Thursday, August 17, 2017

A guide to Sephardi surnames

When Jews were expelled by the Spanish  Inquisition, they often took their Spanish patronymics with them. Miriam Raphael has been compiling a fascinating list with their meanings. Here’s her list (A's and B's) of some of the most famous names of the Sephardic community. Click on the link below for names up to 'V'. (with thanks: Imre)
Abarbanel: From the Hebrew word 'Av' meaning 'father' , 'Rabban' meaning 'priest' and 'El' meaning 'God'. One of the oldest Spanish family names which traces its origin from King David.
Abecassis: From the word 'Av' meaning Father and Arabic 'kassas' meaning storyteller. In Algeria, community leaders and rabbis were given the title 'Kassis'. Many Jews from Gibraltar, Portugal and Morocco share this name.
Adatto: From the Italian word meaning 'suitable' or 'appropriate'. Jews that left Spain for Turkey via Italy took on this name.
Alhadeff: The name means "weaver" and is of Spanish/Moorish origin found most often among Jews who left Spain after the expulsion for the Greek Island of Rhodes.
Alkana: Meaning 'God bought' in Hebrew.
Almo/Almosimo: From Spanish meaning 'One who gives to the poor'. Amiel: From the Hebrew words 'Am' (nation) and 'El' (God) meaning 'God's people' or 'the people of God'.
Angel: The surname comes from the Hebrew word of 'malach' meaning 'angel'. The Angel family traces back to medieval Spain and migrated to Greece and the Island of Rhodes.
Ashkenazi/Eshkenazi: Ashkenazi meaning 'German'. The Sephardic carriers of the surname would have some Ashkenazi ancestors who moved to Sephardi countries and joined and were adopted by those communities.
Azose: Anglicized version of the surname 'Azuz'. The root of the name comes from the Hebrew word for strength – 'Oz'.
Behar: Many origins of the Behar surname. From the Hebrew 'behor' meaning 'eldest' and the Turkish word, 'Bahar', meaning Spring. Also from Spanish 'abeja' meaning bee. Behar is of pre-roman origin and is also the name of a town in the Spanish province of Salamanca and was probably a habitational name for many Jews of that province. Many Sephardic Jews from Bulgaria and Greece carry this surname.
Benarouch: A patronymic name meaning 'son of the head (leader)' in Hebrew. BenPorat: A patronymic name meaning 'son of the prosperous' in Hebrew. Benezra: A patronymic name meaning 'son of the helper' in Hebrew and a popular name among Spanish Jews. There is a tradition that this family name is of priestly (Cohen) lineage.
Benaroya: From "Ben" meaning son and "Arroyo" meaning rivulet or river in Spanish. Banaroya is a variant of BenArroyo or BenArollia.
Benveniste: From the Latin 'veniste' meaning 'you came' and 'ben' meaning 'son' in Hebrew. This was a widespread Sephardic family originating in Spain that dispersed throughout the Ottoman Empire following the expulsion.
Benzaquen: Patronymic name meaning 'son of the elder' in Hebrew.

Read article in full

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

BHL discovers Baghdad-Jewish war hero

 The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, writing in The Tablet, has only just discovered the fascinating story of General Jack Jacob, but his name will be familiar to Point of No Return readers.

It’s quite a story.
This story may seem unlikely in this era of generalized war between cultures, civilizations, and religions. And I am grateful to British journalist Ben Judah for having brought it to light in an article that appeared in the Jewish Chronicle the day after the visit to Israel of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The time is December 1971. The place is the territory then known as East Pakistan. Separated by 1,600 kilometers from West Pakistan, this Bengali part of Pakistan has been in rebellion since March.

The central government in Islamabad, rejecting the secession of what will eventually become Bangladesh, is engaged in a merciless repression, the cost of which, in lives, remains unknown even today, almost a half-century later. Half a million people may have died, of perhaps a million, 2 million, or more.
On Dec. 3, India decides to enter the conflict, to “interfere,” as one would put it today, in the domestic affairs of its neighbor so as to stop the bloodbath. The fighting rages.

The Bengali freedom fighters, known as the Mukti Bahini, now supported by India, become increasingly daring.

New Delhi’s strategy is to build up slowly and gradually, a decision. This strategy seems to many ill-suited to the Bangladesh of the day, a terrain of few roads, major rivers, and innumerable marshes. Thirteen days into the new phase of the war, with the Pakistanis having massed 90,000 troops around Dacca, the capital, against the Indians’ 3,000, New Delhi appears to be stuck and has hardly boxed itself into the beginnings of a siege. And it is at this moment that a high-ranking Indian officer, without notifying his superiors, takes a plane, lands in Dacca, presents himself to General Niazi, head of the Pakistani forces and pulls off one of the most spectacular bluffs in modern military history: “You have 90,000 men,” the Indian officer tells Niazi. “We have many more, plus the Mukti Bahini, who are full of the vengeance of their people and will give no quarter. Under the circumstances, you have only one choice: to persist in a fight that you cannot win or to sign this letter of surrender that I have drafted in my own hand, which promises you an honorable retreat. You have half an hour to decide; I’ll go have a smoke.”

Niazi, falling into the trap, chooses the second option. To the world’s amazement, 3,000 Indian soldiers accept the surrender of 90,000 Pakistanis. Tens of thousands—no—hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides are spared.
And Bangladesh is free!

The story might have ended there.

Except that the general behind the masterly coup that makes him godfather to a new Muslim country is Jewish. His name is Jack Jacobs.

Read article in full

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Israel offers a cornucopia of ethnic cuisine

 El Tanoor serves 'indigenous Palestinian' food 

Mouthwatering overview of Israel's ethnic cuisine by Haaretz journalist Vered Guttman. Curiously, though, she classifies only 'Palestinian' food as indigenous, even though many dishes are common to the region and the food of Middle Eastern Jews, eaten throughout the Ottoman empire, may be equally described as no less indigenous. (With thanks: Lily) 

Israel is a special haven for foodies, and visitors curious about how modern Israel was formed can taste the history of the communities who arrived from North Africa, the Levant, the Middle East and Iran, Yemen, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Many of the communities are not recent arrivals, but small restaurants around the country still offer their traditional Diaspora fare in their own bubbles of nostalgia.

Besides all the talked-about chef restaurants, Israel has a long list of wonderful ethnic restaurants. The food, whether it’s Moroccan spicy fish in red sauce, Hungarian stuffed cabbage, or Turkish burek, is based on tried and true recipes that date generations back. Traditional restaurants can be found in any city, and they offer a rare opportunity to try authentic dishes from around the Jewish world within a short drive from each other and without breaking the bank. These restaurants are likely to be kosher, and thus closed on Shabbat.

Palestinian restaurants fall into the same category of tried and true traditional food, and being indigenous to the region, the foods there didn’t have to undergo the adaptations that other cuisines, such as Yemenite or Ashkenazi, underwent when moving to Israel.

Read article in full (Registration required)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Spain to create Ladino academy in Israel

 Following Spain's offer of citizenship to Jews whose ancestors were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition comes a Spanish project to set up a Ladino academy in Israel. (It would be nice to dream of the day when Arab states do the same to preserve Judeo-Arabic). Article in The Guardian:

 Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain

More than five centuries after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled Spain’s Jewish population, the still-spoken language of the exiles is to be formally honoured by the country’s leading linguistic authority.

The Spanish Royal Academy (RAE) has announced plans to create a Judeo-Spanish branch in Israel that will sit alongside the 23 existing academies dedicated to the Spanish languages across Latin America and in countries such as Equatorial Guinea and the Philippines.

Speakers of Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, fled Spain and settled elsewhere in Europe as well as in the Middle East, north Africa and Latin America.
The director of the RAE, Darío Villanueva, described Judeo-Spanish as “an extraordinarily important cultural and historical phenomenon” that was overdue an academy of its own.

“The Jews who were expelled in 1492 dispersed around Europe and the Americas, taking with them the Spanish language as it was spoken at the time of their expulsion,” he told the Guardian. 

“All of this has been miraculously preserved over the centuries. There’s literature, folklore, translations of the Bible and even modern newspapers written in Ladino.”

Not only did Ladino preserve many archaic Spanish words, Villanueva said, it was also influenced by the languages of the countries in which the refugees settled.

Read article in full

Sunday, August 13, 2017

German camp fails to dispel Arab Jew-hatred

This article in the Washington Post  - thoroughly disappointing but not unexpected in view of the anti-Jewish brainwashing prevalent in the Arab world - shows that antisemitism even among Arab refugees - is alive and well. Even a visit to a German concentration camp cannot dispel the idea that the Jews deserved to die, or that the Holocaust was not something uniquely evil.

“Maybe the Jews want to keep these places going so they can be seen as victims forever,” he said of Sachsenhausen, which was mainly used for political prisoners but by the beginning of 1945 held 11,100 Jews.

Jamo’s response is not the usual reaction toEurope’s postwar conversion of concentration camps into memorials and museums, places of atonement and civic education that ask visitors never to forget the Nazi past.

 Osman Jamo, a Syrian refugee (left) standing at the gates of Orienenburg/Sachsenhausen camp (photo: Alexandra Rojkov/Washington Post)
But this was not a typical tour — nor was Jamo a typical visitor. This was an effort to sensitize Muslim migrants to the dark history of the country that today offers them asylum. Two years ago, Jamo, 38, fled to Germany from Kobane, a Syrian city occupied by Islamic State militants in late 2014. His ambivalent response to the suffering of Jews at Sachsenhausen speaks to centuries-old religious strife as well as to the political conflict that has torn the Middle East since Israel’s founding after World War II.

At the same time, the refugee’s views reflect the moral quandaries posed by mass migration for a nation rebuilt after the Holocaust on a set of bedrock principles that includes responsibility to the Jewish people.

“There is an expectation that people coming to Germany will assume that sense of historical duty,” said Fatih Uenal, a German-Turkish political psychologist who is founding a vocational training program for refugees in Frankfurt. “That makes the higher incidence of anti-Semitic views among Muslims hard to talk about, and so we haven’t found a good way of engaging different sorts of people about the violence that went on here.”

Jamo was exploring Sachsenhausen with R.future-TV, a nonprofit in Berlin that brings together refugees to discuss German history and social issues, featuring them in short films on topics from theology to gender equality. The project, run by two actors, Nina Coenen and Sami Alkomi, has received 9,000 euros of public funding for five films.

The spectacle of brutality on display at Sachsenhausen did not awe Jamo, a former photographer who had known daily violence in Syria. No matter the direct perpetrator of the violence Jamo had witnessed, the greatest cause of conflict in the region, he said, was Israel.

“Israeli aggression is the most basic problem,” he said.

His view is at odds with the one stated by Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, in an address to the Israeli Knesset in 2008, when she said Israel’s security was a critical part of Germany’s “reason for being.” On visiting Dachau in 2015, she said the horrors of the camps “admonish us never to forget.”

The history that binds Germany to Israel is interpreted differently by many in the Arab world, Jamo said: “The Arabs think what Hitler did was a good thing, because he freed them from the Jews.”

He spoke bluntly before a video camera that followed him around the site of the former camp. His remarks will appear in a documentary film about how refugees in Germany understand the mass murder of Jews.

Jamo was one of only two refugees involved in R.future-TV who agreed to participate in the film project on Holocaust history. Germany’s treatment of Jews has been a difficult topic of debate, said Alkomi, a Christian whose family escaped to Germany from Syria when he was 9. At a meeting of the group last month, one man admitted, “In some ways, we think of the Jews just like the Nazis did.”

Such opinions are grounds for concern that animus for Israel in the Arab world translates into anti-Semitism among the refugee community in Germany. Numerous studies conducted over the last decade suggest that hostility to Jews is more prevalent among Muslim youth in Germany than among young people generally. Tensions simmered this spring when the parents of a 14-year-old boy said they had removed him from a Berlin school with a high proportion of pupils of Turkish and Arabic descent, alleging he was bullied and at one point told, “All Jews are murderers.”

In survey results released this year, an independent panel set up by the German Parliament found that Jews were “increasingly concerned for their safety,” with respondents ranking Muslims as the group most likely to commit physical and verbal attacks. Lawmakers pledged to respond but have deferred action until after the September election. 
“A lot of Muslim refugees,” said Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany “grew up in countries where hatred of Jews and of Israel is normal.” Many know little about the Holocaust, he said, “and some even admire Hitler.”

Others cautioned against singling out Germany’s refu­gee population as anti-Semitic. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an associate fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations’ Middle East and North African Program, said anti-Semitism “cannot be written off as a problem of the Muslim minority.”
Armin Langer, coordinator of the Salaam-Schalom Initiative, an interfaith group based in Berlin, said this charge is used to vilify immigrants. 

“Anti-Semitism is not a question of ethnicity,” said Langer, who has done rabbinical training. “It’s a question of social and cultural influences.”

In Iraq, anti-Semitic influences are pervasive, said Mohammed Kareem, the other refu­gee who had agreed to participate in the film. But Kareem, 34, who had been a police officer in Baghdad, spoke with his back to the camera, worried for his family still in Iraq if he were to be identified as “a friend of the Jews.”
“Everywhere — whether on the TV, from Imams or at school — we hear, ‘Jews are not good,’ and we don’t know any Jews to see them differently,” Kareem said. Since arriving in Germany in 2015, he has encountered several Jews who volunteer at a Berlin church that works with refugees. And now he is asking himself, “‘Why does my country say Jews are not good?’ Their armies — that’s different.”

At Sachsenhausen, Kareem and Jamo peered into the gaping trench where prisoners were shot, examined images of the dead and took cellphone photos of each other by the crematorium. Kareem said he recognized that Germany had violated human rights. They decided the Jewish people could be distinguished from the state of Israel.

Read article in full

Friday, August 11, 2017

The jailbird who perfected 'shakshuka' in a pan

Shakshuka, a North African dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce, means “mixture” in Berber languages, and as the name implies, it is a simple dish that anyone can make at home. Making it well, however, is a different matter. This is where Bino Gabso, a.k.a. Dr. Shakshuka, comes in. Charming portrait in The Tablet by Dana Kessler.

Gabso is a celebrity chef known for his North African home-cooking style. His Jaffa restaurant, called—of course—Dr. Shakshuka, includes dishes like couscous, mafroum (stuffed potatoes), chraimeh (spicy fish), and lamb or chicken shawarma, as well as the signature dish that earned Gabso his nickname. His trademark is the personal frying pan in which he serves each shakshuka: “That’s my invention,” he boasted.

His establishment has been feeding Israelis and tourists for decades. This summer, however, Gabso is busy with his new culinary venture, which he just opened in Tel Aviv. Bino be-Pita (“Bino in a pita”) has more of a fast-food vibe. “It’s a casual place and passersby can just come in,” Gabso said. “People are very happy that we came to the neighborhood.” Not to worry. The new restaurant still has shakshuka on the menu.

Gabso’s parents immigrated to Israel from Libya in the 1950s. His father opened a restaurant in Jaffa called Tripoli, named for the Libyan capital where he had lived, which was also the center of Jewish life in the country. Gabso, who was born in Jaffa by the name of Yosef Binyamin Gabso, started working in his father’s restaurant at age 12. In 1991, after his father died, Gabso took over the restaurant and redubbed it Dr. Shakshuka. The restaurant, next to the Jaffa Clock Tower and flea market, grew and grew. “I never thought I’d have such a large restaurant,” he told me. “I have the courtyard in the middle, and gradually I took over all the places around it. It’s like a piazza.

The story of how—and where—Gabso perfected his shakshuka is well-known Israeli folklore: “In addition to the restaurant, my family had a money-changing business, which I also worked in,” he said. “Every time I closed a deal, I would come to my parents’ house, and my dad would make me shakshuka in a pan.

 That’s where my dream of making people shakshuka in a personal pan came from. This was the 1980s and changing money was illegal in Israel. People would get fines but no one was sentenced to prison. Then I got caught and I got 15 months in prison—it was a precedent.

”While in prison, Gabso started cooking for the other inmates and for the guards. The prison would provide him with the basic ingredients—eggs and tomatoes—and his daughter would bring him filfel chuma, the hot sauce of Libyan Jewish cuisine. The recipe he perfected on a portable burner in prison earned him the nickname Dr. Shakshuka, which one of the inmates made up.

Read article in full

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A window on the murky world of the Aleppo Codex

In his book, The Aleppo Codex, the Canadian-Israeli journalist and author Matti Friedman uncovers a murky tale and raises serious questions about who owns communal Judaica - the community or the state? Lyn Julius reviews his book in The Times of Israel.

It was back in 2008 when Matti Friedman, then a journalist with the Associated Press news agency, first wrote about the Aleppo Codex. This most ancient and precise version of the Hebrew bible, bound as a folio for ease of reference,  was guarded by the Jews of Aleppo in a dark grotto under their Great Synagogue, its  annotations threatening that a curse would befall whoever dared steal its pages. The Codex was, so the accepted version goes, badly damaged by fire in the 1947 riots which caused most of the Jews to flee, but was salvaged and smuggled from Syria to Israel where it finally reached safety at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.

That had been the story of the Aleppo Codex, until Matti Friedman decided to delve a bit deeper. Every one of those initial assumptions turned out to be false, he found. His investigations resulted in a 300-page update: Friedman’s book, ‘The Aleppo Codex’.

For a start, the Codex did not originate in Aleppo. It was written in Tiberias in 930 CE, survived the Crusader siege on Jerusalem, was shipped to old Cairo, where it was studied by Moses Maimonides in the 12th century, before finally reaching Aleppo.

Next, the Codex was not damaged by fire, but by poor storage. It was not taken immediately to Israel, but was kept in private hands in Syria for almost 10 years after the riots.

The third myth is that, once smuggled out of Syria, the Codex was bequeathed to Israel as its national heritage. It was not. The Aleppan Jews had intended the treasure to remain within their community and fought an obscure court case to retrieve it.

The saga of the Codex raises serious questions. Who owns communal Judaica? The tussle between nation and community is a familiar one to Jews whose property was looted in Arab countries, but Israel is not normally associated with such ownership struggles.  Friedman hints that the looting of artefacts may have been widespread in Israel.  Yemenite Jews on their way to Israel who left their Torah scrolls and artefacts in crates for safekeeping told Friedman that when they came to claim their articles, the crates were empty.

The Jews of Aleppo lost their legal case to their main rival in the struggle for possession of the Codex:  no less than the president of Israel himself, Itzhak Ben Zvi, who had an abiding passion for the books and culture of the Jews from the East.

But having won official custody of the Codex, the Ben Zvi Institute failed in its duty to conserve it properly by shutting it away from view in an office, under sub-optimal conditions.

There is a further question: what happened to the missing pages? The Codex was said to be intact when it was taken to a hiding place after the Aleppo riots. The mystery propels Friedman into the murky, sordid and cut-throat world of the international black market in old books and precious documents. Individual pages were seized as a good-luck talisman by superstitious Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, but we are talking here about the disappearance of 40 percent of the Codex:  200 pages from Genesis to most of Deuteronomy.

Whodunnit? Was it an Israeli bureaucrat?  A leading dealer of rare artefacts? A corrupt people-smuggler at the Syrian border? Was it the director of the Ben Zvi Institute himself?   The whole embarrassing affair is shrouded in silence and secrecy. Friedman keeps the reader guessing.

Friedman is one of the rare Israeli journalists writing in English today to have opened up a window on the neglected world of the Jews from Arab countries – a world which continues to fascinate him. He interweaves a backstory of Syrian Jews escaping from rampaging mobs in 1947 or with the ‘jumps’ – risky smuggling operations through Lebanon and then by sea to Israel.  For many readers, this is the first time that they learn of the predicament of Jews fleeing Arab lands to save their lives, and the destruction of their age-old communities.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Iraqis express surprising rise in support for Israel

The fact that most bombings in Iraq are committed by Palestinian terrorists could be the reason why a flood of positive messages has reached Israel from Iraq. They point to a surprising surge of support for normalisation with Israel. Ynet News reports: 

Against the backdrop of the events on the Temple Mount and the recent terrorist attacks, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem was very surprised to see a dramatic increase in the number of Israel sympathizers in Iraq. Yonatan Gonen, head of Arabic-language digital diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry, who also runs the Foreign Ministry's Facebook and Twitter accounts, said that the ministry has been flooded with pictures and messages of sympathy, support and even a desire to establish relations between the two countries.

In addition, several new Facebook pages were opened, and even an Arabic-language website was created to bring Israelis and Iraqis together.
The reactions include harsh criticism of "the hypocrisy of the Arab peoples," with an emphasis on the Egyptians and the Jordanians, whose countries have signed a peace treaty with the State of Israel.

One of the main arguments raised by the respondents on the matter is that if they oppose normalization with Israel, they should act to cancel the peace treaty with Israel before they start complaining. Another central argument is based on the approach that normalization with Israel is not shameful, as long as the interests of both countries are preserved.

At the same time, some respondents admit that the desire to establish relations with Israel does not stem from their love for the country, but rather from their disappointment with the Arab states and their desire to eliminate terrorism in their country.

For example, Zaid, from Baghdad, wrote to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, "All the Iraqis are with you, not necessarily out of love. Israel did not (even) throw stones at us while the Muslim Brotherhood sent suicide bombers and financed them to fight us."

Abdullah Bassem from Baghdad wrote, "A message from Baghdad to Tel Aviv: We recognize the State of Israel—the chosen and the victorious people. Fakestinians (a derogatory term for Palestinians) are traitors and terrorists. We, as Iraqis, will be happy to visit Israel and welcome a visit by Israelis to their second homeland, the great nation of Iraq."

Bader from the city of Basra wrote, "The Iraqis have suffered for years, while the Israelis have been refusing to accept terrorism for decades. The Palestinians must be expelled to countries that adopt and teach death and destruction."

The scene of an attack in Baghdad, in which 55 people were murdered, carried out by a Palestinian terrorist.
The scene of an attack in Baghdad, in which 55 people were murdered, carried out by a Palestinian terrorist.

The Foreign Ministry's digital staff responded to Bader, saying, "We share your courageous view and know that you have suffered. We are in the same boat as far as terrorism is concerned and hope that Iraq's sons will enjoy security. As for your advice, we will never expel anyone, because we are all from the same region and there is no escape from living together. We believe in peace in the region."

An interesting and recurring point in the reactions of the Iraqis who wrote to the foreign ministry is that the State of Israel is an existing reality and a fait accompli, and it is a shame to waste energy and resources in an attempt to change this reality. Quite a few even wrote that the Iraqi people are tired of killing and bloodshed, and that normalization with Israel will promote Iraq economically and help rebuild it.

Many have also harshly criticized the Palestinians as "ungrateful," after reports that no less than 1,200 Palestinians have committed serious attacks on Iraqi soil and killed hundreds of Iraqi people. Individual responders even went so far as to say that if the Al-Aqsa Mosque was controlled by the Palestinians, it would become an arena of terror attacks and bloodshed.

On the other hand, there are Iraqis who told the foreign ministry that every self-respecting Iraqi is committed to fighting Israel and to "liberating Palestine and Jerusalem."

Bashir, for example, wrote, "I, as an Iraqi, think that hostility to Israel is a duty just as we must fast and pray. The victory of our Palestinian brothers is a must. We— Sunnis and Shiites, Christians and members of all ethnic groups—love Palestine."
"It seems that the Iraqi people are divided on the matter, but the very fact that such opinions are voiced openly and without fear indicates that this is not a negligible phenomenon," said Gonen. "It is clear that if such opinions were uttered 20-30 years ago, the people who expressed them would be probably hanged."

Read article in full

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Muslim laments the lost soul of 'judenrein' Iraq

 After experiencing Shabbat lunch with Edwin Shuker,  lyrical and wistful Times of Israel piece about Iraq's lost soul by Fiyaz Mughal, whose organisation Tell Mama monitors islamophobia in Britain. (I am not sure that there is a 'small and growing' movement  of Jews who want to return to Iraq. Edwin Shuker is the only known Jew who travels there regularly) (With thanks: Imre, Ruth, Edward):

 Street scene in Baghdad, where up to a third of the residents were Jewish

The loss of Jewish communities within predominantly Arab Muslim lands in the last 70 years has been a cultural and historical catastrophe for these countries. Oral traditions and stories of co-existence have been lost and so has the chance to explore this history and its uniqueness that could have been an antidote to the separationism that has crept in on the back of Israel and Palestine debates. 

Therefore the loss of Iraqi Jewish communities, had led to the loss of a bit of the soul of Iraq, a trauma that the country cannot get over, without a return of Jewish cultural life and heritage into the country. The chances of that happening are minimal, but people like Shuker, who courageously travel to Baghdad and who picture Jewish institutions and homes, keep that hope alive. His work is more than important, it is essential in restoring the history and heritage of Iraq.

That is why around the table, people reflected, enjoyed Iraqi sweets that are now rare to find and they reminisced about how men would go to the synagogue early in the morning during Shabbat, return home and enjoy traditional snacks, followed by a sleep in the heat and breeze of Baghdad and followed by lunch with the family. This was their memory of Iraq, of sounds, smells, sweets and family. Others talked about how they drove without licenses and how the bureaucracy of Iraq was based on a structure of who you knew and how they could help you overcome problems. Many around the table smiled, laughed and missed the country that was still in their blood.

Yet, they could not turn back the tide of the huge tremors which shaped changes in the Middle East. Many Iraqi Jews left Iraq in the 1950’s and in the early 70’s. During 1971-1972, the situation in Iraq for Iraqi Jews became life threatening as they became a political pawn in Saddam Hussain’s ventures to be the ‘strongman’ of the Middle East. Around the table, they talked about their escape routes which ended up with them exiting through Iran, leaving behind thousands of years of themselves in the soil and in the buildings of Iraq.

The greatest tragedy of the Middle East conflict has not only been the lives lost within it. It is the tragedy of the histories and relationships that have been torn from one another from Morocco through to Iraq. Right across the Arab and Muslim world, its cultural heritage has been affected because of the loss of its Jewish communities. Yes, the history of Jews in Muslim majority countries was better than that in Europe, but let us not forget, that in the end, we all have lost out because of the geo-politics of the Middle East. The soul of a country can be felt by how it treats its minorities. That soul is sadly missing in many countries in the Middle East in today’s world.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Jews in Egypt 'will not pay for synagogue repairs'

A report on Israel's army radio quoting sources stating that the handful of Jews still in Egypt will have to pay the cost of repairs to an Alexandrian synagogue has been dismissed  as 'fake news'. 

 The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria

Levana Zamir, head of the Association of Jews from Egypt, corrected the impression on her Facebook page that Egypt's few Jews - numbering no more than five in Alexandria and six widows in Cairo - would have to bear the financial burden of repairs to the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, where the roof of the ladies' gallery has collapsed.

She added that the cost of renovation is a respectable $5.6 million, not the $22 million quoted by some sources.

The money is to come from the US, which regularly finances the preservation of Egypt's Pharaonic heritage, antiquities and archeology. After intervention  from the American Jewish Committee and the Nebi Daniel Association, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities agreed to allocate the sum of $5.6 million to repair the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, now considered an Egyptian antiquity. 

A synagogue has stood on the site for 2,000 years, but it was in the 19th century that the present grand Italianate building was erected in Nebi Danel street, Alexandria - the biggest in the Middle East.

As Levana Zamir explained in a radio interview on 10 July, organisations representing Egyptian Jews around the world have long offered to pay to preserve Egypt's Jewish heritage from their own coffers, but Egypt has insisted that Jewish sites are part of its national heritage.

Mrs Zamir praises President el-Sisi for having had the courage to allocate a sum for the preservation of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue as part of a wider restoration programme.

Of Egypt's sixty synagogues, only 16 are still standing, most in serious need of restoration. No prayer services are held.

Egypt to restore Alexandria Synagogue for $2.2 million

Egypt registers Jewish artefacts - to preserve them

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Can Israel ever be integrated in the Middle East?

Anything by Seth Frantzman is always thought-provoking, and this piece in the Jerusalem Post, arguing that Israel is both integrated into and disconnected from the Middle East, is no exception. However, there are several fallacies: to be born in the region and to speak Arabic does not mean that you share the same mentality. Converging political interests do not require that Israeli leaders should 'enjoy' meeting Arab leaders. Above all, Israel does not act in a vacuum, but turns towards the West in reaction to Arab rejectionism and ostracism.

Prime minister David Ben-Gurion had a dim view of the Middle East and its people. Of Yemenite Jewry he wrote to IDF chief of staff Yigael Yadin in 1950, “It is two thousand years away from us, if not more. It is lacking in the most basic and rudimentary conceptions of civilization. Its attitude to children and women is most primitive.” His view of the Arab and Muslim world was that it was primitive and savage and that Jews in Israel would be molded into a modern Eastern European-style state.

Seventy years later Israel has drifted from the fantasies of Ben-Gurion to become more a part of the Middle East. However, despite its attempts to integrate into the region, some of which have been successful, in some ways its leadership is the least integrated of any Israeli generation. After all, Ben-Gurion and others studied at Istanbul University, while Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon grew up alongside Arabs in the pre-state period. So why, after so many decades, does Israel have this janus face?

Part of the reason for Israel’s internal contradiction of being a Middle Eastern country populated by Middle Eastern people which is uncomfortable in the Middle East has to do with its cultural elites and historiography. For some, Ben-Gurion’s views have not changed much with time. Zvi Zameret in his Melting Pot in Israel parroted uncritically Ben-Gurion’s view that Yemenites could be “helped to bridge a gap of thousands of years.” He writes, “despite the different between them [Yemenites] and veteran Israelis, what was important was that the Yemenites should absorb general knowledge, and so on as well as what they could be taught about agricultural labor.”

The view of Yemenites as foreign and Ben-Gurion as a “veteran Israeli” is a bit ironic, considering Ben-Gurion was born in Plonsk in the Polish part of the Russian empire in 1886 and came to Ottoman Palestine in 1906. There had been Yemenite Jews in the Land of Israel, working in agriculture even, long before he came. But the real story of the disdainful view of Middle Eastern peoples as being “a thousand years” behind European Jewish immigrants is due to the fact that the leadership of Israel in its early years was dominated by Labor Zionists born in Europe who were often imbued with a European supremacist ideology.

Their views were not so different than the views of British colonial officers in the Raj or whites in the US. For them it was a fact that Western civilization was not simply more advanced and superior, but civilizations of the Middle East were stereotyped as almost inhuman and animalistic. Arye Gelblum wrote in Haaretz in 1949 of Jews from Muslim countries: “Here we have an extremely primitive people. The level of their education borders upon total ignorance and even more serious is their total inability to comprehend anything spiritual.” They “lack roots in Judaism” and have “primitive and wild instincts.”

Gelblum was from Poland, born in 1912 and had come to British Mandate Palestine in 1925. Looking back at the disdain he and others had for people from the Middle East, one wonders why he came to Palestine? He could have stayed at home in “civilized” Poland. The caricatures many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe had for Jews from the Middle East was similar to the caricature that Jews from Western Europe had for “ostjuden” or Jews from the east.

Their sense of superiority was manufactured from their own sense of inferiority in Europe. In Palestine they needed to set themselves apart, and even though their own education was relatively sparse compared to that of people in Berlin, New York or London, in Mandate Palestine they could pose as “civilized.”

Bifurcating themselves from Middle Eastern Jews and the Middle East at large became a task of second aliya Zionists who began arriving after 1904. The concept of “Hebrew Labor,” which entailed Jews hiring other Jews to work the land, was one of the missions of the 1904 generation’s Labor Zionism. They wanted to separate the new Jewish community from the old, from the Jews of the Middle East and from the Arabs, to create a separate revolutionary society.

Shimon Peres, David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan: Middle Eastern?

This had the effect of creating a kind of cordon sanitaire between their society, preserving its east European elements, and the Middle East. It was unfortunate because the older Jewish communities were much more integrated. The old Sephardic families in Jerusalem, Jaffa and elsewhere such as Amzalak, Valero, Abulafia and many others were part of the Ottoman Empire and spoke its languages. However, to their credit some of the second aliya Zionists did attend Istanbul University.

The next generation of Israeli leaders, such as Mordechai Maklef, Yigal Allon, Yigal Yadin, Moshe Dayan and later Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak were born in the Middle East and some of them grew up at a time when British Mandate Palestine was far more Arab than it became after 1948. If one looks at the fighters who coalesced around Sharon’s Unit 101 in the 1950s almost all the men were born in British Mandate Palestine. Except for Danny Matt, who was born in Germany, the others such as Meir Har-Zion, Assaf Simhoni, Aharon Davidi and Raful Eitan were mostly born between 1920 and 1940. Their formative years were ones where Jews were a minority and the landscape was Arabic. They were Middle Eastern. Not the “primitives” that Ben-Gurion was so concerned about, but rather part of their environment.

It’s no surprise that although some Arabic leaders may have loathed Dayan or Sharon, they tended to understand them quite well, and both Dayan and Sharon seemed to feel as at home in a Beduin tent or looking at the region through the eyes of the Kingdom of Jordan, as they felt in Tel Aviv. For better or worse, they had more in common with Hafez Assad or Gamal Abdel Nasser than they did with Jewish peddlers and pianists in Poland. These early Israeli soldiers and leaders also spoke Arabic. Some spoke Ottoman Turkish.

Now, fast forward to 2017 and look at the leadership of Israel’s political parties. After Turkey condemned Israel’s actions in Jerusalem recently, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon reminded the Turks that “the days of the Ottoman Empire have passed.” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid went further, suggesting Israel support Kurds and recognize the Armenian genocide. But Israeli comments about Kurds often betray ignorance on the topic, confusing Kurdish politics in Iraq with Kurds in Turkey. This is because even though all of Israeli leaders today grew up in Israel, they didn’t really grow up in the Middle East. Few of them have any knowledge of languages in the region, and most of them seem to generally feel uncomfortable around Arabs or other groups in the region. It’s a deep cultural disconnect.

Commentators in Israel may talk about what Israel should or should not do about Jordan, but none of them seem like they’d like to go sit down with the king or anyone in the kingdom, the way former Israeli leaders did in secret decades ago. Israel’s leaders show a lack of interest in how the Middle East functions and in its varying cultures. This spans the Left and the Right. The Left tends to speak in terms of divorcing Palestinians in order to “save” Israel’s Jewish character as a nation-state. The Right tends to simply ignore the existence of Palestinians. But both disregard the need to feel comfortable with or even interested in the “other.” Former Labor leader Isaac Herzog claimed “the rampant construction in all the settlements all the time will lead to replacing the Jewish majority state with an Arab majority state.”

The discussion in Israel, from the Right to the Left, is primarily an internal one. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel has shared interests in Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Egypt, it isn’t because he enjoys meeting with leaders from there, it’s simply a statement of fact. One gets the feeling that previous generations of Israelis, with the exception of the cultural Eurocentric elites, felt more a part of the Middle East, more comfortable in it. That is ironic, since Israel was more isolated in the 1950s, surrounded by real Arab armies. Today Israel has peace with two Arab countries, and relationships with others, yet it is less integrated in the region in some ways.

Israel was always going to be a janus-faced country because of its nature. Founded primarily by Eastern European Jewish nationalists, it was a gathering place for Jews from the Middle East and has the food, music and culture of the region ingrained in it. Many of its cultural elites still see the region as “primitive” and their cultural leanings are toward Europe. It’s no surprise some of them and their children emigrate to places like Berlin.

Read article in full

Friday, August 04, 2017

Baghdadi sophisticate who survived Japanese camp

Helen Reuben Bekhor died in May 2017 aged 91. Her peripatetic family history - born in Bombay of Baghdadi parents, she was interned in a Japanese PoW camp during WWII - is uniquely preserved in the meticulous records she kept in her Australian home. Here is a potted biography in the Earthy Report by her relative Carola C. Reuben, written seven years before Helen's death.

 Helen Reuben Bekhor: cleared rubble with long, manicured nails

The first member of my extended family who found a home in Australia is the keeper of family records that date back for centuries in Iraq.

Australia became home some 60 years ago to Helen Bekhor ( bottom photo), born Habiba Helen Reuben in Bombay, India to Iraqi Jewish parents in 1925. She picks stories to tell from the meticulous records she keeps in her Melbourne home.

For instance, she might tell you about a relative, Reuben Battat, who froze to death in 1950 when he tried to escape from Iraq to Iran, hidden inside a freezer on a truck. That was during the mass exodus of relatives from Iraq after Israel became a nation (1948) when the Muslims in Iraq persecuted Jews.

Meanwhile for Helen the post World War II years were good. She drank Coca-Cola and sang, “drinking rum and Coca-Cola, working for the Yankee dollar.” It was a time of celebration for her in Shanghai, China. Helen and her sister, Florence, (now Florence Ovadia of Chicago, USA ), were working as mail sorters in a U.S. army base.

They had just been freed from a Japanese Civilian Internment Center in China along with their sister, Grace, brother, Felix, and mother, Naima. World War II was over (top photo, Helen, after the war). During the war, the Japanese had imprisoned Helen and her family as “enemy subjects” because they were British. They had become British citizens while living in India under British rule.

When Helen first became a prisoner, she went to work clearing rubble with her long, manicured nails. Before camp she had been living in a Shanghai she called “a shopper’s paradise” with an elegant social life among foreigners.

Asia became home to the Reubens since before her birth when her father, Sassoon Reuben (my great-uncle), opened an office in Bombay to export textiles and other goods to Iraq. Then, in 1932, my grandfather, Salim Reuben, left Baghdad with his wife and children to open a Reuben Import Export Company office in Kobe, Japan.

Political upheaval then blew Reubens to other lands. In 1939, Japan became Germany‘s ally; all foreign schools closed down in Japan, and the Reubens sailed to Shanghai.

Read article in full

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Turkish antisemtism has gone 'from bad to worse'

 It is a curious phenomenon: when people don't like Israel's policies, they take their anger out on Jews in another country. Laura Pitel examines the fragile state of Turkish-Jewish relations in Ynet News following last week's protests outside two Istanbul synagogues over the Temple Mount crisis.

No one was injured in Thursday’s attack, which was later followed by a second protest by an Islamist group outside Istanbul’s Ahrida Synagogue. But the demonstrations served as a reminder of the challenges confronting Turkey’s small Jewish community, which not only contends with widespread anti-Semitism but also finds itself caught in the crossfire any time Israel faces criticism.

Turkey has a complex relationship with its small Jewish minority, which today numbers around 17,000 people. Officials talk proudly of the fact that Ottoman Sultans welcomed Jews expelled from Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, and of the efforts made by Turkish diplomats to save Jews from the Nazis. But anti-Semitic tropes are deeply engrained and widespread in the media, popular culture and in political rhetoric.

A new historical drama, Payitaht, aired on the state broadcaster’s flagship entertainment channel, depicted a plan to kill the Ottoman Sultan by plotters who exchange coins imprinted with the Star of David. Hitler’s Mein Kampf can often be found on sale in mainstream bookshops and supermarkets. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself once used the term “spawn of Israel” to insult a protester after a mining disaster in 2014. His ministers, advisors and officials have repeatedly been criticized for using anti-Jewish language and conspiracy theories when attacking critics or seeking to explain economic or political problems.

The phenomenon is not confined to Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Anti-Semitic diatribes are also prevalent in anti-imperialist and left-wing nationalist circles, as well as their right-wing and Islamist counterparts.

However, Erdogan, who casts himself as a leader of the Muslim world, has taken a tougher stance on Israel than some of his predecessors.

Ahrida synagogue, where the cantor's podium was built to resemble Noah's ark

Ahrida synagogue, where the cantor's podium was built to resemble Noah's ark

Although Turkey and Israel announced a rapprochement last year after a six-year diplomatic freeze, Erdogan has made clear that he will continue to censure Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. Following the decision to place metal detectors—since removed—at the Al-Asqa mosque after the killing of two Arab-Israeli policeman by Muslim gunmen, Erdogan issued a series of harsh condemnations.

Turkey’s Jewish citizens defend the right of politicians and the public to criticize the state of Israel. The problem, they say, is that ordinary Jews face blowback. “The intensification of the conflict between Israel and Palestinian always extends to the Turkish Jewish community,” said Karel Valansi, a columnist at the news portal T24 and the Jewish newspaper Shalom. “There is no clear distinction in the minds of many in Turkey between Israel and Jews.”

Turkish officials have made efforts to publicly support and promote the Jewish community in recent years. In 2015, a Hanukkah celebration was held in public in Istanbul for the first time in several decades. The same year, one of Turkey’s deputy prime minister’s attended the re-opening of Edirne Synagogue, near the border with Bulgaria, which was given a $2.5 million renovation after languishing for many decades in a state of disrepair.

But Aykan Erdemir, a former member of parliament with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) now based at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said that life has become more difficult for Turkey’s minority groups in the wake of last year’s attempted coup. Erdogan portrays the failed putsch, which left 250 dead, as a plot by foreign and domestic powers conspiring to destroy the country—tapping into deeply-ingrained national fears about threats to the Turkish state.

“Turkey was a challenging place for religious minorities even before the coup,” said Erdemir. “Things, however, have gone from bad to worse within the last year. Turkey’s government-controlled media systematically demonize minorities, presenting them as fifth columns.”

President Erdogan (Photo: Reuters)
President Erdogan (Photo: Reuters)

Erdogan condemned the attacks on Istanbul synagogues, saying that it was “a big mistake” to target a place of worship. “We have no issues with the houses of worship of Christians or Jews,” he said. Opposition leaders also denounced the attacks.

Despite the protests, Turkish Jews say that physical assaults against them have been rare in recent years and that the government has taken warnings of Islamic State attacks very seriously. Some say they feel safer in Turkey than they would in Europe.

But most agree that Turkey must do more to tackle the hate speech that Jews encounter in public debate, the media and on social networks. And they would like to see greater awareness of the fact that Jews are separate from Israel, so that they do not have to brace for a backlash each time it hits the headlines.

Selin Nasi, a columnist for the Turkish newspapers Shalom and Hurriyet Daily News, said that Turkey’s Jews want to feel accepted by politicians and by society. “They want to be treated as equal citizens,” she said. “They don’t want to be perceived as enemies. They love their country. They don’t want to come to the fore each time a crisis breaks out and be held responsible for what Israel is doing.”

Read article in full

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

How Jews in Iran observed 9th of Av

 With thanks: JIMENA

Jews in Shiraz yesterday observing the fast of Tisha b'Ab, which marks the anniversary of the destruction of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem.

It is customary to sit on the floor as a sign of mourning, while the cantor reads from the book of Lamentations.

This video was taken by Hagai Horev and uploaded to his Facebook page.

There are estimated to be fewer than 10,000 Jews remaining in Iran, but it is generally thought that they have become more observant since the founding of the Islamic republic in 1979.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Tunisian-born impresario Charley Marouani dies

One of the great figures of the French pop world, Charley Marouani, has died aged 90. (With thanks: Veronique)

Charley Marouani, who was born in Sousse, Tunisia, died in Corsica on 29 July. He was the agent for some of the greatest names of the French pop world: Jacques Brel, Sylvie Vartan, Barbara, Gilbert Becaud, Adamo, Serge Reggiani, Richard Antony, Julien Clerc and many more.

Up to his death he was working with Michel Boujenah and Enrico Macias.

" An artiste must sing, write and act. He must not involve himself with minor external worries," he once said.

Obituary at Le Monde (French)    

Monday, July 31, 2017

Journalist 'had no idea' about Jews from Arab countries

Remember Hunter Stuart? He was the journalist who arrived in Israel as a pro-Palestinian and soon found that reality did not match his preconceived prejudices. He wrote a piece in the Jerusalem Post explaining how the scales had fallen from his eyes during his eighteen months based in Jerusalem.

Meeting Jews from Arab countries seems to have been central to Stuart's about-turn. Smadar was one of the people who helped change Stuart's views. A staunch defender of Israel in her 50s, Smadar and her family had been forced out of Morocco. She and Stuart had long talks together. Overcoming his initial suspicions, Hunter and Smadar became good friends, albeit coming in from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Later Hunter Stuart met Jews from Iraq and Iran. He had thought all Israelis were 'white Ashkenazim.'
Julie Hazan with Hunter Stuart during the podcast interview.

Before arriving in Israel Stuart had 'no idea that a whole Jewish refugee crisis was created when Israel was established in 1948'. "It was one of the pieces of history either not available in my reading, or it hadn't fitted into my narrative," he confesses.

 The two Israelis interviewing Stuart for HonestReporting and StandwithUs drive home the point that Jews have roots in the Middle East: Julie Hazan is from Morocco, Shahar Azani from Yemen. Shahar Azani mentions that neither he nor Julie could satisfy the late Helen Thomas, who told Jews in Israel to 'go back to Germany and Poland'. If they returned they would be allowed no semblance of Jewish life in Arab countries, difficulties Jews shared with other minorities, Shahar Azani tells Stuart. You can listen to this segment on Jews from Arab lands from 10:30 minutes into the podcast.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Tisha B'Ab falls tomorrow

The fast of Tisha b'Ab (9th Av), falls tomorrow. It  is the darkest day of the Jewish calendar. It is a day of mourning commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and other misfortunes that have befallen
the Jewish people. Yemenite chanting on Tisha B'Ab at the Western wall in Jerusalem.

It is customary for mourners to read the Book of Lamentations. Among Jews of Aleppo the portion of the law read on Shabbat Ekha, just before the Fast, is sung to Maqam Hijaz. "There is consensus among ALL sources to apply Hijaz; this maqam (octave scale) is reserved to express sadness", says the blog Pizmonim Project.

On a lighter note, here is what the late Suzy Vidal, in her memoirs The Jasmine Necklace, had to say about 9th Av, and its significance for the Jews of Egypt:

" My mother was born on July 23, which happened to be 9 Av, the destruction of Solomon's Temple and also the date of the Expulsion of Jews from Spain. Everyone called it Yom Ekha. Anyone who knows his Jewish calendar could easily guess which year Yom Ekha happened to be on July 23. But people were not te-ill el dam, heavy-blooded, and were not going to complicate their lives or waste time with such futilities.

"Yom Ekha is a very bad day in our calendar. It is not the day to sign an important contract, getting engaged or married. Sexual relations are forbidden. You cannot go the swimming pool or have a swim in the sea; you just sit around, pray and wait for Yom Ekha to pass away.

"Several expressions are attached to that day. It is an expression of disbelief. If someone says," I'll do this or that," you can answer "Oh yes, Yom Ekha". It is the same as saying we'll never see that. Of someone who is not resourceful you could say Ekha aleh or Ekha aleha. Aleh means on him and aleha on her.

"My mother was convinced that being born on Yom Ekha she was bound to be unlucky: fall off her beloved ladder, burn her hand with boiling oil or have money stolen from her bag when shopping. All the misfortunes that happened to her were because she was born on July 23, which in the year of her birth happened to be Yom Ekha."

Friday, July 28, 2017

Why don't Jews remember their Sephardi heroes?

 We need to  restore Sephardi heroes to Jewish history, argues Ben Judah in the Jewish Chronicle. Heroes like the Baghdadi Jew General Jacob, who was both Indian military hero and diplomat:

 General JFR Jacob, pictured at a Kolkata rally in 2012.

There are many unsung heroes of the Jewish people. I just feel most of them are Sephardic. The further south and east you go from the shtetl in our collective memory the less the warrior-queens, rabbis, commanders of amazing deeds are remembered.

Sephardic history is not properly taught in Jewish schools. It is given little respect in our yeshivas. Even in Israel, when designs for new banknotes were proposed in 2013, they omitted any Sephardic heroes — even though Jews whose roots lie in North Africa and the Middle East make up nearly half of Israeli Jews.

Sephardic Jews are not without heroes. Ignoring them leaves us poorer. Our story is so much richer — and unexpected. Who remembers General J.F.R. Jacob? Outside of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — no small place — the story of one of the greatest Jewish generals of the 20th century is practically unknown. It was the tactical genius of a Jew that liberated Muslim Bangladesh. Yet Israel and the Diaspora barely took notice of him as he did it.

Born in Calcutta in 1924, at the heart of the Baghdadi Jewish community, streets away from my grandfather, Jacob Farj Rafael (“J.F.R.”) Jacob signed-up in the Second World War when news of Holocaust first reached him. The Jacob family, which like the Judah family, left Iraq for India in the 18th century, sheltered Ashkenazi refugees in Calcutta in 1942. Their stories from Germany and Poland spurred the young man into the war against Hitler.

Devoted to the British Indian Army, which in 1947 became the army of the new India, J.F.R. was the mastermind of the Indian invasion, which liberated the 65m Muslims of what was then known as East Pakistan and later became Bangladesh.
Convinced that victory lay in fighting through the monsoon and in circling the big Bangladeshi cities, Jacob spread his forces through the marshes and riverine swamps which form the Ganges delta and secured a total victory. The 93,000 Pakistan forces surrendering to him in Dhaka marked the largest military surrender since the Second World War.

Across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, General Jacob is seen to this day as a military hero and a Jew unflinching in his devotion to India. Why have we done so little to remember his memory for ourselves?

Read article in full

More about General Jacob

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Rare book on the Jews of Lebanon reviewed

Writing in Raseef 22, Wissam Saade reviews one the few books written about the Jews of Lebanon. According to author Tomer Levi, the community - an accumulation of migrations -  was not organised until the early 20th century, the Alliance Israelite Universelle school was not as influential as in other Arab countries, and the Jews were denied political representation in the Lebanese parliament. (With thanks: Boruch)

The restored Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut has remained closed

Despite the interest around Lebanese Jews in media, literature, and cinema, there is not much scholarship on the history of this community. Tomer Levi, a young Israeli scholar, took on the task of writing a book, which he entitled The Jews of Beirut: The Rise of a Levantine Community, 1860s-1930s, published in 2012.

The book hasn’t yet made its way to the Lebanese circle, not even with a review or a translated excerpt. The book does not only address the history of the community, but also the rise of Beirut during the late Ottoman era.

Levi writes in his introduction that he was motivated to do this research when his mother showed him the Lebanese Identification card of his grandmother. Edmond Safra, the Lebanese-Brazilian Jewish businessman, funded Levi’s research through the International Sephardic Education Foundation. Safra is the son of Yaacoub Safra, the first man in their family of bankers, who had arrived in Beirut from Aleppo right after World War I. The waves of migration tell us much about the dilemma of Beirut’s Jews- the community came to be formed “out of nowhere” in modern times- an accumulation of different migrations across the Ottoman empire between late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Levi finds this history to be a “unique Middle Eastern experience of Jewish presence,” that came about during the rise and expansion of Beirut as a port city at the time. From 100 Jews in 1800 to 3500 in 1920. Steamboats had brought life to trading in the Eastern Mediterranean region, at the expense of freight transport. The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, bringing more trading into the region. Port cities prospered, becoming architectural landscapes where freight transport and sea trading come apart and connect.

Read article in full

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Imam: Muslims saved traitorious Jews from Europe

From a mosque in California comes a dangerous falsehood: Between the 20th century World Wars Muslims welcomed into their homes Jews fleeing antisemitism. These would subsequently betray their hosts by seizing Palestine. Syrian-American Sheikh Mahmoud Harmoush only betrays his ignorance: the vast majority of Jews were living in the Middle East and North Africa for close on 3,000 years, well before Islam. And antisemitism was not solely a European problem. See MEMRI clip (with thanks: Lily): Sheikh Mahmoud Harmoush: "Between World War I and World War II, so much of the immigration that came from Europe toward the Islamic world, whether North Africa or the Mediterranean area – Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and all of this... Muslims were opening their homes and saying: Those are our brethren, persecuted by the Christians in Europe. The Jews were coming from Germany, Poland, Italy, and everywhere else, and [the Muslims] would give them rooms, shelter them, and help them out, not knowing that there was a plan. Within the thirty years between the two incidents, until 1948 and the British occupation, everything was plotted to take over that beautiful land, in the way that we all know – with killing, crime, and massacres."

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

US has not yet decided to back Libyan embargo

A US ministerial committee has still not come to a decision on whether if should accept Libya's demand for 'a memorandum of understanding' blocking the export of Jewish artefacts from the country. Gina Waldman of JIMENA tells JTA why Libya is wrong:

(JTA) — Gina Waldman was forced to flee her native Libya in 1967 as anti-Jewish mobs took to the streets of Tripoli, burning down her father’s warehouse.
Waldman, like thousands of other Libyan Jews who left the country amid public and state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the 20th century, was forced to leave behind both personal belongings — she was only allowed to bring a single suitcase with her — and a rich cultural heritage that testified to over 2,000 years of Jewish presence in the North African country. Today no Jews remain in Libya.
That heritage — including synagogues, cemeteries and ritual objects — has long been under threat. But now an additional obstacle is coming from an unlikely place, said Waldman, president and co-founder of the group Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, or JIMENA.

Gina Waldman...left with one suitcase

The threat stems from a memorandum of understanding request by the Libyan government — currently under consideration by the State Department — that would prohibit artifacts dated 1911 and earlier, including Jewish ritual objects, from being brought into the United States from Libya.

That would mean that anyone attempting to bring in antique Torah scrolls, tombstones, books and other ritual objects would be stopped at the U.S. border, and the objects would be confiscated and sent back to Libya.

Waldman, who lives in San Francisco, called the measure “very, very offensive to the Jewish community.” She said the memorandum would block people from removing Jewish artifacts “when the very government itself has destroyed every single synagogue, every single [Jewish] cemetery.”

Waldman said she is not aware of anyone having attempted to take Jewish artifacts out of Libya, or of any plans to do so. But she worries that the memorandum would affect any future efforts to recover those materials.

The State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee convened this week to discuss and consider the request, which Libya submitted in June. It has not announced a decision. The State Department emailed JTA saying it would comment by Monday but did not follow through.

Libya claims that the request is necessary for curbing black market sales of artifacts from the country.

Read article in full 

Libya seeks US legitimisation for its seized assets

Monday, July 24, 2017

Jews and Muslims in Morocco: a complex history

In a well-publicised interfaith initiative in June, Jews and Muslims sat down together in Morocco to mark Iftar, the end of the month of Ramadan. In contrast to the gushing account by Yael Eckstein ('Why do Moroccans treat Jews so well? she kept asking) Here is a more nuanced report on NBC News of the complex relationship between the two communities. (With thanks: Tom) 

Yael Eckstein, the VP of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, hands a child a bag full of food for Ramadan (Yardena Schwartz/ NBC News)

Today, Jews account for less than 3,000 of Morocco’s 35 million residents — a small fraction of the nearly 300,000 who lived here before the establishment of Israel in 1948. Still, that tiny figure makes Morocco home to the largest Jewish population in the Arab world. And unlike other Arab countries, which essentially expelled their Jewish communities around the time of Israel’s establishment, the Jews of Morocco were not forced out when Israel declared its independence.

 To be sure, there were isolated cases of violence against Jews in Morocco during this time. For example, in June 1948, two days of anti-Jewish rioting killed 44 people and wounded some 60 others. Still, attacks on the Jewish community were mild compared to other Arab countries. In Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Libya, for example, government-sanctioned anti-Jewish policies led once-large Jewish communities to dwindle to zero.  One of the most infamous attacks occurred in Iraq before Israel’s establishment, in June 1941, when over 900 Jewish homes were destroyed and 180 Jews were killed, including women and children, in a gruesome pogrom known as the Farhud.

Muslims pray in the Bet El synagogue in Marrakesh before breaking their Ramadan fast at the Iftar meal

 “Jews in Morocco saw the writing on the wall,” said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who spent two years living in Morocco while researching his book, "Among the Righteous: Lost Stories of the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands."  There was plenty of anti-Jewish sentiment in Morocco at the time, said Satloff, but compared to Jews in other Muslim-majority countries, the Jews of Morocco were relatively better off. “They weren’t stringing Jews from street posts like they were in Iraq."

 Most of Morocco’s Jews, he said, left not because they were expelled, but because they felt a growing sense that they had no future there. Morocco was under French and Spanish rule until 1956, and as the Arab nationalist movement gained momentum, hostility toward Jews increased, he said, leading the vast majority of Morocco’s Jews to move to Israel, France and Canada. “It was really this mix of feeling like there’s no future for us in Morocco, and knowing we have a homeland to go to,” he said, referring to Israel. Yet despite the forces of Arabization and anti-Israel sentiments that gripped Morocco half a century ago, today Morocco is the only Arab country whose leader actively protects its Jewish community, said Satloff.

André Azoulay is a Jewish senior adviser to the king of Morocco, Mohammed VI. He also served his father, King Hassan II. Explaining how Morocco has remained protective of its Jewish community despite the anti-Jewish sentiments that overtook other Muslim countries in the wake of Israel’s establishment, Azoulay said, “We are fighting for that. But it’s not just top down,” he said, referring to the king’s protection of the community. “It’s also bottom up. Judaism in Morocco is in the roots, the identity, the mindset of the Moroccan people. Indeed, in 2011 Judaism became enshrined in the nation’s constitution as a facet of Moroccan identity.

 Azoulay cautioned against painting a sweeping brush of anti-Semitism across the Muslim world. After all, Arabs are a Semitic people as well, with Hebrew and Arabic sharing the same roots.

Read article in full

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Istanbul synagogue closed after violent protest

For the first time in recent history there were no Shabbat services at the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, following a violent protest last week by a fascist youth group, The Algemeiner reports.

The Neve Shalom synagogue, Istanbul

Activists from a Turkish fascist youth movement whose leader enjoys close relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul on Thursday, throwing rocks at the building and kicking its doors during a protest against Israel’s decision to install metal detectors at the entrances to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

 The group threatened further protests as it marched away from the synagogue. “We can come here tomorrow just like we are standing here today,” one of its members warned. “You will not be able to get inside.”

 Turkey’s Chief Rabbinate expressed concern that more attacks will be forthcoming and urged the government to act, declaring in a statement: “We condemn the provocative act in front of the Neve Shalom synagogue and expect the authorities to do what is necessary.”

On Friday afternoon, the community announced that it had taken the “unprecedented step” of closing the synagogue for shabbat services on both Friday night and Saturday.

Read article in full

Ynet News article

Friday, July 21, 2017

Lobby launches to dismantle UNWRA

A new Knesset lobby calling for the reform of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was launched this week. Although Jewish refugees from Arab countries do not figure in the debate, the lobby is an attempt to end the status of Palestinian refugees, which can be passed on from generation to generation, and treat them like other refugees.

Sharren Haskel MK, lobby chairperson

The Knesset Lobby for UNRWA Policy Reform, which is chaired by MK Sharren Haskel (Likud), will hold its first session tomorrow (Wednesday) in the Likud Conference Room in the Knesset.
The session will deal with UNRWA's policy of eternally perpetuating the refugee status of the Palestinian Arabs. Palestinian Arabs are the only population in the world whose refugee status is inherited, and are the only refugees who do not fall under the purview of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The session will also deal with the prevalence of incitement against Israel and Jews in the textbooks used in UNRWA schools.

David Bedein, the director of the Center for Near East Policy research and the initiator or tomorrow's event, explained why the lobby will focus on reforming UNRWA instead of abolishing the organization.
"​UNRWA operates under the mandate of UNGA, [the] United Nations General Assembly, and only they can "dismantle" UNRWA," Bedein explained.
"If Israel​i​ and ​Western democratic nations were to cut funds to UNRWA, two scenarios ​would likely​ occur:​
"1.​ The radical Islamic state of ​Qatar, which has established a ​​presence in Gaza and in Judea/Samaria​, would ​likely step in to replace any income lost from ​West​ern cuts to UNRWA​.
"2. Saudi Arabia, which recently increased its funding of UNRWA to become the number three donor, would ​likely ​increase its contribution to UNRWA."

Read article in full

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Libya seeks US legitimisation for its seized Jewish artefacts

A move by the Libyan government to seek the US government blessing's for blocking the shipment of Jewish objects and artefacts to the USA has been lambasted by the advocacy group JIMENA as 'setting a dangerous precedent for neighbouring countries' and 'another sad measure to deny Libyan Jews their stolen cultural heritage'. The issue is being debated by the Cultural Committee of the US State Department on 19 and 20 July: JIMENA has called on citizens to protest to their Congressmen and to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Ben Cohen of the Algemeiner reports:

Members of the Benghazi Beth Din

Campaigners representing Jewish communities expelled from Arab countries reacted furiously  on Tuesday to an effort by the current Libyan government to win legal recognition for its claims to property of Jewish heritage. 

 In addition, under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which the Libyans have submitted to the US State Department, the historic properties of the Jewish community in Libya — including archives, holy books and objects used in synagogue worship — would be barred from entry into the United States. 

 “I ask the Libyan government: ‘Where are the bones of my ancestors? Give them to me, I want to give them a proper burial,'” Libyan-born Gina Bublil-Waldman — co-founder and president of advocacy group JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) — told The Algemeiner on Tuesday.

Read article in full

  Point of No Return adds: the precedent has already been set in the case of the Iraqi-Jewish archive, the waterlogged Jewish books and archives shipped to the US from Iraq for restoration. The US signed an agreement with Iraq promising to return the collection to Iraq. International law treats stolen cultural property as belonging to governments, not to the community from which they were unlawfully taken.