Jenni Frazer of the Jewish Chronicle reports that the last eligible Jews of Baghdad were married last week in Amman, Jordan, and have returned to Iraq this week to begin their new Jewish life together.
The bride, a dentist, and the bridegroom, a jeweller, held a small, intimate engagement party in what remains of the Jewish community of Baghdad – thought to be only nine or 10 people now – before going to Amman for a marriage ceremony performed last week by a European rabbi. The wedding arrangements were made by the bride’s two brothers, who now live in Holland. A third brother, and her mother, still live in Baghdad.
The newlyweds, after spending their honeymoon in Jordan, have returned to celebrate Rosh Hashana in Baghdad.
“I had a happy childhood, as everyone did in the so-called Arab countries, since we were sheltered by our parents. Then a memory came back a few years ago and sparked an obsession in me to tell the truth of what life was like under Islam. That memory specifically goes back to May 1948. At the time Egypt and the other Arab countries were attacking the young state of Israel and King Farouk had decreed a black-out from the outset of hostilities.”
“We had to cover our windows with blue ‘kraft’ paper and drapes. One evening around 8pm, there was an air raid alert over Cairo. Like all curious children oblivious to danger ( I was four), I lifted the curtain slightly. The policeman on duty below (was there one in front of each Jewish home?) blew sharply on his whistle and yelled:” Switch off the light, Jew, son of a dog!” Then he came upstairs to arrest the ‘spy’! I can still see my trembling and panic-stricken mother
pleading with the policeman to leave us alone.
“My parents taught us three main rules:
1. Never talk about religion in case what is said is misinterpreted and people accused us of blasphemy against the Koran and Muhammed. We could be killed with impunity.
2. Never talk about politics
3. Never wander out alone, never follow anyone. All the mothers dreaded that Jewish and Christian children should be kidnapped by Muslims, converted and turned into beggars.
During this period the atmosphere was sometimes unbearable. People were arrested simply for smoking in the street. An uncle of my father’s was arrested and thrown into an internment camp. To this day we do not know why.
My father had been stripped of his Egyptian nationality. I remember, as if it were yesterday, running from consulates to lawyers’ offices and ministries in order to obtain a passport.
I remember the anguished discussions my parents had with their friends, asking “where will we go?” And they would talk of ‘over there’.
‘Over there’ did not mean a thing to us children. But when they said ‘over there’, they lowered their voices.
I remember that two of my mothers’ brothers went to Australia. They blazed a trail for us. It was 1948. What would happen to them? what would happen to us? Leading questions which furrowed our parents’ brows.
I remember being terrified when fires broke out in 1952. Egged on by officers under Nasser and sick of Farouk’s dissolute living, the Egyptian people had attacked and burnt the modern city, symbol of unbearable wealth. The damage was estimated at 25 million dollars at the time. The Jewish shops were of course prime targets and their owners were forced to flee. Relatives came to live with us for a few days and a handful of friends who as ‘foreigners’ were fleeing the danger and insecurity which threatened ‘Europeans and Jews’.
The husband of my maternal aunt was a jeweller: one more shopkeeper whose business had been wrecked by vandals. I remember going with him to search in the debris and the ashes for any gems left behind by the pillagers.
Farouk was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Ahmad Fouad, and went into exile in Italy. General Neguib, popular, wise and moderate, then came to the fore, but power was in the hands of Nasser. I remember the great hopes aroused by Neguib when he visited the synagogue in Cairo on Yom Kippur. The government Number One coming to reassure us and recall we too were Egypt’s children led to euphoria. Neguib was sincere, but there was also Nasser.
Nasser was an unknown quantity for the Jews. His was the only battalion defending Falluja during the 1948 war; he was a hero to his comrades. Anti-western, fiercely antisemitic – I quote his statements in my book, L’exode oublie, to prove it.At first Nasser stood in the shadows, then once securely in power he got rid of Neguib.
I remember lots of children dressed up as Neguib during that Purim following the overthrow of Farouk. I remember his being put under house arrest, reviving our fears.
I remember the killing of Mr Carmona, our upstairs neighbour. He had ‘slipped’ under the tramway lines. He was in agony for several days and my mother was one of the few to visit him.
We ‘sold’ our furniture for a few Egyptian pounds. We were not allowed to take out more than one jewel per person. Mother’s sister-in-law, a seamstress, sewed a few jewels – we were not rich – into dresses.
We had to leave everything behind – trinkets, carpets, even our photos. We were not permitted to take photos out in 1956. In 1957, it seems, things changed. The only photos that I was able to collect (a dozen at most, from my parents) were copies sent to the family in Australia or in the Congo.
A customs officer confiscated my stamp collection which I had insisted on taking with me in spite of my mother’s objections. The suitcases were opened and the contents strewn on the floor. Yet we were lucky – a brave officer friend of Father’s had come with us. My parents’ relatives, some of them senior civil servants, were suddenly suffering from amnesia. We had been conveniently forgotten.
An international conference to promote awareness of a new campaign on the issue of Jews from Arab countries who were forced to leave their homes by oppressive regimes was held in London this week, Daniel Kahtan reports in Jewish News.
The gathering, hosted by the Board of Deputies and attended by representatives of Israel’s Ministry of Justice attracted delegates from as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Canada.
The campaign, supported by the World Association of Jews from Arab Countries and members of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, is to be launched next March.
Executive Director of JJAC Stanley Urman said the campaign will collect and organise testimonies of Jewish life in Arab countries “so that one can document the flight and plight of Jewish refugees.”
He added: “At the moment it is woefully inadequate and it will not allow anyone to assert the issue of Jewish refugees with credibility and efficiency.
“When people speak of refugees, everyone thinks immediately of Palestinian refugees. It’s not well known that there were more Jews displaced from Arab countries (856,000) than Palestinian refugees (725,000) in 1948, according to UN estimates.
“It’s time for this issue to assume its rightful place on the international agenda.”
The Jewish Chronicle’s Jenni Frazer reports that the move to launch an international campaign for rights and redress of Jews from Arab lands follows a declaration by Canadian Prime minister Paul Martin that ‘the situation of Jewish refugees from arab lands must be recognised.’
“JJAC (Justice for Jews from Arab Countries) executive director Stan Urman told the JC:” A kind of ethnic cleansing took place of Jews from Arab countries after 1948. The focus of our campaign is to get world government recognition of what happened. It’s our last best chance to document a glorious and tragic chapter in Jewish history.”(..) It is anticipated that if Palestinians ask for compensation under the aegis of a comprehensive peace process, Jewish refugee rights will also be put on the table.
(…)”Veteran Israel-based campaigner Mordechai Ben-Porat is optimistic that Libya and Iraq – which both had large Jewish populations in 1948 – will now be receptive to acknowledging the rights of their former citizens. He wants to locate abandoned Judaica in Arab Countries with the aim of restoring it to the relevant communities in Israel.
“Ideally we’d like to follow the suggestion proposed by President Clinton before he left office that a fund should be etablished in which compensation could be made available to refugees on both sides of this situation, Palestinians and Jews.”
LONDON, Sept. 20 (JTA) — “Jews who fled Arab countries following the creation of the State of Israel are preparing to launch a new campaign for restitution,” writes Daniella Peled.
“Meeting in London at a forum organized by the World Organization for Jews From Arab Countries and Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, Jewish representatives from 14 nations met Sunday and Monday to create the steering committee for the International Campaign for Rights and Redress.
“The group plans to conduct an international advocacy and public education campaign on the heritage and rights of former Jewish refugees, documenting human-rights violations against those who fled Arab countries, as well as their lost assets.
“The director of the justice group, Stanley Urman, said the summit was a landmark occasion.
“It is a commitment by Jewish communities in 14 countries on five continents to once and for all document the historical injustice perpetrated against Jews in Arab countries,” he said. “It is not just a theoretical and educational exercise; it is concrete.”
“Supported by the Israeli government, the plan also has the backing of Jewish communities in North and South America, Europe and Australia, with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and the World Sephardi Congress involved.
“We are delighted to play a key role in this crucial project,” said Henry Grunwald, president of British Jewry’s umbrella group, the Board of Deputies. “The plight of Jews from Arab countries is all too often a cause that we in the wider Jewish community forget, and we must act to educate and raise awareness of this important issue.”
“Organizers long have been unhappy that the issue of Palestinian refugees largely has eclipsed the question of the nearly 900,000 Jews displaced from Arab countries around the 1948 creation of the State of Israel. They want the Jewish refugees’ fate addressed as well in any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Some 600,000 of these refugees settled in Israel; by 2001 fewer than 8,000 Jews remained in Arab countries.
“The displaced Jews were recognized as refugees by the United Nations, but there was virtually no international response to their plight.
“The only way that the rights of former Jewish refugees can be asserted, organizers believe, is through an international advocacy campaign. They will launch the campaign in March with a special month of commemoration to highlight the torture, detention, loss of citizenship and seizure of property suffered by many Jewish refugees.
“This is a milestone in the effort to address the historic injustice to the Jewish communities in Arab countries,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We hope that this renewed, unified campaign will not only succeed in creating a comprehensive data bank, but will also put this issue on the agenda of the international community, which has neglected it for so long.”
“Data on the communal and individual assets lost in the mass displacements — incorporating public education, the collection of testimonies and programs to lobby media and governments — will be collected and preserved in a special unit established in Israel’s Ministry of Justice.
“Urman declined to speculate on the value of the Jewish refugees’ assets, insisting that the fundamental issue was justice rather than compensation. Redress might come in many forms, he said, from a commitment to protect and preserve historical Jewish sites in Arab lands to the endowment of chairs at universities to preserve Middle Eastern Jewish culture.
“In Iraq, the Jewish community numbered around 140,000 before being mostly dispersed in the 1950s. Like many others in his community, Maurice Shohet, president of Bene Naharayim, the Iraqi Jewish community in New York, abandoned his possessions when he fled Iraq with his family in 1970 at age 21.
“We left everything; we just wanted to save our lives,” he said.
“The combined assets Iraqi Jewry left behind now could be worth billions of dollars. When the U.S.-led war on Iraq began in 2003, the prospect of an elected, post-Saddam government offered some hope of restitution for the community.
“But “so far all we are hearing is the voice of the insurgents,” Shohet said.
“Shohet visited his home town of Baghdad last year, but he cut short his trip because of violence. With divisions rampant within Iraq society and the government still going through a transition period, compensation still seems far away.
“Yet that makes the issue more urgent, Urman said.
“With Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, there might also be a new impetus toward fresh talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
“If Gaza results in renewed commitment by the Palestinian Authority to advance serious peace negotiations, it will have moved us forward to a resolution of both the Arab and Jewish refugee issues. But it’s a big if,” Urman said. “The government of Israel and the Jewish world know they have the last and best opportunity to resolve this. If not now, when?”
See CRIF report here(French)
See UPJF report here (French)
This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.
Point of No Return
Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
One-stop blog on the Middle East's forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.