Month: October 2007

Incredible: BBC radio mentions Jewish refugees

Good news from the BBC. (With thanks: Avril)

A BBC presenter actually uttered the words: ‘Jewish refugees from Arab countries.’ It happened on Tuesday 30 October during the BBC Today programme on Radio 4 (scroll down to 08.52). Pardon my excitement – such utterances are as rare as sightings of the Loch Ness monster.

The bad news is that in predictable BBC fashion, the entire report was slanted towards the part Palestinian refugees – the BBC unquestioningly put the numbers at four and a half million – would play at the Annapolis conference, scheduled for the end of November. Following a tear-jerking plea from a Palestinian in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus for him to be allowed to return home to Jaffa, Karen Abu- Zayd, Commissioner General for UNWRA based in Gaza, said it was only fair that the Arab refugees should be given the choice: return or resettlement.

When challenged about Jewish refugees, Abu Zayd quizzically replied that UNWRA was set up to deal with all refugees from ‘Palestine’. Technically she is correct – UNWRA could in theory have initially helped those Jewish refugees who had fled areas conquered by Arab armies in the 1948 war (eg Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, Gush Etzion).

In practice, UNWRA helped very few, if any, of these Jewish refugees who were resettled in Israel at Israel’s expense. Their numbers and the property they lost* pale into insignificance compared with the Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

*According to ‘Locked Doors’ by Itamar Levin (p 218) there were 1,587 claims filed with the Israeli ministry of Justice for property lost in those areas and worth some $38,677,701.

Arab columnist: freedom starts with the weak

Before the massacre of Yazidis in northern Iraq by Sunni Muslim suicide bombers, Abd Al-Mun’im Sa’id, the author of this piece in Sharq-al Awsat(translated by MEMRI) had never heard of this ancient sect of 300,000. But their plight should teach the Arab world that personal religious freedom and tolerance begins with the weak. (With thanks: Lily)

“In all Arab states, we have all failed the test of freedom of religion and ethnic affiliation… even if [the group in question] shared our same religion or school of thought. When Saddam Hussein slaughtered and interred the Kurds, the Arab nation remained silent, or murmured in astonishment. This silence implied empathy with this [i.e. Saddam Hussein’s] Fascist regime’s fight against imperialism, and fear of Kurdish autonomy – the latter construed as a possible cause of Iraq’s disintegration, while we wish for its unity. What is especially surprising is that the Arabs’ silence on the Kurdish issue is one of the factors that ultimately led to the American invasion of Iraq and the Kurds’ de facto independence, even if [de jures] the Kurdish region [will be] part of the not-yet-established Iraq Federation.

“In Egypt in particular, we have failed more than one test [of freedom of religion], i.e., as concerns the Baha’i and Christians converting to Islam. Denying freedom of religion [to these two groups] was explained just like it was in all [other] cases [of human rights] violation – [by claiming that these religions are connected with] colonialism and that their validity vis-à-vis other religions is therefore [suspect]. And what happened in Egypt happened in other Arab countries as well.”

“The most recent test that we all failed has to do with the Yazidis in Iraq. According to the newspapers, the Yazidis were massacred by extremist Sunni groups, while the Arab public watched from a safe distance, concocting tales that portrayed the Yazidi community as Satan worshippers.

“Until this incident, I knew nothing about that group except its name, which surfaced every time the conversation touched upon different ethnic groups and schools of thought in Iraq. The slaughter of 500 members of the Yazidi community, and the [non-intervention stance] taken by the Arab world, have brought this issue, which had to be acknowledged, to the forefront – [since it indicates] the extent to which these people have become a testing ground for freedom of religion in the Arab world.

“Once we learn about the Yazidis, we are surprised to find that they profess an ancient religion that preceded monotheism. Despite numerous and repeated attempts over hundreds of years [to introduce other religions into the Yazidi community], the Yazidis maintained their own faith – even in the face of the ideological and religious challenges [posed by other religions]. [The main challenge,] coming primarily from Islam, concerned the Yazidi religion’s fundamental concept, which has to do with the role that monotheistic religions assign to ‘the angel,’ or ‘peacock,’ [as it is called] in Yazidi lore, and to ‘the Satan’ (iblis) – the one who refused to prostrate himself before Adam [the first man, who dwelt in the Garden of Eden].

“However, even putting aside the question of the validity – or lack thereof – of their beliefs, the important point is that this group has held onto its faith despite the heavy pressure and massacres to which it has been subjected time and again throughout history, especially during the Ottoman period and during Saddam Hussein’s rule…

“Nor did the trials of the Yazidis end with the fall of Saddam Hussein and his government. Al-Qaeda marched into Iraq, bringing with it extreme Sunni fundamentalism, which believed in murder and massacre as a solution to controversy – even for minor disagreements, let alone a ‘Satan worshipping’ sect, as it is dubbed in many languages!

“It is not clear what motives drive these people to adhere to their faith and to stay apart from the Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Muslims, or Jews. The Yazidi minority comprises less than 300,000 people, divided among two districts; they are totally unprotected, with not one ally in the whole world, save for [several] small groups in Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and Germany. These people are confined within their own group, are in constant fear of the outside world, and have never experienced anything but persecution, oppression, and murder.”

“It is for this very reason that freedom of religion has, throughout history, been one of the most significant cornerstones of freedom in general. Inasmuch as freedom, in the final reckoning, amounts to the ability to choose, it is the strong, the rich, and the majority – since the latter have the means and resources – that always enjoy a wider choice of different possibilities. [Such freedom, however] comes to naught for an individual or for a group that is weak, marginal, or a minority whose religion no one understands.

“The connection between faith and freedom becomes obvious when it comes to defending the weak, or those who have been marginalized for holding views different [from those of the mainstream]. Defending such people is the first [step] towards defending the personal and political freedom of members of a [certain] political group.

“The facts about the Yazidi community in Iraq… came to light on account of the stoning of a 17-year-old girl by the members of this sect, as a punishment for embracing Islam in order to marry the man she loved. The entire sect turned against a single helpless individual, just because their religion forbade that person to embrace another religion. Following this incident, Islamic groups immediately proceeded to murder 23 Yazidi men as they were on their way to work.

“Once again, we are witness to crime perpetrated by the majority, in all its might and power, against a defenseless minority. As if it was not enough that Al-Qaeda blew up four vehicles in villages with defenseless and unarmed populations, none of whom had proselytized their religion outside the village boundaries.

“The wall of silence was erected in the Arab world [regarding this incident], just as it had been in the past. The silence implied acquiescence and satisfaction, as if the angels and the devils had finally matched the two parts of the equation [i.e. the good and the bad].

“As long as the strong are always tyrants, murderers, and torturers of the weak, there is no reason to be surprised at the results of actions by the majority, or simply by those with the guns and cannon.

“Personal freedom begins when the weakest among the weak [are granted] freedom!

Jews of Iran caught ‘between hammer and devil’

On October 3rd Yedioth Ahronoth published an article in Hebrew by Ariela Ringel Hoffman entitled “Between the Hammer and the Devil” about the current situation of Jews in Iran. Jews do not want to leave, but feel they are sitting on top of a powder keg: ( with thanks Daled Amos, via Israpundit)

Some highlights of the article:

  • According to Hoffman, between the years 2000 and 2007–approximately 1,200 Jews arrived from Iran. In 2000: 384, 2001: 207, and year by year the numbers have diminished. However, while 65 Jews arrived from Iran in 2006, thus far this year 77 have arrived.
  • This is despite The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, of which Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein is president, which guarantees a grant of $10,000 to each Iranian Jew who comes to Israel. Efforts are being made to put together a package of incentives to entice them further.
  • Yossi Shraga, Director of Middle East immigration at the Jewish Agency, there are between 25,000 and 28,000 Jews now living in Iran–though the Iranians themselves put the number much higher: 100,000. Either way, averaging 100 Jews from Iran per year is a minuscule amount.
  • Hoffman describes the situation as a conflict between fear of life in Iran and the ability to adapt and lead a normal life there; between the worry of leaving everything behind and the desire to lead a new life in Israel.
  • According to Jeff Kaye, an official of the Jewish Agency, there good reason to worry about the fate of the Jews of Iran–the same reasons that pushed Israel to bring Jews out of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to Israel or the US exist also in Iran.
  • One Iranian Jew interviewed by Hoffman said that Jews in Iran know they are sitting on a powder keg–at least half of them think that either Israel or the US will attack Iran’s nuclear reactors. And when they do, the Jews of Iran will pay the price. Even without encouragement from the government, the Iranians on the street will take it out on the Jews.
  • Another Iranian Jew tells Hoffman that it was not the threat of war that brought him to Israel, but the desire to live as a Jew. “There, it is difficult to keep Mitzvot, to keep Kosher, to pray and to learn about Judasim. On Shabbat the children have to go to school–everything there is more difficult.
  • He continues, saying that it is the Israeli government that Iran hates–and not the Israelis themselves. He believes that things are better than they were 10 years ago–when there was a water fountain in the marketplace in Tehran with 2 faucets: one for Muslims and one for Jews. If a Jew dared to drink from the faucet for Muslims he would be beaten up. Today it is different.
  • Another Iranian Jew shows Hoffman his passport. On the last page–as will all Iranian passports–it reads:
  • Another Iranian Jew describes how most of his friends at the university were Muslims–some of whom expressed the wish to visit Israel. He draws a distinction between the Iranian on the street and those in the university, where instructors openly question Iran’s need for a nuclear reactor. He believes that Anti-Semitism is something encountered only on the street, where calling someone a Jew is the equivalent to someone in Israel calling someone a Nazi. Yet he admits that Jews cannot hold government posts.
  • Hoffman reports that the economic situation of Jews in Iran is good relative to the rest of the population, and has in fact improved during the last few years–even while the poverty level has increased.
  • In Iran, the Internet is censured. Soon after a new site pops up, the authorities find out about it and it is blocked. Likewise, families watch CNN–until the government comes around and takes down their TV antenna. In previous years there was a punishment too, but no more. One of her interviewees tells Hoffman that he has a friend, a lawyer, who was involved in the compensation when 60 died from an explosion–but the explosion was never reported on the news.
  • Despite the small size of the Jewish community in Iran and the difficulty in finding a shidduch, intermarriage is relatively rare.
  • In Iran, serving in the army is mandatory. Many Jews avoid service by paying someone off–something that is not limited to the Jews alone. One who ended up serving in the army recounts how the Iranians who served were religious and treated him like someone impure, and gave him the hardest jobs. Though service is for 24 months, after 20 months he got disgusted and deserted.

Hoffman concludes:

The problem is that the Iranian Jews don’t want to leave, I say to him [Yossi Shraga]. That is true, he says–they may not say it, but that does not free us. This is similar to the situation the Jews faced in Europe before the rise of the Nazis. Jews have the tendency, says Shraga, to believe that everything will turn out all right. But back then, there was no Jewish state, no government. Today there is, and we will not be able to forgive ourselves if something happens.

Yad Vashem showcases Muslims who saved Jews

Albania’s 200 Jews were saved from the Holocaust by Muslims acting according to a traditional code of honour. The Jerusalem Post reports that Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, is about to pay tribute to them with a special exhibition (with thanks: Lily) :

“The extraordinary story of Albania, where an entire nation, both the government and the population, acted to rescue Jews is truly remarkable,” said exhibition curator Yehudit Shendar. “Many, if not all, were heavily influenced in their choice by Islam… This very human story, told through these sensitive portraits, combine to highlight a little-known but remarkable aspect of the Holocaust.”

“This is a story that has rarely been publicized,” said Holocaust survivor Ya’acov Altarat, 74, from Tel Aviv, who escaped to Albania with his parents as a boy of eight in 1941 and found refuge there for the duration of the war.

“It is a story of a nation saving all of its Jews because of a code of behavior,” he said.

“Why did my father save a stranger at the risk of his life and the entire village?” asked Enver Alia Sheqer, son of Righteous Among the Nations Ali Sheqer Pashkaj, who is featured in the exhibition. “My father was a devout Muslim. He believed that to save one life is to enter paradise.”

The exhibit will be on display at Yad Vashem for two months and will then travel to New York, where it will be displayed at the United Nations headquarters on January 27 for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Thursday morning opening ceremony will take place in the presence of Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle – Israel’s first Muslim cabinet minister – as well as Gershman, Chairman of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous at Yad Vashem Ya’acov Turkel, Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev and Honorary Consul of Albania in Israel Raphael Faust.

“What I found were good people who did good deeds,” said Gershman, who hails from Basalt, Colorado, and began the project four years ago after coming across pictures of Albanian Muslims who had been honored by Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust.

He noted that the some of the Muslims he’d met in Albania had referred to the Koran when asked why they took in the Jews, while others talked about a culture of hospitality.

“This is a story that [shows] there are good Muslims in the world,” he said.

About 22,000 non-Jews have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations since 1963, including 63 – predominantly Muslim honorees – from Albania.

To date, more than 70 Muslims have received the award, Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari said.

No Arabs have received the honor, although one candidate, Khaled Abdelwahhab of Tunisia, in January became the first Arab to be nominated for the award.

Read article in full

Syrian-Jewish cookbook exudes aromas of the past

In her beautiful book Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, Poopa Dweck, a first-generation Syrian-Jewish American, describes the customs and traditions of the Jews of Aleppo. Though the book is primarily a cookbook, it also describes the community’s history and customs, according to The Jerusalem Post.

“The foundation for the Great Synagogue in Aleppo is believed to have been laid by King David’s general, Joab ben Seruya (circa 950 BCE), after his conquest of the city. It is still sometimes referred to as Joab’s Synagogue.

“With the adoption of Christianity as their official religion, the Romans placed restrictions on Jews. These were lifted with the Arab conquest in 636, when Islamic caliphates began ruling the region. From the seventh century until the end of Ottoman rule, the Jewish community was self-governed. This entitled the Jews to freedom of religion, a separate court system and military protection.

“With the arrival of Iraqi Jews fleeing the Persians during the eighth and 10th centuries, Aleppo’s Jewish community began to grow.

“For many years, the Jews lived comfortably under Muslim rule, secure in their place as dhimmi, a protected people. Living in a non-democratic state, both Jews and Muslims remained apolitical.”

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

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.