Year: 2008

‘Iran Jewish MP should have given Xmas message’

The decision of Britain’s Channel Four to invite President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to deliver an Alternative Christimas message to the traditional broadcast by Her Majesty the Queen has sparked predictable furore. Why not ask Kim-il-Jong? Why not Mugabe? say theoutraged critics.

Why not the sole Jewish member in the Iranian parliament? James Meek, writing a Comment Is Free piece in the Guardian, has this novel proposal:

“Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message has often, in the past, been a sort of double opposition to the Queen – not just from somebody putting a counter-establishment point of view, but a non-celebrity; a wounded Afghan veteran, a 9/11 survivor, Doreen and Neville Lawrence. If Channel 4 had wanted to put up a leftfield Iranian voice to provoke thought, why not invite Maurice Motamed, the only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament, a voice of Iran’s 25,000 Jews – the second largest Jewish community in the Muslim world – and someone who has spoken out against Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial?

There are two things wrong with Meek’s suggestion. First, Meek is unaware that Maurice Motamed is no longer the Jewish representative in the Iranian Majlis – his place has been taken by Ciamak Morsadegh. The Jewish community may still be the second largest in the Muslim world, but that is not saying much. It is a mere shadow of its former self: four-fifths of the Jews of Iran have already fled.

Second, the ‘voice’ of the Jewish representative is timid and fearful. The Jewish representative speaks under duress. He says what the regime wants to hear. Yes, Motamed did condemn Ahmedinejad’s Holocaust denial, but that is as outspoken as he has dared to be. Otherwise, the Jewish community has ‘no problem,’ as long as it denies that part of its Jewish identity that has links to Israel. In theory, Jews could leave Iran, but in practice things are not so simple. Travel visas are not issued to all members of one family.

Of course, the Jews of Iran are not so badly off, compared to the Bahai’s, for instance. Meek could have suggested that a Baha’i deliver Channel Four’s Christmas message, but that too would be as candid as a Kapo’s in a concentration camp. Such naivety says more about the West’s ignorance of fear societies than anything else.

The whitewashing of ‘dhimmitude’ in Lebanon

One of the few books produced in English in recent years documenting the history of the Jews of Lebanon has been The Jews of Lebanon by Kirsten E Schulze. While the book is thoroughly researched and full of detail, it suffers from a significant flaw. It downplays the dhimmi Jewish experience prior to the 20th century, when an interconfessional system of power-sharing between 23 communities in Lebanon came into force.”The pre-20th century experience of the Jews of Lebanon was characterised by centuries of safety, hospitality and tranquility,” Ms Schulze gushes.

What about inequality? The Jews and the Druze both suffered as dhimmis at the hands of the sunni Muslims in Lebanon, but in her book Ms Schulze mentions the word dhimmi only cursorily. What is more, the great mass of Jews, who lived in dire poverty in Lebanon and Syria before a prosperous urban middle class emerged under the French mandate, were the object of contempt and neglect from their neighbours.

This state of affairs prevailed as late as 1902, when M Angel visited the town of Sidon (Saida). His words are quoted in The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism by Andrew Bostom (pp. 659-660).

The Jewish community of Sidon, Lebanon at the turn of the century(1902):

Formerly queen of the seas, Sidon, the flourishing city of the Phoenicians, is today nothing but a somber little town of 15,000 to 18,000 souls, a big village without commerce or industry.The great bulk of the population lives almost exclusively from the revenues of the numerous gardens that surround the town, from which the produce is exported to either Egypt or England, where the oranges of Saida1 are, apparently, particularly in demand. The inhabitants are crammed pell-mell into tiny houses, which could not be more dilapidated, made of stones gathered from the fields that it was not even necessary to quarry.

“I shall not even try to describe the maze of narrow streets, congested at practically every step by vaults supporting the houses, which are as if perched in the air, and where- without exaggeration- it is gloomy even at the height of noon. I have visited the oldest quarters of Jerusalem and Damascus, but I have never seen anything resembling the picture of desolate decay presented by Saida, a small town that knows no tourism and is still untouched by modern civilization.

“It is one of the most somber of these alleys that leads into the Jewish quarter via a low, narrow, little gate. Passing through this portal, we are in the ghetto. Imagine a long courtyard, a narrow and dark, a sort of corridor, as sinuous as can be, whose width is never more than two meters. On either side are two- and three-story houses- or rather cells cut into the walls, not receiving even a little of the dim light from the side of the narrow passage that forms the street.

It is interesting that Kirsten E Schulze quotes this last paragraph (p21). However, although Schulze does mention that the Jews of Saida were poor, she neglects to quote the following sentence:

“I asked myself more than once during my visits to the quarter whether people in Europe would be content to keep convicts in such a frightful prison where poverty is keeping a thousand of our coreligionists.

. . But continuing on our way, let us go further down this single street, which is not even paved. The unfortunate individuals who live there and to whom the street belongs (like the courtyard of a house) have asked in vain for the authorities to pave it at their own expense. The authorities are opposed to it! All the way at the end, we finally reach a small square of approximately 150 to 200 square meters, where the gay rays of sunlight are able to penetrate and where one can breathe a little more easily. it is on this square that the synagogue and Talmud Torah are to be found at the far end.

“I had just said that Saida is a town without commerce. The gardens which feed the great majority of the people belong almost exclusively to the Muslims who comprise about nine tenths of the population of Saida. The Christians, who are well protected by the consuls and by their priests who have influence with the authorities, enjoy a certain degree of ease and consideration. Only the Jews, left to themselves, stagnate in dark poverty in which the others have little share, and they are the object of contempt and disdain in the eyes of their neighbors of other faiths. Peddling is practically the only way of making a living. Saturday night, they leave their ghetto and disperse left and right throughout the countryside painfully struggling to earn a few miserable piastres, which they leave at home when they return on Friday. This occupation is certainly arduous, at times humiliating, and always thankless. It does not feed its man- as they say. But can they do any better? They know nothing else. The few Jewish carders who work at Saida do not always even earn their daily keep, which is about two piastres, or 0.35 francs! What misery for a man who has a family to feed.”

This last passage too (in bold italics) is ignored by Ms Schulze in her zeal to project an idyllic picture of communities coexisting peacefully together.

Yemen president to build ghetto for Jews

The Nahari family (photo: Safrir Abayov)

Two weeks after the murder of Moshe Yaish Nahari, the brother of Yemen’s Jewish community’s head, the country’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh pledged to build a secured Jewish ghetto in the outskirts of the capital San’a, Ynet News reports: The new neighborhood will house the 300 Jews of the Umran province where the murder took place.

Yemen’s president has informed human rights organizations and the heads of the Jewish community in the country of his decision to allocate an area in Sana’s northern suburb for the construction of a residential neighborhood for Jews on the state’s expense.

Any family who decides to move there from Umran will receive $10,000 in compensation.

According to President Saleh, the Jewish neighborhood will be guarded by security forces at all hours. Since Nahari’s murder dozens of Jews in Umran have reported receiving death threats and falling victim to violent harassment in the streets of the Umran province. A Yemeni judge on Monday ordered the man accused of murdering Nahari to go for a medical checkup to determine if he was competent to stand trial.

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How Iran-born Israeli singer bridges the divide

Israeli singer Hanna Jahanforooz has quite a following in her native Iran. The Chicago Tribune examines how music can be a force for good, spreading harmony and goodwill between enemies (with thanks: a reader)

TEL AVIV—Israel and Iran may be sworn enemies, but Hanna Jahanforooz, an Israeli performer who sings in Persian, has fans in the Islamic Republic and among Iranian exiles abroad.

Jahanforooz, 37, was born to a Jewish family in Tehran, where Persian is the native language, and came to Israel when she was 12. It was a few years after the Islamic Revolution, and the family sneaked across the border to Pakistan and later made its way to Israel through France, joining thousands of Persian Jews who have settled here.

More than a year ago, Jahanforooz posted her music, video clips and pictures on MySpace and began attracting enthusiastic responses from some Iranian musicians and listeners.

“I love your music, and your voice is beautiful,” wrote one woman from Iran. “You are a hope to the women of Iran and the Middle East.”

The messages keep coming, even though Jahanforooz clearly identifies her location as Tel Aviv, Israel, on her MySpace page (

“It’s my pleasure to be your friend,” read a recent note from an Iranian musician named Masoud, who signed off with, “peace.”

And one Iranian fan who is a Web designer created a home page for Jahanforooz, while she has sent him songs over the Internet.

That is all a far cry from the call by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the map, or the drumbeat of hostility toward Israel from the Iranian government, countered by Israeli threats to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Music has long served as a bridge over the abyss of conflict in the region. Israeli singers who perform Middle Eastern-style music are popular among Palestinians, and Arab singing stars—such as the Lebanese diva Fairuz and the late, legendary Umm Kulthum of Egypt —have for years had a following in Israel.

Jahanforooz, whose day job is working with troubled teenagers, describes her songs as a mix of traditional Persian tunes with influences of flamenco music and opera. Her songs have been played on Israeli radio stations and a national music video channel, and she has made live appearances, though her niche of ethnic music is far from Israel’s pop music mainstream.

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CNN reports on Lebanon’s silent Jews

Lebanon’s Jewish community was the focus of this video report by CNN’s Cal Perry, broadcast on 21 December. (With thanks: Pablo)

Perry speculates on whether recent plans to rebuild Beirut’s synagogue – now scuppered – will revive a moribund community with no leadership or communal life to speak of.

The CNN journalist gives the (misleading) impression that the Jewish community’s demise was caused by the Lebanese civil war, which broke out in 1975. Jews were indeed caught in the crossfire, but the truth is that 90 percent of the Jews of Lebanon had left before the civil war broke out as a result of the repercussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


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