Month: October 2005

Arab-American museum features Jews

According to an article of 24 October in the New York Times, the 900,000 ‘Arab’ Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa 50 years ago have earned themselves a place in the new Arab American National Museum at Dearborn, Michigan, together with a photo of the Tunisian synagogue in Djerba (via JIMENA Voice).

This is progress – at least there is some acknowledgement that Jews once lived in these countries.

But as Edward Rothstein writes, there is little attempt to explain why Arab immigrants moved to America, nor to distinguish between successive waves of Christian and Muslims. Many Christians left because they were persecuted: 66 percent of the Arab American community is composed of Christians, but out of deference to the Museum’s sponsors perhaps – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Dubai – the Museum gives the impression that they are – and have always been – one big happy Arab family.

Read article in full

The last of the Tunisian Mohicans

Bernard Allali is President of Tunisian Jewish Arts and Popular Traditions, an organisation dedicated to preserving the Tunisian Jewish heritage. Here’s an extract from an interview he gave recently to CRIF, the representative body for French Jewry.

Q:The French protectorate came into force after the signing of the Treaty of Bardo in 1881. Did France hasten the westernisation of Tunisian Jewry which began in the second half of the 19th century? What was the Jews’ legal status under the Protectorate and how did it differ from that of their Algerian neighbours?
The Jews of Tunisia welcomed the French with much hope. The French protectorate marked the end of their dhimmi status. They threw themselves into westernisation, which would open the gates to knowledge and freedom. In a few decades, the Jews left the Ghetto and joined the most desirable professions – as doctors, scientists, lawyers, teachers. Most Jews were Tunisian citizens under French protection. Theirs was a very different status from that of the Algerian Jews, who under the Decret Cremieux (1870) became French citizens.

Q: Under the Protectorate, did Jews and Muslims share a number of characteristics (language, habitat, social condition?)
A:The Jews were in Tunisia for millenia. There is proof of their presence in archaeology and epigraphy. The Jewish necropolis of Gammarth and the Naro synagogue at Hammam-If date back to the early centuries of the Christian era. The Arab Muslim conquest came later. The Jews adapted themselves to the new civilisation, creating a language – Tunisian Judeo-Arabic. Under the protectorate they opted for westernisation but were still close (to the Arabs) in language, cuisine and music. But they slowly left the alleys of the ghetto for the European city. Their social conditions became better than that of the Muslims.

Q: Under what circumstances did the Jews leave?
It happened in stages. Israel’s creation sent shockwaves and people thought it was a sign from heaven that the ancient vow ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ should become a reality. The country’s independence and the automatic arabisation of society, administrative and economic hassles, the dissolution of the Rabbinic courts and Jewish community institutions, the turning of the Jewish cemetery into a public park, all this worried and frightened the Jews who began to leave for France and Israel. In 1961 the ‘Bizerte affair’ (war between France and Tunisia over the town’s naval base) caused more Jews to emigrate. Due to the repercussions of the Israeli-Arab conflict leading to the burning of Tunis’s Great synagogue in 1967, a community of 120,000 has dwindled to 2,000 today.

Q:How do you view their departure in restrospect?
The Jews were victims of the pitiless wind of history. Independence was right and inevitable. But it happened at the expense of the Jews. They were pushed into leaving. Half went to France, half to Israel, some to the USA. By and large they have been very successful in the countries in which they settled. They are still trying to keep memories of their homeland alive.

Q: Is the Tunisian Jewish community looking back on its past, exile, arrival in France or Israel and integration?
Unfortunately the younger generations are not interested in their parents’ Tunisian Jewish past – well, not with the same passion or warmth. My generation is the last of the Mohicans of the Tunisian saga. We have turned over a new leaf. All that remains are the summer trips to the country of jasmin and sea breezes.

Q: Do you think Tunisian Jews have an unduly rosy picture of the past, magnifying those periods of peaceful understanding between Jews and Muslims and airbrushing out the darker moments?
Yes, undoubtedly. Many Tunisian Jews only remember the Protectorate years when their life was particularly pleasant. They tend to cast a veil over the difficult years that followed independence. Most importantly, they are ignorant of the centuries of oppression which their ancestors went through.

Q: What’s your dearest wish?
That there should be peace between Israel and the Palestinians and full diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Tunis. Direct charter flights between Tel Aviv and Djerba, resurrected synagogues and the Jewish community as it used to be.

Read article in full(French)

‘Iraqi Jews are nearly all Arabs’

Having nothing better to do on a train journey, Iraqi Muslim bloggerWafaa’ Al-Natheema decided to write a complaint to Nissim Rejwan about his book The last Jews in Baghdad, with its introduction by Joel Benin, published in 2004. (With thanks: Iraqijews)

Wafaa’ did not like the fact that Joel (who Wafaa’ thinks is a she) and Nissim (or ‘Naseem’ as she pointedly arabises the Iraqi-Jewish author’s name) insist on referring to Arabic-speaking Iraqi Jews, alienated by the pan-Arabism of the majority. Wafaa’s view is that ‘Iraqi Jews are nearly entirely Arabs’.

If the Iraqi Jews are Arabs of the Jewish religion, then Wafaa’ can take pride in their achievements as Iraqis. But as Arabs, they cannot belong to the ‘Jewish people’. Therefore they have no right, nor no need, to be Zionists. So many Arabs seem to take this line, but Wafaa’ is a well-educated Iraqi who has lived in the USA since 1980.

It gets worse. One realises how deeply Wafaa’ is in denial when she attempts to negate that Arab Sunnis are in a minority in Iraq.

And the world is flat.

See discussion here

The Egypt that I remember

More and more Jews from Arab countries are writing their memoirs. Invariably, their childhood is idyllic, but brutally cut short by events beyond their control. Here’s a short extract translated from an article in French by Sam Mezrahi from Cairo. (With thanks: Moise Rahmani)

“It was more than 50 years ago and I am remembering it, but for a long period I tried not to remember it. Not to look back, but to go forward, rebuild myself after the exodus…Forget a past that had turned its back on me.

“Make a future for oneself, to try to put down new roots, while erasing the old ones, so as not to fall apart. Most of all, not to stumble and re-open sentimental wounds – you never know how deep the scars will be.

“Here I am on the threshold of my 60th year and I feel brave enough to abandon myself to the gentle nostalgia of my childhood. I thought my memories would be blurred but they are coming back to me in a random whirl of smells and sounds and feelings – like a flashback which gradually comes into focus.

The author reminisces about his visits to the Heliopolis Sporting Club where he learned to swim, the assortment of goodies sold by the street vendors, the incomparably flavourful dates, yellow melons, Alphonso mangoes, pomegranates, grapes of every hue, apricots, the vegetables the dishes, the desserts, the street theatre and entertainers. He recalls the first time he swam across the Nile and back, bathing in the sea along with gentle dolphins. Although educated in French or English, the Jewish children spoke Arabic with their Egyptian nannies.

“The Egyptians got along well with the other communities – the Christian Copts, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, Turks who used to run the Ottoman empire, Syrian Muslims or Catholics, Lebanese, and Sudanese who used to do the menial jobs an”d the few English or French stationed in Egypt after having fought over the Egyptian protectorate with Muhammed Ali and who then backed Montgomery against Rommel in the Second World War.

“The Jews had their own Quarter, the Haret-el Yahoud but did not stand out and mingled with everyone else. Differences were accepted. They were not a provocation but served to enrich life. Each borrowed customs, culture or traditions from the other. After a death I remember my parents would say Rabaina Kebir.

Egypt was then the cultural lighthouse of the Arab-Muslim world. Its films, musicals, novels and plays spread all over the Arabic-speaking world. Its actors were famous well beyond Egypt’s boundaries.

“…And then we were taken by surprise. The sorry Suez campaign in 1956 brutally put an end to the good life.(…) Nasser expelled most of the non-Muslims who had lived there for generations, confiscating their property without notice, without compensation.

“Time has passed and with hindsight one can see these events as inevitable, written in the stars. In spite of their brutality we were lucky not to have been subject to the atrocities all too common nowadays. Hamdoullalah!

“I still have tender feelings for the Egyptian people, who generally-speaking were loyal, never bloodthirsty and non-violent except when they were pushed into violence by false prophets. Nevertheless I remember crying on the Swissair refugee plane that took my family to Geneva, when the airhostess gave me my first glass of exile water, fizzy and unpleasant for a child of ten. I remember thinking,” everything is about to change – even drinking water will be an ordeal.”

“Soon I will be sixty and in life’s journey I was a fascinated but reluctant passenger, at the mercy of wind and sail, knowing neither the destination nor the port, on my way to the way, travelling for the sake of travelling.

Read article in full

Saddam’s victims rejoice

The sight of Saddam Hussein in the dock was greeted with satisfaction by the sister of a young Jew hanged in Basra in 1969 on charges of spying for Israel, Orly Halpern writes in the Jerusalem Post:

“For the 50-year-old mother of three, the trial of Saddam helps the healing of a painful wound. “The trial is the closure of a circle,” she said. “The closure began when Saddam was caught in a hole, humiliated, by US forces.”

“The pain began in 1967. Following the Arabs’ devastating defeat in the Six Day War, Iraq’s 5,000 remaining Jews suffered increasingly oppressive restrictions from a government who suspected them of dual loyalties. Hanuka’s family and other Jews were prohibited from leaving the country.

“The situation became far worse the following year when the Ba’athists, led by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein, took power through a bloodless military coup. Within a few months, security forces led by Saddam had rounded up scores of people on charges of spying. Fourteen were sentenced to death. Their public hanging was a holiday, and bus and train rides were free.

Read article in full


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