought he was making a mistake but he was determined to push the project through."
Once dubbed "Nathan's folly", Nathan Road - the shopping megastrip that bears his name - catalysed the development of the whole area, proving the wisdom of his decision.

Although gifted in practical matters, Nathan didn't thrive socially.
"He was a bachelor and didn't have a wife to act as hostess at functions at Government House," says Green. "I think he found that aspect of colonial life very difficult. A lot of expat socialising was centred on the Hong Kong Club, which didn't admit Jews in those days, and there were Sunday gatherings at church, which he couldn't attend."

In 1907, Nathan was transferred to South Africa. On his departure, the South China Morning Post reported that "the general regret at the departure of Sir Matthew Nathan from Hong Kong is a tribute to his fine personal qualities as well as to his splendid administration …"

David Sassoon (seated) with sons Elias, Albert and David Jnr. 
At the front of the cemetery's main burial ground stands a pair of marble sarcophagi, marking the final resting places of brothers Lawrence and Horace Kadoorie, members of the best known Jewish family in Hong Kong. Green puts a small stone of remembrance on each sarcophagus. The Kadoories were family friends.

"The brothers were lovely. Lawrence was very warm-hearted, easy-going and generous-spirited. He would talk to anybody - he didn't seem to think of himself as the special person he was. Horace was extremely jovial, really interested in young people and enthusiastic about his philanthropic work."

Like the Sassoons, the Kadoories are of Iraqi extraction by way of Bombay. The first member of the dynasty to arrive in Hong Kong was Elly Kadoorie, who came in 1880, at the age of 15, to join the Sassoon family company. Brother Ellis joined him later. Elly subsequently moved to Shanghai while Ellis concentrated his efforts in Hong Kong.

The brothers amassed a fortune by investing in rubber plantations, banking, docks and real estate. In 1914, Ellis made a major investment in Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which now operates 10 properties under the Peninsula brand across Asia, Europe and the United States. The flagship Peninsula, in Tsim Sha Tsui, an iconic Hong Kong landmark, was said to be "the finest hotel east of the Suez" when it opened, in 1928.

Four years later, he bought into China Light and Power (now CLP Holdings), the largest electricity-generation company in Hong Kong.

Lawrence Kadoorie speaks to a farmer in the 1960s. 
Ellis was to remain a bachelor and died aged 55, but Elly married in Shanghai and had two sons, Lawrence and Horace. As the boys grew older, they became increasingly involved in managing the family's affairs. In 1937, Lawrence, who had been born in Hong Kong, moved back to the city to run the hotel business.
When Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in 1941, Lawrence was interned in Stanley with his wife and two small children. After five months, the family transferred to Chapai camp, near Shanghai, to be closer to Horace and Elly, who were living in the former stable block of the family mansion. Elly died in 1944 and succession fell to the brothers.

After the war, Lawrence returned to Hong Kong to reclaim his family's assets. He set up home at the Peninsula. During the occupation, the hotel had been requisitioned as the headquarters of the Japanese and, afterwards, by the British military, and was in a terrible state of disrepair. Just as restoration work got under way, refugees started arriving from Shanghai.

In the lead-up to the second world war, about 20,000 European Jews, fleeing Nazi persecution, had taken refuge in Shanghai, one of the only cities in the world for which a visa wasn't required.

"They had no money, no nothing," says Green. "The Jewish community in Shanghai galvanised and looked after them and Horace was particularly active in that. It was a huge undertaking - because there was an awful lot of them and only a relatively small Jewish community."

After the war, the refugees were repatriated to Europe or went on to start new lives in the US, Australia and Israel. Most of them had to transit through Hong Kong to collect their visas.
Horace Kadoorie at a Gurkha resettlement farm, in Nepal, in 1972. 
The Kadoories joined forces. Horace gathered information about each batch of refugees at the Shanghai end and sent it to his brother. In Hong Kong, Lawrence visited the Immigration Department almost daily, bearing lists of names, final destinations and petitions for permission to transit.

Once they arrived in Hong Kong, the refugees had nowhere to stay so Lawrence threw open the doors of the Peninsula. Most stayed only a few days but one group of nearly 300 people, who were due to sail to Australia, were stranded when their ship was diverted to carry troops. Lawrence repurposed the hotel's ballroom as a dormitory and accommodated them there for several months until alternative transport was found.

"Lawrence wasn't known for being observant, religiously," says Green, "but the Jewish people were very important to him and he was unstinting in his efforts to help them."

He had the support of Hong Kong's other Jews, who banded together to provide clothing and medical aid, and handle baggage, change currencies and assist the refugees in planning their journeys.

Once the refugees had dispersed, Lawrence turned his attention to the family business, becoming a key player in Hong Kong's phenomenal post-war economic growth. By the time of his death, in 1993, the Kadoorie portfolio included stakes in the Star Ferry, the Peak Tram, the Cross Harbour Tunnel and the Daya Bay nuclear power station, in Shenzhen.

As the Kadoories acquired money, they also gave it away. They were legendary philanthropists and their generosity was not confined to the Jewish population.

Workers at the Tai Ping carpet factory in Hong Kong. 
Elly built a number of schools and hospitals in the Middle East that were open to all-comers, irrespective of race or religion. His brother endowed the Ellis Kadoorie Chinese Schools Society in Hong Kong, which originally served the poorer sections of the Chinese population and now caters mainly to the children of lower-income South Asians.

After the war, Horace and Lawrence pioneered social initiatives to help an influx of Chinese refugees escaping the civil war across the border become self-supporting and secure.

Horace - who had always wanted to be a farmer - was instrumental in the founding of the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association in 1951. It established an experimental farm and provided training in sustainable agriculture, interest-free loans and livestock. Starting in 1968, thousands of Gurkhas (Nepalese serving in the British Army) stationed in Hong Kong were offered training, so they could work as farmers when they left the army and returned home. Later, as agriculture declined, the farm shifted its focus to environmental issues and is now run as the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.

Lawrence, together with six friends, established an enterprise to provide employment for boat girls and preserve the traditional Chinese craft of making fine carpets. Tai Ping Carpets started life in a house in Tuen Mun. Sales soon soared. Prior to the 1950s, carpets were rarely seen in Hong Kong and the floors of smart hotels were made of polished wood, but that changed with the proliferation of air conditioning, which protected carpets from damaging humidity. Tai Ping also cornered the market in the US. A trade embargo meant goods could not be imported from mainland China, creating a vacuum that Lawrence and his friends promptly filled.

In 1959, Tai Ping moved its headquarters and factory to Tai Po, bringing new vitality to the small market town. The company remained there for 32 years before all production was moved to the mainland. Still based in Hong Kong, Tai Ping is now the world's largest hand-tufted carpet company.

 Horace shows governor Alexander Grantham around the factory in 1957.
Lawrence's multifarious achievements were rewarded when he became the first person born in Hong Kong to be elevated to a British peerage. In 1981, he was named Baron Kadoorie of Kowloon and Westminster in the House of Lords.
Sir Matthew Nathan.
He and his relatives have sprinkled the SAR with the family name. While the Sassoons have only a road in Pok Fu Lam named after them, the Kadoories are credited with an avenue in Mong Kok, a beach at Castle Peak and, of course, the farm and botanical gardens.

The Kadoories still maintain a presence in Hong Kong. Lawrence had two children, one of whom - Michael Kadoorie - chairs both CLP Holdings and Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels.

The Sassoons and Kadoories may be the best known but a host of other Jewish characters contributed to Hong Kong's prosperity, enriched its cultural scene and added colour and spice to to the social fabric.

Emanuel Belilios, a contemporary of the Sassoons and another opium millionaire, built a huge mansion on The Peak and filled its garden with a menagerie of exotic animals, including a camel. As generous as he was eccentric, he helped to fund the Alice Memorial Hospital and Hong Kong's first school for girls. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1881 in recognition of his contribution to Hong Kong Society.

The flamboyant Harry Odell, known as Hong Kong's first impresario, arrived here in 1921, fresh from a stint as a tap dancer in Japan. He started a film business, persuaded famous performers to visit and successfully lobbied the government to support the foundation of the City Hall theatre complex.

Erica Cohen Lyons with cases containing the Torah, in the Ohel Leah Synagogue.  
Solomon Bard, who died last month, was a talented musician with a prodigious intellect. The founding director of the student health service at the University of Hong Kong, he also led the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, became music director of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and co-founded the Hong Kong Archaeological Society.

After the war, many Jews relocated but some stayed on, laying the foundations of today's community. From the 1960s onwards, there was a steady influx of expats and the Jewish community is now bigger, and busier, than at any other time in Hong Kong's history.



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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Turkey's long record of antisemitism

 Remember the Turkish governor of Edirne who was so angry at Israel's conduct in Gaza that he would turn his town's synagogue into a museum? (A statement he later retracted). Uzay Bulut of the Gatestone Institute argues that ethnic cleansing in Edirne had been so effective that the synagogue was already a museum. He gives a useful overview of the pressures on Turkey's Jews throughout the 20th century. But the Turkish establishment's vicious anti-Zionism, it must be stressed, is of recent vintage. (With thanks: Jonah)

The latest anti-Semitic statement in Turkey was made on November 21 by Dursun Ali Sahin, the governor of Edirne, a city in Eastern Thrace. Governor Sahin announced that because he was angry at Israel, he would turn the city's synagogue into a museum. "While those bandits [Israeli security forces] blow winds of war inside al-Aqsa and slay Muslims," he said, "we build their synagogues. I say this with a huge hatred inside me. We clean their graveyards, send their projects to boards. But the synagogue here will be registered only as a museum, and there will be no exhibitions inside it."


A view of the Great Synagogue" of Edirne, from 2010. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons/Yabancı)

In response to the uproar that followed, Governor Sahin phoned the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Ishak Haleva, to apologize and, according to the newspaper, Salom, said his statements had been misunderstood and distorted by the media.
The Director General of the General Directorate of Foundations, Adnan Ertem, then said that the synagogue would, after all, remain a house of worship.
More shocking, however, is the demographic makeup of Edirne's current population.

Before the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, the Jewish population of Edirne, for centuries a home to Jews, was 13,000, as reported in the detailed essay "The Jews of Edirne," by Rifat Bali, an independent scholar specializing in the history of Turkish Jewry. But by 1998, Edirne had three Jews left: Yasef Romano, who was born in 1938, and Rifat and Sara Miftani, a couple who owned a shop there.

Today, the current Jewish population of Edirne is two.
The Jewish presence in Edirne dates back to early Byzantine times, during the rule of Roman Emperor Theodosius I (reigned 379-395 CE). During the Ottoman Empire, Edirne -- home to many Jewish intellectuals, scientists, musicians, publishers and merchants -- was as central to Jews as Constantinople (Istanbul) and Thessaloniki.
What happened?

The "Turkification" of Turkey: Anti-Semitic Attacks against Jews during the Early Years of the New Republic:In January 1923, provoked by a series of anti-Semitic pieces published in the Pasaeli newspaper in Edirne, residents of Edirne gathered in the city center and shouted, "Your turn to leave this country will come, too! Jews, get out!" After the police were barely able to prevent attacks against Jewish shops, Jews who lived in small towns, such as Babaeski, moved to big cities, such as Istanbul.

Later that year, in December 1923, the Jewish community of several hundred living in Corlu, in Eastern Thrace, was ordered to leave the town within 48 hours. Although the decision was delayed at the request of the Chief Rabbi, a similar order, given to the Jews in Catalca, a town in Istanbul, was applied immediately.

The reason for the anger was clear: Within the Turkification campaign of the new Republic, Armenians and Greeks had been eliminated, but Jews, who were successful merchants, remained.

Prohibitions against Free Movement for Jews: In Anatolia, in June 1923, free movement for Jews was prohibited. Many Jewish merchants who had journeyed to Istanbul from the cities in Thrace -- such as Edirne, Kirklareli and Uzunkopru -- and Jewish mothers and children who had come to Istanbul because of health or other reasons, were unable to return.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

The last word on Lilly Solomon

Point of No Return is one of the rare sites where people come to find out about the Jews of Pakistan.
Dancer from the Indian subcontinent

On not a few occasions, readers from Karachi have raised the name of a green-eyed dancer named Lilly Solomon whom they knew in the 1960s. She might have married a Muslim.  She must have had a mesmerising presence because several commenters (or their mothers) were desperate  to make contact with her again.

Says one commenter:..." there was a stage dancer who used to come and dance on occasions like some one's birthday or a variety show. Her name was Lilly Solomon and she used to come accompanied by her father Solomon. I have seen the father and the daughter when she came in my neighborhood in a variety show to dance. She was very beautiful and danced Pakistani traditional dances very well. No one bothered her because of her Jewish origin and she socialized with the Pakistanis very freely without any fear. If some cheap hoodlum had ever tried to bother her it was not because she was  Jewish but in Karachi there were all kinds of people in such Variety shows and few were jerks and they would bother any girl regardless of what her religion was. Hell! they never even bothered to know what Lilly's religion was anyway."

Most recently a gentleman from Karachi now living in the US wrote to Point of No Return with an update on Lilly Solomon.

"  I got in touch with one of her brothers, and yes, sadly Lilly passed away about two years ago.  Her family is still living there (in Karachi).
Yes, she did become a Muslim.  Her children by her heritage though, I believe are all Jews, as it is based on the mother's Jewishness.  They are now of course Muslims, but deep down, they are Jews.  Am I wrong?  Not sure. This is what I have been told."

Israel's new IDF chief is a Moroccan

Why does Israel's new IDF chief-of-staff have an Ashkenazi name? Yet Gadi Eisenkot's family are Moroccan through and through. Haaretz speculates that some immigration clerk misspelled Azencot, an illustrious name in Sephardi circles.  (Just as well - the meaning in German/Yiddish is rather rude.)
Gadi Eisenkot - a Moroccan with an Ashkenazi name?

Many Israelis welcomed the news that the Israel Defense Forces' new chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, will be the first Israeli of Moroccan descent to attain the senior post. While it is true that both Eisenkot's parents were born in Morocco, many – including a headline in the cover of Yedioth Ahronoth Sunday – asked how it is that the first Moroccan chief of staff has such an Ashkenazi sounding last name.

In an interview with Army Radio on the subject, Eli Biton, an expert on Moroccan Jewry, suggested that the name implied that Eisenkot had Ashkenazi ancestors: "In the 19th century and during world War II Jewish families from Russia and Poland immigrated to Morocco. All those who escaped survived, and part of them forgot their Yiddish, but the last names – like Goldberg, Wassermann, Shapira, and also Eisenkot - stayed."

While this is a plausible explanation to where Eisenkot's name came from it is almost certainly false. Eisenkot is far from being a common name among European Jews since in German it means "Iron feces."

On the other hand, Azenkot and other variations on that spelling are quite popular among the Jews of Tunisia and Morocco, and have been so for centuries, much earlier than the small trickle of European Jews to Morocco mentioned by Biton. The name is recorded among Sephardic Jews as early as the 17th, when we have the first record of the name inn the person of Rabbi Saadia Azencot, who lived in the Netherlands at the time, where he was teacher of famous Swiss theologian Johann Heinrich Hottinger.

In the 19th century, the Azencot family was one of the most prominent in the Jewish community of the Moroccan coastal city of Tangier: David Azencot was translator to the French counsel in the city and Abraham Azencot was one of the community's chief members. Another member of the family, Moise, immigrated to Argentina and became a writer.

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1967: My ordeal in a Moroccan jail


 The Portuguese fortress at Safi


 Born to a Jewish family in Safi, Morocco, Penina Elbaz tells of her ordeal as a 14-year-old prisoner in a Moroccan jail in the Jerusalem Post blog, Clash of Cultures. Penina now lives in Montreal, Canada.

                 
Dedicated to my brother Edmond Elbaz, who was only 25 years old when he had to struggle with Moroccan bureaucracy, intimidation and threats to get us all freed.


In 1967, one month after the Six Day War, we finally decided to go to the beach after several days in hiding because Muslims threw stones at us on the streets or at our house, incited to fanaticism by the propaganda news on the radio that was predicting victory and calling for Arabs to destroy Israel and the Jews. They were convinced that the Israelis would lose the 1967 war and that the Arab world was preparing to throw Israelis and Jews into the sea. This is what President Nasser was promising them in the loud radio broadcasts in their homes and in the food stores. As his promise was not fulfilled, the  anger over Israel's lightening victory in the Six-Day engulfed the Jews like a wave of rage.


On the beach some sailors from Holland were chatting with young Jewish girls. The sailors began to sing Hava Naguila. I was not far away, getting ready to climb onto a swing: I stopped. It was very risky to sing in Hebrew in public. What was about to happen, I felt with apprehension tinged with curiosity, was somewhat surreal.

Shortly thereafter we were surrounded by Moroccan policemen pointing machine guns and shouting, "All Jews to the police van". Several people tried to intervene and save us from the forthcoming ordeal, but in vain. We obeyed. The police did not listen, they gave orders. As we were wearing bathing suits, we were  permitted to get dressed. I went into a cabin and changed slowly, taking an eternity, before being arrested.


There I was, arrested in Safi, at the age of 14, with a group of Jews, accused of having sung Hava Naguila in public to celebrate Israel's victory. We were also charged with being Zionist spies. In my group were Raquel, Simone, Daniel Israel, Poupee, Armand, Guy, Suzy, Lison, Dolly, Nicole, Ruby with her twin babies, and Eleonore. Eleonore explained that she was deaf and dumb, but the police inspector told her that she had clapped her hands in celebration and therefore she was a Zionist.

In the police van we sensed that we were being sucked into a dreadful abyss. At the police station the Dutch sailors came out with ashen-white faces after interrogation and were sent back to their country.

We stood in line. Inspector Berrada called out my name. By nature, I hate injustice and am outspoken. He asked me if I spoke Hebrew. I replied no, but added that  I went to the Alliance Israelite school where we had the right to learn Hebrew and sing prayers and Hebrew songs - so we did not do anything wrong! He was very shocked and asked me where this school was located. A secretary was typing every word at full speed. Very quickly, I lost my composure and become anguished over seemingly having betrayed my own kind.
Daniel Israel, aged 17 or 18, was particularly badly treated because of his surname. How come he retained his dignity and gentleness? The other two boys, Armand and Guy, showed tremendous resilience, honor and dignity in the face of  savage and unjust accusations and ill-treatment. Most of us were holding up as best we could but endured extremely painful moments. We supported each other; building a strong bond out of a nightmare. Lison re-invented herself as a comic, as if by magic transporting us  to a different place through laughter.

We were questioned one by one until late. These interrogations were awful. The police inspector was seeking to make us admit that we were singing an Israeli song in public, to celebrate Israel's victory, that we were spies and Zionists. However, no Jew would have had the courage to sing in public, in Hebrew. Only the two sailors from Holland had done the singing. Who knows what damage had been done to the psyche of each of us, our parents, brothers and sisters following our arrest?
We were photographed and fingerprinted as though we were criminals. Did we have a case file? There was no court trial. No lawyer had the courage either to represent or to defend us. Outside the prison gates, fanatical Muslims clamored their hatred. They were there at all times, behind the gates, ready to kill. It was scary to see and hear them whenever the jail gates were opened.

As no lawyer would take our case out of fear, my brother Edmond and Mr. Merran went to Rabat to plead the case for our release. All this was undertaken discreetly. Theirs was a very difficult and risky attempt to reach the King and get us freed. Weaving their way through the bureaucracy, they had to plead, give out bribes and submit to harassment, intimidation and direct threats of arrest. One could not  denounce the injustice for fear of inflaming the fanatics.

During twelve days we slept on cold cement. We ate what our families brought us each evening. They came regularly despite the fact they had to run the gauntlet of insults and physical threats.
 We slept in the same clothing from the beach, shivering in the night cold.  We did not have washing facilities. The three Jewish males took it in turns to watch over us at night. They said they were guarding us from the criminals, delinquents and alcoholics brought in nightly by the police and dumped in the next corridor.

As the days passed, we waited for closure with growing anguish. Myself and other minors were threatened with placement in an institution for delinquents.
Ruby, a mother of children, lost control and began to scream with rage at the absurdity of it all. She wanted to go back to her children and to her secretarial school. The police punished her by isolating her in a one-square-meter dark cell with a hole in the middle for a toilet. The police agreed to return her twin baby girls to their father.

At the end of 12 days the police came to tell us that two of us, Poupee and me, would be released, in the dead of night. The idea of being outside, alone, at night, sent us into a panic. Our fellow inmates gave us beach towels to cover up, money for a taxi and egged us on to leave the jail.


The prison was far away. I wanted to go to home, but I did not know where to find my family: they had moved for security reasons, under the constant threat of brutality.

Outside, in the night, Poupee was as coquette as ever. She let her blond hair show even as I begged her to cover up. I was overwhelmed by deep fear, convinced that her blond hair would be our undoing. A taxi stopped at last and took us to her parents. Poupee was yelled at by her mother, who told her: "Mzrouba yak kolltec matzebess".   "Miserable girl, I had told you not to go out!"


We all left Morocco as fast as we were able to. We had to pay large bribes to get passports to leave Morocco. It took many months' worth of my dad's salary to get our passports, otherwise we would have been refused them.

We wanted to go to Canada. Many people from my hometown Safi were not able to get passports. But Moroccan Jews did not need passports to go to Israel.

(Translated from French by David Schwartzman)

Read article in full

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Don't ignore the Jews of Sudan

 "Even researchers specializing in Jews of Mizrahi origin have not heard of the Jews of Sudan", declares Haaretz, in this profile of Yehoshua Levy, 81. They have not been reading Point of No Return! Their ignorance can possibly be explained by the fact that Sudan and Egypt were for a long time united under British rule.

 Good times in the Sudan

Yehoshua Levy, an 81-year-old retired marine engineer, left his Tel Aviv apartment two weeks ago, bound for Bar-Ilan University and a conference on “Exodus, Emigration, Expulsion and Uprooting.” It was the first ever national day in honor of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim states.

Levy, who had heard of the conference only a day earlier, wasn’t surprised he hadn’t received an official invitation. He belongs to a small, rare community of Jews who immigrated to Israel from Sudan. The organizers didn’t even know of its existence. Even researchers specializing in Jews of Mizrahi origin haven’t heard of it.

“We’ll die soon and there’ll be nobody to remember us,” he says.
In its heyday, the Jewish community in Sudan had fewer than 1,000 members – a drop in the sea compared to the 260,000-strong Moroccan-Jewish community, the 135,000-strong Algerian community, the 125,000 Jews living in Iraq, the 90,000-strong Tunisian community, and the 75,000 Jews who lived in Egypt before Israel was established.

The Jewish community in Sudan dissolved after 1956 (not strictly true - Jews still lived there in the 60s and 70s - ed), when the country became independent and joined the Arab League. An estimated 500 Jews came to Israel, while the rest dispersed around the world.

“We don’t have an organization because we’re too small,” says Levy. “The charismatic leaders we had in Sudan went to America and England. Those who came here wanted to assimilate, to be like everyone.”

But for Levy, the numbers don’t matter. The stories, the heritage, the tradition and history of his community continue to occupy him, a full 65 years after he left Khartoum and came to Israel alone, aged 16.

His maternal grandfather, Farag Shua, took the train from Egypt to Sudan in 1900, “carrying a Singer sewing machine,” and became a textile merchant in Khartoum, Levy recalls.

In a small rented room in the then British/Egyptian-run state, Shua set up the community’s first synagogue in 1905. He taught the children Torah, Hebrew and prayers.

Shua visited Israel frequently; on one of his trips to Tiberias, he met Rabbi Salomon Malka and invited him to be the chief rabbi of Sudan’s Jews.
Shua’s eldest daughter, Rahma (Nehama) – Levy’s mother – was born in the Sudanese capital in 1901, the first of 11 siblings. When she was 16, her father took her to Egypt to find a match.

“In Sudan there were very few Jewish young men,” says Levy. “It was customary at the time to go to Egypt, where there was a much larger Jewish community. The matchmaker used to present a few young men and the father would choose one for his daughter.”

That’s how his mother met his father, Sasson Levy, and the two settled down in Khartoum. “We used to laugh at his Arabic, which was different from our grandfather’s, and at the way he pronounced all kinds of words,” Levy recalls.
Sasson and Rahma had eight children, including Yehoshua in 1933. “My life in Sudan wasn’t good. I don’t have good memories of it,” he says. “Anti-Semitism was widespread. When I left my neighborhood, children used to beat me up. Sometimes I fought against five at a time. In the street, they swore at me.”

After Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Levy started wondering why people shouted at him, “Jew, go to Palestine! What are you doing here?”

He decided to leave. In 1949 he boarded a plane – a propeller-powered Dakota – from Khartoum to Lod Airport, with a fuel stop on the Sudan-Egypt border.
His family joined him later. The last to leave Sudan was his brother, who remained until 1960.

Levy forged the age on his immigrant’s card so he could join the Israel Defense Forces. After his discharge he studied mechanics at the Technion, Haifa, and worked for Hayama, a company that built fishing boats. He obtained his second degree in marine engineering in The Netherlands.

After working in Israel Shipyards, he had a stint in England, where, among other things, he served as an adviser to shipping magnate Sammy Ofer.

Back in 1882, following a rebellion by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah against the Turco-Egyptian government in Sudan, the Egyptian army was defeated and the British governor, Gen. Charles Gordon, killed. The Jews were forced to convert to Islam and marry Sudanese women. ( During the rule of the fundamentalist Mahdi - ed). The British conquered Sudan again at the end of the 19th century and the Jews were permitted to live as a community again. But when Sudan became independent in 1956, the Jews’ situation took a turn for the worse. “They wanted to be equal, but were accused of spying for Israel,” says Levy.

The entire community left Sudan, leaving behind its members’ private and communal property.

“It’s hard to believe how many people from that tiny community did so well in the world,” Levy says proudly. He knows of Sudanese Jews who became extremely wealthy doing business around the world. The long list includes names like Tamam, Gaon and Sarussi, as well as Levy’s own relatives.

“My brother, Morris Levy, became chairman of the multinational engineering and design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. My cousin, Ezra Shua, was a nuclear engineer who worked on secret projects in the Pentagon,” he says. “And yet, 95 percent of Israelis don’t even know there were Jews in Sudan.”

Read article in full

Saturday, December 13, 2014

BBC features Jews of Arabia

After years of institutional silence, the BBC's new-found interest in the Jews of the Middle East is to be welcomed*. In fact, this story originated on the British Library website some six months ago. The article almost admits that persecution 'after the creation of Israel' was a key factor in the Jewish exodus from the Gulf, but then gives evidence that the communities of Iran and Bahrain suffered 'racist attacks' well beforehand. (With thanks to all those who emailed me).

The Jews may have originated in the Middle East but they were long ago scattered far and wide - to the Gulf, among other places. Few now remain, except in Iran. But a century ago, writes Matthew Teller, there was even a proposal to found a Jewish state at an oasis near Bahrain.

In 1859 Griffith Jenkins, a senior British naval officer in the Gulf, wrote to a subordinate named Hiskal.

Hiskal - or Yehezkel - ben Yosef was a minor official representing British interests in Muscat. And, like his predecessor in the post in the 1840s (a man named Reuben), he was Jewish.

Jews had been living in Muscat since at least 1625. In 1673, according to one traveller, a synagogue was being built, implying permanence. British officer James Wellsted also noted the existence of a Jewish community on a visit in the 1830s.

Jenkins's letter talks obliquely about the Imam (a Muslim ruler who held sway in Oman's interior) and the arrival of a man from Persia. He ends by asking Hiskal to explain the matter in private - and then, remarkably, had his letter translated into Hebrew.

Letter in Hebrew

British Library curator Daniel Lowe, who unearthed the letter recently, is flummoxed. With Arabic in daily use, and Hiskal doubtless able to read English, why would Jenkins communicate in Hebrew?

Lowe guesses that he may have been using Hebrew as a secret code, to be understood by Hiskal but not by messengers - and, perhaps crucially, not by the Imam and the "man from Persia".

Map of the Gulf
But if this remains a mystery, it's well-known that Jews once lived all across Arabia.

The Koran records Jewish tribes in and around Medina in the 7th Century, and the medieval traveller Benjamin of Tudela, who passed through in about 1170, describes sizeable Jewish populations throughout modern-day Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as on both shores of the Gulf - at Kish (Iran) and Qatif (Saudi Arabia).

Baghdad had been home to Jews since the 6th Century BC. Around the time of WW1, officials estimated the city's Jews to number between 55,000 and 80,000, in a total population of 200,000 - a proportion equal to or greater than that in centres of European Jewry such as Warsaw or Berlin.
Today, fewer than 10 individuals remain.

For a combination of reasons including economic migration, political pressure and outright persecution - notably after the State of Israel was declared in 1948 - almost all the Jewish communities of the Gulf countries dwindled to nothing in the 20th Century.

Two survive. In Iran perhaps 25,000 Jews remain, while Bahrain has a tiny Jewish minority, comprising only a few families - though they wield significant power. Until last year, Bahrain's ambassador to the US was a Jewish woman, Houda Nonoo.

Neither community, though, has had an easy time. Racist attacks were being recorded by the British in Iran in 1905 and in Bahrain in 1929.
Meanwhile, British diplomat John Gordon Lorimer hints at tensions caused by Jewish businessmen in Kuwait, who distilled "spirituous liquors" and thus enabled local Muslims to break religious laws.

In 1917 an outlandish plan was floated to use Bahrain as the bridgehead from which to establish a "Jewish State of Eastern Arabia" in the desert nearby, but it came to nothing. Just weeks afterwards British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour gave his support to the idea of establishing a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.

Read article in full 

*The following addition to the BBC timeline on Israel (with thanks: Ian) has been noted: 1949-1950s - About a million Jewish refugees from Arab countries, plus 250,000 Holocaust survivors, settle in Israel. (In fact the true figure was 650, 000 but we are not complaining - ed)

BBC Watch

The Jewish cemetery in  Saudi Arabia

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tribute to Iraqi Jew who translated the Koran

 It might come as a surprise to learn that the most popular translation of the Koran into English (Penguin has published over 70 editions) is by a Jew. N J Dawood, who was born in Baghdad,  died last month, aged 86. An outstanding scholar,  like the late political scientist Elie Kedourie, he was a natural writer in English, although it was not his mother tongue. Extract from his Telegraph obituary (with thanks: Michelle):

Nessim Joseph Dawood was born in Baghdad on August 27 1927 into an Iraqi-Jewish family. His father was a merchant who had served as an officer in the Ottoman army. Nessim’s skills as a translator developed at school, when his Arabic renderings of English short stories were published in Iraqi newspapers.
On leaving school in 1944, he was awarded an Iraqi state scholarship to London University, which had been evacuated from the capital during the war. He therefore studied for degrees in English Literature and Arabic at the University College of the South West, in Exeter.

After graduating, he worked briefly as an English teacher and as a journalist, while toying with the idea of translating Shakespeare into Arabic.

His life took a different turn, however, after he attended a talk by E V Rieu, the translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey and founding editor of the Penguin Classics series. Rieu spoke of a new approach to translation which sought to capture the spirit of the original text and was not just about accuracy but about good writing.

Dawood immediately wrote to Rieu enclosing the prologue to The Thousand And One Nights that he had translated into English from the original Arabic. In the next post he received a letter offering him a contract.



NJ Dawood z''l
 
His first translation, The Thousand and One Nights: The Hunchback, Sindbad and Other Tales, was published in 1954 and was so effortlessly fluent that readings and dramatic adaptations were broadcast on BBC radio, recorded by Terence Tiller. A further selection, Aladdin and Other Tales, was published in 1957, also in the Penguin Classics series. In 1973 both books were combined into a single volume, which remains in print.

After publication of The Koran, Dawood enrolled at University College London for a PhD in English, but had to abandon his studies after six months when he could not afford to continue. Instead he began working as a commercial translator, and in 1959 founded his own company, the Arabic Advertising and Publishing Company (now Aradco VSI).

Read article in full

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Nazis who found refuge in Arab world

 New evidence has come to light that the Nazi Alois Brunner died in Damascus four years ago. Remembering the Arab-Nazi relationship may seem inflammatory but it is nonetheless the awkward truth, writes Guy Walters in the Daily Beast (with thanks: Eliyahu):
Alois Brunner: died in Syria four years ago (Photo: AFP/Getty)

Brunner, who sent an estimated 130,000 Jews to their deaths, made his home in Damascus, Syria, where he found the conditions much to his liking. Although there has been much guff peddled about Brunner’s postwar activities over the past few days—some of which may be true—there is no doubt that he worked in cahoots with the Assad regime, or at least certainly enjoyed its protection.

However, Brunner was not the only perpetrator of the Holocaust mooching around the streets of the Syrian capital. In terms of gruesome numbers, Franz Stangl, the former commandant of Treblinka extermination camp, had some 800,000 murders on what remained of his conscience, and he arrived in Damascus in September 1948 with the assistance of a Roman Catholic bishop.

Although Brunner is said to have variously worked as an intelligence agent, an arms dealer, and a security advisor, Stangl took more menial positions in textile firms. Life was somewhat frugal, but manageable. Unfortunately for Stangl, the local chief of police took a fancy to his 14-year-old daughter and wanted to add the child to his harem. Stangl didn’t tarry, and packed his bags and shepherded his entire family to—you guessed it—Brazil.

Stangl seems to have been one of the few Nazis who didn’t find the air pleasing in Syria. Most, such as Major-General Otto-Ernst Remer, prospered on Arab Street. Remer was, frankly, a real piece of work, and having founded the swiftly-banned Socialist Reich Party in West Germany in the early 1950s, decided that working as an arms dealer with the likes of Brunner more rewarding.

Unlike Brunner, Remer was itinerant, and spent much time in that other nest of postwar Nazis—Cairo. If anything, the Egyptian capital was even more appealing than Damascus, and had been playing host to Nazis immediately after the war, when King Farouk opened his arms to scores of former SS and Gestapo officers.

That hospitality continued even after Farouk was deposed by the Free Officers Movement in 1952, as Nasser regarded German scientific and intelligence expertise as being an essential component of his regime. No less a figure than Joachim Daumling, the former head of the Gestapo in Düsseldorf, was tasked with establishing Nasser’s secret service.

In fact, the list of some habitués of Cairo in the 1950s and the 1960s reads like a who’s who of Nazi Germany, featuring as it did the rescuer of Mussolini, Otto Skorzeny; the ace Stuka pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel; the leader of a notorious SS penal unit, Oskar Dirlewanger; and the particularly odious and violently anti-Semitic stooge of Goebbels, Johannes von Leers.

What made the relationship between these former Nazis and the Egyptians and Syrians so successful was that it was a genuinely two-way deal. The Arabs offered the Nazis a haven, as well as a market for all their nefarious dealings in arms and black market currency. The Nazis, meanwhile, were able to provide technical and military experts, as well as the knowhow of establishing the instruments of repression.

However, below the back scratching lay a deep and dark underpinning to the relationship between the crescent and the swastika. That was, of course, a hatred of the Jews, and in particular, a desire to see the eradication of Israel.

Read article in full

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sixty-seven years since the Aden pogrom



 It is 67 years since a brutal anti-Jewish pogrom broke out in the British protectorate of Aden. As in similar situations the colonial authority (Britain in Iraq and Libya and the French in the Maghreb) did not exactly rush to the Jews' aid. 

The above video (Hebrew - with thanks Dani) contains a survivor's account of the December 1947 Aden pogrom. There was every sign that the pogrom was pre-planned. The mob followed the interviewee, a boy who was sent home from school, into the Jewish quarter. The survivor later wrote of his experiences in letters to a relative in Israel. Eight-two Jews died in the most gruesome way, babies were set on fire and boys' bodies cut up into small pieces.

 Below is a first-hand account of the events, in a letter to the Jewish Chronicle (published in the issue of 2 January 1948) by a Jew signing himself "An Adenite"(via Daphne Anson):

"The first day of the three-day Arab strike against partition, on December 2, passed off quietly, despite a demonstration outside the Jewish quarter [in Crater]. On the evening of that day, a meeting was addressed by Arab leaders, and at 6 p.m. the crowd, followed by thousands of Arabs, attacked the Jewish quarter. Those of us who were in the streets had to take shelter in the nearest house. This lasted up to about 10.30 p.m., when some British sailors surrounded the Jewish quarter and dispersed the mob.

"Next morning, since Aden Protectorate Levies (Moslem Troops) were stationed in the Jewish quarter, many [Jews]came out on the streets, trusting that peace and order would be maintained. Suddenly, news reached us that Jewish shops situated in the leading bazaars were being looted.

"Eyewitnesses saw Arabs fire buildings under the eyes of the Levies. They also saw Indian merchants openly abstracting bales of textiles from godowns [warehouses] in the Jewish quarter.

"Following that, many houses were burned, as well as a synagogue. The reason that very few lives were lost in them was due solely to the fact that the inhabitants had fled. At least one-third of the Jewish quarter was destroyed, looted, or devastated.

"In many of the houses, mobs broke in, looting and beating the inhabitants, and in some cases threatened them with death if they did not "accept the Mohammedan religion." Some were kidnapped by Arabs, and five are still missing.

"Jewish deaths total 74, including men, women, and children. Many others were wounded. The only ones killed by the Arabs were one man slaughtered by rioters, and probably a few more by looters, in their homes. The Levies were reponsible for nearly all the deaths because of their constant shooting at our homes....

"An amazing allegation is contained in a cable dispatched by the Governor himself [Sir Reginald Stuart Champion] to the Secretary of State [for the Colonies, Arthur Creech Jones], on December 5. It reads: "Curfew retained in Crater and situation there generally quieter, but alleged hostile activity of Jews created new dangerous tension, especially after killing of a Levy and an Indian Moslem Government doctor almost certainly by Jewish snipers ...."

"I can hasten to assure His Excellency and the Governor that this allegation is completely untrue. The doctor in question is well known to the Jews as a kindly man and as a particular friend of a Jew called Mori Dawood. The real facts are that one of the sons, named Yehia, was shot on Wednesday, in his own home by the Levies. His family risked their lives under fire to reach a Jewish house where a telephne was available for the purpose of arranging for an ambulance to take Yehia to hospital and also telephoned the Audit Officer in whose office one of the sons is a clerk. All the replies were "Busy" and "Wait."

"It was only the next morning that the doctor came and removed Yehia to the ambulance while he was speaking to his brother Hayeem near the house, the Levies shot them both. The doctor died instantly and Hayeem is still under treatment for wounds. Yehia died later in hospital.

"What is needed is an impartial inquiry. I declare bluntly that the attack upon us was organised beforehand. How else can one account for an all-round attack, not only in the Crater, but also in Tawahi, Shaikh Othman, and Maalla? It was in the Crater that the events already described took place. But in Tawahi, a port six miles from the Crater, the total number of Jewish steps is five.

"In Shaikh Othman [just off this map, to the north], about eleven miles from the Crater, 14 Jews were killed, and about 900 have been evacuated by the Government to the Yemenite migration camp at Hashed [i.e. Hashid]. In Maalla, a port, there are no Jewish residents, but premises stored with Jewish goods were looted.

"It would be useful to know where the millions of lakhs of loot are at present, or whether the Government is taking drastic action to find the looters. But we hear that Arabs are selling their loot at a fifth to a tenth of its value, and that much of it has already removed from the Colony to the interior, despite the police "barriers".

"Aden's stricken Jewry expects more than a mere condolence from world Jewry. They require funds to reconstruct their livelihood, and legal aid for a full inquiry and defence of their rights under International Law. They also require the particular attention of the Jewish Agency for migration certificates to Palestine for the whole community as soon as possible ...."

In the immediate aftermath of the pogrom in Aden, Elie Eliachar, president of the 160,000-strong Sephardi Community of Palestine, who was visiting London, reported that the number of Jewish fatalities might in actuality have been as high as 145. He noted that Yemeni refugees in the Shaikh (or Sheikh) Othman camp, awaiting removal to Eretz Yisrael, had also suffered greatly from Arab attacks, and many feared that the the British government would repatriate them to Yemen.

Whose heritage is it anyway?

A debate appears to be raging:  who owns Syrian Jewish bibles?Are they communal or national heritage? At first sight, Rabbi Avraham Hamra's objection to the national library of Israel safeguarding the priceless manuscripts he himself helped to smuggle out of Syria sets a precedent. But who does Rabbi Hamra speak for, given that he is not connected to the Damascus Jewry Organisation in Israel, which supports the library's initiative? Report by i24 News.


According to the proposal, the bibles would remain in climate-controlled conditions in the library and Damascus Jewish immigrants in Israel would be partly responsible for overseeing their safekeeping. The Damascus Jewry Organization in Israel, the main group representing Damascus immigrants, supports the library's initiative.

However the man who helped organize the operation to transport the holy books into Israel, Rabbi Avraham Hamra, opposes the library's proposal. Hamra is not connected to the Damascus Jewry Organization, and says he may challenge the decision in court. The rabbi argues the bibles are Syrian Jewish cultural property, and that the library had promised to transfer them to a Syrian Jewish heritage center in Israel he plans to build.

Eight of the ancient bibles were smuggled in to Israel between 1993 and 1995 in a covert operation by Israel's Mossad spy agency and the ninth was smuggled out of Syria in 1993 with the help of a Canadian Jewish activist.

Details of the Mossad operation remain classified, but Shabtai Shavit, the Mossad director at the time confirmed that Hamra, the then-leader of the Damascus Jewish community who now lives in Israel, helped to organize the operation.

A catalog from an exhibition in 2000 calls the manuscripts the "religious and spiritual treasure of the Syrian Jewish community" and says the Israeli library would safeguard them "until the establishment of a Syrian Jewish heritage center in Israel."

However the center has not yet been built, and the library denies it ever promised him the manuscripts. While the library has asked Hamra to be a member of the proposed steering committee involved with the safekeeping of the bibles, he declined their offer.

"It is not my property, but it is the property of my community," Hamra said.

Read article in full 

AP piece(with thanks: Lily)

Israel Hayom and AP (with thanks: Lily)

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

More coverage following Jewish Refugee Day


  
Libyan-born Gina Waldman at the Knesset pleads for the history of Jews from 
Arab countries to be taught in schools.

All the refugees (Jerusalem Post)

The conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather the existence of the Jewish state.

Neither has it been about refugees, although the Palestinians have managed to invent history’s first instance of fourth-generation refugees. The Arab nations have deliberately maintained this refugee status as another political weapon in their ongoing war against the Jewish state, while Israel did its utmost to integrate Jewish refugees from Muslim countries as productive citizens.

The world ignores the double aggression that created two groups of refugees: Palestinian refugees from the Arab war against the Jewish state and Jewish refugees from the Arab war against their own Jewish citizens. While no one expects the Arab League to take responsibility for its role in perpetuating the suffering of Palestinian refugees, not to mention of the Jewish refugees, the world community could do better.

Since 1948, for example, more than 180 General Assembly resolutions have dealt with the plight of Palestinian refugees – and not one mentions Jewish refugees.

What should be done to help displaced Palestinians unwanted by their fellow Arabs? A first step should be dissolving UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and transferring its jurisdiction over Palestinian refugees to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which actually rehabilitates refugees.

Aside from its domination by Hamas, UNRWA exists to perpetuate the Palestinians’ refugee situation rather than help them to a better future. Despite Mahmoud Abbas’s rhetoric, there are few Palestinians who really believe their “temporary” refugee status of nearly 70 years will be remedied by a nonexistent “right of return” to Israel.

UNRWA’s clientele has grown from fewer than half a million to a claimed 5 million (UNRWA has not taken a census).

Its schools, when not being used as Hamas launching-pads, teach hatred of Jews as part of an ongoing program of incitement. Surely the United Nations can do better.

And by the way, the United States will not. The State Department opposes any reform of UNRWA, or transferring its responsibilities to other UN agencies.

If peace negotiations are ever to resume, Israel would be wise to condition them in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967: All negotiations for “a just and lasting peace” must include all refugees, Jewish and Palestinian. This principle has since been reinforced by the US Congress, which passed a resolution in 2008 requiring that the Jewish refugee issue be raised in any talks on a Middle East peace settlement.

The Knesset finally passed similar legislation this year, after much lobbying by former Jewish refugees from Muslim countries and particularly their organizations in the US, such as Justice for Jews from Arab Countries and Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. These former refugees today make up about half of Israel’s population.

 Remembering forced expulsions of the Arab world (Commentary - with thanks: Eliyahu)

Attending the concurrent NGO fair, I spent some time at the booth of the Association des Marocains Victimes d’Expulsion Arbitraire d’Algérie (AMVEAA). Basically, there story is this: On December 18, 1975, the Algerian government expelled 45,000 families—about 500,000 people—who were legally resident in Algeria, and many of whom had lived in Algeria for decades. Houari Boumediene, the chairman of Algeria’s Revolutionary Council, ordered the Moroccans detained and expelled in response to the Moroccan “Green March” into the Western Sahara.

The condition of the Moroccans’ expulsion was appalling, and it was done without prior notice. Algerian police hunted down Moroccans wherever they could be found and dumped them across the border. Many Moroccans died, and the humanitarian crisis caused by hundreds of thousands of individuals strained the Moroccan government. Meanwhile, the deportation split mixed families, and the expelled Moroccans lost pensions, and left behind bank accounts and personal property.

AMVEAA wants restitution for lost property and cites language from the UN’s Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families to support their claim. Realistically, the chance they will collect is between zero and null. But, their case does illustrate just one more case—the mass expulsion of Jews from Arab lands following Israel’s independence being the other—of the hypocrisy of the refugee issue. The 500,000 persons expelled from Algeria are greater than the 472,000 Palestinians which the United Nations Mediator on Palestine concluded had left Israel in 1948.

Israel, however, settled the refugees as did Morocco. They are cases to be celebrated, and examples of responsible governance. Why the world continues to subsidize Palestinian refugees rather than disbanding the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and handling management of any remaining issue to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is beyond any logic and, indeed, UNRWA’s founding purpose.

Melanie Phillips contrasts Jewish and Arab refugees


To advocates for the Jewish refugee cause, it comes as a pleasant surprise to hear  the columnist, author and commentator Melanie Phillips apply her forensic mind to the question of Jewish and Palestinian refugees in her  Voice of Israel programme of 7 December.


You can hear Melanie give an overview of the Jewish refugee issue in this segment. She refers to the work of the historian Nathan Weinstock, who has researched the unequal relationship between Arab Muslim rulers and their Dhimmi Jews.

In a segment on Palestinian refugees, she asks Chris Gunness, spokesman for UNWRA, the agency exclusively dedicated to the care of Palestinian refugees, why these refugees are entitled to pass on their refugee status in perpetuity. It is because the conflict has not yet been resolved, he argues unconvincingly. If this logic applied to the descendants of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, there would be three or four million entitled to claim refugee status.

In the final segment,  Melanie compares and contrasts the two sets of refugees, 'genuine' Jewish and 'false' Palestinian ( what she prefers to call 'stateless Arabs'). The Jewish refugees did what refugees the world over have always done: they resettled and moved on.


Monday, December 08, 2014

Critics at a loss when truth unfurled

The fight-back on campus begins: Mendy, son of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, unfurled a banner advertising 856,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands at a meeting of Justice for Jews for Palestinians at New York university, his proud father tells us in The Jerusalem Post. The opposition were lost for words: (with thanks: Michelle)


On Wednesday night, my son Mendy held a demonstration inside an event held by the Students for Justice in Palestine at New York University. They were screening a documentary by Israeli filmmaker (or should I say anti-Israeli filmmaker) Lia Tarachansky, called On the Side of the Road. The description of the film: “This is the story of those who fought to erase Palestine and created an Israeli Landscape of Denial.” The event sought to smear Israel’s name by placing the Palestinian refugee crisis in a vacuum, showing only cruel Israeli militias single-handedly forcing the native population out of its homeland.

My son sought to show the other side of the story. While there were indeed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, there were even more Jewish refugees driven from Arab lands and Iran beginning at the same time. The number of these refugees amounted to 850,000 Jews. My son and his fellow students held 6-foot signs displaying this number. These refugees fled their countries due to the fierce anti-Semitic atmosphere that had begun to envelop them. In the 1940s, and especially after 1948, pogroms were set against the Jews of the Middle East, with hundreds killed. In Iraq in 1941, 180 Jews were murdered, with 900 Jewish homes, schools, businesses and synagogues destroyed.

In Tripoli, 1945, 140 Jews were massacred and another 4,000 were left without homes. In 1947, 75 Jews were murdered across Syria, and another 80 were killed in the anti-Jewish Cairo bombings of 1948. That year 82 Jews were murdered in Aden, in what has come to be known as the “Yemeni Holocaust.”

These killings were not carried out by armies, but by enraged civilian populations who stormed the Jewish areas of their cities.

Read article in full




Can UNESCO save Jewish sites of Iraq and Syria?

Last week, a UNESCO conference was hastily convened at its Paris headquarters to discuss what can be done to preserve what's left of heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.  But is it too little, too late, for Jewish heritage sites? Lyn Julius writes in Arutz Sheva:

Frescoes from the Dura Europos synagogue, now in the Damascus National Museum, are thought to be safe

The iconoclastic jihadists of Islamic State - or Da'esh (ISIS) - had captured a region in northern Iraq which contained 15 percent of Iraq's registered archaeological sites. Believing that shrines ought to be destroyed lest they encourage idol-worship, they have already blown up or burnt to the ground shrines such as the tombs of Jonah and Seth, Christian churches and Shi'a mosques.

Like most UN agencies, UNESCO has blown hot and cold towards Israel and the Jewish people. On the one hand it has admitted Palestine as a member and backed Palestinian claims to Jewish holy sites like Rachel's tomb. On the other it has named Tel Aviv "creative city for media arts". On the one hand, it hosted an exhibition on "the Holy Land." On the other had it insisted that the word Israel not appear in the title and that "politically incorrect" aspects of the Jewish state, like wars and Jewish refugees from Arab lands, were left out.

But this time, UNESCO had made a point of including the Jews in its conference. The UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, has  condemned the destruction in May 2014 of the Jobar synagogue near Damascus, which, legend has it, goes back to the time of Elijah the Prophet.

When a JJAC delegation, accompanied by CRIF, the body representing French Jews, submitted a list of 100 endangered Jewish sites to Mrs Bokova in June, she lent a sympathetic ear. And when Professor Shmuel Moreh, who has worked long and hard for the preservation of ancient Jewish sites in Iraq made his case, Mrs Bokova  - or her aides - were listening. Professor Moreh was flown over from Israel to be a special guest at the conference, along with representatives of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and Yazidis.

Mrs  Bokova herself has said: "Culture and heritage are not about stones and buildings - they are about identities and belongings."

A conflict against culture is by extension an effort to erase the identity of a people, especially vulnerable non-Muslim minorities.

No doubt, Irina Bokova's heart is in the right place, but when I arrived in the imposing glass and concrete building, the institutional bias was there in subtle ways.

An exhibition of photographs in the foyer called "Palestine and Jerusalem" marked "International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian people". The photographs were taken by the French order of the Dominican friars at the turn of the 20th century. To judge by the images on display, Palestine was a pastoral land of monasteries and Arab shepherds, processions of Muslim and Christian pilgrims. Not a Jew in sight - yet we know that Jerusalem then had a Jewish majority. So much for not "erasing a people's identity".

Mrs Bokova opened the proceedings by thanking Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for funding the conference. (No one appreciated the irony that Saudi Arabia had not exactly preserved its own heritage itself - having destroyed Muhammed's house and other ancient sites).

In both Syria and Iraq, she observed, Islamic State have demolished, pillaged and dug up archaeological sites, sometimes with bulldozers, and sold relics on the international black market in order to finance their malevolent deeds. She called for "cultural zones" to be established, starting with the great Umayyad mosque in Aleppo.

Conference speaker after speaker called for good neighbourliness and respect. The UNESCO motto was a mantra: "It is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed." Education was the answer.

A cynic might ask: what planet do they live on? "Cultural zones" when people were starving? "Civic identity to be built from the bottom up" when people were being beheaded? "Good neighborliness and respect" when people were being sold into slavery?

One Syrian parliamentarian called for  refugees to return from exile to claim their heritage. But when the neighbors have been ethnically cleansed, as the Jews had been from Syria and Iraq, with no prospect of return, who will speak up for their heritage? Who would ensure that when the time came to rehabilitate and renovate, traditional Jewish shrines such as the most revered of all, Ezekiel's tomb, would not be turned into mosques?

It was already happening. The Hebrew inscriptions had been removed from the renovated tomb of Joshua the High Priest near Baghdad. Loudspeakers had already been affixed to Ezekiel's tomb, and Koranic inscriptions hung on the walls. Who would ensure that the original character of the shrine would be retained?



The Hebrew inscriptions have been painted over at the renovated shrine of Joshua the High Priest, as these 'before' and 'after' photos show (thanks: IraqiJews (of Babylon))

And if objects stolen from minority communities are recovered in the West, why should they be sent back to the Syrian or Iraqi governments? As the saga of the Iraqi-Jewish archive demonstrated - the personal possessions and mementos confiscated from their Jewish owners by Saddam Hussein and shipped for restoration to the US - they should be restituted not to governments, but  to the community which has been displaced.

Beyond the expression of high-minded sentiments, none of these questions were answered.

In one important respect the conference might achieve results: museum chiefs declared they would treat with suspicion any artifacts offered to them from the Middle East, and would conduct "due diligence" checks as far as possible. But private collectors were less likely to be circumspect about the provenance of items. The international art market was a  vessel  too leaky to render watertight.

It is tempting to conclude that organisations like UNESCO, which were founded on the pillars of intergovernmental law, seem well past their sell-by date in a world where non-state actors ride roughshod over "kaffir" international treaties and conventions. Even before the era of Islamic state, neither Syria nor Iraq were signatories to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict.

The great and the good gathered on that foggy day in Paris were right: education was the answer. But it would take many generations to instil respect for the Other. Too late for the Jews of Iraq and Syria, at any rate.

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