Month: April 2007

An Egyptian wishes a Happy Passover to ‘Arab’ Jews

This article by an Egyptian author wishing the Jews a Happy Passover is to be applauded: it is honest enough to admit that Jews, deeply rooted in the Middle East for millennia, were cruelly forced to leave Arab lands in modern times. (The author’s reference to ‘Jewish Arabs’ is, however, not historically accurate, given that the Jewish presence preceded the Arab invasion by a good 1,000 years.) Excerpts from MEMRI (With thanks Ida, Lily):

In an article on the Arab reformist websites Aafaq (April 9, 2007) and Middle East Transparent (April 8, 2007), Egyptian author Hisham Al-Tuhi rejects the view that Muslims should not convey holiday greetings to non-Muslims on their holidays, reviews the history of Jews in Arab countries in the 20th century, and wishes Jews still living in Arab countries a happy Passover.

“In my previous article, I gave holiday greetings to the Afghanis and the Kurds on the Norouz holiday, [as well as] the Egyptian Baha’is. The letters came in from the caves: a flood of racism, hatred, ugliness, and abuse.

“This is neither out of the ordinary nor new. Here, it is only to be expected.

“The strange thing is that most of these letters… came from the caves of the Saudi Kingdom and the ‘infidel’ Western countries, [in] Europe, Canada, and the U.S.! (…)

“Many of the sons of the Arab Middle East lived for more than 1,000 years as Jews, more than 1,000 years before the advent of Christianity, and before the advent of Islam.

“Today, many of the Arab Christians are the descendants of these Jews. Their ancestors were Jews, even if they curse them and say: ‘They crucified Christ!’

“And many of the Arab Muslims today are the descendants of Jews. Their ancestors were Jews, even if they curse them and say: ‘Monkeys and pigs!'”

“In Egypt in 1917, there were 59,581 Jewish Egyptians – Egyptians in flesh and in blood. They took part, together with the other Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, in the Egyptian liberal renaissance (nahdha)…

“In politics, there was Musa Qattawi, who was a member of the Egyptian Legislative Assembly, finance minister, and then transportation minister in the 1925 government. He founded the Aswan railroad line and the West Delta tramway…

“There was also Yousef Qattawi, head of the Egyptian Sephardi Council, and member of the Draft Committee for the 1923 Constitution…

“Others were members in the negotiations committee for the abolition of the capitulations [Ottoman-era accords that granted special rights to foreigners]. And then there was the lawyer Zaki ‘Uraybi, member of the Draft Committee for the 1956 Constitution.

“[Jews] founded the Salt and Soda Company… the Egyptian Petrol Company… the Rice-hulling Company… the Egyptian Real Estate Bank… the Family Bank… the Commercial Bank… and ‘Rico’ the Jewish Egyptian participated with Tal’at Harb in founding Bank Misr…

“In the arts, there were creators and performers who took part in the revival of music and singing and in the launch of Egyptian cinema and theater… For those who don’t know, Ya’qub Sanu’a, the Jewish Egyptian, was one of those who raised the slogan: ‘Egypt for the Egyptians!’…

“On October 25, 1952, following the military revolt, President Muhammad Naguib visited the temple of the Qaraite Jews to give felicitations to the Jewish Egyptians on Yom Kippur.

“In 1956, there were 60,000 Jewish Egyptians, who lived as Egyptians, in soul and in blood. Approximately 20,000 of them were forced to emigrate between 1956 and 1961…

“Their money was seized, and those of them who remained after the nationalization of 1961 were deported. Many of their homes and properties were distributed to army officers, after the renaissance ended and the eternal leader [i.e. Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasser] came to despotically rule Egypt.

“Today, in 2007, there are no more than 300 of the Jewish Egyptians left…”

“In Iraq, Nuri Al-Sa’id gave a speech at the 1939 Round Table Conference in London, in which he said: ‘200,000 Jews live in Iraq, the majority of them in Baghdad.’ In 1950, they began to be forced to emigrate. In 1976, there remained of them fewer than 400 Jewish Iraqis.

“In Morocco, the number of Jewish Moroccans is estimated to have been 280,000 in 1950. Today, in 2007, the approximately 5,000 Jewish Moroccans live in fear of suicide bombers.

“On May 16, 2003, their possessions and cemeteries were subjected to a wave of bombings, which left 45 dead. In September 2003, one of them was killed in a stabbing, and another was killed in a shooting.

“In Tunisia, more than 3,000 Jewish Tunisians live in freedom, since the presidency of the late President Habib Bourguiba, who gave one of them, Albert Bessis, the position of minister in one of [his] governments.

“Nonetheless, they were not safe and sound -safe neither from the enmity of the Islamist Nahdha movement, nor from the suicide bombings. On April 2002, the oldest Jewish temple in Africa, which was constructed in 566 B.C. on the island of Jerba, was bombed, leaving 20 dead.”

“Despite this – despite the nationalization, the expulsion, the banishment, the bombings, the racism, the enmity, and the marginalization; despite their being reviled with the ugliest abuse in the prayers of the Muslims, in all of the Arab mosques and in some of the churches; despite their being called infidels and cursed, and being accused of treason, in the books, the newspapers, and the TV stations, [both] governmental and private – despite all this, they still live in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, and in other countries of the Arab Middle East!

“And they still celebrate their holidays in silence, forgotten. And they still passionately love their countries who treated them cruelly, and will not accept any substitute [for them].

“Is not the least we can say to them: Jewish Arabs – happy Passover!?”

Read article in full

Jews of Libya home movie hits the big time

A new documentary by Vivienne Roumani-Denn, The Last Jews of Libya, began life as a home video for children’s birthday parties. It is showing in May at a prestigious New York film festival, TriBeCA (see trailer). Report in the New York Post (with thanks: Heather):

“April 22, 2007 — After the birth of his second child, UBS media banker Aryeh Bourkoff bought a digital camera and asked his mother to document their family’s history for his kids to see as they grow up.

“Turns out the resulting video, “The Last Jews of Libya,” will be seen by a lot more people than Bourkoff’s kids. The film was accepted into this week’s TriBeCa Film Festival as a documentary feature, earning Bourkoff’s mom, Vivienne Roumani-Denn, a director’s credit and the Wall Street banker an executive producer title.

“I just thought it would be something to show at my kids’ birthday parties,” Bourkoff, 34, said over coffee with The Post.

“But when Roumani-Denn found a handwritten memoir about her mother’s – Bourkoff’s grandmother’s – experiences living as a Jew in Libya during World War II, she instantly knew she was onto something more.

“It was written from a very personal perspective, but it was universal in the way everything she wrote was so intertwined with the war,” Roumani-Denn said.

“The low-budget, 50-minute film, premiering May 2, uses the Roumani family to tell the story of how war and cultural dislocation forced the entire Libyan Jewish community out of the country.

“The emotional tale has already garnered some big fans, including former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

” ‘The Last Jews of Libya’ is a fantastic documentary that in the end made me realize how lucky I was to be born in America,” Eisner said of the film.

“Another big fan of the film, Sundance Channel CEO Larry Aidem, was also instrumental in getting the film out of Bourkoff’s living room and in front of a larger audience. So impressed was Aidem with the film that he not only bought the domestic television distribution rights to the movie for the Sundance Channel, but he also enlisted Isabella Rossellini, with whom he was already working on a Sundance project, to narrate.”

Read article in full

Yemen Jews mark Passover away from home

The 55 Jews driven from their village in the north, Sa’ada, and sheltering from Shi’ite Muslim rebels in the Yemen capital, Sa’ana, courtesy of the president, still managed to celebrate Passover this year. An insightful interview by Kawkab al-Thaibani in the Yemen Observer.

“Their Rabbi, Yousif Marhabi, said that the main thing in their rituals is to eat their own homemade food. They are forbidden to make it outside, he said. He explained the reason for the unleavened bread saying that the Jews fled Egypt before their bread had time to rise. Marhabi was sitting on the floor, smoking Mada’ah (a Yemeni form of hookah). “Smoking or chewing gat (a plant with narcotic properties) is not forbidden,” he said. Marhabi cannot hear well, so when talking to him, everyone has to make his or her voice loud. “Allah hail the president, we, Jewish, feel secured now,” he said. He was complaining of the Houthi members in Sa’ada that expelled him.

“We are always in fear, so we could not put our sons and daughters in schools.” His daughter, Sa’adah, was also complaining of the bad attitude from some people in Sa’ada. “Some men or women said to us to stay way from them because we will dirty them*,” she said. Sa’ada, like the others, wore a very typical Yemeni dress, but she is a widow. “My son’s uncles took him away from me to Israel, and I have not seen him since,” she said.

“She heard from other people that he is a married man with a son. “I have no desire to marry again. If your lifetime begins in misery, then it will continue for the rest of your life,” she said. Her son, Manahim Izra, does not contact her. “I doubt that he knows that he has a mother,” she said grievously. Yahia said that they have special utensils for the celebration. “They should be new, nobody touches them, but here we could not get them here because we left our home, and we could not afford to buy new ones,” she said.

“The special utensils are the same Yemeni traditional ones used throughout the country. Nemah Yahia, an elderly lady, said that they went to a mill in Raida, half an hour from their new home, to grind the cereal into flour. “We are not allowed to take it already ground,” she said. Marhabi, his daughter, and Yahia continuously thank the president for his help to them, yet they don’t have enough money to cover their expenses. ”

Read article in full

*the Shi’ite prejudice of najas

Ibn Warraq on the roots of Islamic antisemitism

Writing in Global Politician, Ibn Warraq, the pseudonym of a US-based author from an Indian-Muslim family, says that the claim that Jews found greater tolerance in the Arab world than in Europe is false. In fact, antisemitism’s roots in the region go back to Muhammed himself.

“Is Islamic antisemitism only a modern phenomenon? What of the so-called Golden Age of Islamic tolerance, above all as depicted in Islamic Spain? Here the willingness to accept the clichés of the Romantics is palpable. And those whom we expect to have done their own research and not merely to accept, and pass on, these clichés, so often disappoint.

“Consider the case of Amartya Sen, a celebrated economist, and winner of the Nobel Prize. Sen has in recent years written on subjects outside his normal area of research. Unfortunately, he seems not to have bothered to check his history, something which would have been easy given the resources available to him.

“Here is how Amartya Sen treats, for example, the Myth of Maimonides. Amartya Sen tells us twice in his book Identity and Violence that when “..the Jewish Philosopher Maimonides was forced to emigrate from an intolerant Europe in the twelfth century, he found a tolerant refuge in the Arab world.” 1 I do not know how to characterize this misinterpretation of history- “willful,” “grotesque,” “dishonest” or “typical?” It is certainly an indication that in the present intellectual climate that one can denigrate Europe any way one wishes, to the point of distorting history, without, evidently, any one of the distinguished scholars who blurbed the book raising an eyebrow. Ironically, the one reviewer who did object to Sen’s “potted history” which “is tailored for interfaith dialogues” was Fouad Ajami in The Washington Post. Ajami reminded Sen that

…this will not do as history. Maimonides, born in 1135, did not flee “Europe” for the “Arab world”: He fled his native Córdoba in Spain, which was then in the grip of religious-political terror, choking under the yoke of a Berber Muslim dynasty, the Almohads, that was to snuff out all that remained of the culture of conviviencia and made the life of Spain’s Jews (and of the free spirits among its Muslims) utter hell. Maimonides and his family fled the fire of the Muslim city-states in the Iberian Peninsula to Morocco and then to Jerusalem. There was darkness and terror in Morocco as well, and Jerusalem was equally inhospitable in the time of the Crusader Kingdom. Deliverance came only in Cairo — the exception, not the rule, its social peace maintained by the enlightened Saladin.”

Read article in full

An apology for Koranic antisemitism? by Andrew Bostom

The battle to control Ezekiel’s synagogue

The Hebrew inscription on the wall of Ezekiel’s burial chamber reads: “This monument is the burial monument of our master Ezekiel, the prophet son of Buzi, the priest, may his virtue defend us and all Israel Amen “

(With thanks for source material: Eli)

Hardly a Jewish shrine or holy place exists that is not also considered sacred to Muslims. The cave of Machpela in Hebron and Temple Mount in Jerusalem are perhaps the obvious examples.

Iraq – the Biblical Mesopotamia -is almost as rich in Jewish history as the Land of Israel. Here Abraham first discovered the one God, and the prophets Ezra, Nehemiah, Nahum, Jonah and Danielwalked the dusty land of the two rivers.

The shrine most closely associated with the Jews of Iraq was the tomb of Ezekiel at Kifl, some two hours’ drive south of Baghdad. It was popular with Muslims too, being on the route of the Hajj to Mecca. It is thought to have become a centre for Jewish pilgrimage after the Muslim conquest and the cult of the Shi’ite saints in Islam took hold. Benjamin of Tudela visited the site in 1170, and described seeing a synagogue, a Teba and a room filled with books dating back to the First and Second temples. Until their mass flight in 1951 the local Jews, and some from as far afield as Persia and India, converged on the tomb – especially between New Year and the Day of Atonement when the book of Ezekiel was read.

But what on the face of it constitutes a ‘shared Jewish-Muslim heritage’, conceals, throughout the shrine’s history, a bitter struggle for control.

According to Zvi Yehuda* of the Hebrew University, the synagogue at Ezekiel’s tomb became significant as a symbol of national identification under the Abbasids, when the Jews of the lands of Islam united under the leadership of the Jews of Babylonia. The growing importance of the site aroused the envy of the Muslims. Some Muslim writers attributed the burial place of the prophet Ezekiel to their ‘mysterious and controversial’ Koranic prophet Dhu-al-Kifl. Under the 14th century Mongol sultan Oljeitu the Muslims took over the synagogue of the prophet Ezekiel and turned it into a Muslim prayer house. Oljeitu also began to build a mosque, now ruined by flooding, but its minaret exists to this day.

For five centuries, not much was heard about the synagogue at Ezekiel’s tomb, but it is assumed that control of it and the access yards to the tomb itself were in Muslim hands.

Around 1778, when the mosque was destroyed by floodwater, the local Muslims tried to turn the outer yard into a mosque, complete with minbar, mehrab, mahfal and Koranic inscription. They appointed Khadims as caretakers. Until the 1820s the Jews were banned from passing through the yard – now converted to a mosque – to the tomb.

In the 1840s, according to Zvi Yehuda, the Jews managed to regain control of the synagogue next to Ezekiel’s tomb. At the time, the Turkish authorities needed the Jews to pay for repairs to the ‘outer yard’. In spite of protests by the Shi’ite Muslims who controlled the tomb precincts, the Jews seized the opportunity to remove the Muslim symbols and ritual items from the outer yard and turn it into a synagogue again. The Turks (plied with generous Jewish gifts) expelled the Shi’ite caretakers and allowed the Jews to erect new buildings. To reinforce their hold on the site, the Jews set up a yeshiva staffed by scholars from Baghdad and their families. Jewish traders and craftsmen from Hilla, Baghdad and elsewhere went to settle in Kifl.

In the 1850s, the Turks expelled the last of the Shi’ite caretakers. The Jewish official now in charge was elevated to the same status as the keepers of the Shi’ite shrines. Jewish control was complete. The Muslims made two more attempts to wrest control of Ezekiel’s yards – in 1860 and in the 1930s when they took over the synagogue for prayers. After a few months the occupation of the synagogue ended. Until their departure for Israel in 1951, the Jews of Kifl continued to maintain the yards of the prophet Ezekiel’s tomb.

*The Synagogue at the Tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel at Kifil

Tim Judah’s visit to Ezekiel’s tomb


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