Month: July 2006

New centre documents North African Jewish life

A state-of-the-art Documentation Centre on the heritage of the North African Jews is opening in Jerusalem. (Via Information juive July/August 2006)

The centre, housed in the World Centre of Sephardi Judaism, will have a video and CD library, hundreds of recorded testimonies, documents, virtual exhibitions and educational resources on North African communities and the Jewish cycle of life.

World Centre for North African Judaism, Hamaaravim St, POB 32211, Jerusalem 94184. (Tel 972 2 623 58 11)

The invisible exiles speak out

Hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners were dispossessed over the past six decades-yet unlike the Palestinians, their exodus barely registered a blip on history’s radar screen. They are Jews and this is their story.

As told by Annette Kornblum (with Richard Greenberg) in B’nai Brith magazine. (With thanks: Israel B)

“It was the mid-1960s, and life was good for the Khedr family of Cairo, Egypt. Marc Khedr, then in his early 20s, was a well-paid technical drawing instructor, and his father was the co-owner of a major department store. Although the Khedrs were Jews, they mingled easily with their Christian and Muslim business partners, friends, and colleagues.

“And then on June 6, 1967, the same day that Egypt and Israel went to war, the lives of this prosperous and seemingly well-integrated family turned inside out. Marc and his father were rousted at 2 a.m. by Egyptian soldiers who ransacked their home. They soon found themselves in the back of a canopied truck that jounced over rutted roads in the darkness for hours. They had no idea where they were going or what to expect when they got there.

“The truck stopped, and there was wind,” remembers Marc Khedr, now 60, a retired auto repair shop franchisee who lives in San Francisco. “And you could see big gates. We had to jump, and the old ones were pushed down.” The Khedrs had arrived at Abu Zaabal, a prison two hours from Cairo, where they found themselves interned with 400 other Jewish political prisoners. Their crime: Being the wrong religion in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“The next morning, the inmates were forced to run in the courtyard as they were chased by an Egyptian soldier who swatted them with a belt. An 80-year-old man later fainted after hearing that his two sons had been forced to sodomize one another. The captives dined on stale bread laced with sand and cigarette butts, and slept in an overcrowded room with 60 other Jews, sometimes using the leathery bread as makeshift pillows. “Everyone had to sleep against each other, side by side, like sardines,” Khedr recalls. “If you got up to go to the john, you had to step over bodies and by the time you got back your place was taken.”

“Marc and his father were held in Abu Zabbel for eight months before being moved to Tora, another Egyptian prison camp. Altogether, they endured three years and one month of mistreatment in Egyptian gulags. (Khedr insists that the additional one month of captivity be noted.) In the meantime, they lost their property and their citizenship in a country that several generations of the family had called home for at least 150 years. Khedr’s horrific memories of persecution and dispossession are echoed by hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries-the forgotten refugees of the Middle East.

“When people speak of Middle Eastern refugees, everyone thinks immediately of the Palestinians,” says Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. “It’s not well known that there were more Jews displaced from Arab countries [856,000] since 1948 than Palestinian refugees [725,000], according to United Nations estimates. It’s time for this issue to assume its rightful place on the international agenda.”

“The 20th-century dislocation of Jews from Arab and other Middle Eastern countries has been nearly absolute. By the hundreds of thousands they left Libya, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, and Aden, as well as Iran (which is not technically an Arab country.) In some of these countries, no Jews remain, and by most accounts, fewer than 3,500 now reside in the entire Arab world. But it wasn’t always that way.

“The average Ashkenazi Jew might know that Warsaw was 40 percent Jewish before World War II, but he’d probably be surprised to learn that Baghdad was 40 percent Jewish, as well,” notes Eric Fusfield, director of legislative affairs for B’nai B’rith International. “The subject of Jewish life in the Arab world is still largely unfamiliar to Ashkenazim, who make up the majority of the American Jewish community, so the tragic story of the Jewish exodus from the Middle Eastern countries has received far too little attention in the United States.”

“The mass-exodus of Jews from Arab countries began immediately before the establishment of Israel in 1948 and escalated following subsequent Arab-Israeli wars and other political convulsions in the Middle East. The Jewish de-population eventually spilled over into neighboring non-Arab countries, primarily Iran, and continued through the deposition of the Shah in 1979.

“As Urman implies, the Jews’ saga is one-half of a Tale of Two Peoples, the co-protagonist being the Palestinians. Over the past six decades, the paths of these two groups have both coincided and diverged radically. If both arguably began mid-century as exiles, only the Palestinians retain that status. According to a highly elastic definition of the term “refugee” used by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), there are now roughly 4 million Palestinian refugees worldwide.

“In contrast, the dispossessed Jews of the Middle East have long since found homes elsewhere (although judging by the UNRWA standard-which applies only to Palestinians and includes the descendants of exiles-there would now be about 4 million Jews scattered throughout the world who could claim the status of refugees, according to Urman). Roughly two-thirds of the Jewish exiles from Arab countries moved to Israel, where today, more than half of the populace is descended from Jews who fled the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century. Others resettled in the United States, Europe, and Canada.”

Read article in full

‘Israeli attack on Iran’ could backfire on the Jews

It is probably no bad thing that the Marxist Monthly Review (with thanks: Albert) is not a mainstream American magazine, given the distortions and outright lies in this piece by Rostam Pouzal, warning Israel that an attack on Iran could backfire on the country’s Jews. Sadly, it is the bitter experience of all Jews expelled from Arab or Muslim countries that hostile populations sooner or later turn on them on the flimiest of pretexts, often with the encouragement of their governments.

Here is Pouzal’s article, followed by my comments:

“One of the neocon myths that has gained currency post-9/11 asserts, referring to opponents of Israel and the United States, that “they are against who we are, not what we do.” Hence, the argument concludes, there is nothing we can do to diminish their antagonism. A variant of this fiction is that Iran‘s Islamic elite is simply anti-Semitic and, given a chance, would lob nuclear weapons at Israel to kill Jews. But Tehran‘s record over the past quarter-century demonstrates no distinct pattern of animosity to Jews.”

The author is making a spurious distinction between Jews and Zionists. Martin Luther-King once said: “Antizionism is discrimination against Jews, my friend, because they are Jews. In short, it is anti-Semitism.”

“Sadly, this may change soon for Iran‘s Jewish community of 25,000, if Israel‘s frequently hinted threats of attacking Iran become reality.”

The fact that Iran’s proxy Hezbollah began the present hostilities against Israel does not count.

“Iran‘s hostility toward the Jewish state, including Tehran‘s sponsorship of Hezbollah retaliations against it, is a result of the Israel‘s unique role as the main U.S. proxy in the Middle East. Washington has interfered in Iran ever since the CIA overthrew a popular prime minister and reinstated the hated Shah in 1953. After the coup, the U.S., and soon also Israel, trained the monarch’s forces of repression until he was toppled again in 1979. Now, the duo support the exiled remnants of his administration, presumably in a bid to re-establish the old order. The most active center of these expatriates for regime change, Los Angeles, is also home to over a dozen television stations that beam Israel-friendly programming to Iran round the clock, probably with U.S. funding.”

“Nevertheless, there is scant evidence that the Islamic Republic, despite its share of human rights outrages, targets Jews. Years of legal and diplomatic wrangling over the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina failed to prove involvement by the ayatollahs.”

There is firm evidence that Hezbollah was responsible for this atrocity.

“Ironically, every anti-Semitic remark I have heard from my compatriots has come from modern Iranians who share my skepticism of Islam and the ruling clergy. This is not a coincidence, as the faithful among Muslim Iranians are commanded to tolerate religions “of the book” that predated Islam.”

As long as they know their place as inferior ‘dhimmis’.

“In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, an archenemy of Israel, personally assured a delegation of Jewish Iranians upon his return from exile that he guaranteed the minority’s safety. Blind faith in Islam — if that’s what inspires policy in Iran — has ironically protected Iranian Jews from exceptional mistreatment.”

The author does not explain why 80,000 Jews came to flee after Ayatollah Khomeini took power.

“This was especially true following the Revolution of 1979, when Iranian Jews could have faced grievous popular wrath. The community had endangered itself by befriending the Shah, fitting a pattern described in Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State. It was also thought that the deposed Shah had owed his backing in Washington to “the Jewish Lobby.” Nevertheless, Muslim and secular opposition groups bore the brunt of post-Revolutionary violence, and Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians were largely spared by Islamic authorities and vigilantes.

Astonishingly, in a country where Islamic credentials are indispensable for political advancement and Israel is widely held in contempt, election campaigns at all levels have totally abstained from denouncing Jews.”

…Only Zionists (see quote from Martin Luther-King above) .. . and the Holocaust.

“Other constituencies that are thought to have foreign benefactors — those who would liberalize women’s dress codes, opposition press, and the Baha’i faith, for example — have not been similarly exempted from partisan politicking.”

An outrageous statement.

“Sometimes I think [Iranian Muslims] are kinder to the Jews than they are to themselves,” Knight-Ridder reporter Barbara Demick was told at a Tehran synagogue in 1997. “If we are gathered in a house, and the family is having a ceremony with wine or the music is playing too loud, if they find out we are Jews, they don’t bother us so much.” Demick described the head of a local Jewish community as being worried “less about persecution than about the faltering Iranian economy.” Similarly, in 1998, the nursing director at Tehran‘s Jewish hospital told The Christian Science Monitor‘s Michael Theodoulou: “Our position here is not as bad as people abroad may think. We practice our religion freely, we have all our festivals. . . .” Theodoulou then wrote: “The most pressing complaint is that, despite many petitions to parliament, [government-funded] Jewish schools must open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.”

“According to Roya Hakakian, the Jewish Iranian author of Journey From the Land of No, “There are signs in many parts of the world that attest to the rising tide of anti-Semitism. But Iran is another story.” Jewish businesses, synagogues, and cemeteries have not come under attack in cleric-ruled Iran nearly as often as they have in countries friendly to Israel, such as Turkey, France, and Germany. “Tehran is still home to the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel,” adds Hakakian, who sought and received asylum in the West for reasons unrelated to her Jewish identity. Even though there were instances of harassment of Jews in the chaos and war that followed the Revolution of 1979, it is not clear if Jews who left Iran by the thousands were fleeing discrimination. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims also left Iran in search of a better life or more freedom.”

This statement would probably come as a surprise to Hakakian herself, who has written about Iran’s tradition of religious bigotry and her experience of anti-Semitism.

“The relative safety of Iran‘s Jews is rarely mentioned in the United States, as any indication that Jews may feel safe in countries unfriendly to Israel is not welcome here. According to political science professor Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, Israeli (and US ) foreign policy objectives depend on emphasizing Jewish victimhood.”

Ah, Finkelstein. An unimpeachable, neutral source.

“Senior investigative correspondent Mike Wallace of CBS’ 60 Minutes, himself Jewish, has been vilified ever since he reported in 1975 that Jewish Syrians did not receive unusual mistreatment.

Demick wrote in 1997: “Inside Iran, Jews say that they frequently receive alarmed telephone calls and letters from relatives in the United States concerned about their well-being, but that they themselves do not feel physically endangered. Their major complaint is the inability to visit family in Israel, and what they say is inadequate funding for Hebrew schools.”

“Even the hawkish Jerusalem Post reported last year that some Iranian immigrants in Israel were packing to return to Iran, where “Jews . . . live very well.” Said one, “If you have problems there, [Muslim Iranians] help you — and they know you are Jewish. . . . But here [in Israel], everyone is looking out for himself. You can’t trust anybody.” Another added, “I thought that here it was good. I thought that all the Jews leave their doors unlocked and no one stole. But the Israeli people are not cultured. They are rude and disrespectful. In Iran people trust each other and when they give their word they keep it. Here you need a lawyer to get anyone to keep their promise.” Haggai Ram, an Iran specialist at Ben Gurion University, agreed with this report in a conversation with me at this year’s conference of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.

“In a rare exception, thirteen Iranian Jews were tried in 1999 with several Muslims on charges of spying for Israel, which could carry the death penalty. All were released two years later and none punished further. But news about certain Jewish Americans passing U.S. state secrets to Israel have not been used in Iran to discredit Jewish Iranians. This is remarkable, because Iran‘s national security would be compromised a great deal more than that of the United States by a mole working for Israel.

The author assumes the 13 Jews were all guilty as charged.

“Nor have Israel‘s recent threats to attack Iran led any wild ayatollah to suggest rounding up Iranian Jews, as the U.S. once did with its Japanese citizens. One is tempted to conclude that Iran‘s Muslim “zealots” can distinguish between the Jewish state and the Jewish people. The same cannot be said about Israel‘s government or its American defenders.

“Back during the 1960s and 70s, Tel Aviv’s rationale for backing the Shah was that doing so bought goodwill for Jewish Iranians. By the same logic, an Israeli attack on Iran can be detrimental to the minority. I hope that Israel‘s leaders know privately that “they hate who we are, not what we do” is a fabrication and they do not put Iranian Jews at risk with an attack on Iran. The tolerance of the Muslim faithful in Iran may not be infinite.”

Hereis the US State Department Report 2005 on religious freedom in Iran.

Visit this site on the Jews of Libya

Anyone interested in the Jews of Libya is strongly encouraged to visit Armando Nahum’s blog, The forgotten Jews. This attractively-designed site contains interesting information about Nahum’s own family and community. There are some wonderful old photographs showing Tripoli, its synagogues and glimpses of family and communal life.

The historysection gives an eloquent and concise summary of the final decades of the Libyan Jewish community, now extinct:

“In 1911, 350 years of Ottoman rule ended and the Italian colonial period began. At the time, Libya’s Jewish population numbered 20,000. The next quarter century was to prove a golden age for Libya’s Jews. By 1931, nearly 25,000 Jews lived in Libya. The introduction of anti-Jewish legislation in Fascist Italy was extended to Libya in 1936. By 1940, Libya became the scene of heavy fighting between the Axis and British armies.

Pan-Islamic and anti-Jewish propaganda, fueled by the Arab League and coupled with the rise of Libyan nationalism, led to Muslim rioting in 1945 in the Tripolitania province. Decades of reasonably cordial relations with Muslims came to an end. Jews began to consider “Aliyah”, immigration to Palestine, and by 1952, 33,000 Libyan Jews had emigrated to Israel.

In December 1951, Libya became an independent state ruled by King Idris, who had been the leader of Cyrenaica province. The 6,000 Jews who remained did so for a variety of reasons: ties to the land and culture, age, infirmity, non-transferable business interests, quality of life, indecision, missed opportunities, faith in the country’s leadership.

Notwithstanding constitutional guarantees, restrictions on the Jewish community were gradually imposed. As early as 1952, Jews were forbidden to return home If they visited Israel, and access to Libyan passports became virtually impossible. Few Libyan Jews were granted citizenship in the newly independent Libyan state.

In1953, Libya joined the Arab League and increasingly echoed its anti-Israel rhetoric. All contact with Israel was proscribed and in 1958, the Tripolitania Jewish Community Board was forcibly dissolved and the authorities appointed a Muslim to administer the affairs of the community.

Ten years after the independence, Jews could no longer vote, hold public office, serve in the army, obtain Libyan passports, purchase new property, acquire majority ownership in any new business, or supervise their own communal affairs. Yet the Jews remained. Their daily lives were, to a substantial degree, largely unaffected by these prohibitions. Their roots in Libya were deep, their attachment to the country strong, and their daily lives unhindered. They came to resign themselves, almost to take for granted, their political powerlessness and physical vulnerability. Without specific provocation, it would have been difficult to just get up and leave for an uncertain future.

As late as January 1967, Tripoli’s Jews felt sufficiently confident of their position to plan the construction of a new synagogue in the city center. But in the ensuing months, growing tension throughout the Middle East and North Africa was fueled by Egyptian President Nasser’s provocative actions against the Jewish state and fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric. Libya’s Jews hoped they would somehow remain untouched by events beyond their country’s borders, but the outbreak of war in the Middle East in June of that year dispelled any such hopes.”

Is the Middle East map about to change?

Is this the end of the Sunni Arab age, and the dawning of a new era of minority states? asks Lee Smith in the New Standard

“Arabs and Western Arabists typically describe Israel as a European invention stuck right in the center of a region where it does not belong, but this is ignoring the fact that almost half of the Jewish state’s population originated not in Europe, or Russia, or even Brooklyn, but in the Middle East. The Jews belong here as much as the their Middle Eastern minorities do, the Christians, Shiites, Alawites, and Kurds. The “difference is that many of these minorities, unlike the Jews in Israel, have signed “on, willingly or not, to the triumphalist Sunni Arab narrative: We are all Arabs. It seems as though eventually this fiction will collapse and some of these minorities will, like Israel, want their own states.

“For decades now “Arabs” in the Middle East have feared Washington’s ostensible designs to divide and weaken them. (Despite the obvious fact that America is working hard to see that Iraq, for instance, does not break into three parts.) But a region-wide reshuffling may be in the cards anyway. What might that look like?

“Perhaps Washington is most anxious about its NATO ally Turkey and how it would deal with a separate Kurdish state. But the time may be coming when the Kurds will weigh their choices and might prefer fighting for an independent Kurdistan to defending themselves against their Iraqi compatriots.

“Whether or not Israel manages to kill Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon may be immaterial. If his catastrophic foreign policy loses the Shiite population, the political gains Hezbollah’s arms may have earned it over the last 20 years could evaporate. Who is to say that the 150,000 refugees now in Syria will return to Lebanon, rather than head east to Iraq, where Shiites are ascendant?

“Perhaps Syria will return to the days of its ancient Umayyad glory with an unquestionably Sunni Arab empire, and the minority Alawites will move to the Syrian coast, an escape hatch designed ages ago by Hafez al-Asad. The Mediterranean then would be lined with a strip of regional minorities turned toward the West, Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Jews.

Maybe the answer to the region’s violence, the refusal of its citizens to accept difference, is in these fragments.”

Read article in full


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

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forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.