Friday, February 27, 2009

Same old, same old at the New York Times

Of today's selection of letters published in reaction to Roger Cohen's article in the New York Times (reprinted in the IHT) only the last seems to give an authentic picture of Jewish life in Iran. The newspaper continues a time-honoured tradition of denial and whitewash.

As political and media commentator Tom Gross said:

“Unfortunately this is just the latest in a long line of examples of the New York Times misreporting both Jewish matters – as they did most notably when they tried to cover up the Holocaust throughout World War Two – and of the Times trying to apologize for dictatorships.

“Cohen’s naivety (or is it duplicity?) is startling. It is a bit reminiscent of the
New York Times reporters in the 1930s who used to report nonsense about how happy the Ukrainians were to live under Russian rule at the very time that Stalin was starving them to death.”

Re “What Iran’s Jews Say,” by Roger Cohen (column, Feb. 23):

While I can appreciate that the Jews of Iran have existed there (and at periods, flourished) for thousands of years, I was disappointed by Mr. Cohen’s romantic picture of the Jewish experience there today.

Over the centuries, many Jewish communities have lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors, working and playing together. But history cannot ignore the fact that positive personal relationships within the context of communities cannot be compared with a government with policies that specifically vilify and persecute its minorities.

Emily Loubaton
New York

Roger Cohen provides a refreshingly accurate sketch of the Iranian Jewish community. I am certain he will be excoriated by many who have no recent experience living in or traveling to Iran, and who are invested in denigrating conditions there.

But based on my more than 30 years of research in Iran, I believe that Mr. Cohen paints an entirely accurate picture in both this column and his other recent writings about his travels in Iran.

William O. Beeman

The writer, a professor and the chairman of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, is the author of a book about how the United States and Iran demonize each other.

I was deeply saddened to read Roger Cohen’s column, as it is a reminder of the many centuries in which the Jews were minorities at the mercy of their host countries, tolerated at best and harshly persecuted at the worst.

It is sad to read that the small Iranian Jewish community, those few who didn’t emigrate to Israel or the United States, hung a banner congratulating the Iranian regime on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, when the Iranian president denies the Holocaust and calls for wiping Israel off the map.

Rachel Kapen
West Bloomfield, Mich.

Roger Cohen offers a glimmer of hope in the midst of all the doom and gloom that surrounds the nuclearization of Iran, its support of terrorist organizations and its meddling in neighboring Iraq.

It is worthwhile to recognize Iran’s growing geopolitical clout in the Middle East, and its importance to stabilization and redevelopment efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and to the search for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Iran could play the broker between rival Palestinian factions to reach a reconciliation that could eventually lead to the formation of a Palestinian national government.

Iran has a rich culture, and it remains widely misrepresented in the West. The Obama administration should extend a hand of friendship to those who are prepared to unclench their fists.

Munjed Farid Al Qutob

I was a 9-year-old girl living in Tehran when my family fled to America as a result of the Islamic Revolution. We didn’t leave Iran because of the weather, but because of a second-class existence transformed into a nightmare of religious persecution, which the few remaining Jews that Roger Cohen found have sadly internalized and accepted.

For Mr. Cohen to suggest that Iranian Jews have anything close to religious freedom or free expression in Iran is to discredit the long history of Muslim oppression and to deny the experience of generations of Jews who locked themselves in their homes during the Ashura holidays lest they become the target of the frenzied Shiite masses who filled the streets, or who cringed when they were called a word meaning dirty and impure and told to wait at the end of the line to draw water.

What about the Jewish schools and institutions that were systematically shut down after the Islamic Revolution? Or the fact that while Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are free to shout “Death to Israel,” Iranian Jews are forced to?

We must never forget the true history of Jews under Muslim regimes — my history.

Mojgan Cohanim Lancman
Fresh Meadows, Queens

Read letters column

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jerusalem Post blasts Cohen's piece on Jews of Iran

Rafael Medoff joins the ranks of critics of Roger Cohen's NY Times article, in which he gives credence to Jewish stooges of the Iranian regime. "Never trust what a Jew in a totalitarian state says to a foreigner," Medoff writes in the Jerusalem Post:

"The state department's most recent annual report on international religious freedom paints a picture of Jewish life in Iran that is at odds with Cohen's description. The report says Iran's Jews live in "a threatening atmosphere" and suffer "officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education and housing." The government "limits the distribution of Hebrew texts, in practice making it difficult to teach the language." Government pressure resulted in the shutdown of the Jewish community's newspaper, Ofogh-e-Bina. And "officially sanctioned anti-Semitic propaganda" permeates "official statements, media outlets, publications and books."

"Three-quarters of Iran's Jews have emigrated in the 30 years since the Khomeini revolution, and the State Department notes that some Iranian Jews are continuing to emigrate, "in part due to continued anti-Semitism on the part of the government and within society."

"Obviously others choose not to emigrate. Sometimes factors such as family ties, poverty or hope for a change in government are sufficient to persuade people to stay in a country where they are mistreated. In fact, in 1937 - fully four years after Hitler's rise to power - Germany was still home to more Jews than any other Western European country. That was not because they enjoyed Hitler's rule.

"The situation of Iranian Jewry must not be turned into a political football. The dangers and discrimination that Iran's Jews face should not be minimized to advance a particular policy agenda. Cohen urges the West to adopt an approach of "compromise" and "engagement" with Teheran, and it is possible the Obama administration will follow his advice. But if it does, one hopes that decision will not be influenced by misleading reports which see "civility" in Iran's uncivil treatment of its Jewish citizens. "

Read article in full

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Roger Cohen has it wrong on the Jews of Iran

The NYT's Roger Cohen gets a hammering from Richard Chesnoff in the Jewish World Review for his ill-conceived piece (also printed in the IHT) on the Jews of Iran 'living the life of Reza'. The truth, as with the remaining Jews of Iraq whom Chesnoff met in 1990, is very different (with thanks: Tom Gross):

"Ever notice how often the reputedly astute prove amazingly naive if not downright dumb? Take the New York Times' much lauded op-ed columnist Roger Cohen.

" In a long rambling piece datelined Esfahan, Iran, wandering analyst Cohen recently told his global readers that the remnant of Iran's once thriving Jewish community is doing just fine — in fact, it's actually living the life of Reza side by side with Islamists, enjoying freedom of worship, business and family life and just dying to join other patriotic Iranians in angry anti-Israel street demonstrations.

"To back up his contentions, Mr Cohen quotes that esteemed expert Morris Motamed, the man who once served as the mullah endorsed Jewish stooge in Tehran's rubber stamp parliament.

" It all reminded me of my 1990 Baghdad visit to the remnant of Iraqi Jewry — a Diaspora community older and once larger than even Iran's. Like most Iranian Jews, the vast majority of Iraq's 150,000 Musawi or ""Mosaics" wisely fled for Israel and the West in the early 1950s. Of course, they had to leave behind everything they owned. By the time I visited Baghdad, there were less than 300 Jews left in a city where Jews once comprised 25% of the urban population. These Jews also prayed in their synagogue on the Sabbath where their community president told me with great flourish (while Saddam Hussein's omnipresent agents listened to every word) that he and his fellow worshippers were "proud to be both faithful Jews and loyal Iraqi patriots".

" The truth was very different — as it is in Iran where the Jewish community is under constant surveillance, where teaching Hebrew is prohibited, where Jewish women are forced to follow the same modesty laws their Muslim sisters do, where Jews are barred from certain jobs and some imprisoned or hung on trumped up charges of contact with "Zionists".

" Another journalistic sin of Mr Cohen's piece was his insistence to use Iran's supposed tolerant treatment of its remaining Jews as an excuse to take another of his nasty jabs at Israel. After all, Cohen tells us, perhaps Iran's threats to destroy the Jewish state are merely a "provocation to focus people on Israel's bomb, its 41 year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force."

"He then goes on to ignore the hard fact that Iran is behind Hamas as well as Hezbollah and most of the terrorism that currently confronts Israel , the very terrorism that frequently obliges Jerusalem to invoke its "overwhelming force".

Read article in full

Professor wants Hebrew books for Iraqi students

Could this be a new beginning ? The Israeli Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that an Iraqi college professor has asked it for a shipment of Hebrew books, Haaretz reports:

Ofir Gendelman of the ministry's Arab press section says the professor sent an e-mail three weeks ago via the ministry's Arabic-language Web site. The professor said he planned to teach Hebrew and requested Hebrew literature and books about Israel.

Gendelman said the ministry would be happy to oblige and is awaiting the professor's mailing address. He refused to divulge the professor's identity or that of his college because of concerns for his safety.

Iraq and Israel have no diplomatic ties.

"There is tremendous ignorance in the Arab world about what Israel is, and they simply want to know more," Gendelman said yesterday.

Read article in full

Rise of Al-Qaeda is driving Yemeni Jews out

( The emigration of Yemen’s remaining Jews comes in wake of increased anti-Semitism, a rise in Al-Qaeda activities in the country, and the terrorist organization’s targeting of Jews, Arutz Sheva reports:

Ten new immigrants arrived in Israel on Thursday afternoon from the Yemenite community of Raida, where Jews have recently been harrassed by Muslims. The group included Said Ben-Yisrael, one of the heads of the Raida Jewish community. Several weeks ago, Muslim extremists threw a grenade into the Ben-Yisrael family's courtyard. After receiving threats against his life, Said went to live in the capital city of Sana'a, taking his family with him. From there he proceeded to the Jewish State.

Yemen, which does not share diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, nevertheless permits the immigration of its Jews to any location, including Israel.

In an opinion piece in the London-based Arabic daily, Ash-Sharq il-Awsat, columnist Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed warns that Al-Qaeda “is transferring its men and furnishings to the mountains of Yemen.” Al-Rashed adds, “Yemen will be turned into a free-for-all, not only by the terrorists, but by all the countries that want to hound Al-Qaeda wherever it settles.”

Yemen’s criminal prosecution finished questioning 17 people charged with terrorism and affiliation to Al-Qaeda, and they are set to appear in criminal court soon, Yemen Online reported Saturday.

A judicial source stated that the defendants include "11 Yemenis, 5 Syrians and 1 Saudi national who is originally from Yemen."

The prosecution immediately follows Yemen’s arrest and extradition of a Saudi man who rejoined Al-Qaeda after his release from the U.S. military's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The terrorist, Mohammad al-Awri, was arrested last Tuesday, and extradited to Saudi Arabia.

In a new audio recording released on Jihadi websites Thursday, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, called on Yemenis to rise up against the government. The message also called on Arabs in Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries to help their brothers in Yemen.

Al-Wahishi is Yemen's most wanted fugitive, the Associated Press states. Leading Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Al-Wahishi was among 23 terrorists who escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006.

“Yemen is an important partner in the global war on terrorism, providing assistance in the military, diplomatic, and financial arenas,” the U.S. State Department states. However, the country’s weak central government and an easily penetratable border have made Yemen fertile ground for terrorism.

Read article in full

Murder victim's father will go to Israel if government won't protect Jews (AFP)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Yemen Jews 'desperate to go to Israel'

Torah lesson (photo: Khaled Abdullah, Reuters)

A week after the secret airlift of the Ben Yisrael family last week, it appears that some 150 Jews 'desperate to leave for Israel' have had their passport applications held up by government officials. The computers are not working, they are told. The National of the UAE reports:

AMRAN, YEMEN // Jewish community members in Amran who have been living in fear following a wave of threats and hate attacks have stepped up their efforts to migrate to Israel.

“We are all fed up. All of the Jews are willing now to migrate to Israel but some prefer not to speak up their desire,” said Yahia bin Yaish, the rabbi of the Jewish community in the northern governorate of Amran, about 60km north of the capital Sana’a.

“We have faced intimidation, attacks and threats. Some have even faced hand-grenade attacks. I myself have received SMS threats on my mobile.

“We are no longer secured. We are afraid to go to the market and even at home. We have reported this to the local authorities but they are lenient with the people behind the threats,” said Mr bin Yaish.

Last week, a Jewish Yemeni family was taken to Israel in a secret airlift organised by the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel.

Said bin Yisrael, the head of the Jewish community in Rydah, and his eight children and wife arrived at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv last Thursday following attacks and death threats.

“Said went crazy after an attack on his house with a hand grenade last December,” a Jewish Yemeni, who is believed to have orchestrated Mr bin Yisrael’s migration, said on condition of anonymity.

“He was scared for his family. He will be back for his father and brothers who are still here.”

Mr bin Yaish said his family did not want to leave Yemen.

“This is our home and we prefer to live here, even on mountains if there is security. Life here is better because we can make sure that our kids are brought up well in line with our religious teachings.”

Amran bin Yahia, a Yemeni Jew, said he had a bad experience emigrating to Israel and had left his wife and children there to return to Yemen, where he remarried.

“I went to Jerusalem 10 years ago with my wife and children. They have been influenced by the life there. But I felt isolated. I left them behind and came back home,” he said, adding that he could not go back to Israel despite the dangers of staying in Yemen.

But for those who do want to leave, Mr bin Yaish said about 150 of their passport applications have been held up in Sana’a for over two months.

“Whenever we go to them, they keep telling us the computers are not working,” he said.

Moshe Yaish al Nahari, a Jewish teacher and father of nine, was shot in Rydah’s market in Amran in December.

Abdulaziz Hamud al Abdi, a former military pilot whose family claims he is mentally ill, admitted in a hearing in December that he killed al Nahari following a warning that Jews should either leave the area or convert to Islam.

Attacks and threats against Yemeni Jews in Amran governorate flared up again following Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip.

“The offensive was in Gaza and we were be blamed. Some used to threaten me, telling me to stop the war. These attacks are meant to force us to leave our houses which tribesmen want for themselves,” Mr bin Yaish said.

After al Nahari’s murder, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, discussed with Jewish community leaders a plan to relocate Jews from Amran to Sana’a, where each Jewish family would receive a plot of land.

The Jewish community, however, said the government has taken no action.

“The president is not to be blamed. He gave clear directives. But, his government officials wanted to relocate us to a bad place where a big family is expected to be housed in a small flat that is liable to attack,” Mr bin Yaish said, adding that the community has asked to be moved to a safer area with better housing conditions.

Government officials declined to comment.

Mahmud Taha, an Amran-based journalist who has been following the issue of Yemeni Jews, said the migration of the Jewish family to Israel was not unexpected.

“There is no option for the Yemeni Jews but to migrate. The local authorities have failed to protect them and the promises of relocation have not been serious. The Jews are fed up and have reached intolerable situation,” Taha said.

As recently as the early 1950s Yemen was home to about 50,000 Jews, but most have since migrated to Israel and less than 500 remain. They had gained a reputation for intricate jewellery work and their decorative swords and knives. Fewer than 500 remain.

Taha said the verdict against al Abdi, which the court has set for March 2, will likely absolve the defendant on mental health grounds.

“This will drive the Jews crazy and will be a driving force for their migration,” he said.

Despite its rhetoric, Iran is 'civil' towards its Jews

In this article in the International Herald Tribune 'What Iran's Jews say', Roger Cohen thinks that Iran should be credited with not 'ethnically cleansing' their Jews as completely as Arab states. Iran is 'more sophisticated' than those countries which allow their Jews to be beaten up. (Well, thank you Iran.) He quotes Jews badmouthing Israel without sketching out the background of intimidation and fear against which they speak, and seems bizarrely to conclude that however vile Iran's anti-Israel rhetoric, it has a valid case.

"The Middle East is an uncomfortable neighborhood for minorities, people whose very existence rebukes warring labels of religious and national identity. Yet perhaps 25,000 Jews live on in Iran, the largest such community, along with Turkey's, in the Muslim Middle East. There are more than a dozen synagogues in Tehran; here in Esfahan a handful cater to about 1,200 Jews, survivors of an almost 3,000-year-old community.

"Over the decades since Israel's creation in 1948 and the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the number of Iranian Jews has dwindled from about 100,000. But the exodus has been far less complete than from Arab countries, where some 800,000 Jews resided when modern Israel came into being.

"In Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Iraq - countries where more than 485,000 Jews lived before 1948 - less than 2,000 remain. The Arab Jew has perished. The Persian Jew has fared better.

"Of course, Israel's unfinished cycle of wars has been with Arabs, not Persians, a fact that explains some of the discrepancy.

"Still a mystery hovers over Iran's Jews. It's important to decide what's more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations - or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshiping in relative tranquility.

"Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran - its sophistication and culture - than all the inflammatory rhetoric.

"That may be because I'm a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that all the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian television, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it's because I'm convinced the "Mad Mullah" caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 - a position popular in American Jewish circles - is misleading and dangerous.

"I know, if many Jews left Iran, it was for a reason. Hostility exists. The trumped-up charges of spying for Israel against a group of Shiraz Jews in 1999 showed the regime at its worst. Jews elect one representative to Parliament, but can vote for a Muslim if they prefer. A Muslim, however, cannot vote for a Jew.

"Among minorities, the treatment of the Bahai - seven of whom were arrested recently on charges of spying for Israel - is brutally harsh.

"I asked Morris Motamed, once the Jewish member of the Majlis, if he felt he was used, an Iranian quisling. "I don't," he replied. "In fact I feel deep tolerance here toward Jews." He said "Death to Israel" chants bother him, but went on to criticize the "double standards" that allow Israel, Pakistan and India to have a nuclear bomb, but not Iran.

"Double standards don't work any more; the Middle East has become too sophisticated. One way to look at Iran's scurrilous anti-Israel tirades is as a provocation to focus people on Israel's bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force. Iranian language can be vile, but any Middle East peace - and engagement with Tehran - will have to take account of these points."

Read article in full

JTA blog - Uriel Heilman (23 February)

Jewish Journal of LA blog - Karmel Melamed (23 February)

Roger Cohen's very happy visit with Iran's Jews - Jeffrey Goldberg's blog

Roger Cohen: useful idiot - Michael Rubin's blog

Update: Roger Cohen defends his article in a second piece that selectively quotes people praising it

Karmel Melamed responds

The truth about the Jews of Iran

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jews in Arab lands suffered 'cultural genocide'

The screening of the film The forgotten refugees on Israeli TV last week has spawned some vigorous comment in Israel. Here is an extract of Stephane Juffa's article for the news agency MENA. Juffa interviewed the film-maker, Michael Grynszpan (with thanks: Dominique):

Summary in English: The film puts to rest the myth that Israel is a European implant or colonial outpost: half its Jewish population is indigenous, originating from Muslim countries where they were victims of a cultural genocide. If Palestinians ask, 'what has the suffering of Jews in Arab lands to do with us?', the answer is that the Arab League is to blame for creating both sets of refugees. While some Israeli politicians are eager to talk about the Jewish refugees, others, like Tsipi Livni, are reluctant to open this Pandora's box. Grynszpan should be allowed to make further films on each destroyed Jewish community, for - as Isaac Bashevis Singer once said - ' he who is ignorant of his history, fumbles in life like a beggar, with or without the Island of Temptation."

"Le film de Grynszpan, avec les données qu’il rafraîchit, met en lumière que plus de la moitié des citoyens d’Israël – de même que leurs parents – n’ont pas subi la Shoah, et qu’ils sont au moins aussi indigènes de cette région que ne sont les Arabes.

"Des Arabes qui eux furent les authentiques colonisateurs, et qui persistent à appeler colonies (Wakf), les contrée asservies par l’islam, à l’instar d’Israël.

"Plus de la moitié de la population d’Israël est donc originaire de la région, depuis plus de deux fois plus de temps que ceux qui prétendent qu’ils sont des étrangers à cette terre ; cela réduit bien entendu à une poignée de sable le concept du colonisateur issu de civilisés, importé dans le but de faire suer le burnous. Au temps pour le Hamas et les Schattnériens !

"J’avais parlé à Sami El Soudi des réflexions que m’a inspirées le film de Grynszpan, que je voyais dimanche pour la quatrième fois. Avec son honnêteté habituelle, mon camarade palestinien n’a même pas cherché à nier les faits, lui qui est persuadé qu’au moins 50% de ce qu’on définit désormais comme le peuple palestinien était juif il y a cinq siècles au plus.

"Mais Sami d’ajouter : "si l’Egypte, l’Irak, le Liban, le Maghreb ont maltraité les Juifs et qu’ils les ont dépossédés et forcé à partir, en quoi cela me concerne-t-il, moi, le Palestinien ?

"En quoi devrions-nous payer pour les fautes des pays arabes ? En renonçant à une solution équitable pour réparer le tort fait par les Juifs aux Palestiniens lors de la création de votre Etat?"

"Hier j’ai posé la question d’El Soudi à Grynszpan, qui en a paru surpris. "En 48, ce ne sont pas les ancêtres d’El Soudi qui avaient déclaré une guerre d’extermination contre l’Etat nouveau-né d’Israël. Ce fut la Ligue Arabe qui lança les armées d’Egypte, du Jordanie, de Syrie, d’Irak, et du Liban afin d’éradiquer Israël.

"Avant cette décision, il n’existait ni réfugiés palestiniens, ni réfugiés juifs des pays arabes. En fait, c’est la ligue des Etats Arabes qui est à la fois responsable de l’exode d’une partie des Arabes palestiniens et de celui, total, des Juifs arabes.

"La résultante de leur agression fut l’exil pour 300 000 Palestiniens, 700 000 de sources arabes; mais, parallèlement à eux, et dans le cadre du même différend, ce sont un million de Juifs des pays arabes qui furent contraints de fuir.

"Et ils n’étaient pas uniquement plus nombreux que les Palestiniens, ni seulement installés depuis beaucoup plus longtemps qu’eux, ils avaient dix fois plus de biens et de propriétés foncières que ce que les Arabes de Palestine ont été contraints d’abandonner. On estime à 30 milliards de dollars la fortune qui leur a été dérobée à leur départ, d’autres sources universitaires avançant même le chiffre de cent milliards de dollars.

"Et aujourd’hui, après les pogroms et les persécutions qui se sont généralisés après la défaite de la Ligue Arabe, et qui s’est poursuivie avec des expulsions, entre 49 et la fin des années 60, il ne reste plus de ce million d’êtres humains, installé depuis des millénaires avec sa culture, que quelques milliers de vieillards, trop faibles ou trop malades pour prendre le chemin de l’exil.

"Quelques 650 000 réfugiés ont rejoint Israël, qui a donc été appelée à prendre financièrement en charge les émigrants dévalisés dans leurs pays d’origine. Les autres ont fondé des communautés en Europe et aux Etats-Unis ; même s’ils ont été dépossédés de leurs biens au prétexte de la naissance d’Israël, tous n’étaient pas sionistes", s’arrête Grynszpan.

"Certains des dirigeants israéliens se montrent passionnés par le parallèle problématique entre les réfugiés arabes reconnus et les réfugiés juifs oubliés. D’autres, comme Tzipi Livni, ne veulent surtout pas en entendre parler, dans l’espoir, probablement, que la boîte de Pandore des réfugiés réciproques pourra demeurer fermée lors de la dernière rectiligne des négociations avec les Palestiniens en vue de décider du statut final de la région.

"Le film de Michaël est bouleversant tout en sachant rester sobre. Il est construit sur des images d’archives ainsi que sur les témoignages d’exilés juifs des pays arabes. A les écouter, on se rend aisément compte qu’ils ont été victimes d’un génocide culturel, dans lequel le patrimoine de l’humanité a également égaré des trésors.

"Sûr, 49 minutes inhabituelles, irrévérencieuses pour tous les politiquement et historiquement corrects, c’est bien trop peu. Il faudrait maintenant débloquer des budgets pour que Grynszpan et ses cadets puissent creuser dans la mémoire profonde de chacune des communautés juives-arabes anéanties par la haine, la jalousie et l’antisémitisme.

"C’est ce qu’on attend à l’apparition du mot fin des réfugiés oubliés. Dire que cela coûterait moins qu’un seul épisode de n’importe quelle émission de téléréalité, c’est aussi faire le bilan du déséquilibre qui s’est emparé de notre temps libre. Isaac Bashevis Singer, un Prix Nobel de littérature qui s’exprimait en Yddish, avait pourtant prévenu : "l’homme qui ne connaît pas son histoire tâtonne dans la vie comme un aveugle…", avec ou sans l’Île de la Tentation."

Read article in full

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Baghdad hangings: remembering the horror

It is 40 years since 27 January 1969 (Hebrew date 8th Shevat 5729), when Saddam Hussein ordered the hangings of nine innocent Iraqi Jews in Baghdad's Liberation Square. Memorial services have been held in synagogues around the world: the event yesterday at Ohel David Eastern synagogue in London attracted 250 people.

Here is the speech delivered on Shabbat 31 January 2009 at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Montreal by Morris Abdulezer, Past President of the Synagogue: (With thanks: Irene)

"On this Shabbat we assemble here to remember and recall the memory of the nine individuals whose lives ended on the 8th of Shevat 40 years ago. They were murdered just because they were Jews living in Iraq.

Even though this day marks the 40th anniversary of this event we must not forget that at least another 42 Jews, four of whom were women, were hanged and or murdered thereafter. In addition to those killed there were many more that were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured but subsequently released - and scarred for life.

To start, I would like to mention the names of those nine individuals indicating their age, profession and from which city they came from.

I would also like to mention that those of them whose ages were said by the court to be 20 or 21, were in fact younger (as young as 17 - ed). The court forced this lie in order that they could be prosecuted and hanged.

-David Heskel Barukh Dallal 20 yrs old a student from Basra
-Sabah Haim Dayan 25 yrs old a university student from Basra
-Fouad Gabbay 35 yrs old a forwarding agent from Basra
-Naim Khedouri Hilali 21 yrs old a student from Basra
-Charles Raphael Horesh 45 yrs old a commission agent/ rep from Baghdad
-Jacob Gourdgi Namerdi 32 yrs old an employee of BOAC from Basra
-Heskel Saleh Heskel Saheyek 20 yrs old a student from Basra
-David Ghali Yedgar 21 yrs old a student from Basra
-Ezra Naji Zilkha 60 yrs old a merchant from Basra

As we know, the history of the Jews of Iraq is rich with tradition, spanning thousands of years of cohabitation with the Arabs in the region that we call the Middle East. Though there were many times in our history that the Jews were persecuted for their religious beliefs in many parts of the world, one period culminated in the persecution of Jews living in Iraq: starting with the Six-Day war, it ended in 1973 after the majority of the Jews had escaped.

Many of us here today including myself, along with many close friends and family members, can remember the terror-filled days, months, and years, following the Six-Day War in 1967.

As Jews, we were denied basic access to communication when our 'phone lines were cut, denied access to universities, we were unable to work, and denied travel to outside of Iraq.
At first, all of this we reluctantly accepted, and managed our lives without.

However in 1968 the government under President Hassan Al Bakr, with Saddam Hussein as his right hand henchman and deputy, decided to begin a campaign of terror and killing against the Jews of Iraq.

At that time, we numbered close to 2500, living mainly in Baghdad and Basra. This campaign of scare tactics included random abductions, posting secret agents in front of our residences and businesses, interrogations, seizing of assets, businesses and homes.

Then, in the fall of 1968, the government rounded up a dozen Iraqi Jewish males from Baghdad and Basra, and jailed them under false pretenses, accusing them of being Israeli spies. These innocent men were tortured then put through a televised mockery of a military trial, which culminated in nine of them being publicly hanged, one acquitted and two others were sent to Basra to face another trial and then were hanged on August 25, 1969 in Basra.

I can recall precisely how terrified and confused we were throughout the entire trial and, more precisely, the night of January 26 when the guilty verdict was announced by the military judge. We did not believe that the sentence of death by hanging would be carried out because the whole court process did not make sense, from the defendants who were not allowed to appoint their own lawyers, to the stories and accusations that were outrageous and full of lies, where the defendants were being asked to bear witness against each other.

We waited in fear, praying and trusting in our Jewish faith and hoping for pressure to come at the last minute from the international community to end this mockery.

Even when, on the eve of January 27, the authorities called on our chief Rabbi, Hakham Sassoon Khedoori, to send a person to prison to help with the prayers, this too was done in a way that indicated their evil ways and their lack of a sense for justice. While reading Shema Yisrael to the prisoners, this individual was pushed, and with a rifle pointed at him, was ordered to read in Arabic and not in Hebrew, all the while with the victims standing under the gallows crying and pleading that “we are innocent”.

However, on the morning of January 27 1969 the reality set in and nine innocent Jews were killed. Many of us were on our way to our daily activities when we heard the news, and we immediately went back to the so called safety of our homes.

There were a total of 13 men hanged in the public square called Saht el Tahrir (this ironically means Liberation Square). 9 of them were Jews, executed without even the dignity of having their faces covered. With a sign on their chest saying Yehudi or Jasus (Jew or Spy), all this was done with celebration and jubilation on the part of the people of Iraq.

There was live TV coverage and announcements that the day of execution be declared a holiday for all Iraqis to rejoice. Hundreds of thousands were out in the street dancing in front of the hanging corpses without any show of remorse, respect, or value for these human lives.
This picture will remain implanted in my memory, and the only way I can describe it to you is to compare it to a scene of savages celebrating in a barbaric and horrible way. Just like what we would see in a Hollywood produced movie.

The campaign of terror continued thereafter, with many Jews taken from their homes to be jailed, tortured, murdered or prosecuted in similar forms of mock trials, with some never to return to their families. They simply just disappeared.

With such a small community totaling less than 2,500 at that time, and with the death of these nine Jews that were hanged, along with the many others incidents that followed, the impact on our small community was enormous.

With 51 killed, and another 100 plus imprisoned and tortured, every individual and family was touched not once but several times by this reign of terror.

The Jews of Iraq, and all Jews from all countries around the world, must never forget this terrible time of horror and fear.

Today, and every day we must give our thanks to Hashem for what we have, our trust in our faith, our families, our community, our safety and our freedom, and we must never forget those who were executed on that horrible day in 1969 along with all the many others who faced similar tragic end thereafter.

On 8th of Shevat 5769, we commemorate the memory of those nine individuals who were slain, whose lives were stolen.

We must always remember because the reality is that it could have been any one of us living there during that terrible time who could have suffered a similar and tragic fate. "

Baghdad hangings: a widow's account

Yemen Jewish family airlifted to Israel in secret

A Jewish family of 10 is set to immigrate to Israel from Yemen today in a covert operation carried out by the Jewish Agency, Haaretz reports: (with thanks: Pablo)

The Ben Yisrael family was extricated from the city of Raida, after suffering from anti-Semitic attacks and repeated death threats.

A few weeks ago, a grenade was thrown into the courtyard of the family's home in Raida, possibly by al Qaida-affiliated extremists.

Said Ben Yisrael, who heads the Raida Jewish community, and his family are due to take up Israeli citizenship upon their arrival. They will be taken to Beit Shemesh, accompanied by a Jewish Agency team.

There are approximately 280 Jews left today In Yemen, 230 of whom live in Raida in the Omran province, and another 50 Jews living in the capital city of Sana'a.

Yemenite Jews have the special protection of the President of Yemen Ali Abdallah Salah. In recent years, however, anti-Semitic attacks against Jews have spiralled out of control.

The tension reached a boiling point last December, when Moshe Yaish Nahari, father of 9, was murdered by a Muslim extremist.

Threats against Jews in Yemen have escalated following Israel's recent three-week offensive in Gaza.

Director General of the Jewish Agency, Moshe Vigdor, said that the Jewish Agency is closely following the situation of the community in Yemen and promises to help in any way possible.

Read article in full

Jerusalem Post article

BBC news website

Ynet News

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

'Israel to colonise Kurdish cities with expat Jews'

This blog does not make a habit of featuring conspiracies, but some theories are so outlandish as to be irresistible. Take this one (deconstructed on Iraqpundit), from the do-I-laugh-or-cry department (with thanks Iraqijews, Eliyahu) :

"Israel has reportedly plans to relocate thousands of Kurdish Jews from Israel including expatriate Jews from Israel, including expatriates from Kurdish Iraq to the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Nineveh under the guise of religious pilgrimages to ancient Jewish religious shrines. According to Kurdish sources the Israelis are secretly working with the Kurdish regional government to carry out the integration of Kurdish and otherJews into cities of Iraq under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government."

Apparently the Israelis also have their sights on the shrine of the Jewish prophet Nahum at al-Qush and the tomb of the prophet Jonah in Kirkuk. They are also trying to claim Jewish properties outside the Kurdish areas - Ezekel's tomb in the village of al-Kifl and the tomb of Ezra in Misan province.

Read article in full (Arabic and English)

The 18,000-strong population of Kurdish Jews was airlifted to Israel with Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in 1950. Although some have returned for visits, and Israeli companies are doing business in Kurdistan, almost no Jews have gone back permanently.

The author of this piece is one Wayne Madsen, an investigative journalist based in Washington. He writes, among other publications, for Counterpunch, the home of antisemitic conspiracy theories 'par excellence'.

Enough said.

Hatred threatens tiny communities in Muslim lands

Outrage at the Israel war in the Gaza Strip has turned to intimidation and even violence against Jews living in some Muslim lands, raising questions about the stability of these often tiny communities. Haaretz carries this AFP report (with thanks: Lily) :

In Turkey, Yemen and Indonesia, Muslims have shut down a synagogue, stoned homes and used anti-Semitic slurs. Although the incidents have been isolated, the Jewish minorities in these lands are concerned.

"Before the conflict broke out in Gaza, we were very involved in the community," said Yusron Samba, whose family for years had operated a synagogue in Indonesia that shut down in fear over the war. "Of course we're afraid following strong reaction recently from some Islamic groups questioning our presence here."

The fury over Gaza has centered around the hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed in the war, in which 13 Israelis also died. Israel says it could not avoid killing civilians because Gaza militants operate from residential areas, but critics accuse it of using disproportionate force in its war to halt rocket attacks on its territory.

The steep Palestinian death toll sparked protests across the Muslim world, Europe and in Venezuela, and in some cases, the rage turned to violence. Firebombs were hurled at synagogues in France, Sweden and Belgium, Jews were beaten in England and Norway and an Italian union endorsed a boycott of Jewish-owned shops. In Venezuela, vandals shattered religious objects at a synagogue and spray-painted, "Jews, get out", on the walls.

In Yemen, where Islamic militancy is on the rise, anti-Israel protesters pelted several Jewish homes with rocks and smashed windows, wounding at least one person, security officials said.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has offered to give plots of land in the capital, San'a, free of charge to Jews who want to relocate from the provinces, officials said. No one has taken him up on the offer, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the offer was made privately in a meeting between the president and Jewish leaders.

As many as 250 of Yemen's estimated 400 Jews are thought to live outside San'a.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim state, Islamic hard-liners marched to the gates of the country's only synagogue, chanting, "Go to hell, Israel."

"If Israel refuses to stop its attacks and oppression of the Palestinian people, we don't need to defend [the synagogue's] presence here," said Abdusshomad Buchori, who led the protest in the town of Surabaya and has threatened to drive out its Jews. The synagogue has been shuttered since.

"In the past, Jews in Surabaya have experienced no hostility," Samba said. "But
ncreasingly - probably because of events like the Gaza war - a smattering of swastikas has appeared on the backs of buses," he said.

"Because of the hostile reaction, we're not exposing ourselves to the media right now," he said. "We also report all protests to the police."

Several dozen Jews are thought to be living in Indonesia, descendants of traders from Europe and Iraq.

Jewish leaders in Egypt and Syria were curt when asked about the climate toward Jews in their countries.

"We have no troubles and we don't talk politics," said Carmen Weinstein, head of the Jewish Community in Cairo.

In Syria, Jewish community head Albert Komho said, "There is no fear and there are no threats. We are not involved in any political activity and we are functioning normally."

Jews moved to the Middle East and north Africa after Spain expelled them in the 15th century*. Jews were often restricted to separate neighborhoods, had curtailed rights, and sometimes were persecuted. Their condition deteriorated sharply in the first half of the 20th century as a result of Arab nationalism and Israel's impending establishment. Hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled from Arab lands around the time of Israel's 1948 creation, and today, only several tens of thousands remain.

* This is not true. Jews had been living in some communities for over 2,000 years.

Read article in full

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Prosecution demands death penalty for Jew's killer

Abdul Aziz Yahya al-Abdi (AFP)

AMRAN, Yemen (AFP) — The prosecution demanded the death sentence on Monday for a Yemeni Muslim who has boasted of killing a Jewish compatriot north of the capital Sana'a late last year.

The court set March 2 as the date for its verdict against Abdul Aziz Yahya al-Abdi, 39, who admitted in December to shooting dead Masha Yaeish al-Nahari in the town of Raydah in Amran province.

Abdi, peering from the dock into the court through an iron gate, showed no remorse for his actions and repeatedly interrupted the prosecutor during the hearing to renew his confession.

The former air force pilot has repeatedly said he carried out the murder after warning Yemeni Jews that he would kill them unless they converted to Islam.

"I told them in a letter that they should either convert to Islam or leave Yemen, or I would kill them," he said at an earlier hearing.

The small courtroom was packed with several dozen other members of Abdi's Kharef tribe, many wearing a traditional jambiya or curved dagger on their belts.

Many were relatives of Abdi who had come to support him and they laughed wholeheartedly at his often incoherent remarks.

The only Jewish people present were the victim's father and widow -- also the only woman in the courtroom.

Other members of the region's small Jewish community attended two earlier hearings but stayed away on Monday because of threats by Abdi's supporters, Yahya Yaish, an elder of the community, told AFP.

"I am not mad," the accused man shouted, even as his four lawyers sought to show that he was not responsible for Nahari's death because of his state of mind.

Read article in full

The Forgotten Refugees aired on Israel's Channel 1

(With thanks: Eliyahu)

For the first time, the story of the destruction of the Middle East's Jewish communities reached a mass audience as the award-winning film The forgotten refugees film was shown on Israel's mainstream Channel 1 on 15th February. The film was made in 2005 by Michael Grynspan for the David Project and IsraTV.

The Jerusalem Post has a trailer for the film here. Click on the picture in the sidebar on the righthand side of this website to see the video uploaded on to Youtube. To order individual DVDs in specific formats, contact Sacha Giler on or telephone (US) (617) 428-0012.

The Boston-based David Project is continuing to show the film at synagogues, churches, universities and community centres. The next showing is at the University of Pennsylvania on 18 February. The Forgotten refugees is due to be screened on the US network RETN TV on 5 and 6 March.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The indigenous Palestinians were Jewish

Many people associate the words 'refugees' and 'Palestine' with Palestinian Arab refugees. In fact the first refugees from Gaza - and 'Arab' towns like Lod and Acre - were Jews. David Silon explains that Arab attempts to 'ethnically cleanse' Palestine of Jews, in which the British authorities were complicit, go back to the 1920s. His article published in Think Israel in 2003 is still relevant today.

The popular perception of Israeli history is one of the evil Jews coming from Europe, especially refugees from the Holocaust, settling in Palestine and ending up taking land away from the Palestinians. It's an image that's a culmination of centuries of these types of images as depicted by such literary characters as Shylock, Svengali, and Fagan. Almost everybody in the world considers the Arabs of Israel/Palestine to be indigenous to the region because they look indigenous to the region.

Ironically, the Zionist movement helped to spread this type of perception: Jews coming to an empty land after a 2000-year absence, fighting the indigenous Arab marauders, and making the desert bloom.

Now let's take a look at the facts. There has never been a 2000-year absence. Jews have lived in Israel/Palestine for 4000 years and those Jewish families who have constantly lived in the country since Biblical times, the mustarabim, are the indigenous Palestinians.

The first Arabs came to the country in the 7th century in the wake of their conquering armies after the death of Mohammed. They've been immigrating, and emigrating, ever since, bringing with them their civil wars (in which Jews were severely persecuted by both sides) and their screwed-up environmental concepts that turned forest into desert. Other groups of peoples also immigrated to Israel/Palestine during this time, especially the Druze. (Today, if you call a Druze an Arab, you've just insulted him. This was told to me by a Druze.) Perhaps the earliest Zionist pioneers did have to fight Arab marauders and make the desert bloom, but they did not come to an empty land. Maybe it was sparsely populated, but it was not empty of Jews.

Subsequent decades of Zionist history have been characterized by trying to make peace with the Arabs, and totally ignoring the indigenous Jewish community, as if they didn't exist. White America may have killed off the native peoples of America, but at least they acknowledged that they were there. The treatment of the Palestinian Jews by the Zionist immigrants reflected their treatment by the Zionist movement during the troubled years of the British mandate between 1917 and 1948. There were 4 periods between WWI and 1949 that Palestinian conflicts resulted in a refugee situation:

1920/1. The first Palestinian refugees were Jews. In the aftermath of WWI, British rule in Palestine supplanted 400 years of Turkish rule and a British administration was installed, headed by Ronald Storrs, governor of Jerusalem, and the Chief-of-Staff Richard Waters-Taylor. A week before Easter, Waters-Taylor, with the blessing of Storrs, had made a secret agreement with local Arab nationalist leaders to conduct bloody riots against the Jews of Palestine to show the world just how unpopular Zionism was. (See Benjamin Netanyahu's A Durable Peace under the chapter "Betrayal.") During the Arab pilgrimage to the site of Nebi Musa, believed by Muslims to be the burial place of Moses, the Arab masses were whipped into a frenzy and began to riot. This spread throughout the whole of the country beginning in Jerusalem. Their excuse to the world at large was that they were acting out their 'legitimate' grievances against the massive Jewish immigration into the country, fostered by the 'lax' British policy.

What they conveniently ignored was the massive Arab immigration into the country brought on by the economic opportunities introduced by the Jews. In fact, in the 30's, President Roosevelt was reported to have commented that Arab immigration to Palestine far exceeded that of Jewish immigration (See A Durable Peace.) In any case, these riots were tame when compared to later riots. Seven Jews were killed, 200 wounded and women were raped. There were partial expulsions from various areas, such as from east Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, and the tiny Jewish community of Khan Yunis, which consisted of just a few families. A total expulsion occurred from Lod. Many just left fearing more of the same, which indeed happened. In east Jerusalem, the remaining Jews were faced with massacre, but a defense force, organized immediately after WWI by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a WWI hero of Jewish Palestine, prevented this from happening. This organization was later to become the Haganah. As a result, Jabotinsky was arrested by the British and given a 15 year prison sentence. He was pardoned the next year due to international pressure.

The parliament in London was outraged at events in Palestine and quickly set about to dismiss both Storrs and Waters-Taylor. They created the office of High Commissioner, the first of which being Sir Herbert Samuel, a Jew. But the anti-Semitic administration still remained in the country. Samuel was a rather weak politician and the administration was successful in prevailing upon him to appoint Haj Amin al Husseini, the notorious Arab nationalist, as Grand Mufti of Arab Palestine, to appease the 'legitimate' Arab grievances. He later became a strong Nazi ally.

The next year, Husseini orchestrated, with the full backing of the British authorities, a renewal of the most recent riots which resulted in the deaths of, perhaps, as many as 47 Jews. Of these, at least 13 were massacred at an immigrant hostel in Jaffa. The mob was actively aided by the Arab members of the local police. Consequently, more Jews were expelled from Jaffa and Samuel acquiesced to Arab demands and suspended Jewish immigration to the country while allowing Arab immigration to continue unabated. Partial expulsions occurred in Ramle, Beersheba, and Shiloah, the site of the original City of David and burial place of Rabbi Ovadiah Bertinoro, the late 15th century Chief Rabbi of Palestine. The tiny settlements of Kfar Saba and Kfar Malal (birthplace of Ariel Sharon), were totally destroyed and their residents driven out. Both were rebuilt the following year, but other communities were not so lucky. These refugees were either immigrants, or were families that have lived in their homes for generations. To anyone who could see, it was clear - it didn't matter whether Jews were immigrants or not. The Arabs and British wished to clear Palestine of Jews, period. It is a policy that continues to this day.

In 1922, in a continuing policy of appeasing the Arabs, 75% of Palestine was taken away from the Jews and the Emirate of Transjordan was created, later to become Jordan. First the British, then the Arabs banned the entry of Jews from the area - a policy that continued until very recently. This put those communities of Arabs in Transjordan and even the Judean desert who were of Jewish ancestry in an awkward position. In 1948, these Arabs had always had good relations with their Jewish neighbors, but after 1948, most found themselves living on what became known as the 'West Bank' (and Jordan). They were often threatened with death by the other Arabs so that today, they would emphatically deny any Jewish connection.

1929. The pretext for the newest wave of riots, and subsequent expulsions, was the right of Jews to pray at the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple of Solomon. These riots, which began in August on the holiday of Tisha B Av, commemorating the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, were even bloodier than the previous ones as Jewish women were raped, pregnant women were disemboweled, men were sometimes hacked to death and not even children were spared. This became an Arab trait to this day. When it was all over, approximately 130 Jews had been killed.

By this time, the Haganah was stronger and able to contain the rioters. But they weren't totally successful. In Hebron, 67 Jews were massacred, including 8 Americans, in the brutal way previously described, and the rest were driven out. Similar events occurred in Motza as was witnessed by a young Mordechai Makleff (later, Chief-of-Staff of the Israel Defense Forces) who saw his parents murdered. Eighteen were massacred in Safed, resulting in a partial exile of the community. Partial expulsions also took place in other places, most notably in Jerusalem and Pekiin - a mustarabi community and the last of the Jews were driven out of Shiloah, Gaza, Kfar Uriyah, Ein Zeitim, Bet Shemesh/Har Tuv and Beer Tuviyah. Some of these communities were reestablished the following year and Motza in 1933.

During this time, the area of northern Samaria became known as the 'Triangle' consisting of the 3 apex cities of Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm. It became a hotbed of Arab fanaticism and no Jew would dare enter this area. The Jewish community of Nablus, driven out in 1904 due to centuries of persecutions, oppression, and high taxes imposed only on Jews and Samaritans, had long made repeated attempts to renew itself. And some were, in fact, successful in settling there. But an organized community was repeatedly blocked by the Arabs and the few Jews who lived there were finally driven out during the riots of 1929. Only the Samaritans remained, however precariously. The ancient Jewish pilgrimages to the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, and the Biblical tombs in Awarta and Kfar Haris nearby, became dangerous and ceased. (Today, Jews are banned from entering Nablus except with army permission. The Samaritan community still remains.) During the riots, Jews were banned from Kfar Yasif which lies to the east of Acre and Haifa and the ancient pilgrimages to the Tomb of Samuel to the north of Jerusalem and the Tomb of Rachel to the south became extremely dangerous. Jabotinsky was exiled by the British authorities, at the instigation of the Arabs.

1936-1939. This was the last of the major Arab riots and expulsions before the War of Independence in 1947-1949. In the first month of the riots, 21 Jews were killed, rising to 80 in the first year. It would eventually result in the deaths of approximately 500 Jews. The Arabs blamed the British authorities with fostering Jewish immigration resulting in bloody attacks against the British as well. This situation resulted in a brief period of Jewish/British military cooperation. From the British point of view, they were cooperating with the Jews while fighting Arab terror on the one hand, and trying to prevent Jewish immigrants from arriving while 'appeasing Arab grievances' on the other. From the Jewish point of view, they just wanted to live.

During this period the last of the Jews were expelled from Ramle, Beersheba, Acre, Ein Zeitim, Hebron (except for 1 family who was driven out in 1948), Pekiin, and Bet She'an which became a base for Arabs to attack the neighboring Jewish communities. Partial expulsions occurred in a number of places and Jews were again banned from entering Kfar Yasif after a brief respite. At the end of the year, the bloodbath ceased when the Arabs responded to British pleas to stop the violence. It was renewed, however, early the next year with a vengeance. In Tiberias, 19 Jews were massacred and many Jewish families fled their homes rather than await the same fate. Armed gangs took control over the Old City of Jerusalem which was relieved only with British reconquest.

1947-1949. In November, 1947, the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Arabs rejected the decision and embarked on a campaign of slaughter in order to turn Palestine into an exclusively Arab state. Between this time and Israeli independence on May 14, 1948, many hundreds of Jews were massacred by Arab gangs. After independence, 5 Arabs armies invaded, threatening an extermination that would have made the nazis proud - and indeed, several of their military leaders and organizations were either nazi or British trained and led: Fawzi al Kaukji, Haj Amin al Husseini, the Arab Legion of Jordan. During the war all communities in and around east Jerusalem were massacred, destroyed, and expelled. The students at the agricultural school in Ben Shemen near Tel Aviv were driven out and partial or total expulsions occurred in places far away from Jerusalem.

In addition, Israel had to deal with a new phenomenon - the massive expulsion of Jews from the neighboring Arab countries, many times more than the Palestinian Jewish refugees, and eventually numbering between 6-800,000. Some estimates go as high as 900,000. Israel survived the war, with approx. 6000 dead, 1% of the Jewish population at the time. Jordan took the chunk of Palestine known today as the 'West Bank' including east Jerusalem, and Egypt took the area now known as the Gaza Strip, which included Gaza and Khan Yunis.

Read article in full

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Turkish Jew thinks democracy will survive

Ishak Alaton on the Bosphorus. Photo: New York Times

Fascinating article in The New York Times about democracy enthusiast Ishak Alaton, who built up a business empire in Turkey after his Jewish family was ruined by the anti-minority 1942 Wealth Tax. Alaton is confident that Turkey's democratic values are entrenched enough to resist Islamist pressures:

"Ishak Alaton, a prominent member of Turkey’s tiny Jewish community, has a secret to living more intensely: He built his house next to a cemetery.

“You remember every day that you’re going to end up there,” he said.

"Mr. Alaton is 81 and one of Turkey’s leading businessmen. He started with heating systems in the 1950s and expanded into construction, gyms and resorts. He has built roads in Kazakhstan, airports in Uzbekistan and a hospital in Moscow.

"But now he is applying his energies to improving Turkish society.

"He has become a kind of cheerleader for Turkish democracy, founding an irreverent policy research group, publicly applauding a newspaper that has become the gadfly of the powerful military and persuading Turkey’s low-profile Jewish community, largely closed, to become more openly engaged in society.

"Turkey, he argues, is growing a new skin, and he wants to be part of the process.

“It’s a fantastic change in the mental attitude of people,” he said, on his balcony overlooking the Bosporus on an unseasonably warm February afternoon. “Things are unraveling.”

"Mr. Alaton takes an almost childlike glee in watching that happen. The Turkish Republic has been good to him, he said. He started from zero and has built a multimillion-dollar empire, the Alarko Group, almost entirely without the obstruction of anti-Semitism.

“I never felt I was ostracized for being Jewish,” he said. “I’ve had a pleasant life and steady growth.”

"He cares deeply for his country and believes that a more confident society that is asking more questions will be better able to hold the state to account.

"Turkey is a vibrant democracy in a region where few others are. It has come a long way since the 1940s, when its economy was largely centralized and there was just one political party. But an influential state establishment still wields tremendous power, and the military is still involved in politics, steering the country from behind the scenes.

"Mr. Alaton developed his taste for democracy in Sweden, where he worked as a welder in the early 1950s. (...)

"When he returned to Turkey in 1954, he found a business partner and slowly began to build his company, selling heating systems in Istanbul. He tried to recreate Sweden in his own factories. Walls were painted cheerful colors, and a big cafeteria was built for the workers.

"In the 1960s, secret police officers, hunting Communists, came to Mr. Alaton’s plant, acting on a tip from an informant. What raised suspicions? The walls were painted red. (“They were salmon!” he said.) Further suspicions arose around his practice of eating with the workers. In the end, they made no arrests.

“They didn’t believe that a businessman was a Communist,” he said, laughing.

"His Jewishness did affect him, and in many ways was the reason that his beginnings were so humble. His father, a yarn importer, lost everything in 1942 when Turkey imposed the infamous Wealth Tax. While its stated aim was to fill state coffers during World War II, larger amounts were levied on non-Muslims, like Jews, Armenians and Greeks. It was widely seen as a racist attempt to diminish the economic power of minorities in Turkey.

"Many Jews had been in what is modern-day Turkey for longer than the ethnic groups of some of the officials enforcing such policies, having immigrated to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century from Spain, where they had faced persecution.

"Burdened with the tax, the family lost their house, furniture and business. Mr. Alaton was 15 at the time, and remembers their being left with some mattresses and a few towels. Mr. Alaton’s father went to a labor camp in eastern Turkey to work off his remaining debt, and Mr. Alaton, as the oldest boy, was forced to drop out of school to support the family.

"He remembers the evening his father returned home from the camp, a bent, gray-haired man who, in the dimness of an apartment without power, he mistook for a beggar.

“I looked at my sister — we didn’t know who this man was,” he recalled.

"His father never recovered. He had met Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder, and strongly believed in the project of the modern republic. When the state betrayed him, he was unable to move on. Mr. Alaton, as a young man, criticized him for it, something he now regrets.

“I still have this weight on my conscience,” he said.

"It is tragedies like this that have caused the Jewish community, like other religious minorities in Turkey, to keep a low profile, staying out of politics and rarely speaking out. Mr. Alaton says he has tried to change that. “So we can prove we are useful to society,” he said.

"For example, when a rabbi was asked by a Turkish university to teach the Old Testament to Muslim theology students, community members balked, apparently worried that such exposure could bring harm. Mr. Alaton said it took him an entire year to persuade them to approve the request.

“What are you afraid of?” he said, exasperated.

"Eventually they did give their approval, and a chair was established at the Marmara University Theology Faculty.

"As for worries that the current government is going to bring hard-line Islamic rule to Turkey, Mr. Alaton does not share them.

“We are too open a society for that,” he said. “They are using this to create a new scarecrow. Our history has been full of scarecrows.”

"Turkey has been a democracy for years, and, unlike in Russia, which tried to erect the structures of democracy overnight after the Soviet Union’s collapse, cramming democracy down people’s throats in one painful gulp, the adjustment in Turkey has been much more gradual.

“We’ve been able to digest our democratic values,” he said. “You should be very hopeful.”

Read article in full

Friday, February 13, 2009

'Not the enemy': Rachel Shabi on the 'ethnic divide'

I have not yet read Rachel Shabi's new book, Not the enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab lands. ( I have since writing this, and everything that follows has been corroborated - and then some). But from the two book reviews I have seen, one in the Financial Times, and the other in the London Evening Standard, it does not bode well.

The book explores the 'ethnic divide' between Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and Mizrahi Jews from Arab lands. It alleges that any social justice issue is 'stifled at birth', the overriding Arab-Jew conflict masking the cracks in Israeli society.

So far, so true. The Arab-Jewish conflict does paper over Jew-against-Jew social cracks, as it does the religious-secular divide.

There is no denying that in Israel there is discrimination and an ethnic divide. Choice quotes from Israel's leaders in the 1950s do betray contempt or condescension for Jews from Arab lands. They were portrayed as 'weak, dirty, poor, culturally deficient and superstitious."

That's because many immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa WERE poor, badly educated, unwashed and superstitious. But Israel took in the most destitute, the poor, the sick, the elderly and the stateless - because they were Jews with nowhere else to go. Those with education, means and connections mostly went to Western Europe or the Americas.

Those from middle class backgrounds were especially bitterly disappointed at the windswept transit camps which awaited them in 'paradise'. Six hundred thousand Jews flooded into the struggling Jewish state in the 1950s: penniless Jewish refugees housed in leaky tents with insufficient food, looked back wistfully to their comfortable, even luxurious lives in Baghdad.

But the Israel of the 50s, where European and Middle Eastern culture undoubtedly clashed, is not the Israel of today. Shabi's claim that 'Mizrahi ethnic music is banned from public playlists' strains credulity when Mizrahi artistes like Sarit Haddad, David Broza, Dana International, Avinoam Nini and Ofra Haza are all thoroughly mainstream. Chaqshooka, falafel and mujadera are staples of Israeli food. Mizrahim have reached the highest echelons of political life.

Most importantly, intermarriage is running at 25 percent. More and more Israelis are the product of mixed marriages. If this trend continues there will be no such thing as a Mizrahi or an Ashkenazi in the Israeli melting pot.

The book wants to have it both ways. It seems simultaneously to want to dismiss the backward and superstitious character of the Mizrahi immigrants, suggesting that they had something worthwhile to offer - and yet argue that the Mizrahim were even more advanced than what they found in Israel. Mizrahim from the major cities of the Middle East wore sharp suits and boasted newly minted qualifications in four languages from the Alliance Israelite. So these were not backward at all, but thoroughly westernised.

True - Israel initially rejected the immigrants' Middle Eastern culture, mocked their accents and frowned on them speaking Arabic. Marina Benjamin in The Evening Standard puts it rather strongly: Shabi's book pays homage to the ... literary, theatrical and academic traditions Arab Jews would gladly have gifted Israel had their not founding fathers feared their contagion. (Contagion?)

But Israel also rejected the old mitteleuropean culture and the speaking of Yiddish, for equally ethnocentric reasons. Israel has had an ambivalent, even hostile attitude toward the Yiddish language, because of its association with the galut (Diaspora). In the 1950s, for example, state authorities used censorship laws inherited from the British to prohibit or severely limit Yiddish theatre in Israel. Israelis were discouraged from expressing themselves in Yiddish, and even Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself reportedly once sneered, “That language grates in my ears.”

At least thousands of Arabic-speaking Jews were able to put their skills to good use working in Israel intelligence, staffing Israel's Arabic broadcasting networks and setting up departments of Arabic studies in freethinking Israeli universities that became the envy of the Middle East.

Let's face it - not all Arabic culture was worth keeping: some aspects of Arabic culture were best jettisoned - the corruption, the extortion, the lack of democracy. But critical thinking, education and transparency were western values which Israel was eager to get Mizrahim to espouse. And rightly so.

Underlying the entire book seems to be a flawed premise - that if only the Ashkenazim had allowed themselves to be guided by the Mizrahim and become more 'Arab', there would be peace.

According to Siona Jenkins in the FT, "Shabi’s conclusion is that Israel’s inability to come to terms with its own connections to the region can only hinder any future peaceful coexistence within it."Marina Benjamin's review begins with the surprising statistic: if you add 'Arab' Jews to Arab Christians and Muslims, 60 percent of Israel's population is Middle Eastern.

But the statistic is misleading. Jews may be Arabised, but they are not Arabs. Even many non-Jews living in the Arab world would reject the epithet 'Arab'. I know Egyptians who recoil at the term, and Iraqis who reject the values of Bedouin culture.

The phrase 'Arab Jew' in the presss reviews betrays a far-left political agenda. Communists and anti-Zionists have long argued on behalf of an “Arab Jewish” identity as a way of repudiating Jewish nationalism and justifying their participation in revolutionary politics. It presupposes that Arabs and Mizrahi Jews are natural allies, and that both are victims of Ashkenazim.
To refer to “Arab Jews” is not only to imply that Zionism tore them away from their true homelands for the false lure of a Jewish state; it is to demean them by denying them their own sense of themselves and their unhappy history in Arab lands.
The elephant in the room is surely this unhappy history in Arab lands, the oppression of the Jews by Arabs and the legacy of bitterness these Jews carry within them - an instinctive mistrust of Arabs, reflected in their tendency to support rightwing parties in Israel. Yet the Evening Standard review refers to 'Arabic-speaking Palestinian Jews living in the Holy Land for centuries and tending the land peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbours'. The picture caption says: "At peace: Jewish boys in Yemen long used to living alongside their Muslim neighbours."

That peaceful coexistence is a huge lie. I shall reserve judgement on Shabi's book until I have read it, but if it claims Israel is guilty of Mizrahi cultural denial, while itself denying their history of oppression in Arab lands, it too would be based on a lie.

More reviews here and here

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The beauty queen who fled the Iranian revolution

Photo: Amy Walters, NPR
Rosette Melamed, crowned Miss Iran in 1976, had everything going for her - beauty, talent, a bright future. Then the revolution broke out in 1979 - 30 years ago - and the family, along with most Iranian Jews, no longer felt safe. Three-quarters of the community left. NPR reports:

"In the early 1970s, Roset Melamed led a comfortable life in Iran. She grew up ice skating and learning martial arts. She was talented and beautiful.

"I was Miss Iran, 1976," she says. "It was heaven."

Melamed thumbs through old scrapbooks with pictures of teenage girls — herself and others — pictured in jeans, skirts and short-sleeved shirts. It's nothing like what you would see on the streets of Tehran today.

For Melamed, the revolution of 1979 came as a shock. Bit by bit, signs of unrest breached her existence. She knew there were demonstrations on the streets and scattered violence. But the thought of revolution seemed extreme.(...)

"After a few months in Buffalo, away from her family and friends, it became clear that the situation in Iran was not getting better. Melamed could not stand to be away from the rest of her family any more. She and her mother and son returned to the new Iran.

"Soon after her return to Tehran, her husband wanted to take her out for a pizza in the neighborhood, to celebrate their anniversary. Knowing the dangers of the new situation, Melamed didn't want to go. He persisted; she complied. The couple sat side by side in the restaurant, talking and holding hands happily, when Melamed suddenly heard the sound of boots marching toward her husband.

"A soldier said, 'You, you come here!'" she recalls. "And I thought, ' Oh, no! They're going to take him away.'"

"The soldier left after she and her husband agreed to sit across from each other and not hold hands. But Melamed couldn't eat. She was shaking in fear.

Sometime later, her husband's cousin was executed. Melamed says she could think of only one reason why: He was Jewish. So was she. Iran, she felt, was becoming too dangerous for her and her family.

"One night, my husband come to me and said, 'I have a ticket. ... Tomorrow we're going to leave Iran.'"

"The family has lived in Los Angeles for the past 30 years. They had left Iran with little money. But her husband had an engineering degree, and in the U.S., he eventually became part of the team that built NASA's Mars Rover. He received a special prize from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Listen to the report. Transcript here

Jews of Iran - 30 years after the revolution

Iran to try Baha'is for spying for Israel

Thirty years after the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah, non-Muslim minorities have made useful scapegoats for the Iranian regime - none more vulnerable than the Baha'i community, whose main shrine (pictured) is in Haifa, Israel. AFP reports:

TEHRAN (AFP) — Iran will soon try seven members of the banned Bahai religion on charges including "espionage for Israel," the ISNA news agency reported on Wednesday.

"The charges against seven defendants in the case of the illegal Bahai group were examined ... and the case will be sent to the revolutionary court next week," deputy Tehran prosecutor Hassan Haddad was quoted as saying.

Haddad said the charges included "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic."

Iran and Israel are arch-enemies, and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map.

In late January, judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi said Iran had arrested six adherents of the Bahai faith on the same charges.

Earlier last month, the Fars news agency said the ex-secretary of Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi's office was detained for links with an organisation of the Bahai faith, adding that the ex-staffer was a Bahai herself.

Haddad did not say if the seven being charged were the same as those arrested in January.

Followers of the Bahai faith, founded in Iran in 1863, are regarded as infidels and have suffered persecution both before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Read article in full

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Justice, Yemeni-style

More details of the harassment of the victim's relatives at the trial of the man accused of murdering Moshe (Masha) al-Nahari have emerged in The Yemen Times. But the response of the few hundred Jews of Amran province to the government's offer of more secure homes in the Sana'a area has been lukewarm.

Lawyers of Masha’s family demanded the transfer of the trial from the Criminal Specialized Court in Amran to Sana’a on grounds of fear from being attacked by Al-Abdi’s tribe who showed harmful intentions towards the Jewish minority according to both Muslim and Jewish locals.

During court sessions the Jews were advised to hide their plaits so as not to be recognized and attacked. During one aggressive incident against the Jews, the judge imprisoned five of aggressors from Al-Abdi tribe, but they were released after a few hours without bail. Furthermore, according to Al-Anesi, the court did not send soldiers with the Jews to protect them during their journey back and forth to the trial sessions. The lawyers had to escort them to ensure their safety.

No response was received from the general prosecution or the Ministry of Justice concerning the court transfer’s request. Dr. Abdullah Al-Olfi, the general prosecutor, said that the transfer request is pending review by Justice Minister Ghazi Al-Aghbari, who wanted an official letter before responding to the query on the transfer.

People put in charge of managing living places for Jews such as Mohammed Bin Naji al-Shaif, the head of the human rights commission in the Parliament, denied that the places are small for the Jews. “We devoted 54 houses for 42 families, which means that extra housing can be used for the bigger families,” Al-Shaif said.

Al-Shaif said that the Jews did not come because they don’t want to leave their houses. “Four families took their keys and went back,” he said.

Al-Anesi and Taha blamed the public mass media, which generalized what happened in Gaza as being the fault of all Jews. Political parties and religious scholars stood still in this issue Al-Anesi stated, who said that he contacted all of them to help the Yemeni Jews. He added, “This is not a political issue, or international. It is Yemeni."

Read article in full

Sunday, February 08, 2009

What's a nice Jewish girl doing in a place like Syria?

Perhaps with a mind to the five months she still has left of her study year in Syria, Rachel Levine, a US student, is careful with her words in her interview with the Philadephia Jewish Voice, describing how it feels to be a Jew in Syria. Watch out, Rachel, you might yet prove a catch for one of the ten eligible Jewish batchelors living there!

PJV: What are the religious services of Syrian Jews like?

This was the first time I was in a Yom Kippur service where there were more Torah scrolls than people. I think I counted twenty-five kept in this one synagogue. All in beautifully ornate cases, they're the scrolls brought from other Damascus synagogues which have since been boarded up. The service was 100% in Hebrew; I'd never heard this particular kind of semi-melodic chanting before.

PJV: Was there separate seating? Did the temple look like a mosque?

There was a place for women upstairs but since there were so few of us, we all sat downstairs. Ostensibly there could have been separate seating if there had been more people. We women were sitting off to the side in the back, but at one point they invited us to sit closer to the men, near the ark. They seemed impressed that we as women knew how to davven (pray) and read Hebrew. They probably didn't think very much about this, but for us it felt like a rather profound gesture. Here we are, still fasting and praying in Damascus in 2008, so indeed, why make praying, atoning Jews sit so far away? Many elements of the synagogue showed Islamic influence, for example the name of G*d in Hebrew illuminated on the gold wall plaques, stylized exactly like in the mosques. There's a lot of word art with religious themes; it's done in Hebrew calligraphy just like its Islamic, Arabic counterpart.

PJV: Did you feel isolated as a Jew in Syria?

Well, for those who are looking, I met /heard about over ten very eligible Jewish bachelors who would each love a Jewish woman to contact them with an eye toward marriage and a life in Syria. They all make an excellent living there, and as rumor has it, are quite eligible. But, what's left of Jewish life in Damascus gives a sense of what it was like to be Jewish before vast swaths of Jews immigrated to America. Being a minority anywhere, religious or otherwise, can be a position of disempowerment and the position of Jews in Syria must have been similar in some ways to that of other religious minorities. How similar, well, that's a question for graduate school. But in this regard, Syrian Jews were integrated into a religiously-diverse Syrian society. The Jews were a sect among sects in Syria; they were sectarian in the true sense of the word.

PJV: One hears that people watch what they say over there. How safe and observed do you feel?

I know that part of what makes Syria so safe is that there's a lot of "observing." I feel very safe and know I can walk around at any time of day or night. I run alone at night and feel 100% safe and often feel people there are so involved in the lives of others and it's like the entire society watches one another. It's a nosey culture but people also care about one another immensely and watch out for the well-being of women especially. There's a certain sense of chivalry that's present in the society.

PJV: Are you "out" as a Jew there?

No. But maybe I'm just afraid and not giving the Syrians a chance. It's been fascinating discovering a whole world where Judaism doesn't exist. Here some people live very pious lives but they've never met a Jew, it doesn't show up on their religious radar. It's been a wake-up call to realize this is a norm in much of the world, that Judaism just isn't present. Maybe it's present in its absence; Jews are depicted as such an ominous force in world politics though no one has met one of us. Part of it is that I don't want to make them feel uncomfortable.

Some Syrians do reminisce about when they had a Jewish neighbor or Jewish classmates in high school and their nostalgia for them. This is a testament to their society's religious diversity. In some ways the loss of the Jewish population, regardless of the historical circumstances, was seen as a blow to Syrian pluralism. But at the same time, what they understand as Judaism and Jews is so removed from Judaism and from what Jews are and what I really am.

Syrian religious minorities themselves don't always make known their religion, and so Jewish foreign students would be extremely well-served to adopt this local custom. I don't think anything bad would necessarily happen to me, but it would change the relationships with people as I came to learn about them.

PJV: What do they say about Jews?

There are two strands of discourse - one is there are no gripes with the Jewish people; Judaism is a monotheistic Abrahamic religion, the problem's with Zionism. Jews can come to Syria and anyone is welcome to pray in any holy place in Syria – a member of the Syrian parliament actually said this to us in a lecture. He was particularly proud of the fact that there is still a functioning synagogue in Syria even though the country is at war with the "Hebrew State." So there's this discourse of tolerance that's interwoven with the enmity toward Zionism and Israel. The other discourse is a very deeply rooted suspicion of Judaism; you see a lot of sensationalist books in bookstore like "The Sexual Secrets of the Talmud," and books with skulls and blood and Jewish stars – the typical anti-Semitic fare. There's a sensationalist book on the history of the Jews in Damascus published last year with a specific chapter dealing with the ritual uses of blood throughout history and with the phenomenon of "Jewish prostitution." You don't see such things about Christianity or other traditions.

Every day one hears anti-Zionist sentiments such as "God isn't a real estate agent, he doesn't promise people land." There are copies of Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kamf all over the place. There was a book at the book fair, Leaders of the Zionist Movement. I didn't read it. There is an interest in the figures of Zionism, but as criminals. This type of stuff tends to be rather sensational in nature.

They assume you're a Christian if you're an American tourist, but some people think most of America is Jewish. It's very strange.

PJV: Is there a free press?

No, but newspapers from Lebanon are available for sale and one can always read widely on the Internet or watch any number of foreign satellite channels, everything from Al-Manar [Hizballah TV] to Al-Jazeera to the BBC and CNN. Syria has a secular government that is providing security for its citizens in one of the most violent, sectarian regions of the world.

Also, it's important to remember how people’s degrees of relation to the terrorized-starving-dying people on TV affects their emotional response. When Syrians read take in news about Israelis and Palestinians the top story before Operation Cast Lead in Gaza had been the humanitarian suffering and the boycott there. Perhaps people hear from American satellite or from the last line in an Al-Jazeera article about rockets falling on Sderot, but obviously the sufferings of the residents of Gaza struck and do strike their hearts much more intensely and immediately. They look at the rockets falling on Israel with a degree of dismissiveness, if not a little bit of cheering. With the air and now ground campaign in Gaza, the Arabic press sees as the main story what the Israeli and Western presses see as the collateral damage.

PJV: Your boyfriend came out to visit you for a month, how did your experience change?

They aren't used to seeing unmarried people staying or traveling together. They would assume we are engaged or married, and bless us to have a large family, inshallah (G*d-willing). There was a family that was so hospitable they wouldn't let us leave - for days. We went one night and the next day we stayed two more nights for a total four days with them. We lost track of how many cups of tea and teaspoons of sugar we drank. Syrians have a saying – "his blood is light," which means someone has a good sense of humor, and they do laugh a lot. My experience is that they value their relationships and joke about one another all the time. There has to be something to talk about in lieu of the sensitive topics of politics and religion.

PJV: Will you go back?

Well, that's a much more daunting prospect than it was a week and a half ago given just how angry people are in the Arab world right now. But there are five months left of my program and I'm very much looking forward to continuing to deepen the relationships with the very kind people who I've had the immense pleasure of meeting in Syria. There must be a better way, and the more violent the region becomes, the clearer it gets that even though educating and being educated is a slow, gradual process, there really isn't a moment to lose.

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