Month: July 2008

Veteran journalist who witnessed ‘Magic carpet’

Tom Segev has written this Haaretz profile of remarkable veteran journalist Ruth Gruber, now in her 97th year. Gruber covered the story of the evacuation of the Jews from Yemen, Operation Magic Carpet. She continued to defend their interests once they had arrived in Israel:

On November 8, 1949, The New York Herald Tribune revealed that tens of thousands of Jews had been moved dramatically from Yemen to the then British colony of Aden, and were flown to Israel from there. The operation bore the legendary name “Magic Carpet.” The immigrants themselves prefer to describe the event with a biblical image: “On the wings of eagles.”

Israel’s military censor only permitted publication of the operation’s details once they were published abroad. The scoop belonged to U.S. reporter Ruth Gruber, who had been invited to join one of the flights from Yemen as the guest of the Joint Distribution Committee. A disagreement arose as to whether she had been invited to write “for publication,” or only “for background” information. Nearly 60 years later, it is still important for her to stress that she did not break the story before having received explicit permission to do so.

Gruber is one of the world’s most veteran journalists, perhaps even the most veteran: She will turn 97 in two months. Lucid, opinionated, vivacious and blessed with a sense of humor, she gives the impression that she is telling her stories for the first time – about how she got to Aden and decided to proceed to Yemen; how they told her that she was crazy, apparently with good reason, when she insisted on risking her life and heading for the desert to meet the Jews who had left their villages. Gruber will never forget the Torah scrolls they carried with them or how hard the journey was. “We are thirsty,” they told her, and she chastised herself for not having taken some water along. One gains the impression that she is still agonizing over this even today. And no, it’s not true what they say about Yemenite Jews: that they lit cooking fires on the plane during the flight to Israel.

Gruber followed their integration into Israeli society and was appalled. The newly arrived immigrants were lodged in army tents. Speaking this week, she said: “Armies always think ‘tents.'” When she saw immigrants sinking to their knees in the mud, she demanded to see then prime minister David Ben-Gurion. She scolded him because she said Jews have no right to keep people in tents, not after what they had suffered. B-G claimed that before her, no one had told him about the harsh conditions in the camps, and he asked her to write him a report.

Read article in full

Mood in 1948 Cairo was of anti-Jewish terror

Solomonia has been posting fascinating extracts from the photo-journalist John Roy Carlson’s 1951 work, Cairo to Damascus (link to in-print paperback). [All posts in the series collected on this page.] This excerpt captures the anti-Jewish mood in Cairo before the outbreak of the Arab war with Israel.

Still in early 1948, still in Cairo, before the official end of the mandate. pp. 118-119:

“It was about this time that I found plastered on the walls of Cairo buildings huge, luridly colored posters, violently anti-Jewish. One of them, showing a bloodstained dagger with the Star of David on its handle, and blood dripping from it, exhorted: “Arm Arabism!” Other posters read: “Don’t talk to the Jews…Don’t do business with them…Kill their business and they die…Consider them as our deepest enemies.” (…)

“Cairo’s mood, the hour before our departure, was one of excitement or terror — depending on your religion. Jews were imprisoned because they were Zionists, and beaten on streets because they were Jews. They huddled in their homes, afraid to leave, afraid to worship on the Sabbath because the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) had spread rumors that synagogues were used for “plotting.” Newspapers daily whipped up new excitement with news from Palestine: FIERCE BATTLE IN HOLY CITY’S NO-MAN’S LAND…HAIFA EXPRESS BLOWN UP AGAIN…MARTIAL LAW PROCLAIMED…There were celebrations as news of the dynamiting of the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem, by a car carrying TNT and “flying an American flag,” was announced, and later when Arabs ambushed a large convoy near Bethlehem, seized scores of vehicles, and killed many Jews. Under Arab League sponsorship, Fawzy Bey el Kawoukjy (who had spent the war years in Germany, marrying there) had begun to attack with his Yarmuk Army of Liberation.

“Arabs everywhere were confident of victory. They gloated over their arms, their money, their numbers. “If we Moslems choose to spit on the Jews we could drown them,” one said contemptuously. From another: “We are like a ball of snow. We have just begun to roll. We will crush the microbe of Zionism forever.”

“The Arab Goliath of eight States and forty-five million people would win over a tiny, sausage-shaped, “militarily indefensible” area, encircled by Arabs, and containing 650,000 poorly armed Jews and a fifth column of at least as many Arabs. There was no doubt that the Arabs would win easily. They said so.”

Solomonia blog

Lebanese Jews quake amid talk of revival

The Magen Avraham synagogue in Beirut, destroyed during the Lebanese civil war.

This AFP piece on the Jews of Beirut reports that there are plans to restore the ruined synagogue with money from expatriate Jews. But any community revival would seem like ‘pie in the sky’ as long as the few Jews who remain are too terrified to reveal themselves. (With thanks: a reader)

BEIRUT (AFP) — It’s not easy being Jewish in Beirut where the synagogue is crumbling, the rabbis have left, the community is dwindling and where Jews are commonly branded “Israelis”.

The last vestiges of the Jewish community in Lebanon, the Magen Abraham synagogue in the Lebanese capital, reflects a community falling into oblivion.

Built in 1920 in the area of Wadi Abu Jamil, formerly known as Wadi al Yahud (the Jews’ Valley), the synagogue is today a place of desolation.

The building is in a state of severe disrepair, the grounds overgrown and the gate shackled with lock and chain.

“Everything was looted during the (civil) war, marble benches and even windows,” bemoaned Samuel, a member of the Jewish Community Council in Lebanon, who preferred to use a pseudonym.

Without a synagogue, or even a rabbi, the handful of Jews still left in the country — about 300* according to official estimates — are forced to pray at home.

“What we (also) lack is a place to buy locally produced kosher. We have no Jewish schools to teach our children prayer and Hebrew,” said the 60-year-old Samuel, sitting in his shop near the seafront.

The seminary near the Beirut synagogue was destroyed during the war and the community has had no rabbi for years.

“We only speak Arabic. We just use Hebrew for prayer,” added Samuel.

In the capital, along the former demarcation line between the Muslim and Christian areas, another vestige survives: the Jewish cemetery.

The inscriptions in Hebrew and stars of David on the entryway are covered with dust. “Very few people come,” said Samuel.

Efforts are now being made, however, to revive the community, with plans under way to renovate the synagogue and the starting of an online blog called “Jews of Lebanon” ( (This blog is not associated with the Jewish community, but was established by a Muslim – ed)

“We hope that this synagogue, one of the largest in the Arab world, will be renovated later this year or in 2009,” said Samuel, adding that the renovations would be funded mainly by expatriate Lebanese Jews.

The blog seeks to raise the awareness of the Jewish community and to make it an active participant in public life.

Judaism is recognized as one of the 18 religious confessions in Lebanon, although the Jewish community has dwindled over the years, in the face of violence and prejudice.

“Before the (1975-1990) civil war, there were about 22,000* of us. It was after the 1982 (Israeli) invasion of Lebanon that our presence became considerably diminished,” said Samuel.

For Efraim, also a merchant and a member of the Jewish Council, the community’s official authority, one of the annoyances is living in a country where mixing the terms “Jewish” and “Israeli” is common.

Lebanon is technically in a state of war with Israel, which is commonly dubbed “the Zionist enemy.”

“People still occasionally ask me if I am Israeli,” said Efraim, also speaking under a pseudonym.

To him, “that’s exactly as if we used the term Iranians to describe Lebanese Shiites.”

“They do not understand that Israel means nothing to us. We consider it an enemy country as do all the Lebanese,” he insisted.

Read article in full

Reprinted in Ynet News

* the usual figures given are: fewer than 100 are left of an original number of 14,000

NB There will be a showing of Yves Turquier’s film Jews of Lebanon on 24 September in London. For details email [email protected]

New Fischbach book questions JJAC campaign

The US professor of history Michael R Fischbach is about to publish a book on Jewish property claims in Arab countries. In this article in History News Network, Fischbach questions whether the linkage of Jewish refugees to Palestinian refugees, as exemplified by US Congressional resolution 185, is really an attempt to ‘blunt Palestinian claims’ and quash the Palestinian demand for a ‘right of return’. Not for a moment does he ask whether the Palestinian demand ‘to return’ is itself politically-motivated. The article as a whole cries out for a thorough ‘fisking’ and I have interposed Fischbach’s more controversial assertions with comments of my own (italics).

On April 1, 2008, the New York-based coalition Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) trumpeted the fact that the United States House of Representatives passed Resolution 185, a non-binding “sense of the House” resolution calling attention to the fate of 800,000 Jews who left Arab countries in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, some without their property. The resolution referred to these Jews as “refugees,” and furthermore called on the President to ensure that American representatives at meetings of the United Nations and elsewhere make specific reference to them whenever mention was made of the issue of Palestinian refugees from 1948. JJAC hailed the action as a step towards redressing the grievances of what some Jewish activists have called “the other refugees.”

But why had JJAC, established relatively recently in 2002, suddenly become active on behalf of the rights of ex-Arab Jews – called Mizrahi or Sephardic Jews, although both terms are problematic – decades after most of them left the Arab world to build new lives in relative obscurity?

There is no statute of limitations on the rights of refugees. The fact that JJAC became active decades after the main Jewish exodus is neither here nor there.

And why did the Resolution fail to call explicitly for Jewish property compensation or restitution? Furthermore, why did the Resolution, which JJAC helped to write, link the fates, rights, and avenues of possible redress of ex-Arab Jews with those of the Palestinian refugees from 1948, who were not responsible for the Jews’ dispossession in the first place? Were not the mass Jewish exodus from the Arab world and the resultant property losses important enough issues to merit congressional scrutiny on their own, without reference to the Palestinians?

Here Fischbach restates the common myth that the Palestinians were an innocent third party in the Arab war against Zionism. In fact, they were not only a willing party in the 1948 war of extermination against the Jewish state, but the Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had led a vicious campaign of violence against Jews in Palestine since the 1920s, was its driving force. Not only did he not confine his hostility to Jews inside Palestine, he fomented antisemitism all over the Arab world, and during his stay in Iraq between 1939 and 41 incited the local Arabs against the Jews, leading indirectly to the Farhoud pogrom of 1941 which may have killed as many as 600 Iraqi Jews. In reality, the peaceful Jewish citizens of Arab countries were the innocent third party, dragged into the Arab conflict with Israel through no fault of their own.

In fact, Resolution 185 was not the result of efforts to demand compensation for Jewish property losses in the Arab world, but rather to assist the government of Israel to blunt Palestinian refugee claims in any final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Such claims include not only property compensation, but also what Palestinian refugees called their “right of return” to their pre-1948 homes in Israel – Israel’s nightmare scenario.

One could equally ask of the Palestinians – why don’t they simply ask for compensation and restitution, which, as Fischbach admits below, Israel has been willing to give them? Why a ‘right of return’? No refugee group other than the Palestinians has ever asked for such a right, nor is it enshrined in international law.

Unlike the demands for Holocaust reparations, compensation, and restitution that Jewish groups and the State of Israel alike have pursued with vigor over the decades, JJAC went out of its way to state that its campaign on behalf of Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent was not seeking monetary recompense for property lost at the hands of Arab governments. Why have JJAC and other groups such as the World Jewish Congress (WJC) adopted this stance toward the claims of Jews from the Arab world?

The answer lies in these groups’ zeal in supporting Israeli diplomatic tactics and weakening Palestinian claims in advance of a final peace settlement. Ever since it confiscated the property of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 war, Israel has stated that it will compensate them for some of their property losses as part of a permanent Arab-Israeli peace. Starting in 1951, however, the Israelis linked these compensation obligations with the property losses sustained by tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel after the Iraqi government had sequestered their property.

Wrong. It is well documentedthat the linkage between Jews and Palestinians was the brainchild of the Iraqi government under Nuri al-Said. It was he who first linked Jewish with Palestinian losses.

Eventually, over 600,000 other Jews left the Arab world during and after 1948, with some of these suffering property losses as well. Outside of some efforts to register Jewish losses in the 1950s, Israel, the WJC, and other international Jewish groups did nothing to seek damages.

The onset of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1993 meant that for the first time in decades, concrete talks on Palestinian refugee claims and Israeli counterclaims might become a reality. Israel accordingly mobilized, and sought help from international Jewish groups to document losses. To arrive at concrete figures, Jewish groups like the American Sephardi Federation (ASF), the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC), as well as coalitions like the International Committee of Jews from Arab Lands, began distributing claims forms around the world starting in 1999 to collect data on Jewish losses to the Arab world. However, it soon became clear that this campaign was not working.

It is true that efforts to document Jewish losses have not been successful. This is largely because the Jewish refugees thought registering any claims would be futile. Jewish cynicism has been bourne out by Arab refusal to recognise that they were responsible for creating Jewish refugees, let alone acknowledging Jewish rights to compensation.

Statistics were hard to come by, and Israeli officials admitted that what figures they were able to document were dwarfed by Palestinian compensation claims. Even with its counterclaims, Israel would owe a considerable amount of money.

A highly contentious claim, contradicted by Sidney Zabludoffand WOJAC. There is much reason to believe that Palestinian claims are dwarfed by Jewish claims. Some Palestinian claims have been so wildly exaggerated (a claim for $670 billion was presented to the EU in 1999) as to completely lack credibility.

As a result, Israel proposed to Palestinian negotiators in 2000 and 2001 that an international fund be established, capitalized with Israeli and foreign contributions, which would entertain and pay out compensation claims from all sides to the conflict. With the compensation monkey shifted off its back to an international fund, Israel still faced another problem: the Palestinians’ demand for the right of return. Enter JJAC.

After the al-Aqsa Intifada put the peace process in deep freeze starting in 2001, the WJC developed a new strategy to prepare for the inevitable future resumption of talks. It decided to raise international awareness of the plight of the Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews by equating their experiences and claims with those of the Palestinian refugees. It began referring to the ex-Arab Jews as “refugees,” regardless of the reasons why they had left the Arab world.

Here is the old canard questioning Jews from Arab countries as legitimate refugees, while no such scepticism afflicts Palestinian ‘refugees’, despite ample evidence to suggest that not a few left the field of battle at the behest of their leaders or of their own free will.

The purpose of such an equation was to negate Palestinian demands for the right of return by arguing that a permanent, irrevocable Jewish-Arab population transfer had occurred in the Middle East and North Africa after 1948: the Arab world’s Jews and their property for Palestine’s Arabs and their property. In the end, the WJC argued, it was an even exchange. The former Arab Jews were not demanding the right of return to the countries of their birth, so neither should the Palestinians demand the right of return to what is now Israel.

What is wrong with the idea of an exchange? Exchanges of refugee populations have been a feature of all 20th century conflicts. How does Fishbach explain why, of all refugee populations, only the Palestinians have demanded a ‘right of return’?

Following up on this, JJAC was established in the United States in September 2002 under the auspices of several American Jewish organizations. JJAC was, in fact, a new iteration of the same principle articulated by the WJC: support Israeli efforts to deflect Palestinian claims by enlisting the experience and losses of the Jews from the Arab world. JJAC pressed hard in its campaign to shift global thinking to accept the notion that Middle Eastern and North African Jews, most of whom now reside in Israel, were refugees deserving equal treatment and political legitimacy as the Palestinian refugees. JJAC took its campaign into the halls of power in the United States and Europe, and in March 2004, its congressional supporters first introduced a bill calling on the American administration to ensure that “any explicit reference [e.g., at international conferences] to the required resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue is matched by a similar explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries” – an effort that eventually led to passage of House Resolution 185.

Is JJAC’s campaign likely to benefit Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews who suffered property losses when they left the Arab world? Is this even its intent? An “even exchange of populations and property” would leave claimants on all sides with nothing, except perhaps the possibility of seeking compensation from an international fund that does not yet exist. In fact, few efforts have been made over the decades by Israel or Jewish organizations to press for Mizrahi/Sephardic property compensation. This comes in marked contrast to efforts to obtain compensation, restitution, and reparations for European Holocaust survivors and heirs. In fact, individual ex-Arab Jews have on occasion sought compensation or restitution on their own, usually by appealing to Arab and foreign courts.

Some in Israel have even sued their own government to force it to act on their behalf; one such case is before the High Court of Justice at this time. Throughout, however, no largely compensation has been paid, nor has any party pushed hard for Mizrahi/Sephardic compensation. Even now that JJAC and others are raising the issue of ex-Arab Jews, they, too, refrain from raising specific demands for compensation.

Is it then proper for JJAC, Israel, or any one else, to use Jewish property losses as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Palestinians instead of demanding compensation? Why have they not championed compensation and restitution, as was done for Holocaust survivors and heirs?

Fischbach ignores a huge difference here: Germany has been more than willing to acknowledge its Nazi past, and has been ready to admit Holocaust survivors’ rights to compensation and restitution. The Arab states have not. Even when the Iraqi (post-1968 claims) and theLibyan governments officially agreed to pay compensation, in reality not a single dinarhas been recorded as ever having been paid out.

Have the groups bothered to ask ex-Arab Jews who should press their claims, and in what manner? Such questions are not simply political; they go to the heart of healing the wounds of Mizrahi/Sephardic history. Can justice truly be served, can recognition of Jewish suffering and loss truly be obtained, and can healing and renewal truly be achieved, if Jewish claims for dispossession at the hands of Arab regimes are not laid at the doorstep of the responsible parties, but rather used to deflect the claims and narrative of a third party?

While seeming to recognise that Jews have a case against individual Arab states, again Fischbach drives an artificial wedge between the Arab League states and the ‘innocent’ Palestinians. As I have already said, Palestinians were fully complicit in the annihalationist war of 1948.

And if in the end, neither Palestinians nor Jews from Arab countries receive compensation and proper recognition, but find their grievances canceling each other out by groups and negotiators, can true Arab-Israeli healing and reconciliation occur?

Whether part of Arab-Israeli diplomacy or not, whether on their own, or in groups, or through the agency of Israel and others, Jews who left Arab countries must come to feel that their grievances are heard and addressed in a way that is acceptable to them if the wounds of Mizrahi/Sephardic historical memory are to be healed. Resolving these claims and healing this memory will go far toward creating better relations between Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent and their Ashkenazic fellow citizens of Israel, between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors, and between Jews and Arabs throughout the Middle East.

Well said, Michael, I think we can finally agree on this point. But mere recognition of Mizrahi grievances will probably be enough to achieve reconciliation. And reconciliation based on the healing of wounds is precisely what the JJAC campaign has been seeking to achieve.

Crossposted at Z-blog

Review of Jewish Property Claims in Arab Countries by M Fischbach

Iran continues Shi’ite tradition of Jew-hatred

In this Front Page article, Dr Andrew G Bostom argues that Iran’s latest genocidal threats against Israel fit seamlessy into a tradition of Islamic Jew-hatred, culminating in four centuries of discrimination and forced conversion. As a result, cities like Tabriz became Judenrein. The 20th century Pahlavi era, in which Jews enjoyed unprecedented freedoms and prosperity, and relations between Iran and Israel were good, now seems a brief aberration. (With thanks: Charles)

“The pillars of this continuous modern campaign of annihilationist antisemitism are the motifs from traditional Islamic Jew hatred, including, most significantly, Islamic eschatology. These deep-seated Islamic theological motifs are further conjoined to Holocaust denial, and the development of a nuclear weapons program intended expressly for Israel’s eradication.

Shah Ismail’s Living Legacy:At the outset of the 16th century, Iran’s Safavid rulers formally established Shi’a Islam as the state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. The profound influence of the Shi’ite clerical elite, continued for almost four centuries (although interrupted, between 1722-1795, during a period of [Sunni] Afghan invasion, and internecine struggle), through the later Qajar period (1795-1925), as characterized by the Persianophilic scholar E.G. Browne:

The Mujtahids and Mulla are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics

“These Shi’ite clerics emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najis) of Jews, in particular (but also Christians, Zoroastrians, and others), as the cornerstone of inter-confessional relationships toward non-Muslims. The impact of this najis conception was already apparent to European visitors to Persia during the reign of the first Safavid Shah, Ismail I (1502-1524). The Portuguese traveler Tome Pires observed (between 1512-1515), “Sheikh Ismail…never spares the life of any Jew,” while another European travelogue notes, “…the great hatred (Ismail I) bears against the Jews…”

“Two examples of the restrictive codes for Jews conceived and applied during the Safavid period (1502-1725) are appended below, in Table 1, and Table 2. Their persistent application into the Qajar period, which includes the modern era (1795-1925), is confirmed by the observations of the mid-19th century traveler Benjamin in Table 3, and a listing of the 1892 Hamadan edict conditions in Table 4.

A letter (dated October, 27, 1892) by S. Somekh of The Alliance Israelite Universale, regarding the Hamadan edict, provides this context:

The latter [i.e., the Jews] have a choice between automatic acceptance, conversion to Islam, or their annihilation. Some who live from hand to mouth have consented to these humiliating and cruel conditions through fear, without offering resistance; thirty of the most prominent members of the community were surprised in the telegraph office, where they had gone to telegraph their grievances to Teheran. They were compelled to embrace the Muslim faith to escape from certain death. But the majority is in hiding and does not dare to venture into the streets…

“The latter part of the reign of Shah Abbas I (1588-1629) was marked by progressively increasing measures of anti-Jewish persecution, from the strict imposition of dress regulations, to the confiscation (and destruction) of Hebrew books and writings, culminating in the forced conversion of the Jews of Isfahan, the center of Persian Jewry. The exploits of two renegade Jewish converts to Islam, Abul Hasan Lari (of Lar), and Simon Tob Mumin of Isfahan were instrumental in having the Shi’ite authorities enforce restrictive headdress and badging regulations as visible signs of discrimination and humiliation. Their success in having these discriminatory regulations applied to Jews was confirmed by the accounts of European travelers to Iran. For example, Jean de Theve´not (1633-1667) commented that Jews were required,

To wear a little square piece of stuff two or three fingers broad…it had to be sewn to their labor gown and it matters not what that piece be of, provided that the color be different from that of the clothes to which it is sewed.

“And when the British physician John Fryer visited Lar in 1676, he noted that, “…the Jews are only recognizable by the upper garment marked with a patch of different color.”

However the renegade Abul Hasan Lari’s “mission” foreshadowed more severe hardships imposed upon the Jews because of their image as sorcerers and practitioners of black magic, which, according to the pre-eminent historian of Persian Jewry, Walter Fischel, was “as deeply embedded in the minds of the [Muslim] masses as it had been in medieval Europe.” [emphasis added] The consequences of these bigoted superstitions were predictable, as Fischel observes:

It was therefore easy to arouse their [the Muslim masses] fears and suspicions at the slightest provocation, and to accuse them [the Jews] of possessing cabalistic Hebrew writings, amulets, talismans, segulot, goralot, and refu’ot, which they [the Jews] were using against the Islamic authorities. Encouraged by another Jewish renegade, Siman Tob Mumin from Isfahan, who denounced his co-religionists to the authorities, the Grand Vizier was quick in ordering the confiscation of all Hebrew cabalistic writings and having them thrown into the river.

“These punitive measures in turn forebode additional persecutions which culminated in the Jews of Isfahan being forcibly converted to Islam toward the end of Abbas I’s rule. Moreover, even when Isfahan’s Jews allowed living to return to Judaism under Shah Safi, they continued to live under the permanent threat posed by the “law of apostasy”, till the late 19th century.

One of the most dangerous measures which threatened the very existence of the Jewish community in Isfahan and elsewhere was the so-called “law of apostasy” promulgated at the end of Abbas I’s rule and renewed in the reign of Abbas II. According to this law, any Jew or Christian becoming a Muslim could claim the property of his relatives, however distant. This decree, making the transfer of goods and property a reward for those who became apostates from their former religion, became a great threat to the very survival of the Jews. While the Christian population in Isfahan protested, through the intervention of the Pope, and the Christian powers in Europe, against the injustice of this edict, there did not arise a defender of the rights of Jews in Persia. [emphasis added] Although the calamity which this law implied was lessened by the small number of Jewish apostates who made use of this inducement, it was a steady threat to the existence of Jewish community life and brought about untold hardship. It was only in the 19th century that leaders of European Jewry such as Sir Moses Montefiore and Adolph Cremieux took up the fight for their brethren in Persia against this discriminatory law. Apart from this legal discrimination, the Jews of Isfahan were particularly singled out for persecution and forced conversion in the seventeenth century. It is reported that they were forced to profess Islam publicly; that many of their rabbis were executed, and that only under Shah Safi (1629-1642), the successor of Abbas I, were the Jews of Isfahan, after seven years of Marrano life, permitted to return publicly to their Jewish religion…[emphasis added]

“After a relatively brief respite under Shah Saf’i (1629-1642), the severe persecutions wrought by his successor Shah Abbas II (1642-1666), nearly extinguished the Iranian Jewish community outright, as Fischel, explains:

Determined to purify the Persian soil from the “uncleanliness” caused by the presence of non-believers (Jews and Christians in Isfahan) a group of fanatical Shi’ites obtained a decree from the young Shah Abbas II in 1656 which gave the Grand Vizier, I’timad ad-Daula, full power to force the Jews to become Muslims. In consequence, a wave of persecution swept over Isfahan and the other Jewish communities, a tragedy which can only be compared with the persecution of the Jews in Spain in the fifteenth century [more appositely, the 13th century Almohad persecutions] 711

[the important eyewitness Jewish chronicles, the Kitab i Anusi]…describe in great detail how the Jews were compelled to abandon their religion, how they were drawn out of their quarters on Friday evening into the hills around the city and, after torture, 350 Jews are said to have been forced to [convert] to Islam. Their synagogues were closed and the Jews were lead to the Mosque, where they had to proclaim publicly the Muslim confession of faith, after which a Mullah, a Shi’a religious leader, instructed the newly-converted Muslims in the Koran and Islamic tradition and practice. These newly-converted Muslims had to break with the Jewish past, to allow their daughters to be married to Muslims, and to have their new Muslim names registered in a special Divan [council]. To test publicly their complete break with the Jewish tradition, some were even forced to eat a portion of camel meat boiled in milk. After their forced conversion, they were called New Muslims, Jadid al-Islam. They were then, of course, freed from the payment of the poll tax and from wearing a special headgear or badge.”

The resistance of the Jews developed the phenomenon of “Marranos”, Anusim, and for years they lived a dual religious life by remaining secretly Jews while confessing Islam officially

“Fischel also refers to the fact that contemporary Christians sources “confirm…with an astounding and tragic unanimity” the historical details of the Judaeo-Persian chronicle regarding the plight of the Jews of Isfahan (and Persia, more generally). For example, the Armenian chronicler Arakel of Tabriz, included a chapter entitled, “History of the Hebrews of the City of Isfahan and of all Hebrews in the Territory of the Kings of Persia-the Case of Their Conversion to Islam”. Arakel describes the escalating brutality employed to convert the hapless Jewish population to Islam—deportation, deliberately harsh exposure to the elements, starvation, imprisonment, and beatings.

“Mohammad Baqer Majlisi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) and Shah Husayn (1694-1722), was perhaps the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shi’ite theocracy in Persia. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shi’a ethos among ordinary persons. His Persian treatise, “Lightning Bolts Against the Jews,” despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shi’ite theocracy. Al-Majlisi, in this treatise, describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Shari’a, first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya, a poll-tax, based on Koran 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically, i.e., to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shi’ite impurity or “najis” regulations. It is these latter najis prohibitions which lead Anthropology Professor Laurence Loeb (who studied and lived within the Jewish community of Southern Iran in the early 1970s) to observe, “Fear of pollution by Jews led to great excesses and peculiar behavior by Muslims.” According to Al-Majlisi,

And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths…It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates , which cannot be purified. In something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those cloths in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal’s being slaughtered [according to the Shari’a], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices, myrobalan [an astringent fruit extract used in tanning], and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them…It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure. [emphasis added]

“Far worse, the dehumanizing character of these popularized “impurity” regulations appears to have fomented recurring Muslim anti-Jewish violence, including pogroms and forced conversions, throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as opposed to merely unpleasant, “odd behaviors” by individual Muslims towards Jews. Indeed, the oppression of Persian Jewry continued unabated, perhaps even intensifying, during both Safavid successors of Shah Abbas II, Shah Sulayman (1666-1694), and Shah Husayn (1694-1722).

The overthrow of the Safavid dynasty was accompanied by an initial period of anarchy and rebellion. A contemporary Jewish chronicler of these struggles, Babai ibn Farhad, lamented, “At a time when the Muhammadans fight amongst each other, how much less safe were the Jews.” However, beyond this early stage of instability, Fischel maintains,

Only the downfall of the Safavid dynasty, through the successful invasion of the Afghans and the subsequent rise of a new tolerant ruler, Nadir Shah (1734-1747), saved the Jews of Isfahan and the Jews of Persia as a whole from complete annihilation.

“The advent of the Qajar dynasty in 1795 marked a return to Shi’ite theocratic orthodoxy. Thus, according to Fischel,

Since the religious and political foundations of the Qajar dynasty were but a continuation of those of the Safavids, the ‘law of apostasy’ and the notion of the ritual uncleanliness of the Jews remained the basis of the attitude toward the Jews.

The Jew being ritually unclean, had to be differentiated from the believer externally in every possible way. This became the decisive factor making the life of the Jews in the 19th century an uninterrupted sequence of persecution and oppression. They could not appear in public, much less perform their religious ceremonies, without being treated with scorn and contempt by the Muslim inhabitants of Persia.

“Fischel provides these observations based on the 19th century narrative of Rabbi David d’Beth Hillel, and additional eyewitness accounts, which describe the rendering of Tabriz, Judenrein, and the forced conversion of the Jews of Meshed to Islam:

Due to the persecution of their Moslem neighbors, many once flourishing communities entirely disappeared. Maragha, for example, ceased to be the seat of a Jewish community around 1800, when the Jews were driven out on account of a blood libel. Similarly, Tabriz, where over 50 Jewish families are supposed to have lived, became Judenrein towards the end of the 18th century through similar circumstances.

The peak of the forced elimination of Jewish communities occurred under Shah Mahmud (1834-48), during whose rule the Jewish population in Meshed, in eastern Persia, was forcibly converted, an event which not only remained unchallenged by Persian authorities, but also remained unknown and unnoticed by European Jews. (…)

“The Pahlavi Reforms: Reza Pahlavi’s spectacular rise to power in 1925 was accompanied by dramatic reforms, including secularization and westernization efforts, as well as a revitalization of Iran’s pre-Islamic spiritual and cultural heritage. This profound sociopolitical transformation had very positive consequences for Iranian Jewry. Walter Fischel’s analysis from the late 1940s (published in 1950), along with Laurence Loeb’s complementary insights three decades later, underscore the impact of the Pahlavis’ (i.e., Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah) reforms:

(Fischel) In breaking the power of the Shia clergy, which for centuries had stood in the way of progress, he [Reza Shah] shaped a modernized and secularized state, freed almost entirely from the fetters of a once fanatical and powerful clergy…The rebirth of the Persian state and the manifold reforms implied therein tended also to create conditions more favorable to Jews. It enabled them to enjoy, along with the other citizens of Persia, that freedom and liberty which they had long been denied.

(Loeb) The Pahlavi period…has been the most favorable era for Persian Jews since Parthian rule [175 B.C. to 226 C.E.]…the ‘Law of Apostasy’ was abrogated about 1930. While Reza Shah did prohibit political Zionism and condoned the execution of the popular liberal Jewish reformer Hayyim Effendi, his rule was on the whole, an era of new opportunities for the Persian Jew. Hostile outbreaks against the Jews have been prevented by the government. Jews are no longer legally barred from any profession. They are required to serve in the army and pay the same taxes as Muslims. The elimination of the face-veil removed a source of insult to Jewish women, who had been previously required have their faces uncovered; now all women are supposed to appear unveiled in public…Secular educations were available to Jewish girls as well as to boys, and, for the first time, Jews could become government-licensed teachers…Since the ascendance of Mohammad Reza Shah (Aryamehr) in 1941, the situation has further improved…Not only has the number of poor been reduced, but a new bourgeoisie is emerging…For the first time Jews are spending their money on cars, carpets, houses, travel, and clothing. Teheran has attracted provincial Jews in large numbers and has become the center of Iranian Jewish life…The Pahlavi era has seen vastly improved communications between Iranian Jewry and the rest of the world. Hundreds of boys and girls attend college and boarding school in the United States and Europe. Israeli emissaries come for periods of two years to teach in the Jewish schools…A small Jewish publication industry has arisen since 1925…Books on Jewish history, Zionism, the Hebrew language and classroom texts have since been published…On March 15, 1950, Iran extended de facto recognition to Israel. Relations with Israel are good and trade is growing.

“But Loeb, who finished his anthropological field work in southern Iran during the waning years of Pahlavi rule, concluded on this cautionary, prescient note, in 1976, emphasizing the Jews’ tenuous status:

Despite the favorable attitude of the government and the relative prosperity of the Jewish community, all Iranian Jews acknowledge the precarious nature of the present situation. There are still sporadic outbreaks against them because the Muslim clergy constantly berates Jews, inciting the masses who make no effort to hide their animosity towards the Jew. [emphasis added] Most Jews express the belief that it is only the personal strength and goodwill of the Shah that protects them: that plus God’s intervention! If either should fail… [emphasis added].

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