Year: 2007

When silence is golden for emigration operations

Yossi Melman of Haaretz adds his voice to the mutterings of disapproval at the high-profile exodus of 40 Iranian Jews to Israel, claiming such operations endanger the remaining community. (However, the opposite could be true: directing the media spotlight at the Jews still in Iran might be the best way to guarantee their safety. )

“The unnecessary media to-do surrounding the arrival of 40 Jews from Iran last week might harm immigration to Israel and the 28,000 Jews still in Iran. The Jewish Agency, the military censor and the government agency who contributed to these festivities, or who did not prevent them, might be sorry afterward.

“At the moment the response from Tehran has been minor. The leaders of Iran’s Jewish community, obviously on the instructions of their government, quickly denounced the efforts of the “Zionist regime” to entice them to immigrate. But people familiar with the Iranian regime’s behavior patterns say it will be difficult for them to act as if nothing has happened regarding an act they perceive as a callous Israeli provocation.

“Immigration to Israel from the Arab countries, Iran and the Soviet bloc became a key issue for all Israeli governments. For this reason two espionage organizations were put in charge of it: the Mossad (via the Bitzur unit) in Arab countries, and Nativ in Eastern Europe.

“Bitzur and Nativ organized impressive but secret immigration operations over the years. They were assisted by Jewish organizations like the American Joint Distribution Committee in bringing Jews to Israel from Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan – and according to foreign sources, from Iran as well.

“Their methods were essentially similar. Preparatory work was done in the community. Arrangements with the local government were preferable, so international pressure and pressure by Jewish organizations was used, and if necessary money changed hands. Only when an accommodation could not be reached to bring Jews out were other means invoked, such as smuggling them out. The Israeli press, and in many cases the foreign press as well, were in on the secret and knew how to keep it, recognizing that any report on the details might cost lives.

“The leaders of Muslim countries are ready to let Jews out as long as this does not become public knowledge. The moment details are leaked, their adversaries accuse them of strengthening the Zionist state and its army. That was the case when news of the immigration from Sudan leaked, and the country’s president, Jaafar Nimeiri, had to fend off accusations by his opponents about cooperation with the Zionist enemy.

“The Jews of Iran enjoy reasonable treatment. They have an organized community life and are free to conduct their religious rituals and businesses. Like most Iranian citizens, they are also allowed to go abroad, and when they return they are not asked what they did on their vacation. It may be assumed that the Iranian authorities know that most of them have relatives in Israel.

“In other words, as long as things remain quiet and do not appear on the public agenda, the Iranian authorities can come to terms with the situation. When the relationship between Iranian Jews and Iran becomes vociferous and public, they must respond. That is what happened when Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews announced in 2007 that it would pay tens of thousands of dollars to every Iranian Jew who came to live in Israel. Iranian spokesmen responded angrily and the heads of the Jewish community had to distance themselves from the rabbi’s initiative.”

Read article in full

JTA News article

Alexandria’s Cecil Hotel could be test case

A major feature called ‘It was their home’ by Adi Schwartz has just appeared in Haaretz (Hebrew). It focuses on the case of the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria, where Winston Churchil once stayed. The hotel owners, the Metzger family, lived on the first floor.

The article tries to set the case of the Cecil Hotel in the context of the dispossession of close on one million Jews from Arab countries, and quotes the words of Irwin Cotler, Canadian ex-Justice minister, as well as those of Cairo-born Professor Ada Aharoni.

Here is an abstract (with thanks: Iraqijews):

In 1956 the Jewish owners of Cecil Hotel in Alexandria were expelled from Egypt. They left with one suitcase.

This year, after a 50-year struggle, the Egyptian government agreed to compensate them. The hotel’s owner, Albert Metzger, died in Tanzania in the 1960s and his son Chris continued the struggle to recover the hotel. In 1996, the Egyptian Supreme Court in Cairo ruled that the hotel and all revenues accruing over the years belong to the Metzgers.

But only in June 2007 did the Egyptian government propose a deal whereby the government would agree to implement the court ruling but would immediately buy back the hotel from the Metzgers.

They are still deliberating about the price.

Read article in full (Hebrew)

Publicity might endanger Jews remaining in Iran

The recent arrival of 40 olim from Iran was well publicised in the world’s media – even attracting Arab interest. But could the publicity endanger those Jews still living in Iran? The Jerusalem Post reports.

“Israel’s decision to publicize the arrival of a group of 40 Iranian immigrants Tuesday was intended to send a message to Iranian Jewry that they are wanted here, and that if emigration from Iran were one day prohibited, no one could say they did not have a chance to come to Israel, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

“The decision to publicly reveal the Iranian Jews’ arrival – something that has been kept secret in the past – was made in consultation between the Jewish Agency and other governmental bodies to send a message to the remaining Iranian Jews that the sooner they decide to leave Iran the better, the Post was informed.

“Not everyone, however, was happy with the decision. One source involved with the Iranian Jewish community expressed concern that publicizing the group’s arrival, at a time when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was saying that Israel’s Jews should be sent to Canada or Alaska, could complicate matters for those 25,000 Jews still in Iran.

“According to this source, the decision had less to do with sending a message to Iran’s Jews, and more to do with gaining positive publicity for the Jewish Agency and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the organization granting a $10,000 gift to each of the immigrants.

“Another source said there was concern that the publicity could lead to an increase in surveillance of the Iranian Jewish community. The source said the publication also served to counter recent statements made by Iranian Jews declaring how good life was for the Jewish community there.

Read article in full

Meanwhile, the Iranian regime has reacted by marching out the community’s leaders to do their PR damage control: see Karmel Melamed’s post

Did Israel cause the rift between Jews and Arabs?

Did Jews and Arabs live in harmony before Israel caused a rift between them? Or was it the other way around, with Arab dictatorships needing the Jews and Israel to be their ‘whipping boy’? Here is one reader’s view, with my reply below. All are welcome to join the debate.

Dear Point of no Return

Your blog is new to me, though I come from an old Mizrahi family. I myself was born in Haleb (Aleppo), into a family that had lived there for almost 200 years, while my mother came from Haifa. One of my earliest memories is witnessing the burning of the synagogue in Aleppo, as at the time we lived opposite. We had to leave, and eventually ended in England.

I think it’s unfortunate that your blog presents only one view of this history: as you state in your Introduction that `Israel is the legitimate expression of the self-determination of an oppressed, indigenous, Middle Eastern people’. In my view, it was the creation of the state of Israel that caused the rift between the various communities in the Middle East, which had lived there mostly in harmony for centuries.

Your blog tries to decry the `myth of a Golden Age’ in the Middle East before the state of Israel. Whatever tensions and conflicts between communities there may have been, there were no pogroms, and certainly no holocaust. Both my parents told me stories of generally harmonious relations with their Arab neighbours.

Zionism as an ideology originated in eastern Europe, I think you must admit. The long struggle of Mizrahi Jews to gain anything approaching recognition in Israel testifies to the European colonial origins of the state of Israel. This was evident to me when I visited Israel as a boy, already in 1953, with my mother to visit her extended family, and saw through her eyes what was becoming of the Palestine she had known.

Even if you don’t agree with this, I think it’s a valid viewpoint held by very many Sephardi. Why can’t we have some genuine debate about this crucial issue?

Sol Picciotto


Dear Sol

I too come from an old Mizrahi family. (Funnily enough, my ancestor also came from Aleppo, but moved to Baghdad in 1699.)

They were the most Arabised of Jews. My family was prosperous and had many Arab friends. However, their recollections are quite different to yours. They recall the 1941 pogrom which killed 179 Jews and that permanent feeling of insecurity so well captured in Albert Memmi’s essay, “Who is an Arab Jew?”

One cannot deny that, as Memmi says, Jews did suffer from pogroms throughout their history among the Arabs. Let the ‘golden age’ myth not blind one to the fact that fundamentalist Muslims caused Maimonides to flee Spain. In Syria, there were dozens of blood libels* during the 19th century.

Of course there were good times and I know your family played an important part. But there were also bad times. I agree that the Jews suffered the repercussions of Arab hostility to Israel. But I happen to believe that the Jews would have been ‘ethnically cleansed’ in any case, due to the pressures of Arab nationalism, as were most of the non-Muslim minorities.

You are right that Zionism’s origins are European. But then Arab nationalism too is a European import, and the 22 Arab states carved out of the Ottoman empire by the British and the French are nothing if not artificial.

When things got unbearable for them, your family was lucky enough to find refuge in England. As was mine. But would England have taken in the vast majority of destitute Mizrahi Jewish refugees, the Jews from Yemen and the Jews from Northern Iraq? Israel was ready to welcome them in and give them full citizens’ rights. At least in their own state, for the first time, they would be masters of their own fate.

I’m surprised that your mother found 1953 Israel more European than the Palestine she had known. If you visited today you would find the country much more Middle Eastern than it was. Let’s not forget – half the Jewish population are Mizrahi.


*Account of the 1840 Damascus affair, in which Isaac Picciotto was one of the 16 accused Jews

After long dispute, Kfar Shalem residents evicted

The residents of the southern Tel-Aviv neighbourhood of Kfar Shalem – most of who came to Israel from Yemen – finally lost their fight to stay in their homes. It is not clear from this Haaretz article by Meron Rapoport whether they are receiving any compensation.

“Police evacuated roughly 30 families from the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kfar Shalem Tuesday morning, after a long legal dispute over land slated for a housing project.

“The disputed section of the neighborhood lies between Mahal Street and Moshe Dayan Street. A bulldozer was brought in to begin demolition.

“Dozens of social activists were at the scene protesting the evacuation. Police arrested a total of seven people – two protesters and five residents.

“Hadash MK Dov Khenin called on Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai to stop the evacuation immediately. “It’s impossible to accept the expulsion of people from apartments they have lived in for years for the benefit of real estate entrepreneurs. The mayor must remember his duty to the city’s residents,” he said.”

Read article in full

Kfar Shalem Yemenites win stay of eviction

Kfar Shalem: Gush Katif without the compensation ?(Jerusalem Post)


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