Friday, April 20, 2018

Mossad set up sham resort to smuggle out Ethiopian Jews

This amazing story - improbably featured on the BBC website - demonstrates how far Israel has been prepared to go to fulfil its humanitarian missions to rescue Jews in distress.   The article reveals how the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, established a  Red Sea diving resort in the Sudan as a base for its operatives. The resort, which attracted bona fide tourists, and even made money, was a front for the smuggling of thousands of Ethiopian Jews through Sudan and on to Israel.  A film based on the book by Mossad agent Gad Shimroni is soon to be released. (With thanks: Lily; Janet)


Mossad agent Gad Shimroni at the Red Sea 'resort' of Arous in the Sudan

"For us it was a godsend (says one Mossad agent). If we could get hold of this place and do it up, we could say we're running a diving village, which would give us a reason for being in Sudan and furthermore for roaming around near the beach."

What happened next is the subject of a soon-to be released Hollywood film called Red Sea Diving Resort. Filmed in Namibia and South Africa, it tells the story of the operation and the village. Though while it is based on true events, some of the scenes are fictitious.

Completed in 1972 by Italian entrepreneurs, the resort was a cluster of 15 red-roofed bungalows, a kitchen and a large dining room opening out to the beach, a lagoon and the sea.
However, with no electricity, water supply or even a road, the Italians found the project impossible and the resort never opened.

"It's a very difficult place to run, if you don't have the Mossad behind you," says the unidentified agent.

Using false passports, a group of agents posing as employees of a Swiss operating company went to Sudan, convinced the authorities of their business proposition, and rented the village for three years for $320,000 (£225,000).


They spent the first year renovating it and struck a deal with local suppliers for fresh water and fuel.

The resort was also kitted out with Israeli-made equipment, including air-conditioning units, outboard motors, and top-of-the-range water sports gear, all smuggled into the country.

"We introduced windsurfing to Sudan," says Gad, smiling. "The first board was brought in - I knew how to windsurf, so I taught the guests. Other Mossad agents posed as professional diving instructors."

They also recruited about 15 local staff, including chambermaids, waiters, a driver and a chef "poached" from a hotel. "We paid him double," says the unnamed operative. None of the staff knew the resort's real purpose, or that their Caucasian managers were Mossad spies.

Female agents were put in charge of the day-to day running of the place, which it was thought would lower any suspicions.

The diving storeroom was out-of-bounds. In it were concealed radios the agents used to keep in regular contact with headquarters back in Tel Aviv.

While seeing to their guests by day, every so often at night a squad would leave under cover of darkness and head to a rendezvous point 10km (six miles) south of Gedaref.

"We'd tell the staff we're going to Khartoum for a few days, or to meet some Swedish nurses from the hospital in Kassala," says Gad.

They would pick up groups of Ethiopian Jews, smuggled out of the camps by so-called Committee Men - a handful of Beta Israelis recruited for the job.

"The Ethiopian Jews were given no notice, as we could not risk word getting out," says Gad. "They did not even know we were Israelis. We told them we were mercenaries."

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel after it became too risky to transport them by ship.


From there, a convoy of lorries carrying dozens of bewildered refugees drove a two-day - 800km - journey, evading detection at numerous checkpoints along the way by a combination of guile, bribery and occasionally ramming their way through.

At breaks, they would try to pacify the frightened passengers.
"When we let them sit in the driver's cabin and touch the wheel, they were in seventh heaven," Gad says, in his book Mossad Exodus. "It was amazing to see how happy they were at sharing a piece of chewing gum among 20 children. They looked at us as though we were creatures from outer space."

When they got to the beach, north of the holiday village, Israeli navy special forces would come ashore on Zodiac dinghies, collect the refugees and transport them a further hour and a half to a waiting naval vessel, the INS Bat Galim.
The ship then took them to Israel.

Read article in full

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Happy 70th Birthday Israel!



Thousands of Israelis gather up and down the country to sing in celebration of Israel's 70th anniversary as part of a project called Kooloolam. Here the song is 'Chai', which was popularised before her tragically early death by the Yemenite diva Ofra Haza in 1983 (with thanks: Malca) 

Israel is marking its 70th birthday with celebrations around the world. It has a lot to celebrateit has turned from a poor and developing into a developed nation, a world leader in so many fields.

What is unprecedented - and often overlooked  - is the enormous challenges it has faced to ingather Jews from East and West, North and South and integrate them in Israel's vibrant and colourful society. Most of those Jews came with nothing, yet were accepted without condition.

 The state still remains embattled and under existential threat. By any yardstick, however, and whatever the social and cultural tensions, Israel has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. 

Happy birthday Israel ! יום הולדת שמח
                   

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

'I've been cut off from my Baghdad soul'

 A young Israeli living in Berlin, Orit Arfa, asks why the Jewish world hardly ever talks about her Iraqi grandmother's heritage. Why are there no serious attempts to recover Jewish property there, to open Jewish archives in Arab countries or evn to plan a Mideast 'March of the Living'? Read her article in JNS News (with thanks: Claire)

 Orit Arfa: 'you would have thought Jewish life never existed in Baghdad'

I remember one night, when I lived for a few months with my Iraqi grandmother in Givatayim near Tel Aviv, I saw her cry in the corner, listening to Arabic love songs on the radio. I asked her if she was OK as tears rolled down her wrinkled, 80-something-year-old face. She said the songs make her think of Iraq, and the good times she had there. Since the Nazi-inspired Farhud pogrom drove Iraqi Jewry out, I don’t think she ever really enjoyed life in Israel as much as she did in Baghdad, where she married and gave birth to my mother. She suffered a lot in Israel, with the premature loss of her husband and brother to health compilations. She didn’t live with as much luxury and even, up until the persecution of Jews in Iraq, with as much security.

She made the most delicious Iraqi foods, which I long to replicate but which are way more complicated than matzah-ball soup. Safta knew the recipes masterfully by heart for kubba, tibit and those Iraqi, date-filled Purim hamantaschen. The Jewish world produces countless kosher cookbooks on Ashkenazi delights, but hardly any for Iraqi delights.

My mother is extremely proud of her Sephardi heritage, even though she has since been “Ashkenized.” She prays at an Ashkenazi shul every Shabbat, but she still takes her Sephardi machzor, prayerbook, with her on the High Holidays, feeling great nostalgia for the Iraqi cantors that make her almost as emotional as my grandmother was that night she cried.

But the Jewish world also hardly ever talks about Iraq and Jewish life in Arab lands. Every other day you’ll see a headline about Germany or Poland, and something Holocaust-related, but one would think, from the dearth of coverage, that Jewish life never existed in Baghdad, when it was Baghdad—Babylon—that was the cradle of Jewish intellectual civilization, the first Diaspora where Jews thrived and developed their great legal, literary and religious traditions.

Aside from the work of a few underfunded organizations, we don’t hear of any serious attempts to recover Jewish property there, to open Jewish archives in Arab countries and to create Jewish “heritage” tours in those lands. I realize that it’s physically unsafe, but why not prepare for an eventual Mideast “March of the Living”?

' March of the Living to Baghdad' drawn by Point of No Reader reader Ala Atar.

Baghdad is a part of my soul from which I’ve been largely cut off. Jewish life in Middle Eastern lands has become a side note to Jewish history. Perhaps, when Israel was founded, Jewish life in former Babylon no longer wanted to be glorified. After all, Babylon is the archetypical symbol of the Diaspora, and here Jews are returning from the seat of the first exile! Why cry by the rivers of Babylon now?

But we should. While Germany owed the Jewish people the most after World War II (so the focus on German restitution is understandable), these days the Jewish people are in conflict with Arab lands, not Europe. While Palestinians lay exaggerated and often illegitimate claims for their own land, Jewish property in Arabs lands has never even been put on the table.

Read article in full

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Jewish refugees from Arab lands get new attention

The issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries has gained unprecedented prominence in the latest issue of  Congressional Quarterly Researcher (13 April 2018). Sarah Glazer tells the story of Syrian-born Joseph Esses and interviews Lyn Julius, author of Uprooted.

Joseph Esses, who was born in 1919 in the Syrian city of Aleppo, had fond memories of growing up Jewish next to his Muslim neighbors. But Arab attitudes toward Jews took a fateful turn after 1948, when the state of Israel was founded.
One evening after that historic event, Esses was walking home from his clothing shop when three Muslim men cornered him on the street. Beating him with fists, rocks and sticks, they taunted him, “You want a country? Here is your country!” Esses recalled witnessing numerous atrocities against the Jewish community in Aleppo — the killings of friends and relatives in broad daylight and hangings for the “crime” of being a Jew. After being in and out of jail for two years and enduring torture, Esses escaped to Lebanon in 1950 and found his way to Canada, leaving behind all his family heirlooms and property. 1

After 1948, 856,000 Jews were forced to leave the Middle Eastern countries where their families had lived for generations. Most of this migration occurred rapidly: 90 percent of the Jews who fled Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen had departed by 1951. About 650,000 ended up as refugees in Israel; another 200,000 went to the United States, Canada or Europe. 2

The forces pushing Jews from their homelands included discriminatory laws — stripping them of citizenship, confiscating their property and barring them from specified jobs — as well as anti-Jewish riots.Within a few years, thriving Jewish communities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Yemen had virtually disappeared.

Today, outside of Israel, only 4,500 Jews remain in the Middle East, almost all in Morocco and Tunisia. 3

In Uprooted: How 3000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight, British writer Lyn Julius, the daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees who fled to the United Kingdom in 1950, chronicles this story. More Jews than Palestinians were forced from their homelands after 1948, and about as many Middle Eastern Jews ended up as refugees in Israel as the number of Palestinians displaced from that land, she wrote. 4

“The Palestinians have to recognize there are two sets of refugees — not just them,” says Julius, who thinks recognition of this fact and compensation for Middle Eastern Jews, known as Mizrahi Jews, should be on the agenda of any future peace negotiations. “This hopefully would lead to a recognition that a wrong was done to people on both sides and would lead to a kind of reconciliation.”

President Bill Clinton took a step in this direction in July 2000, immediately after the Camp David peace talks, when in an Israeli television interview he suggested creating an international fund to compensate Jews from Arab countries who became refugees in Israel. At the Camp David summit, Clinton said, “the Palestinians said they thought these people should be eligible for compensation.”

In 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proposed compensation for Jews from Arab countries ahead of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. 5 However, no such international fund has been established.
Recently, in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries, interest
has grown in Jewish culture. Exemplifying this trend are a popular Egyptian TV series, “The Jewish Neighborhood;” the emergence of films and novels in Arabic featuring Jewish characters; Jewish cultural festivals; and the restoration of abandoned synagogues. 6

Palestinian scholar Najat Abdulhaq, who is based in Berlin and teaches at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, traces this growing interest among young people to the 2010-11 Arab Spring protests and the questioning of their governments’ official line. “Literature, culture and films are intellectual spaces where we can discuss taboos” about Jews and can go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said during a recent talk in London.

Curious about shuttered synagogues and nostalgic for the once-cosmopolitan, inclusive societies portrayed in films, young people are seeking a reappraisal of the role that Jews played in their societies, she said. 7

 Joseph Esses, shown with his wife, Olga Abadi Esses, in 1960 in Beirut, fled Syria to Lebanon in 1950 and eventually settled in Canada.

Julius said she is skeptical of a real rapprochement, suggesting the trend toward restoring Jewish synagogues is driven by Arab countries’ desire to attract Western tourism — garnering favorable public relations “without the inconvenience of live Jews.” 8

In her book, Julius argued that anti-Semitism in Arab countries predated the Israeli-Arab conflict. Bigotry against non- Muslims has a long tradition in the Middle East, she wrote. 9

“Even minorities who’ve got no Israel of their own have been persecuted,” Julius says. “You only have to look at the plightof Christian groups and Kurdish Yazidis."

For many years, the Israeli government described the migration of Mizrahi Jews as the product of a long-held desire to return to the Jewish homeland. But Julius says that most arrived out of desperation. Wealthier families went to the United States, Europe or Canada. In the early years, Mizrahis were typically housed in tent camps and faced discrimination in a society dominated by European Jewry.

Only recently has Israel recognized the plight of the Mizrahis. In 2010, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) passed a law declaring that compensation to Jewish refugees from Arab lands for property losses should be part of any future peace negotiations. 10

1 Michelle Devorah Kahn, “Tales of a convicted Jew’s escape from Syria,”
National Post, Dec. 1, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y844m8yk.
2 Lyn Julius, Uprooted: How 3000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab
World Vanished Overnight
(2018), pp. 120, x-xxiii, 5.
3 Ibid., pp. 132, 5, 264.
4 Ibid., p. x. An estimated 711,000 Palestinian Arabs, who had left what
became Israel after the 1948 war, were recognized by the U.N. as refugees
in 1950. See “General Progress Report and Supplementary Report of the
United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, Covering the Period
from 11 December 1949 to 23 October 1950,” United Nations Conciliation
Commission, Oct. 23, 1950, https://tinyurl.com/y7zd2fby.
5 Alan Baker, ed., Israel’s Rights as a Nation-State in International Diplomacy
(2011), p. 61, https://tinyurl.com/y9qt3m8m; Julius, op. cit., 267-69.
6 “Rethinking and Reclaiming History: Emerging Arab Interest in Jewish Heritage,”
SOAS University of London, Jan. 30, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y82lg6sz.
7 Ibid.
8 Julius, op. cit., p. 234.
9 Ibid., p. 87.
10 Ibid., p. 270. 


Read report in full 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Saudi writer laments forgotten Jewish exodus

Surprise, surprise. An article about the forgotten plight of Jews driven from the Arab world has appeared in the Saudi Gazette, of all places. But do not get too excited yet: Hussein Shobokshi's sympathy does not extend to Israel, despite the Saudi government's recent favourable noises.

Hussein Shobokshi: tragic stories
 
The Jews were part of pure Arab societies and the region was their home. They were forcibly driven out as a result of persistent harassment, questioning their loyalty. If the sustained pressure did not yield the desired result, their property was nationalized. They were subjected to systematic target often being accused of betrayal and disloyalty despite the fact that they were proponents of the arts, economy and civilization in the country in which they lived.

I recall a “famous” incident that happened to me (and was written about by the famous American writer David Ignatius in The Washington Post) when my daughter was preparing for a major surgery to remove a malignant tumor in the United States. I was in Jeddah attending Friday prayers. I objected to imam during an interval over the supplication on the Jews and Christians, telling him that the doctor who will perform the operation for my daughter was a Jewish surgeon. I also told him why to curse people who did not hurt me. Later on I began to find out situations of Jews in the Arab world. There is Serge Berdugo, who was Moroccan minister of tourism from 1993 to 1996, and who told me that the Jews in Morocco have full citizenship rights, and there is a famous dealer of electronics, the owner of the shop famous near Bab Al Bahrain, who told me about the respect of Bahrain for the rights of the Jews in it.

Apart from these two examples, there were tragic stories of stolen rights, humiliation racial treatment. Properties of the Jews were seized by force and coercion without any crime. These examples were known in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen. Iraq, where the family of Kadoorie lived and later fled to Hong Kong to establish the most ancient hotels (the Venezuelan) (sic - The Peninsula - ed), which with passage of time became a respectable chain around the world. The Sahati family also settled in Britain to become the leader of the advertising industry (Saatchi), and from Syria the Safra family went to Brazil to establish the most important financial empire, and from Egypt came out the family of the giant stores.

All these models were lost by the Arab economy and society, as it was not able to demonstrate tolerance in practice and eventually turned into an exclusionary model. Israel’s despicable crimes against the Palestinians do not justify the same type of action meted out to the citizens who have nothing to do with Israel but following the same Jewish religion.

Read article in full

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Haaretz publisher in hot water over racist Tweet

Soon after the leftwing newspaper Haaretz newspaper branded Hatikva and Jerusalem of Gold as two of Israel's most hated tunes, its publisher  Amos Shocken was accused of racism for tweeting that the family of one critic, with a Moroccan-sounding name, was 'climbing trees' while his was part of the Zionist leadership. According to Yediot Aharonot,  he later deleted his Tweet.  See my comment below. (With thanks: Michelle/ Andrea):


 Amos Shocken: deleted 'racist Tweet' (Photo: Saul Golan)

The supplement aroused outcry on social media in short order, with many users criticizing the paper. Responding to one of them, Ravit Dahan, Shocken tweeted, "You're insolent. My family was part of Zionism's leadership while you were still climbing trees.

"Haaretz has been in the Shocken family for the past 83 years, and we have gotten on fine without your ideology, and will continue to do so."
A short time later the Haaretz publisher deleted the tweet, possibly realizing his mistake, but many of his followers were appalled by the utterance nonetheless.

Israel Radio presenter Keren Neubach, for instance, wrote, "Blatant and shameful racism. The tweet exposes what Shocken really thinks about parts of the Israeli public."
Avi Dabush, who ran for the Meretz party's leadership in a race eventually won by Tamar Zandberg, tweeted, "We may have 'climbed down' from trees 70 years ago and came to Israel, but it appears it will still be some time before we pass the absurd admission committee headed by Amos Shocken."
Later comment from Shocken himself sought to clarify he deleted the tweet once he realized it was ascribed meaning he did not intend, stating he merely wished to point out the commenter's "ignorance."

Read article in full 

My comment: The incident points to a fault line between the borderline anti-Zionism of some of Israel's leftist Ashkenazi elite and the old-fashioned patriotism of many Mizrahim. The elite like to 'virtue signal' by supporting the Palestinians and African refugees, for instance, while leapfrogging over the concerns of Mizrahim.

Amos Shocken's shocking racism (Tablet)

A dose of Neanderthal realism

Iraqi-Jewish artist recreates Assyrian bull in London

A winged Assyrian bull made of 10,000 cans of date syrup - popularly known to Iraqi Jews as silan - is now gracing the fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square. It is a statement by Michael Rakowitz, an artist-provocateur with Iraqi-Jewish roots, about the destruction of Iraq's heritage.  The Guardian has the story (with thanks: Michelle):

Rakowitz's Assyrian winged bull is made of 10,000 date syrup cans

In February 2015, Isis militants videoed themselves drilling the face off one of the commanding stone statues that had guarded the gates of the ancient city of Nineveh for more than a thousand years. The lamassu – winged bulls with serene human faces – were among the most monumental casualties of a spree of destruction that over just a few days reduced many of Iraq’s most precious artefacts to pebbles.

On 28 March, 2018, the life-sized “ghost” of one of these fabulous Assyrian creatures will be unveiled atop the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, where it will stand with its back to the National Gallery, gazing south-east past the Foreign Office and the Houses of Parliament towards its spiritual home in the Middle East.

The 14ft-long statue is both a one-off statement and part of an ambitious long-term project by Michael Rakowitz, a 44-year-old Iraqi-American who has become one of the world’s most political – and powerful – artist-provocateurs. The aim of The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist is no less than to reconstruct all 7,000 objects known to have been looted from the National Museum of Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion by the US-led coalition. (...)

Though he has never set foot in Iraq, Rakowitz is saturated in the culture of a country where his mother’s family lived until 1946 when, fearing for their safety as Arab Jews in an increasingly divided region, his grandfather made the decision to move them to the US, continuing to run his import-export business from New York.

From there, a generation on, they watched in horror as – in his mother’s words – the country they had escaped to invaded the one from which they had escaped. The start of the Iraqi looting coincided with Rakowitz’s own development, in his late 20s, from an artist who worked mainly in public spaces to one who was part of the gallery system. “When you get involved with galleries you have to come to terms with the thought that you’ve made something that’s going to be sold; and at the same time all these artefacts were being put up for sale.”

He became addicted to eBay (“It’s like a search engine for me”), on one occasion buying 18 of Saddam Hussein’s dinner plates from a US veteran and a refugee whose father had been a high-ranking soldier in the Iraqi army. The plates were to feature in one of his more mischievous works, Spoils (2011), in which he persuaded a Manhattan restaurant to use them to serve an Iraqi dish of venison and date syrup.

The project was halted after two months when the restaurant received a cease-and-desist letter from the US Department of State. The plates were confiscated and returned to Iraq in a diplomatic deal that he says was brokered by Barack Obama. “He was meeting with Nouri al-Maliki, so it was a ceremonial handover – a photo op … these 18 plates, which were a symbol of Saddam, going back on the plane of the Iraqi prime minister.”

Rakowitz insists he is not interested in controversy or spectacle but concedes that his work asks difficult questions. “I think discomfort is important. I describe the work I’m involved in as a process where problem-solving is also troublemaking.”

Read article in full 

More about Michael Rakowitz's projects

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Allied entry into Sfax in April 1943

 With thanks: Lily S.


 Rare photographs showing the entry of the first Allied tank into Sfax in April 1943. Left: evidence that Jews in Sfax wore the yellow star

A few years ago, The Documentation Centre on North African Jews at the Ben Zvi Institute  found the photo you see here in the Imperial War Museum in London. It shows a crowd rejoicing after the liberation of the Tunisian town of Sfax by the Allies on April 10th 1943.

When they enlarged the photo, they were amazed to see sitting on the tank – named Roosevelt – a young man with a yellow star sewn on the right side of his coat. This is the first photographic evidence of a yellow star being worn in Sfax. (It is thought that  Sfax was the only town where Jews were mandated to wear the yellow star under the six-month Nazi occupation.)

One of the Jews sitting atop the tank was the 10-year old beret-wearing David Bar-Rabi, now 85. In this rare clip - aired on Israeli TV - he shares his memories of the war with his grand-daughter, a historian. No Arabs came out into the street to greet the Allies that day, he says. They were almost all pro-German.

 He recalls that the Allied bombing eventually forced his family out of the city into a village in the Tunisian countryside. All the young Jewish men - some 5,000 - were sent to forced labour camps. His wife remembers that her brother was sent to one of these camps. Their mother was so embarrassed to admit the fact that she said that he was in prison. Mrs Bar-Rabi also remembers burying their possessions - including a prized radio - in a cemetery. The Nazis were after gold, and David Bar-Rabi remembers that a Jewish woman directed them as to where they might find it.

The Ben Zvi Facebook page has attracted sympathetic and moving comments from Arabs. One even sent a picture of what the street where the tank photo was taken looks like today. Meanwhile, the Institute is anxious to identify the man wearing the yellow star.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

How Nazism impacted on the Jews of North africa

Today is Yom Hashoah, when Jews reflect on the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. The Holocaust is commonly treated as a European catastrophe, but Nazism had an impact on North Africa where Jews were stripped of their rights and some sent to labour camps. Several hundred Libyan Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Some 2,000 Jews born in Arab countries and living in Europe perished in the death camps. Here is an extract from a new book, Uprooted by Lyn Julius: 



Victor 'Young' Perez, Tunisian-born boxing champion, was deported from France and died on the Death March from Auschwitz in 1945.

The Nazis incorporated the Jews of the French Maghreb in their extermination plans at the January 1942 Wannsee conference. The statuts des juifs – stripping Jews of their French citizenship, seizing property and bank accounts and expelling Jews from state schools, universities and the professions – were implemented in Morocco and Algeria under Vichy rule.

 Tunisia was occupied by the Nazis for six months from November 1942 under the leadership of SS Commandant Walter Rauff, the inventor of the mobile gas van. Rauff had been responsible for the deaths of over 90,000 Jews in Eastern Europe. But Nazi plans for the extermination of the Jews – the Einzatsgruppen Ägypten death squad was standing by in Greece – were thwarted by the Allied victory over General Rommel at El-Alamein in October 1942.

Nonetheless, beginning on 9 December 1942, some 5,500 male Jews – some as young as 17 – were rounded up and sent to labour camps. Jewish property was pillaged and hefty fines imposed on the community ‘to pay for the damages caused by Allied bombing’.Scores were killed. Jewish eye-witnesses claim that the Germans had begun building gas chambers in Tunisia: had the Americans not recaptured the country in May 1943, the extermination of the Jews would have been underway two months later.

 In 1938, Italian racial laws came into force in Libya. Some 600 Libyan Jews died from starvation and typhus in the country’s notorious Giado camp. Around 870 Libyan Jews of British nationality were deported to Bergen- Belsen, though the majority are thought to have survived. Legend has it that the Moroccan sultan, the future Mohamed V, saved Moroccan Jews from being deported to concentration camps in Europe: but deportation across the Mediterranean was never a realistic possibility.

The philo-Semitic sultan famously declared: ‘ There are no Jews, only Moroccan subjects’. It might be fair to say that he may have prevaricated, but he did not fail to sign every single Vichy anti-Jewish decree: Jews were shunted back into the teeming Jewish ghettoes from the European quarters of Moroccan cities, they were forbidden to employ Muslim maids, and as in Algeria and Tunisia, an inventory of Jewish property was drawn up, quotas were instituted in schools and universities and Jews excluded from public service and the professions. The sultan was branded, in a recent feature, ‘just but powerless’ by the Moroccan medium Tel Quel . Real power lay with the French Resident-General.

Servicemen of the defeated French army, together with political prisoners from Spain, were sent by the Vichy regime to thirty forced labour camps on the Moroccan-Algerian border. They included 2,000 European Jews interned at the Bergent camp. Dozens died from starvation, torture and neglect in the camps, as they built the Trans-Sahara railroad. The Moroccan sultan raised not a single objection.

 The governments of Egypt and Iraq were pro-British and tens of thousands of Muslims served in the British and Free French armies – but popular feeling was largely pro-Nazi in the Arab world. In his diary Walter Rauff described the Tunisian Arabs as ‘depressed’, the Jews ‘hopeful’ at the Allied advance in early 1943. A majority of Egyptians supported the Germans.The Jews of Alexandria fled to Cairo, and the Jews of Cairo moved to the old quarter of Fostat. They watched with trepidation as the front line between Egypt and Libya shifted back and forth during 1941. In Morocco, Jews were subject to mob attacks as soon as General Patton’s troops landed in late 1942 (Operation Torch).

Albert Memmi remembers the atmosphere before the Allies recaptured Tunisia from the Nazis in May 1943:

"I have described in Pillar of Salt how the French authorities coldly left us to the Germans. But I must add that we were also submerged in a hostile Arab population, which is why so few of us could cross the lines and join the Allies. Some got through in spite of everything, but in most cases they were denounced and caught."

Uprooted : How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world Vanished Overnight by Lyn Julius is released in paperback from today.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Mizrahi leader of Israel Labour severs ties with Corbyn

The decision by the Mizrahi leader of Israel's Labour party to sever ties with Jeremy Corbyn's British  Labour party over its antisemitic views throws into focus the gulf between the Corbynistas' misconceptions about Israel - and the reality.


Avi Gabbay, leader of Israel's Labour party, born in Israel of Moroccan parentage.

The Guardian reports:

The leader of the Israeli Labor party has said he will cut ties with Jeremy Corbyn and his office over the handling of antisemitism, but would preserve the link with the party as a whole. Avi Gabbay, the chair of the centre-left Labor party, which is the main opposition to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud, said he would sever all relations with Corbyn on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day.

Gabbay said in a letter sent to the British Labour party leader on Tuesday that it was “my responsibility to acknowledge the hostility that you have shown to the Jewish community and the antisemitic statements and actions you have allowed”. In the letter, Gabbay said Corbyn had expressed “very public hatred of the policies of the government of the state of Israel, many of which regard the security of our citizens and actions of our soldiers – policies where the opposition and coalition in Israel are aligned”.

Read article in full 

This comment, by Point of No Return reader L.,  sums up the paradox neatly:

 "It is going to be very awkward for the Corbyn cultists to continue labeling Israel as a 'white European colonialist' state after this episode -- since there is nothing white or European about Avi Gabbay, the leader of Israel's Labour Party.

 "Gabbay is the son of Moroccan Jews. Like the other 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Middle East, Gabbay's parents were driven out from their homes from several Arab states after WW2. And like the Middle Eastern Christians who have been persecuted and oppressed in recent years, Jews were indigenous to the region, and pre-dated the arrival of Islam by many centuries. Jews from Arab lands, and their descendants, now comprise over 53% of Israel's 6.5m Jewish population. In effect, they were forcibly expelled from one part of the Middle East to another. That is how they ended up living in a narrow sliver of land -- as little as 9 miles wide in parts -- along the eastern Mediterranean coast. It is offensive to call them 'colonialists', when they were driven out of their own homes by colonialists."

In her Times of Israel/Jewish News blog Lyn Julius argues that more needs to be done to dispel common postcolonial myths if Israel is not to lose the support of the non-Jewish young altogether:

All this comes from a post-colonial world view that ignores or downplays Arab and Muslim crimes. To give a flagrant example, the Taubira law memorialising slavery (adopted in France in 2001) mentioned the 11 million victims of the transatlantic slave trade, while ignoring the 17 million slaves trafficked by Arabs and Muslims. How did people get it so wrong?  It is time that some of the misconceptions, that the left especially has been labouring under for decades, were exploded.

  Read blog in full

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Indonesians mark Passover amid upsurge in hostility


In an unmarked warehouse in a commuter suburb of Jakarta, 20 Indonesians with Jewish roots  discreetly  sat down for a Passover Seder, officiated by Indonesia’s only ordained rabbi, Benjamin Meijer Verbrugge. Report in the Financial Times (with thanks: Laurence):



Fonny Ratumbanua holds up a piece of matzo at a Seder service in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta (Photo: Krithika Varagur)

 It is not easy to be Jewish in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but it is even harder this year, as anti-Semitic sentiment has grown since Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is holy to both Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians. Hardline Islamists organised mass protests in Jakarta and top Indonesian leaders rebuked Israel.

“Every time the Israel-Palestine issue flares up, it gets harder for us to live in Indonesia,” said Mr Verbrugge. Mr Verbrugge, like many of the roughly 200 Jewish Indonesians today, is descended from Dutch Jews who came to the archipelago in the colonial era. His grandfather was a Dutch civil servant, and Mr Verbrugge lived as a Muslim and a Christian before converting to Judaism and founding the United Indonesia Jewish Community. Judaism is not one of the six religions officially recognised by the Indonesian constitution.

“We aren’t ashamed of our faith but we don’t go around proclaiming it to strangers,” said Fonny Ratumbanua. “I still list my official religion as ‘Christian’ on my national ID card,” she added.

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Monday, April 09, 2018

Baghdad Book Fair features more Jews than ever

This year's Baghdad International Book Fair 2018 has witnessed an unprecedented cultural openness, writes David (Khedher) Selim Basson, Chairman of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq in Israel.  The man who did more to pave the way to this openness was the late Professor Shmuel Moreh, Basson's predecessor. 


Some of the titles by Jewish authors on display at the Baghdad Book Fair

"Books by writers from the first generation of Iraqi Jewish immigrants and their descendants (second generation) were exhibited. Most of these writers lived or are living in Israel. In addition, many books related to the Jews of Iraq, their history, heritage and personalities, published by the publishing houses in Iraq such by the leading house Mesopotamia, were exhibited at the fair.

This openness needs to be commended. It contributes to building bridges of knowledge, culture and rapprochement between Iraqi and Israeli intellectuals, especially those from Iraqi roots. Real peace is built from the roots.

The Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq, in Israel and its founder, Prof. Shmuel Moreh, have played a great role in building this bridge. We welcome the exhibition of these books in Baghdad fair and we pledge to all intellectuals that we will continue this role, and stretch out our hands to all Iraqi and Arab intellectuals.

This is a list of books exhibited this year at the Baghdad International Book Fair
• Selim Al-Basson – Al-Jawahiri ,“His voice My pen” 2013. It was the first book by an Iraqi Jew to be published in Iraq, sponsored the Ministry of Culture, on the occasion of Baghdad the capital of Arab culture. The introduction to the book was written by the late Professor Shmuel Moreh
• Tsionit Fattal - Pictures on the wall. The first novel by a second generation Israeli from Iraqi roots, to be translated from Hebrew and published in Iraq. The novelist Tsionit Fattal is the Vice-Chairman of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq and member of the board of Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center
• Esther Meir Glitzenstein - "The departure of Iraqi Jews" 2016. First book by a second generation Israeli from Iraqi roots to be translated from Hebrew and published in Iraq
• Amatzia Baram, Achim Rohde, and Ronen Zeidel, Editors - Conflict of Identities in Iraq 2017 translated from Hebrew. The writers are experts on Iraqi affairs but not from Iraqi roots
• Shlomo Saleh Al-Kuwaiti - Saleh Al-Kuwaiti: melody of the beautiful time 2014 (second generation)
• Hesqel Qojaman - Contemporary Art Music in Iraq 2015 ((first generation)
• Nissim Rejwan - Summary of the history of the Jews of Iraq from the Babylonian captivity to 1951, (first generation)
• Nissim Rejwan - The Last of Baghdad's Jews, Memories of lost homeland
• Almog Behar – Chahala and Hesqel, 2016 , first novel by an Israeli second generation of Iraqi roots to be translated from Hebrew and published in Cairo
• Daoud Samra - Memoirs 2012, Reprint of memoirs published in Bagdad in the sixties.
• Tamara Murad, Dennis Shasha , Robert Shasha, Last Jews of Iraq
* Mordechai Zaken - The Jews of Kurdistan - The art of survival 2013, first book by Israeli generation of Kurdish Jews to be translated from English.


Sunday, April 08, 2018

How Albert Memmi diverged from decolonisation groupthink

The recent publication of Albert Memmi's diaries while a Jew still living in Tunis in 1955 - 56 testifies to the consistency with which the famous sociologist and author, now in his late nineties, has condemned Arab decolonisation for oppressing and driving out its Jews. Daniel Gordon reviews Tunisie, An 1 in the Jewish Review of Books (Spring 2018) (with thanks: Paula):

"I continue to think, in spite of frequent hesitations, that I must tell not only the truth but the whole truth. And this will be not only my aesthetic signature . . . but my most important political contribution.” With this diary entry from 1956, the young Tunisian writer Albert Memmi summed up the attitude that has earned him both admiration and enmity over an intellectual career that has spanned more than half a century. 

Memmi has defended Third World revolutions while condemning their tyrannical by-products ever since his native country drove out its Jewish population soon after attaining independence. The recently published Tunisie, An I (Tunisia, Year I) is Memmi’s diary from the years 1955 and 1956. This was when Tunisia ceased to be a French protectorate and became, as its new constitution stated, “an Islamic state.”


Albert Memmi at home in Paris, July 2, 2004. (Photo by Marc Gantier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.)

Born in 1920 and still active, Memmi grew up on the border of Hara, the Jewish ghetto of Tunis, and an adjacent Muslim neighborhood. His family spoke Judeo-Arabic at home, but he became a scholarship student at the best French schools. In the early 1950s, he emerged as a prize-winning French novelist, then turned his hand to political theory. In 1957, his most widely read and translated work, The Colonizer and the Colonized, appeared with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. Memmi’s book, with its far-reaching conceptions of colonial privilege and racism, was essential reading in radical theory until the 1970s, when he began to fall from grace in leftist circles, partly because of his defense of Israel, partly because of his criticism of the new Muslim nations of North Africa and the Middle East. 
The seeds of Memmi’s separation from the left are already evident in some of the diary entries in Tunisie, An I. Guy Dugas, a professor at the Paul Valéry University in Montpellier, is to be congratulated for editing the diary, and for including several articles by Memmi from the 1950s that dealt with the pressure faced by Jews in decolonizing North Africa. In one of these articles, an essay published in 1956, Memmi argued that how a polity treats its Jews is the best index of its level of freedom. “A society that wishes to liberate humankind must naturally liberate its Jews . . . At least in our historical era, the destiny of the Jew is consubstantial with the destiny of man.”

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Friday, April 06, 2018

The Moroccan Mimouna arrives in America

With this New York Times article, the Mimouna has arrived in America. This typical Moroccan-Jewish feast, which concludes Passover, is already a national holiday in Israel, where politicians attend 'industrial' celebrations to curry favour with Mizrahi voters.



As the traditional sweets are prepared before Passover, they do not contain flour - except for the mouffleta pancake

For American Jews who can’t go too long without their favorite carbohydrates, the end of Passover offers nearly as much cause for celebration as the holiday itself. Many begin right at sundown, wolfing down pizzas. Then come the brownies or other foods with the leavening ingredients they have been avoiding in a nod to ancestors who had no time to let bread dough rise while fleeing Egypt.

 Unbeknown to many Americans, however, Moroccan Jews have long marked the end of Passover with a more established ritual, a raucous tradition known as Mimouna. Soon after sunset on the last night of the holiday (observed this year on Friday or Saturday), they indulge in the first leavened food since Passover began: moufleta, a pan-cooked cake smeared with butter and honey.

 A variety of other Moroccan sweets follow, on a long, elaborately decorated table that includes the requisite mint tea. For Jews in Israel, where many Moroccans immigrated in the decades after its founding in 1948, Mimouna is now practically a national holiday, as Jews of all backgrounds break the bread that has been temporarily forbidden.

 It isn’t easy to find a Mimouna in America. I spent years trying to invite myself to one before finally attending two last year, in Manhattan and Brooklyn. But you can make your own and make it your own, as long as it includes moufleta.

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More about Mimouna from this blog

Thursday, April 05, 2018

The Benghazi Passover Seder of 1943

The Passover Seder  of 1943 in Benghazi was a momentous occasion. It marked the routing of the Fascists and their German Allies from Libya, the re-establishment of British control and the gradual return of the Jews of Benghazi to their homes. Chen Malul reconstructed the event from the diaries of Rabbi Ephraim Urbach, who later became president of the Israel Academy of sciences and the Humanities. Story in The Librarians and Mosaic.

Many of the 600 participants of the Seder came from far away. During the battles, the Germans banished the Jews of Benghazi to Tripoli and they only started to return after the British had completely conquered Libya. Jewish Legion soldiers, Canadian, American, British, and Australian soldiers serving in the area also came to celebrate along with the Jewish community.

There were major logistical issues that occurred during the preparations for a war time Seder celebrations with the biggest among them being printing enough Haggadot for all the participants. To resolve this issue, the writers and editors confiscated telegrams and other letterheads from the offices of the Libyan authorities. On the backs of these scraps of paper they printed the haggadah with a typewriter and copied them with a Mimeograph machine.


The Benghazi Haggadah, front cover



HaLahma Anya printed on an official document of the Libyan Fascist government

 Rabbi Urbach tells the story in his journal:

 “At exactly a quarter past eight we entered the hall. It was a wonderful sight to see all the soldiers, from every service, and from all the armies fighting for the Allies, sitting at the tables. At the officers table sat 45 people, 12 of them American. When I stood and gave the signal to begin, a great quiet descended in the hall. I started in English and finished in Hebrew. I blessed the guests and thanked the hosts. I spoke of celebrating liberty, the destruction of the people of Israel in the diaspora, and the hope this holiday holds, especially the fact that we had the privilege of celebrating it in a place from which Jews had been banished only a year ago. I finished with a blessing: ‘As we have the privilege of celebrating Passover on the ruins of a grand and boastful empire, so to, next year we will celebrate Passover on the ruins of an evil and malicious kingdom as we come together in the land of our ancestors, redeemed and rebuilt.'”

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Netanyahu nixes deal after pressure from south Tel Aviv

Under pressure from the (Mizrahi) residents of South Tel Aviv, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suspended a deal that would have permitted 16,000 African migrants to remain in Israel. For years their Israeli neighbours have been the main victims of criminal activity, including robbery and rape. Haaretz reports: 


Netanyahu touring south Tel Aviv in 2017 Photo: Moti Milrod)

Against a backlash from politicians and others against the plan, hours after it was unveiled at a news conference, Netanyahu took to Facebook, writing: “In the interim, I am suspending implementation of the agreement, and after I meet with the representatives, I will submit the agreement for reexamination,” in a reference to representatives of south Tel Aviv neighborhoods.
Explaining that an initial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda in Africa had fallen apart, he said he then sought to resolve the matter through an agreement with the UN refugee agency. He placed blame for Rwanda’s reconsideration of the agreement to accept asylum seekers from Israel on the New Israel Fund and European Union officials. 
“Nevertheless I am attentive to you, and first and foremost to the residents of south Tel Aviv. Therefore I have decided to meet with representatives of the residents tomorrow [Tuesday] morning together with Interior Minster Arye Dery. In the interim, I am suspending implementation of the agreement, and after I meet with the representatives, I will submit the agreement for reexamination.”

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Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Saudi prince:'Jews have right to their own land'

Has the Saudi crown prince, Mohamed ibn Salman, recognised Israel? Reuters is excitedly quoting him as saying that the Jews 'have a right to their own land'. But is this what he actually said? 



Asked if he believes the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland, Mohammed bin Salman was quoted as saying: “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”

 Saudi Arabia - birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest shrines - does not recognize Israel. It has maintained for years that normalizing relations hinges on Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war, territory Palestinians seek for a future state.

 “We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people,” said Prince Mohammed who is touring the United States to drum up investments and support for his efforts to contain Iranian influence.

 Increased tension between Tehran and Riyadh has fueled speculation that shared interests may push Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together against what they see as a common Iranian threat. “There are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries”, Prince Mohammed added.

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Monday, April 02, 2018

Anti-Zionist scholars shill for Arab nationalism

This important article in the Jerusalem Post by Hen Mazzig berates anti-Zionist Mizrahi intellectuals such as Ella Shohat and Zvi Ben Dor Benite. While condemning Zionism as Ashkenazi racism towards Mizrahim, they are shills for Arab nationalism and imperialism, at the expense of the rights of indigenous non-Arab and non-Muslims.


Hen Mazzig, son of indigenous Middle Eastern and North African Jews

The “Arab world” today is the creation of modern pan-Arabism, which arose with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and which has roots in the Arab empires of the Middle Ages. The term “Arab Jew,” a term not historically used by Mizrahim (Jews of the Middle East), has been bandied about by self-proclaimed anti-Zionist Mizrahi intellectuals such as Ella Shohat and Zvi Ben-Dor Benite and is now becoming mainstream in academia.

They are adopting an Arab nationalist and imperialist narrative. As the son of Zionist Iraqi Jewish mother and a North-African Berber father, I am appalled by their distortion of history. These scholars brand themselves as anti-Zionists, Arab Jews and subversives when they are in fact run-of-the-mill pan-Arab nationalists. The term “Arab Jew” subverts Zionism because it is Arab nationalist/imperialist orthodoxy. Arab nationalists/ imperialist reject Jewish national identity and political power, while they generally accept Jewish religion. The term “Arab Jew” encapsulates this rejection.

They further claim that they are in exile from Iraq and reject Zionism and Israel (both live in the US) because they say Zionism is racist against Mizrahim.

Their perspective runs against the view of the vast majority of Mizrahim in Israel who, despite the difficulties we and our parents faced in the “Maabarot” (the Jewish refugee camps  Mizrahim were sent to by the Ashkenazi [European] Jews when they first arrived to Israel) are Israeli patriots and Zionists.

These anti-Zionist scholars claim that the Mizrahi community turned Right politically only because of discrimination at the hands of the Labor Party.

This is an incredibly patronizing view that has no connection whatsoever to reality.
Shohat and Benite have created a narrative that is reflective of only their wild imaginations and Arab nationalist fantasies.Many Mizrahi Jews were Zionist long before the establishment of Israel. And while some Mizrahi Jews had friendly relationships with their Arabs neighbors, like the Christians in the Middle East they were without sovereignty and equality and were therefore often victimized throughout their history in the Muslim Diaspora.

These scholars also belittle the Mizrahi experience, the lives of 850,000 Jewish refugees who even in the successor states to the Ottoman Empire of the early twentieth century were de facto treated as “"dhimmis,” Arabic term for protected minority that pays for said protection, until the oppressor decides to end this agreement.

The story of my family, and the Jewish Iraqi community, is a great example of the aforementioned.
In Iraq, despite being “equal citizens,” they experienced ongoing oppression, which culminated in the brutal attack of the Farhudnd other anti-Jewish attacks. The Farhud was a Nazi-incited riot in 1941 that claimed the lives of hundreds of Jews and forced the country’s entire Jewish population to live in absolute fear.

With the radicalization of Arab nationalists who could not tolerate any political power other than their own in North Africa and the Middle East, Jews across the region were expelled.

These refugees, many of whom joined relatives who had already left decades earlier, building cities and neighborhoods like the Kurdish Jewish community in Jerusalem and the Yemenite Jewish community in Tel Aviv. They sacrificed whatever they had left, and happily returned to their indigenous homeland, Israel, which they contributed mightily to building up and defending.
Shohat and Benite glorify a minority of assimilated Iraqi Jews who regretted leaving Iraq as if they represented the majority. They do not. Many Mizrahi Jews seem to be able to do what these intellectuals cannot, which is to appreciate Arab (and Persian, and Kurdish, and Berber and Yemenite) culture without rejecting Israeli culture and sovereignty.

These anti-Zionist scholars in fact reverse the empire-nation narrative. Israel is national entity while the Arab world is an imperial one. You can always tell an empire by language. Arabic is an imperial language like English and French, promoted through settler-colonialism and imperial hegemony throughout the Middle Ages. Since the twentieth-century rise of pan-Arabism, leaders advocated Arabization policies of indigenous national groups, whether the Kurds, the Berber or the Sudanese, and sought to permanently reduce the status and power of indigenous religious groups, such as the Copts and Maronites, across the region.

These “progressive intellectuals” and their ideas neglect the truly oppressed minorities, while promoting Arab imperialistic ideas. They completely ignore the Copts, Kurds, Berbers and Maronites who are now increasingly reclaiming their autonomy and sovereignty. We are so used to the “Arab world” that we forget it is a product, in modern terms, of Nasser and his encouragement “Arabization” programs whether in Algeria or Iraq, as well as of the Saudis and other Gulf leaders who have also encouraged “Arab” unity.

These intellectuals never speak about Arab imperialism, about Saddam and the Kurds, about the war in Algeria, or the Berbers. Granted the latter causes are hardly as popular as the Palestinian/Arab one, which has the backing of Gulf oil money and the support of European intellectuals who march for Palestine and have not uttered a peep about the Kurds in the most recent war.

How self-serving is it for them to receive applause in Europe? But even in Israel, the anti-Israel political wing, mainly the Ashkenazi Left, is accepting them as a new tool to advocate against Zionism. They finally have a “brown” Jewish face to spout their narrative.

The greater issue is that there is a misguided school of thought dominating global academia which is distorting the whole imperial and colonial history of the region. There have been several nations that have acted as empires in the region, conquering, settling and dominating peoples outside their own homeland. These have been the Arabs, Turks and Iranians, and more recently the British, French and Italians. The Jews, in contrast, have merely returned to their only homeland. Israel is the only Jewish state in the world and 0.3% of the entire Middle East. The central narrative of Judaism is the story of national liberation in the face of an imperial power. The liberation of Jews from other empires has occurred in living memory.

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Joe Samuels' last Passover in Baghdad

The festival of Passover evokes poignant memories for Baghdad-born Joe Samuels, as he recounts to Nurit Greenger in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Sami and Lisette):

Of all the Jewish holidays we celebrated, Passover was the one I waited for impatiently. Customarily I was given a set of new underwear, trousers, white shirt, a pair of shoes and socks and I felt so clean and new, though the trousers were always too long, the shirt too big, and my feet were running free inside my new pair of shoes.

 The atmosphere at home was a mixture of excitement and joy with some tension added. The Passover preparation, the intense cleaning, began soon after the festival of Purim ended. My mother and her help scrubbed, cleaned in boiling water and washed everything in sight even the drapes.

 As a kid I was fascinated by the Matzah baking in our home. First my two aunts and two helpers prepared the special dough. Then, equipped with rolling pins, they gathered around a large upright wood-burning clay oven ready to bake the unleavened dough to a crunchy, thin Matzah.

 On the night of Passover, our table was set up lavishly, with fine china, fancy cutlery and wine cups all set on an elegant tablecloth.I remember my father returning from the synagogue; to me he looked regal in his white suit, kind of radiant. Every member of the family wore a white shirts and of course, I was dressed up in my new clothes.

 It was customary to invite guests to join us at our Seder-Passover dinner table and fulfill the commandment that orders us to make sure no one remains hungry. And there was always somebody invited to celebrate with us. To start the Seder, my Dad blessed the wine and then blessed us. One by one we kissed my Dad’s hand; then we also kissed my Mom.

 After the ritual of washing hands, we sat down to read the Haggadah, the tale of the Israelites’ exile from bondage in Egypt and their exodus out of Egypt to freedom, a story of redemption that took place some 3,500 years ago. We read the Haggadah from beginning to end and sang ritual melodies in Hebrew, a language I didn’t understand. I followed the reading, along the Arabic translation, my mother’s tongue, with joy.

With so many of us around the table celebrating, I waited impatiently for my turn to sing and I remember always singing rather loud and with enthusiasm. For me, the best part of the Seder, the one I waited for the most before the festive dinner was served, was the eating of the Charoset, sweet dip, a mixture of date syrup and crushed walnuts in which to dip the bitter herbs in memory of the mortar used by the enslaved Israelites to build for Pharaoh, which we ate with romaine lettuce and crunchy Matzah.

When we wished each other “Next year [we will celebrate] in Jerusalem” we knew the Seder evening ended with hope. Passover celebration was the most joyous time of the year.

 Passover of 1941 was different. A year earlier we moved out of the old city to a larger house near the Tigris River.On April 3rd, a pro-Nazi coup, masterminded by the German Consul Dr. Fritz Grobba, took control of the country. King Faisal II and his cabinet escaped and Rashid Ali al-Gaylani became the prime minister. My father and my older brothers appeared troubled. Anxiety overcame the Jewish community. Within days, some Jews were arrested and imprisoned.

In the year 1941 Passover fell on April 12th. Our Seder was cheerless and gloomy. I was a ten-year-old frightened kid. On May 31st, British troops arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad, but did not enter the city. Al-Gaylani and his accomplice, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, fled the country.

The Samuels family in Baghdad

On June 1st, crowds aided by police and soldiers went on a rampage looting and burning Jewish homes and businesses. They murdered men, raped women and girls and then slit their throats. We locked and bolted our doors and put our faith into action, we prayed. The mob did not reach our area but my uncles’ home in the old city, were ransacked. The next day, on June 2nd, British troops entered Baghdad and put a stop to the massacre. The official Iraqi government count was 179 Jews murdered and 240 wounded. There was not one act of resistance or fighting back; there were no arrests or convictions. No Jew would file a claim against a Muslim, for fear of retaliation on his or her life.

 I must admit that if it were not for the courage and heroism of some Muslim men who protected and sheltered their Jewish friends the Pogrom on the Jews – the upheaval that became to be known as the Farhud - would have been far worse.

 Life went back to normal or so it seemed to be, but the future Passover nights were never the same. The safety of the Jews could not be taken for granted nor be guaranteed. I already sensed that I would not be able to stay and build a future life in Iraq. The alternative, I studied hard and dreamt of emigrating to America after I graduated high school.

  Iraqi Jews and the founding of the state of Israel

 Passover of 1948 fell on April 24th. A thick black cloud of fear hung over our festivities. Baghdad’s newspapers and radio station and street demonstrations were calling for war against the upcoming establishment of the state of Israel. While we were celebrating in our hearts the re-establishment of a Jewish state in 2,000 years, we were uncertain and terrified if Israel would survive; we were also very uncertain about our future in Iraq. On May 15th, 1948, the Iraqi army, together with the armies of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, went into battle against the newly declared State of Israel. Radio Baghdad jubilantly lied, announcing the victories of Arab armies, destroying Jewish cities and eliminating any resistance. Secretly we listened to the BBC radio waves from London that announced the Arab armies were at a stalemate and many Arabs living in what was now called the State of Israel were fleeing to neighboring Arab countries.

After the Arab states, including Iraq, failed to eliminate Israel, the Iraqi government turned against its Jewish citizens, especially the youth. Many were picked up, accused of Zionism, tortured and imprisoned. This violence on the Jews culminated with the indictment and public execution of Shafiq Adas, a prominent Jewish merchant. When I saw the picture of his body hanging, on the front page the Al Zaman newspaper, I went into panic.

 A few months after I graduated high school, in June of 1948, I received my student visa to the United States. I already had my passport and the last obstacle was to get an exit visa, a permission to leave Iraq. My dream was about to materialize.

  It is not over till it is over

 In 1949 Passover fell on April 13th. Anxiety and unease filled the air. Many young Jews were arrested during the last few months; a good friend’s brother was taken away from his house at night. Family contact was not allowed and stories of torture and the disappearance of many Jewish youth was the reason our hearts were filled with fear. I was still hopeful and anxiously waiting to receive my exist visa and be on my way to America.That was my last Passover in Baghdad. Weeks and months passed. Finally, I was notified that in order for me to get my exit visa I had to deposit 3,000 Dinars, as a guarantee that I would return to Iraq after completion my studies. The average salary for a middle class family was 4-to-5 Dinars a month; 3000 Dinars were equal to a million dollars at that time. It was a punch to my gut. My bubble burst. It was time for me to get out of Baghdad.

In December 1949, I traveled with my younger brother to the port city, Basra, and from there I was smuggled out to neighboring Iran. On March 2nd, 1950, one day before the festival of Purim, I kissed the ground when I landed at Lod Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel. I chose to leave my home city, Baghdad; behind I left my culture and my family history of 2,600 years; I left behind close to heart Jewish friends as well as some Muslims and Christians. I left behind many memories of confidence and fun, of fear and anxiety, of despair and hope. I left behind my past and took away with me my future and my dreams.

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Friday, March 30, 2018

How Jews from Egypt marked the feast of freedom

Some 25,000 Jews were forced to leave Egypt after the Suez crisis of 1956. Here is  the late Teddy Nahmias's account of Seder night aboard the ship taking him to freedom in his new home of Italy. Jewish Renaissance carried the story:

 Following the unfortunate events of 1956 and the Suez Canal crisis, hundreds of Jewish families packed their belongings and left Egypt, most boarding ships sailing from Alexandria , bound for 26 European Mediterranean ports.My family chose Italy, my father's dream land. As a Corfiot he felt Venice was his cultural home, so we were on our way to Venice and Trieste. The vessel was the S/S Enoiria, a smaller version of the famous S/S Esperia of Adriatica fame, those white luxury liners that rode the Mediterranean with the Lion of Venice watching over from the yellow chimneys.

Egyptian-Jewish  refugees leaving Port Said

We took the lift down from our fifth floor flat in Mazarita for the last time. Some of our neighbours opened their front doors and stood in silence on the landings to watch us go. Mohammed, our imposing Sudanese (porter), was sobbing like a child. There was no coming back. The emotion was high and my mother could not stop her tears. Dad became tense as we went through customs and police clearance, but felt more comfortable as he walked the steps to the deck. After all, he was already on Italian soil.

 As for myself, I was in a daze, feeling that something irreversible was taking place, but too young to realise the implications. I was probably hoping to find another group of youngsters at the other end that would recreate the rock 'n' roll fun-loving crowd I had left behind. As the ship started to move away from the dock and head for the high seas, we all waved goodbye, and slowly turned our heads from the land that we were not to see again for perhaps half a century.

I noticed a few young people around my age and naturally was drawn to them. My parents by now were in conversation with other Jews who were on their way to Canada. Others were due to catch a ship from Trieste to Australia. Suddenly someone said," but tomorrow night is Pesach night.

Shouldn't we mark the occasion somehow?" A charming and understanding officer decided we could use a section of the dining room, and I recall about 25 of us sitting around a number of tables assembled to form a long table. To top it all, as a gift from the Captain, a beautiful cake was placed in the centre of the table with the compliments of the Chef, the crew and the officers. How embarrassing: no matzah but instead a massive torta to celebrate the festival of the unleavened bread.

I remember my father laughing and I also remember a discussion on who would officiate. A Haggada was found. I cannot remember whether or not the cake was eaten. We were Jews leaving Egypt, celebrating Jews leaving Egypt. Had we fallen into a mysterious time warp? Although not realising it at the time, we had gone through a unique experience never to be repeated. This time the bread had risen.

 Read article in full

Wishing all readers Hag Pesah Sameah or a Happy Easter!

Posts about Passover

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ben Porat produces proof of Baghdad bombers

Who threw the Baghdad bombs? For decades an accusing finger has been pointed at the Zionists in Iraq, and their leader, Mordechai Ben Porat. More evidence that the nationalist Istiqlal party was responsible has come to light in Ben Porat's recently-published autobiography, From the Land of Birth to a Homeland. Review (roughly translated from Hebrew) by Zvi Gabay:


Mordechai Ben-Porat, now in his nineties

After the throwing of a hand grenade at the Masuda Shem Tov synagogue on January 14, 1951, during the registration of the Jews of Iraq to immigrate to Israel, three people were killed, six were seriously injured and 19 were lightly injured. Since the Iraqi government was not quick to publicize its findings, a malicious rumor spread that the Zionist movement had done the utmost to expedite the departure of the Jews from Iraq.The accusation of serious misconduct in the Zionist movement harmed its members and its head, Mordechai Ben-Porat. For years he fought to clear the name of the Zionist movement and his own name, including in a libel suit in court, and hoped to expose the truth about the affair.

Mordechai Ben-Porat's autobiographical book, "From the Land of Birth to a Homeland" (published by Teper), now has new evidence about the grenade shells lobbed at  the synagogue and a cafe where young Jews used to gather. The testimony is included in the book "History of the Zionist Movement in Iraq and Its Role in the Immigration of Jews in 1950-1951", published in Iraq in 2013, which includes the research of the historian Shamel Abd al-Qader.The study includes a video of the culprit and his partner saying that they threw the grenades, directed by the national poet Adnan al-Ravi, a leader of the nationalist Al-Istiqlal party, which worked to expel the Jews from Iraq.

Thus, Mordechai Ben-Porat, when he reached a ripe old age, received direct testimony from the perpetrators of the crime, who of course were not punished. Today the Jews of Iraq are happy not to live in bloodied Iraq, where they lived since they were exiled to it with the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. The highlight of Mordechai Ben-Porat's public activity is, of course, his secret mission to Baghdad and the organization of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, together with Shlomo Hillel, in which some 110,000 Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel.The huge operation was conducted without a hitch, until the hand grenade was thrown at the synagogue, which was the last stop on the way to the airport.

The path of Mordechai Ben-Porat passes through sensitive intersections of modern Israeli history. He immigrated to Israel in 1945 and after the establishment of the State of Israel became the first officer of the IDF officers' course. During his mission in Iraq, he was arrested by the Iraqi secret police and a step away from execution. He escaped from his detention and escaped on one of the immigrant planes to Israel.In Israel he enlisted to assist in the absorption of immigrants in the tent camps and became the founding father of Or Yehuda and of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center.He was a disciple of David Ben-Gurion who appointed him, along with others, to the executors of his will. In his search for the challenges of public activity, he was elected to the Knesset and became minister in the governments of Yitzhak Shamir. He worked tirelessly to achieve national reconciliation and to establish a national unity government. Mordechai Ben-Porat reveals new details about central personalities in Israeli politics, including Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin. Prime Minister Menachem Begin appointed him to head the ministerial committee to formulate a solution to the Arab refugee problem. The committee's recommendations are still relevant and are presented in the book.

He worked tirelessly to integrate the Sephardim in society and fought for the Jews of Arab lands and to achieve justice for them.In 1974, he initiated the establishment of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, which organized international conferences and raised the claims of Jews from Arab lands for justice.Under his influence, Moshe Dayan, when he was foreign minister, raised the issue at the United Nations General Assembly and demanded equal treatment with the issue of Arab refugees.It's a shame that foreign ministers have not followed through.

Mordechai Ben-Porat's book tells a fascinating life story of a man of great deeds who worked secretly and openly for the state and the community.

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